Sleuthing Out AntiquesCollecting fine prints is really no mystery at all, says detective novelist and antique print dealer Lea Wait of Edgecomb.
Lea Wait grew up in history. As a young girl, she recalls standing on the front lawn of her family home in Edgecomb on languid summer days and waving to tourist-laden riverboats that ambled up the Sheepscot River vying for a look at the gracious Colonial she called home, a structure reportedly built by a captain enjoined to smuggle Marie Antoinette out of France at the start of the revolution.(Alas, the queen was beheaded before she could get there.) Lea (pronounced "Lee") remembers frequent knocks at the door while she was growing up — strangers requesting tours, amateur historians presenting reams of research, distant relatives of the house's long-dead owners begging for a peek inside. Then there was the time Wait's mother took a crowbar to an ancient oyster shell-plaster wall in the kitchen on the hunch a fireplace was hidden inside. (It was, along with centuries of soot and the skeletons of birds.)
For some, these disturbances might have been bothersome interruptions to an otherwise carefree childhood, but for Wait they laid the foundation for a life of selling, and writing about, the antiques surrounding her. With an impressive inventory of prints that includes works by Currier & Ives and Winslow Homer, plus having written more than a half-dozen history-based novels, this spirited grandmother literally brings the past to life.
"I grew up in a world where you didn't have a rocking chair, you had a Boston Rocker. It wasn't necessarily special, but everything had a name," explains Wait. "When you grow up in that kind of environment, you learn about antiques the way other kids learn about sitcoms on TV."
Wait says she inherited her love of old things from her grandmother, Eleanor Smart, who lived in Edgecomb with the family while Wait was growing up. Smart sold antique dolls and toys and Wait, who worked at her grandmother's antiques shows, played with the dolls beneath the tables of her booth. On Saturdays she tagged along with her grandmother to antiques auctions.
"The first antique I ever bought was a 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana," Wait says. "I got it for a dollar, and I still use it. It's upstairs in my study."
After college, she settled into a public relations position at AT&T while taking nighttime graduate courses in American Civilization at New York University. But Wait escaped to her family's summer home in Maine whenever she could. She also kept an eye on antiques, especially prints, which she then sold with her mother.
"Basically we were experimenting," Wait explains. "We knew we didn't want furniture. It would be too heavy for us. Neither of us was interested in china or glass. We thought of starting a shop in the house here, but neither of us wanted to be tied down. So within a year or so we settled on prints."
Prints — which include engravings, etchings, lithographs, and silk screening — are made by transferring an image from one surface to another. Some are made from engravings carved in wood, steel, brass, or copper. Although printmaking dates back to before the fifteenth century, few of the oldest images survive. Many of the most collectible prints are from the seventeenth-through-nineteenth centuries, when printing became more common. The farther back you go, the smaller the prints. "A stone used to make a lithograph could weigh hundreds of pounds," Wait explains.
Because most were made to illustrate books, newspapers, and magazines, prints didn't become individually available until the mid-1800s when Currier & Ives — "printmakers to the American people" — began mass-producing pictures of current events. More than 6,000 of these scenes are known to exist, most produced in factories in New York where black-and-white images were hand-painted by female immigrants. But many were tucked away in old publications until resurfacing in recent years as museum exhibits. Among the most famous printmakers was Maine's own Winslow Homer, who kept a studio on Prouts Neck.
"Homer supported himself, from the time he was nineteen until he was in his early forties, by working for newspapers, primarily Harper's Weekly in New York, but he also worked in Boston and for other papers," explains Wait. "He did drawings that would be translated into wood engravings that would then appear in weekly issues of the newspaper, and then he would go on to the next one."
The original Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, Homer's famous painting of a Civil War soldier in a tree, is owned by the Portland Museum of Art, but contemporaneous prints can be had for around $1,800. The print is the most desired of Homer's early work, followed by Snap the Whip, which features children joining hands in a schoolyard game.
"He would draw maybe ten of these in a week," Wait says. "But he wouldn't do the engravings himself. Someone else would do that, and then they would destroy the plates. Some of them are absolutely gorgeous, some are not as interesting, but they are all very special. You can watch how he developed as an artist, particularly in the faces, and fabrics, and other details. There is a beach scene, for example, where a man is waving a lobster, trying to scare a beautiful young lady. There is one with a young boy playing with his friends and he's got a crab hanging off his shirt. Just little things like that."
In all, Homer is credited with producing 290 engravings, some as small as a kitchen tile, some the size of a newspaper page. Wait and her husband have roughly 150 Homer prints in their collection, works they sell at antiques shows throughout New England and by special arrangement from their home. (Prices start at $125.) The prints offer something for everyone: for the starry-eyed, some prints portray speckled eggs resembling miniature moonscapes; for the outdoorsmen, Audubon's often-violent animals of prey; for gardeners, delicately detailed botanicals; for children, angelic infants; for historians, country life, politics, and current affairs by Currier & Ives. And then, of course, there is a Saint Nicholas print, made famous by Thomas Nast, the man credited with creating the image most people associate with Christmas today.
As prints have grown in popularity, so have reproductions, often to the chagrin of buyers like Wait. "You should know the approximate size in which the print was originally made, along with whether or not it was done in color," she says. "But it is most important to buy from a well-known dealer. Once in a while even I get fooled, and I've been doing this for thirty years."
Knowing the type of paper on which the print was first produced is also important, as is its current condition. Many prints have creases from being folded inside newspapers. Others have faded brown watermarks, referred to as "foxing." Wait finds prints for her collection by scouring bookstores, estate sales, and auctions. Selling prints is controversial since many come from disassembled books, but Wait says she only takes apart "breakers" — books with broken bindings.
And a prolific author like Wait is not one to take such dissection lightly. Drawing on her experience as an antiques dealer, she has so far written seven history-based novels, the first of which came to her while driving to an antiques show. Once the idea took hold, Wait, who'd hardly even read a mystery, spent a full year devouring suspense novels before putting her own pen to paper. "I must have read four or five hundred books." She then sat down at her computer and completed a book she called Kill Me Quick Before I Die. When forty publishers rejected it, Wait stashed it in the bottom drawer of her desk — "I figured everyone had an unpublished novel somewhere," she says — and turned to writing for young adults. Her first published novel, Stopping to Home, is set in Wiscasset in 1806 and was picked up by Simon & Schuster in 1998. Two more young-adult books followed, interspersed with mysteries. Wait even pulled that first draft out from her desk drawer, re-wrote it, and gave it a new title, Shadows at the Fair. It went on to become a finalist for the 2002 Agatha Award for Best First Traditional Mystery.
Today, Wait sells her own books alongside the prints she totes to fairs. Collectors who've read them often have a hard time telling fact from fiction. "Did you really find bodies in your house?" they ask, to which Wait responds with a well-worn, "No."
However, not all the similarities between Wait and her subjects are imagined, especially when it comes to her main character, antique print dealer and sleuth Maggie Summer. "She is not me, but let's say she and I could probably have been good friends," Wait notes. "She drinks diet soda, and I drink tea. She's taller than I am and much braver than I am, but we both like Dry Sack Sherry, we both wanted to adopt children, and we both love Maine."
In the end that one connection seems to be the thing that unites everything in Lea Wait's life: her prints and antiques, her home, and even her history are all rooted in an undying adoration for the Pine Tree State.Charting the PastVintage maps and charts have become an important part of every Maine antiques collection. Now they're just a click away.
Last year, just for fun, Jackie Grace decided to reproduce a nineteenth-century map of Harpswell and Brunswick. Although she deals only in original antique maps and has sold worldwide out of Cundys Harbor since 1991, she thought a few of her neighbors, friends, and summer visitors might have a passing interest in a handsome copy of an 1871 page from the F.W. Beers & Co. Atlas of Cumberland County, Maine. But she was wrong.
"We were very well pleased with the extra interest," Grace says with a slight note of wonder. Indeed, between sales from her home-based business, Grace Galleries, Inc., sales at Hawkes' Lobster pound, and sales at Gallery Framing in downtown Brunswick, she estimates a total of five hundred prints have sold, nearly double what she expected — all without any advertising. And this summer she is bracing for even more sales. "There is a gratifying amount of interest" in old maps of Maine and elsewhere, she notes.
Indeed, by this and numerous other anecdotal measures, it seems vintage maps and charts of Maine have become hot items on the collectible market these days.
"They tell you so much about history," says one of Maine's preeminent collectors, Dr. Harold Osher, a Portland cardiologist who started serious collecting of originals in the 1970s, when "very few people had much interest in old maps and charts." But Osher, who has collected — and donated for public use — more than 70,000 maps and charts of Maine and elsewhere, agrees the interest in the field has "really taken off."
Exactly why there is so much new interest in old maps and charts is due to several factors, says Yolanda Theunissen, curator of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. "Access has changed everything so dramatically," Theunissen says, noting Internet access to antique maps has inspired "weekend scholars" to take a new interest in the geographic aspects of family histories.
Typically, interest in a Maine map might start with a family's oral history, something like the day great-great Uncle Frank decided to give up fishing out of Rockland and head inland to carve out a farm near Presque Isle in Aroostook County. And maybe a fragment of Uncle Frank's diary mentions using a "Colby & Stuart" to find his way north. Although Uncle Frank's map has long since been lost, the Osher Map Library, and some other libraries, can certainly fill in the details with electronic copies of one of the best-known nineteenth-century atlases of Maine, which was published by Colby & Stuart Publishing of Houlton. "No matter where you live, we can digitize the map or maps you need and send them to you via e-mail," says Theunissen. "It's no longer so arduous to do work with these maps."
Osher began his collecting career not in Maine but in London, England. In fact, in the 1970s, few non-governmental maps of pre-statehood Maine were actually located in the Pine Tree State. That's because early professional cartographers rarely took up residence in the New World, preferring, instead, the better market for their wares in the busy commercial centers of Europe. And it was commercialism that drove the creation of the earliest maps of Maine, going back as far as the seventeenth-century charts of Captain John Smith, who named Casco Bay "Harrington's Bay," labeled the Kennebec River "The River Forth," and awarded Penobscot Bay the title "Pembrock's Bay." Later cartographers came up with the names we use today. But Captain Smith was evidently trying to use attractive names with which Englishmen were familiar and which they would associate with their well-established homeland.
Artists, too, might get into the act, drawing colorful and quite striking pictures of sea nymphs, wind pixies, and serpents of all types in areas where the cartographer's information might be a bit hazy or even nonexistent. Consequently, Captain Smith's details of York County were turned into nothing more than ornate curlicues, a monstrous mountain lion, and a picture of himself.
Osher says his early chart and map purchases were often made for a fraction of what they would bring at auction or from a dealer today. "There has been a lot of new interest among collectors and dealers as the prices have gone up," he says, noting a single chart in top-notch condition could bring several thousand dollars at auction today while it might have been only a few hundred dollars fifteen years ago.
Like the rest of the antiques and collectibles market, an old map's rarity and condition are critical factors in determining its worth. Broadly speaking, the fewer prints made of a given map, the more valuable it will be. But condition is also important, and for maps and charts in particular, the condition of older maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often is actually better than newer maps of the nineteenth and even twentieth century. That's because older maps were printed on a linen-based paper that was acid-free. Today's wood-based papers contain a lot of acid from the papermaking process, which over time reacts with the air and sunlight to yellow, fade, and become brittle (and therefore more susceptible to damage). Thus some nineteenth-century maps that were printed by the thousands end up being almost as scarce as much earlier maps that may have been printed in batches of fifty or fewer.
Like many older charts, the F.W. Beers map shows the location of all the South Harpswell houses and the names of the owners, circa 1870. Gayle Small, who grew up in South Harpswell during the 1960s and '70s, knew her Harpswell ancestors went back several generations but had no idea they were scattered as widely as they were. Moreover, she discovered other familiar childhood names — the Farrs, the Eatons, the Allens, the Merrymans — were all much more deeply rooted in what was then called Harpswell Centre and West Harpswell.
The growing interest in old Maine maps and charts includes more than just collectors. "Our exhibitions have been very well attended," notes Osher Library curator Theunissen. "As people become more aware of just what we have here, I think interest will grow."
IF YOU GO: The current exhibition at the Osher Map Library, The Changing Peninsula: Two Centuries of Portland Maps & City Views, will run through July 31. For a thumbnail view of it and all the library has to offer, go to its Web site at: www.usm.maine.edu/~maps Antiques Shows and AuctionsHere is a preview of some of the events for antiques collectors this summer and fall. Check local papers and Maine Antique Digest for more listings.
Antiques Shows & Festivals:
June 4, September 10, and November 25
Maine Antique Paper Show
From throughout the Northeast, dealers of old maps, antiquarian books, trading cards, letters, and photographs bring their collectibles and treasures to Maine. 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $4. Holiday Inn West, 81 Riverside Street (Exit 48), Portland. 207-828-8065.
Portland Book, Print, and Paper Show
Hundreds of bibliophiles in search of that elusive rare book will turn out for the twenty-seventh annual Portland Book, Print, and Paper Show, which takes place from 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. There will be a preview opening at 8:30 a.m. for those who want first dibs on all the books and ephemera for a $15 admission. General admission at 10 a.m. $5. Portland Exposition Building, 239 Park Avenue, Portland. Sponsored by the Maine Book Dealers and the Maine Historical Society. 207-874-8200. www.bookfairs.com/portland.html
Wells Outdoors Antiques Show & Sale
This popular event is held on the grounds of historic Laudholm Farm in Wells and is sponsored by the Wells Chamber of Commerce. 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Bring an umbrella in case it rains. 207-284-8657.
July 8 & 9
Southern Maine Antiques Fair
Fine dealers from across the United States offer a wide variety of high-quality antiques for sale. 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $6. Howard Sports Center, 400 North Street, Saco. 207-563-1013. www.pauldavisshows.com
Lovell Antiques Show and Sale
This western Maine show has a gathering of twenty dealers offering a wide range of items from 8:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Admission $3. Early buyers get first-picks from 7 a.m. - 8:30 a.m. Admission $5. Kimball-Stanford House, Lovell. 207-925-2251.
The Downeast Antiques Fair
Perambulate this indoor and outdoor show and inspect wares brought by dealers from across New England and as far away as Texas and Florida. It is hosted by the Katahdin Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $3. Early buyers can find a deal at 7 a.m.- 9 a.m. for a $15 fee. Blue Hill Fairgrounds, Blue Hill. 207-433-0421.
Rockport Antiques & Art Show
The midcoast town next door to Camden hosts this one-day show from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., featuring more than fifty dealers. Admission $6. A preview is scheduled on July 21 from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m.; admission $15. Midcoast Recreation Center Ice Arena, Route 90, West Rockport. 207-563-1013. www.pauldavisshows.com
July 22 & 23
Camden-Rockport Historical Society Antiques Show
This summer show is sponsored by the Camden-Rockport Historical Society. Saturday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. at the Camden Hills Regional High School. Admission $5. 207-284-8657.
July 25 & 26
Bar Harbor Antiques Show and Sale
This show has been held since 1932 (making it quite venerable itself) and features dealers who like order to their presentation, thus the handsome, room-like settings. Early buying Tuesday 5 p.m. - 8 p.m., admission $10. Wednesday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., admission $6. Able's Restaurant & Boathouse, Route 3, Mt. Desert. 207-563-1013. www.pauldavisshows.com
July 29 & 30
Boothbay Harbor Antiques Show
Thirty exhibitors from several states offer jewelry, Oriental rugs, furniture, books, prints, paintings, pattern glass, china, and silver — all at the Boothbay Harbor YMCA. Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Route 27, Boothbay Harbor. 207-284-8657.
August 2 - 5
Ellsworth Antiques Show
Previously known as the Academy Antiques Show, this event still hosts numerous East Coast dealers offering furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass, paintings, silver, and jewelry. A one-time fee of $8 covers admission for all days. Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Preview party on Wednesday, 5 - 8 p.m. Woodlawn Museum, Route 172, Ellsworth. 207-374-3552.
August 5 & 6
Kennebunk Antiques Show and Sale
This well-regarded show is sponsored by the Kennebunk Animal Welfare Society. Kennebunk High School. Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. 207-284-8657.
Bath Area Family YMCA Antiques Show and Sale
Fifty dealers from across New England display furniture, hooked rugs, textiles, toys, silver, books, and art. Wednesday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $5. Sponsored by the Bath-area family YMCA, and held at the Bath Middle School. 207-443-8983.
August 12 & 13
Maine Antiques Festival
Maine's antiques show of shows brings a wide variety of reputable dealers with all sorts of specialties — everything from seventeenth-century European furniture, to Asian antiques, to 1950s Americana collectibles. Union Fairgrounds. Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $7. Early buying Saturday from 8 -10 a.m., cost $15. 207-563-1013. www.pauldavisshows.com
Coastal Maine Antiques Show
A rustic setting of three large tents, a small one, and two levels of a barn is the venue for this show at the Round Top Center for the Arts. 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $7. Round Top Center for the Arts, Business Route 1, Damariscotta. 207-879-9253.
September 16 & 17
Maine Antiques Dealers Association Antiques Show
Seventy-three of New England's finest antiques dealers offer their wares in Portland's air-conditioned Racket and Fitness Center. Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Admission $10. The Racket and Fitness Center, 2445 Congress Street, Portland. 207-781-5367.
September 16 & 17
Ogunquit Antiques Show and Sale
With the summertime crowds gone, why not wander into the resort town of Ogunquit for a keepsake from the past? Sponsored by the Ogunquit Heritage Museum. S.J. Dunaway Center, Ogunquit. Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $3. 207-646-0296.
Waldoboro Antiques Show
Sixty dealers display furniture, hooked rugs, textiles, toys, silver, books, and art from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. at the Medomak Valley High School, Waldoboro. This event is sponsored by the Medomak Valley Land Trust. Admission $5. 207-443-8983.
Barridoff Galleries, Portland
The largest art auction of the summer in Maine, the Barridoff Galleries' annual Fine Art Auction of American and European Art always draws a crowd. Some come to bid on paintings by Norman Rockwell and William Zorach, while others just come to study the canvases and watch high-stakes bidding contests. American and European Art August 4 at 6 p.m. Preview is on August 3 from 5 - 8 p.m., and August 4 from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring Street, Portland, Maine 04104. 207-772-5011. www.barridoff.com
Cyr Auctions, Gray
Cyr holds auctions virtually every Wednesday night all through the summer. Its July 5 Americana Auction, beginning at 10 a.m., offers an interesting array of American antiques and cultch. P.O. Box 1238, Gray, Maine 04039. 207-657-5253. www.cyrauction.com
Houston Brooks, Burnham
A Waldo County institution, the Burnham auction is in its thirty-sixth year and is always crammed with a trove that can range from highboys to hi-fis. Auctions start every Sunday throughout the summer at 7 a.m. and run until the mid-afternoon. Horseback Road, Burnham, Maine 04922. 800-254-2214; 207-948-2214. www.houstonbrooks.com
James D. Julia Auctions, Fairfield
James Julia has many auctions scheduled for the summer that include fine French and German dolls, antique advertising, music machines, and much more. Spring Antique and Fine Art Auction, May 13, preview May 12, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Saturday 8 - 10 a.m. Spring Advertising, Toy, & Doll Auction, May 20, preview May 19. Lamp and Glass Auction, June 16 & 17. Samoset Auction, August 22 - 24. Fall Firearms & Militaria Auction, October 2 - 4. P.O. Box 830, Fairfield, Maine 04937. 207-453-7125. www.juliaauctions.com
Kennebec River Auction Service, Bath
The old shipbuilding city of Bath is an appropriate setting for the tenth annual Maritime Art and Nauticalia Auction that will be held on July 8 at 5 p.m. Check out other Saturdays throughout the summer for more general antiques auctions. Knights of Columbus, 807 Middle Street (just off Centre Street), Bath, Maine 04530. 207-443-1197. www.maine-antiques.com
Owls Head Transportation Museum
The twenty-ninth annual New England Auto Auction will be held August 19 from 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. Up to two hundred antique, classic, and special interest vehicles are up for bid. Preview August 18 from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. and the morning of the auction from 7:30 - 9:30 a.m. Then on October 29 the Great Fall Auction features hundreds of donated items and gift certificates. Doors open at 8 a.m. with auction beginning at 9:30 a.m. and ending around 6 p.m. Route 73, Owls Head, Maine 04854. 207-594-4418. www.ohtm.org
Thomaston Place Auction Galleries, Thomaston
Thomaston Place Auction Galleries holds auctions throughout the summer. Check out its Web site for upcoming auctions. P.O. Box 300, 51 Atlantic Highway, Route 1, Thomaston, Maine 04861. 207-354-8141. www.thomastonauction.com