"No, it can't be," I thought as I nosed up to the painting. But then again I was at the Madison-Bouckville Outdoor Antiques Show in central New York, where more than 1,000 dealers gather from across the country and Canada, so anything was possible.
Drawn by the unsigned picture's colors — a turquoise sky, a shimmer of azure water and the doges' palace glowing pink in the distance — I was reminded of the work of 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner. Could it be an oil sketch for one of his great canvases? By the time I convinced myself later in the day that it could, the work had been sold — for $400. Turner or not, it was a nice painting, and my heart sank. I had failed to act quickly enough.
At the Madison-Bouckville show, which takes place the third weekend of August every year, you usually get a second chance of sorts. Although my wife, Liet, and I didn't find another painting to our mutual liking at last August's 32nd show, we did come up with two colorful lithographs of gorgeously feathered chickens from a 19th century German breeders' catalog ($95) and a handsome 120-year-old cherry, three-drawer dresser, with brass pulls ($120). (We considered the dresser a real steal. The dealer, it turned out, was eager to rid himself of his stock so he could retire.)
For most of the year, Madison and Bouckville are sleepy villages, strung out along a road edged by several antiques shops, a few old houses, some barns, a church and a cobblestone inn. It's familiar territory to us; we come to upstate New York to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of the Washington area, where we live most of the year.
The buildings are surrounded by broad meadows behind which rise green hills, patchworked with farms. It's the kind of languid place where cows chew their cud all day long while reclining lazily on the grass.
Then comes August, and Bouckville springs to life. (This year's show is Aug. 21 and 22.) Almost overnight, a mown alfalfa field becomes an open-air bazaar, rivaling in its color, displays and busyness some of the tumultuous open-air markets I have seen in Turkey and Morocco.
The dealers, who set up shop the day before the opening, occupy booths and five tents 200 feet long and 40 feet wide each, arranged in neat rows on broad interconnecting "avenues." Mercifully, a map of the grounds comes with the $6 entry fee. It covers the full 100 acres, 30 of which are given over to the show itself, the rest to the free parking areas.
Despite the map, we got lost a couple of times and reoriented ourselves by a giant sign proclaiming "1,000 Dealers," hovering high above the grounds.
The show got its start in 1972. That's when Jock Hengst, a local who in his younger years had been a picker (the trade's name for someone who goes around knocking on doors and asking people whether they have any old items to sell), managed to persuade 35 dealers to exhibit their goods on a small airstrip near Bouckville.
The show caught on and grew so big by 1980 that Hengst had to move it to its current location, which he now owns.
Hengst prescreens the exhibitors — most of whom pay repeat visits — to ensure that high-quality standards prevail. They pay $195 for their spaces and thus don't need a huge markup on their goods to cover the rent. Any dealers who try to pull the wool over visitors' eyes with reproductions don't get invited back.
A shopper's oasis Outside the show's fenced precincts, several hundred other sellers — Hengst refers to them as "piggy backers" — line both sides of a half-mile or so of U.S. 20, which links the two villages. With their goods spread out around them, they hawk real antiques, semi-antiques and downright fakes, as well as what all too often look like the tired leftovers of garage sales.
But here, too, there are bargains. Liet once paused to examine some casually arranged wares atop a card table and discovered six tarnished silver spoons from Italy ($15) which bore the ornamental crests of the country's provinces at the tips of their handles, and a sweet, little blue-edged creamer-and-sugar-bowl set dotted with tiny roses ($10) and dating to the 1860s.
We asked the dealer where he came across his wares. He explained that he had a job clearing houses of their leftovers after their owners' deaths.
Lifting the bowl's lid, Liet found a touching one-line note in an anonymous hand: "Belonged to my great-grandmother Emma."
The Madison-Bouckville Outdoor Antiques Show is but one of dozens, if not hundreds, of antiques shows that take place in the Northeast during summer. It's sizable — 26,000 attended last year's event — but it is outsized by the Renninger Extravaganza, in Kutztown, Pa., held in April, June and September. However, it is bigger than Massachusetts' Brimfield Antique Show held in May, July and September, Hengst says.
By focusing on a single weekend, the Madison-Bouckville show assures a concentration of antiques and collectibles.
Under Hengst's leadership, the townspeople join forces to make the event a success. Some direct cars to the temporary parking lots. Others run open-air "trolleys," pulled by antique tractors, which ferry visitors from the lots to the show grounds. Still others staff the food concessions and a few, atop a roving van, play catchy bluegrass numbers that circulate over the din of the crowd. Strapping youths stand at the ready to carry or drive oversize treasures — such as our dresser — to the parked vehicles.
Visitors who want to ship their purchases can arrange to have them packed and sent from the show.
Even the Methodist churches of Bouckville and Madison get into the act and lay on lunches. On the Saturday we attended, the good women and men of the Bouckville church served barbecued chicken, salad, homemade rolls and delicious ice cream inside their meeting hall. After lunch — which cost us just $5 apiece — we entered the church and were taken aback by the beauty of its splendidly colored glass windows, which had been removed from an older structure before it was demolished and safely installed here. They were as bright as sunshine.
We gave a whole day to the show but couldn't possibly have taken it all in. It was a great kaleidoscope, shifting and changing with every turn. We let our eyes lead us on, from one booth devoted almost exclusively to Christmas costume jewelry and another crammed with rocking chairs to others featuring jelly cabinets, ephemera, wicker furniture, stained glass, 1920s mesh purses, bisque dolls, china, sporting gear, whirligigs and much more.
We were so captivated by the Victorian glassware amassed by GlimmerGlass Antiques, which has its shop in Schenevus, N.Y., that we lingered for half an hour, taking in one by one the pink, cranberry red, amber and robin's-egg blue vases, water bottles, glasses, pitchers and pickle dishes and jars displayed on open-backed shelves that let daylight stream through. We were tempted to buy but didn't.
Collectors of the oddball do not lack for opportunities at the show. For instance, we could have bought a Superman Club pin ($100), a Nerviline liniment bottle with its box and contents intact ($35) or three German papier-mâché 1930s Mickey Maus candy holders ($350 each).
Nostalgia abounds One of the nice things about the Madison-Bouckville event is that it has a sense of humor, intended or not.
Some people come to the show just to gawk, others to take a trip down memory lane and see yesteryears' disposable objects elevated to collectible status. Several times I came across toys like ones I played with as a boy. After a while I began to feel like an antique myself.
When the hour to leave came, I waited at the gate while Liet ran off on a last-minute (but unfulfilled) quest for the booth selling Christmas jewelry. As I stood there, a steady stream of happy customers passed by: two women hauling a table, a man with a what-not shelf hooked over one shoulder, another bearing an oval mirror.
How pleasant it was to realize that the orphaned pieces they carried, separated forever from those who had owned and loved them last, had been adopted and would live new lives in new homes.
Dale M. Brown is formerly an editor for Time-Life Books. He resides in Alexandria, Va. *
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On to the show
SHOW HOURS, TICKETS:
The show is along U.S. 20 south of, and about halfway between, Syracuse and Utica. From Syracuse: follow New York 92 south through Manlius to Cazenovia, then east on U.S. 20 to Bouckville. Show hours 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 21 ($7 entrance fee before 9 a.m., $6 from 9 a.m.) and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 22 ($6). A weekend pass costs $7; for $40, you can also attend the show Friday as dealers unpack, starting at 10 a.m. For information: (315) 824-2462, http://www.bouckvilleantiqueshows.com .
WHERE TO EAT:
Nonprofit vendors sell food at the show. For after-show hours, there are several possibilities:
Ye Olde Landmark Tavern, 6722 U.S. 20, Bouckville; (315) 893-1810, http://www.yeoldelandmark.com . American food with a colonial touch served in an 1850s landmark. Dinner only. Entrees $15-$23.
Quacks Diner, 7239 U.S. 20 (two miles from Bouckville); (315) 893-1806. Dinner entrees $6.75-$13.
Corner Grill, Colgate Inn, Payne and Madison streets, Hamilton (home to Colgate University; five miles from Bouckville); (315) 824-2300. Wood-fired grill. Dinner entrees $14.95-$24.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodations in the immediate area are usually booked by early June. For more information, (800) 684-7320.
TO LEARN MORE:
Madison County Tourism, Brooks Hall, U.S. 20, Morrisville, N.Y. 13408; (800) 684-7320, http://www.madisontourism.com .
Empire State Division of Tourism, 30 S. Pearl St., Albany, NY 12245; (800) I-LOVE-NY (456-8369) or (518) 474-4116, fax (518) 292-5893, http://www.iloveny.com .
— Dale M. Brown