In search of history: Antique collecting requires a nose for truth

By Josette Keelor

Searching for antiques can be a never-ending process, but with knowledge it’s made easier. For area antique shop owners, collecting isn’t only about discovery — it’s about the journey.

According to Barbara Kesser, who owns Spring Hollow Antiques in Woodstock, finding what you’re looking for requires equal parts sight, touch and smell.

“I do, I smell all of it and you’re looking for the smell of new paint,” Kesser said. New paint indicates at best a restored item and at worst a reproduction. Old will smell old, she said. It’s just that simple.

A true antique, she said, “It’s going to smell like the ages.”

Next, talk with dealers about an item’s history.

Jeannette Keckley, who owns This-n-That in Strasburg with her husband Bill, said it’s nearly impossible to distinguish an antique from a reproduction on sight alone.

“I’m very cautious because a lot of people are passing off reproductions,” she said. “It’s just hard. I have to visually see something to know.” And even then, she can’t be certain, particularly in the case of glassware. Determining the age of glassware requires a knowledge of glass molds.

“No, you never take just one person’s word,” Keckley said. She and Kesser agreed that comparison shopping is necessary to getting the best deal on an antique.

Good country furniture typically is homemade or farm-made, Kesser said, “And as you can see it’s built to last.”

“Look at the construction,” she said, indicating a Winchester pie safe priced at $2,900. “Look how thick the boards are.”

The pie safe is made of heavy yellow pine, but she also deals in walnut furniture with backs made of something like poplar to give it strength.

Next to the pie safe sits a miniature cupboard out of Stephens City made from a crate — an example of how crafters through the years would reproduce the look of a turn-of-the-century cupboard.

In her shop, she said, “I have a particular look and it’s regional.” The region follows the path of German settlers north along the Shenandoah River and into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Vilnis Vitols, owner of Vilnis and Company Antiques in Strasburg, said comparison shopping helps customers determine if an item is worth the cost. What are other antique shops charging for the same type of item? How much would it cost to have an item like that custom made or reproduced?

“There’s no simple way,” he said. “A lot of the things are either unique or scarce.”

Part of antiquing is in trusting the dealer you’re dealing with, he said.

“Many of my customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back for more,” he said.

Vitols considers his an old-fashioned antique shop with mostly period items like furniture, mirrors and paintings from around the 1850s and a fair amount from the early 1800s.

Kesser’s top sellers at Spring Hollow Antiques include children’s toys — like a 1920s-era train engine made from a log and a table leg — and valley pottery like a J. Eberly piece from Strasburg priced at $975.

“If you decide you want to collect valley pottery … you have to learn to tell if it’s been repaired or not,” Kesser said. “The more you look at and the more you handle, the better.”

“Just keep looking at it and you’ll start to recognize colors,” she continued. “Colors can tell you when it was made. You know, when that dye was developed.”

Red and green textiles from the mid-1800s were popular in her shop for a while, and she noticed blue and white quilts picking up interest among customers in recent years.

“People can be a little snobby about quilts, but the sewing machine was invented around mid-1800s,” she said, “and women with a sewing machine, they would show off.”

Quilts sell for about $200-400, she said. A red and green quilt hanging in her store is priced for $460.

“It’s all a matter of design and colors,” she said.

“There’s a collector for everything.”

She said many of the furniture items in her shop have been restored since they come from years sitting in someone’s basement or barn and need drawer runners or feet replaced.

Some have worn-away finishes from human fingers touching the wood over the course of 150 years. “And so we try to save that.”

“I try to buy things that do not have cracks or chips,” Kesser said.

Vitols said knowing construction techniques of the time period of interest will make searching easier. And most important is that the dealer can back up whatever is written on an item tag.

“If the dealer cannot explain how he or she comes to the conclusion of what he’s selling then maybe the customer should be wary,” he said.

An antique dealer for over 40 years, and at his Strasburg location for 20, Vitols recommended being smart about antiquing.

“You just use common sense and logic and [be] in conversation with the person,” he said. “You can tell that the person knows what they’re doing.”

But Kesser said searching takes you only so far.

If it’s reasonably priced — like a couple bucks, she said — “You take a chance on it. You can dabble.”

“That’s what every collector does, without fail,” she said. “You stick your toe in the water, you take a chance. You buy that first thing and go from there and learn and just keep learning all the time.”

Spring Hollow Antiques is located at 322 S. Main St., Woodstock. For more information, call 540-459-3946 or visit springhollowantiques.com. This-n-That Antiques & Collectibles is at 365 E. King St., Strasburg. Contact them online at www.facebook.com/ThisnThatStrasburg or call 540-465-2262. Vilnis and Company Antiques is located at 329 N. Massanutten St., Strasburg. For more information, call 540-465-4405 or visit www.vilnisantiques.com.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com>