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An Antiques Show Marks a Milestone

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page C02

On opening night at the Washington Antiques Show, two ceramic lions reclined on pedestals like well-behaved Sphinxes. Diana H. Bittel, a dealer from Bryn Mawr, Pa., was hoping to sell them before the event at the Omni Shoreham Hotel closes tomorrow. At $18,500 for the pair, these gatekeepers require commitment.

Dealer Marty Shapiro of the Finnegan Gallery in Chicago was showing a refined selection of imported garden accessories, including monumental moss-filled ceramic planters and a cast-iron eagle with a snake in its talons. But the star, at least in Shapiro's mind, was a 19th-century carved wood bull's head with authentic horns extending 37 inches from point to point. The artful beast had graced the English country home of a one-time champion Aberdeen Angus breeder. A Washingtonian with the courage of Teddy Roosevelt -- he hung antlers in the State Dining Room -- might delight in paying $12,500 for a bit of baronial bliss.

The Washington Antiques Show at 50, counterclockwise from left: Diana H. Bittel's Ohio sewer tile lions, $18,500 for the pair; Marty Shapiro's 19th-century carved wood bull's head with authentic horns, $12,500; and Tim Mertel's early-20th-century ceremonial skirt from Sumatra, the Indonesian island hit hard by the tsumani. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Madison Avenue jeweler Barry Weber engaged passersby with the easy elan of a television personality, which, after eight seasons on "Antiques Roadshow," he is. A brooch worn by Ann Townsend, founder of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, caught his expert eye.

"It's a citrine, natural freshwater pearls and gold,'' Weber pronounced. "1905."

Townsend's grandmother had designed the mount. "You're right, it's just about the time," she confirmed.

Weber, president of Edith Weber & Associates, attributed the power of the PBS antiques show, at which people learn the origin and value of family treasures, to a combination of surprise, shock and "a marvelous story." On Wednesday, Weber took a pair of Victorian diamond earrings from a cabinet. They came with curious "coach" covers shaped like hinged golden globes. Weber demonstrated how the covers could be clipped onto the diamonds, disguising the jewels as modest dangling orbs. The asking price is $45,000.

Weber was thrilled to clear up misconceptions. Despite their name, coach covers were not designed to fool stagecoach bandits; they were an ingenious response to changing lifestyles. Victorian women were spending more time in public, going from daytime activities to night without returning home to change. Because "a lady does not wear diamonds during the day," Weber noted, a neat solution was devised.

"It's strictly an American invention," Weber said. "It was thought up by Americans and patented by Americans."

As any "Roadshow" fan knows, treasures are defined by price. But market value is propelled by many factors. History trumps aesthetics. If condition is good, quirkiness is better.

At the Washington Antiques Show, a charity event celebrating its 50th year, aisles are stocked with American tall chests, tables, clocks and paintings, plus a smattering of French iron wall knockers and garden gates, Asian ceramics, oriental rugs, English brass, Victorian mother-of-pearl boxes, needlework samplers, silver, mirrors and more. Organizers said 470 people signed up for the preview, which afforded an opportunity to shop. But few red "Sold" stickers materialized.

Elinor Gordon of Villanova, Pa., a dealer in Chinese porcelain, observed that over the 48 years she has participated in this show, prices have been the biggest change in the antiques world.

"Up, up, up and up," she said. "And away!"

Gordon described the trajectory of a plate from the service of the Society of the Cincinnati. George Washington purchased a 302-piece set of Chinese export porcelain bearing the emblem of the group, which was founded in 1783 by Continental Army officers who fought in the American Revolution. Early in her career, Gordon recalled, a single piece could be acquired for $500. Years later, she set a record by paying $2,600 for a plate, in her first bidding war.

"I bought it," she recalled. "I never heard the end of it from my husband."

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