A special species of shopper finds thrills from scouring auction houses, antiques shops and flea markets for finds laden with history, charm,
craftsmanship and value.
As a newlywed, in the 1970s, Judy Frankel would often grab a good friend and make a day or weekend of visiting antiques shows throughout Michigan and the Midwest. But when the couple’s two children came along, the full-time catering manager’s outings took a back seat.
As the kids got older, Frankel and her husband, Stanley, purchased a 19th-century farmhouse in Metamora Township. With it, her passion for hunting for treasures was rekindled, and soon the farmhouse brimmed with primitive whirligigs, weathervanes, hand-hooked rugs and other American folk art, as well as a collection of French majolica, the organic-themed tin-glazed Victorian earthenware. This time, she was hooked.
After holding her first antiques and folk art sale in a former frozen-yogurt shop, its enormous success inspired her to load up her Cutlass van and sell at local antiques shows and open a 600-square-foot, one-day-a-week retail space. Eventually, she bought a book on buying European antiques, headed to the continent and expanded her expertise and offerings. By 1993, the former catering manager had tripled her retail space. Today, Judy Frankel Antiques fills the entire 9,000 square feet of the Antiques Centre of Troy with pieces dating from 1750 to the 1970s, from lighting, mirrors and glassware to industrial antiques, cabinets, tables and seating, and salvaged architectural elements used for decorative purposes.
Thrill Of Collecting
Collecting, of course, is no new phenomenon. Marbles, stamps, comic books, snow globes, Beanie Babies — kids have always been naturals. But the popularity of TV shows such as PBS’s Antiques Roadshow and nationally syndicated question-and-answer appraisal columns have had people wondering what the contents of their attics are worth.
Many collectors begin with a fascination with a certain place and period in history — interest in 15th-century Dutch history, for example, might lead to an expertise in Old Master paintings by van Eycks and the Bruges school. Or perhaps what began with a record collection of 1960s and ’70s rock might lead to an interest in concert posters from the bands you love.
Although antiquing can be approached as a financial investment, it is best to have an experienced appraiser on hand before making big decisions.
Treasure hunting can be as big as high-end, fine antiques from around the world, to as intimate as amassing a collection of charming vintage buttons from your grandmother’s hometown. What’s in common? They should both call out to you similarly.
Most experts agree that no matter what you seek, the first rule is to love it. “Find your passion and go after it,” says Helaine Fendelman, a New York-based nationally recognized authority on fine and decorative arts, author of the nationally syndicated Scripps-Howard column “Treasures in Your Attic” — and whose own collection of American paint-decorated furniture and folk art sold at Sotheby’s auction house in New York.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s high priced or inexpensive — you have to first find what you love. Then, study. I’ve been doing this for years, and the best thing I’ve learned is which resource to turn to when I don’t know the answer.”
Go to museums, read books, talk to other collectors and dealers, and make yourself an expert on what you are interested in, whether it’s exquisitely embroidered English linens, 18th-century American case furniture or 1920s German glass tulips, like those that Sharon and Dr. Jeffrey Lipton like to display in their antiques-filled Waterford home.
“My daughter called to say she had found some at a great price,” Sharon Lipton says. “I asked how much, and she said $10 each. I told her to have the dealer take them out of the vase so she could look at the stems, and sure enough, they were all broken. After hunting around for so many years, you just learn from experience. You have to educate yourself.”
That’s what she and her husband have done. Always a collector, even as a child, Dr. Jeffrey Lipton met his match with his wife, and together they have amassed a prized collection of Americana, including almost 400 pieces of vibrantly colored ceramic spatterware, Pennsylvania and New England schoolgirl samplers (the earliest dating to 1726), Amish potholders and more.
“It’s fun, it’s educational — and it’s become social,” Sharon says. “We have a circle of friends around the country that we’ve made over the years when we visit antiques shows and auctions. We all get together and have this passion in common.”
In the 1960s, Italian designer Elio Fiorucci opened his first lifestyle-focused clothing store and jaws dropped. When the brand came to New York City in the ’70s and into the ’80s, it became as iconic a hangout as its customers — Keith Haring, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol. The store even hired Madonna’s stylist, Maripol, as its art director.
As a little girl, Brenda Mann didn’t know all this. She just knew her heart fluttered a bit when she came across Fiorucci’s seminal vintage-style drawings and logos plastered over their T-shirts and labels, like the pair of cherubic angels that made the Fiorucci clothing brand a national obsession with teenage girls in the 1980s.
“I was drawn to vintagy-looking objects, whether it was a paper ticket on a pair of jeans or the ornately floral decor of my college sorority house,” says Mann, a Sylvan Lake mom of two boys. “I just get excited about beautiful things, and I like to be surrounded by them. But even more, I love the lessons to be learned from these pieces, and the stories they can tell.”
She became a connoisseur of vintage style infused with a visible sense of history, from art deco platinum and diamond jewels to Mary Gregory glassware, known for its enamel-decorated silhouettes of children posed and at play. She picked up a diamond watch for $50 at a flea market, and found a favorite watercolor painting from a Salvation Army store for $12.
“I bought it for myself as a housewarming gift when I moved into my new house,” Mann says. “It’s very 1970s, with a lot of gold tones, but I find it very comforting. It reminds me of childhood.”
For a time, she and her mother even rented space at local antiques markets. Now, whenever she has the time, she’ll make a day of driving to small towns looking for fresh ground to cover or will head to East Lansing, antiquing on the way and finishing with a Topopo Salad at El Azteco.
“I love the hunt. I love the history. At the end of the day, I don’t need Prada — but I love a good deal. And I love pretty,” she says.
And that, no matter what your comfort level is, is the key.
“Of course, you don’t want to massively overpay for anything,” Fendelman says. “But if you love the piece and really just want to have it to appreciate it, then it will always have value.”
Whether your type of treasure hunting is bidding on big-ticket items at auction houses or scouring a local flea market for a mix-and-match set of vintage hotel silver, once you bring home your first find, it’s often just the beginning.
Although Frankel has been embarking on several buying trips to England, France, Holland and Belgium each year for the 21 years she’s been in business, it still thrills her when she finds a fantastic piece, and even more, when she brings it home and a client appreciates it as much as she does.
“I love every part of the business and the hunt. The appeal of antiques, to me, is that the pieces are still around — meaning, they’ve been well taken care of for so many years,” Frankel says. “And often, the workmanship and patina just cannot be duplicated today.”
Sharon and Jeffrey Lipton agree. The pride they take in the collections they’ve created is embedded in the fact that each piece is unique, laden with a personal, regional or period history, and each was its own special find.
But, adds Sharon, “If you ask my husband what his favorite piece is, his answer would be, ‘The next one.’”
Looking for some local treasures? Check out Knightsbridge Antique Mall, Northville (248-344-7200); Fratz’ Consignment, Fenton (fratzconsignment.com); Little Red Schoolhouse, Lansing (lrshlansing.com); Livingston Antique Outlet, Howell (livingstonantiqueoutlet.com); Michigan’s Longest Garage Sale, at homes along US 12 from Saline to New Buffalo (us12heritagetrail.org/garagesale.asp); Saline Antiques Market, Saline (937-875-0808); Great Midwestern Antique Emporium, Waterford (gmwae.com); Salt City Antiques, Ypsilanti (734-487-1259); Plaza Antiques & Collectibles Mall, Lincoln Park (plazaantiquesmall.com); the Peacock Room, Detroit (313-559-5500), Vogue Vintage, Pleasant Ridge (voguevintage.net), Lost and Found Vintage, Royal Oak (248-953-0228) and Haig’s of Rochester (248-652-3660).
Ready for an adventure? Some of the country’s most acclaimed antiques shows include the Brimfield Antiques Show in Brimfield, Mass., where 6,000 dealers offer everything from Bakelite bangles and estate silver to Early American furniture (brimfieldshow.com); Marburger Farm Antique Show in Round Top, Texas., has more than 350 dealers offering industrial art and 19th-century antiques (marburger.com); and Springfield Antique Show & Flea Market in Springfield, Ohio, has up to 2,500 vendors offering vintage fashion and Midwestern pottery (springfieldantiqueshow.com).