An antiques streak through Del Mar's fair

An antiques streak through Del Mar's fair
A customer rolls away a 100-year-old German cart, purchased for $250 from the stall of a Utah dealer. (DON BARTLETTI / LAT)
At an antiques fair, there are those who pound their chest after scoring a magnificent find. And there are those who gnash their teeth when junk they gave to Goodwill shows up on some dealer's shelf, spruced and polished, with a price tag that triggers groans of disbelief.

"Do you remember when we had one of those?" I once said to my sister, pointing to a Patsy Ann doll that my family gave away when I was 10. "If we'd kept it, it would be worth $300."

Such exercises in self-torment delight Linda and our mother, Bobbe. So a few times a year, we all rendezvous at the massive antiques fair in Del Mar. The event is a tutorial in all things collectible, and visitors can learn a great deal about distinguishing family treasures from garage-sale junk.

In July during our last visit, we not only shook our heads at having gotten rid of Aunt Mabel's scruffy Turkish carpets but also congratulated ourselves for things we haven't given away. It was a budget-minded overnighter that combined the bustle of the antiques fair with the calm natural beauty that is Del Mar.

The plan was for my mother and me to drive south from the L.A. area and for Linda to drive north from her home in San Diego. For a while we weren't sure we could meet as planned because Mother twisted her ankle. But a San Diego medical supply shop rented us a wheelchair, and, as it turned out, on the Saturday we arrived at the show, the two exhibition halls were full of wheelchairs. The wide aisles between stalls made navigation a breeze.

Three or four times a year, the halls, about the size of two football fields, are packed with the stalls of more than 400 vendors. Some sell antiques (by definition, at least 100 years old), some sell collectibles (newer goods) and others sell food. The result is an entertaining smorgasbord that includes Art Deco furniture, signed American Indian pottery, Edwardian diamond jewelry and handmade tamales. (The 2003 show dates are Jan. 10 to 12, April 18 to 20 and Nov. 7 to 9. The same company will run a similar event in Costa Mesa, to be held March 14 to 16 and Oct. 10 to 12.)

One of my favorite features is the appraisal tent. For $5 an expert will look at any single item and tell you about its history and value. By the time we arrived at the tent, eager owners were already unpacking giant Hummel figurines, decorative silver bowls and cups, historical photographs, a violin, teddy bears and a William and Mary-style claw-foot chair.

A village of tradesmen

Linda had brought for appraisal three silver-colored mesh evening bags that belonged to our grandmother. The appraisal organizer steered antiques expert Erin Hamilton over to our table. Erin, it turned out, had a collection of Edwardian metal evening bags and was enthusiastic about Linda's. They were made in the United States between 1915 and 1925, Erin said, typical for the period.

She went over all three pieces meticulously, pointing out one bag's clasp, which had a particularly beautiful chased design, as well as a few tears that would reduce the purses' resale price. "But they can easily be repaired," she said.

Her estimate of their total value: $600. We were stunned.

"Just see J.C. Dumas in the Goldworks Gallery booth," Erin said, adding that polishing the mesh would boost the bags' value even more. For that she recommended a different booth.

One might wonder if the appraisers merely steer unwitting customers into unnecessary repairs and purchases. But the arrangement here has always seemed like a convenient collection of specialized tradesmen, not a high-pressure sales trap. Linda decided to have J.C. fix the mesh tears with a laser solder another time, but she did buy metal cleaner for $25. It seemed a reasonable investment: Purses similar to Linda's were selling in some show booths for about $700 apiece.

Simply talking to the experts about fixing up treasures is a joy in itself. Linda once brought a broken antique butter dish to the glass expert at the Josette's Antiques booth, where it was restored and emerged as good as new. Now we're planning to haul down Grandma's 19th century Jacobean Revival dining room chairs to have their backs restored at the Antiques by Futura booth.

We broke away from the fairgrounds for a late lunch at the Fish Market Restaurant nearby. While Linda and Mother devoured Dungeness crab salads, I chose bay scallop and halibut ceviche and smoked Pacific king salmon -- all fresh and beautifully prepared.

Linda headed home, and Mother and I drove a minute or two up Camino del Mar to the Del Mar Inn. Lodgings in the area include the luxury L'Auberge Del Mar Resort and Spa, which finished a $3-million renovation earlier this year; a Hilton, centrally located by the racetrack; and a Marriott hotel that opened in January with a well-reviewed restaurant by acclaimed chef Bradley Ogden.

We chose the Del Mar Inn, part of the Clarion chain, only because it had proved to be a reasonably priced, surprisingly appealing discovery on a previous trip to Del Mar. Though still cozy, the inn had a few problems this time.

Mother and I had been confirmed in a top-floor room with two double beds and an ocean view ($143 plus tax). We got the two beds but in a room facing the highway on the far noisier lower floor. Even after complaining at the front desk, we still didn't get our ocean view; a clerk said the hotel was full because of a golf tournament and a wedding, which also made the pool off-limits. (We would face another difficulty Sunday when the elevator went out, forcing Mother to hobble down steps on her bad ankle.)

Del Mar: A worldly town

Saturday afternoon I walked into town and wandered galleries in Del Mar Plaza while Mother rested at the hotel. Travel seemed to be the big theme: At the Valerie E. Wong Gallery, Michael Seewald's photographs of glistening Paris, Venice and Greece decorated the walls. Paintings of far-flung destinations lined Grant Pecoff Studios. At Esmeralda Books and Coffee, travel tomes climbed the walls. I thumbed through a fascinating book on Indian interiors, trying to remember if I had seen any of the same things at the fair.

Dinner was at Sbicca, across the street from L'Auberge Del Mar. Owners Susan and Dan Sbicca preside over a small, stylish restaurant with innovative cooking by Susan, the chef. Mother ordered rich lobster-shrimp bisque and a delicious Bosc pear salad with mixed greens, spicy walnuts, goat cheese and a plum vinaigrette. My Mediterranean chicken sausage with linguine, pine nuts, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce was a little bland. But dessert was wonderful: a gianduia fudge brownie with cappuccino gelato.

Sunday Linda met me for a brisk morning walk along Del Mar's coastal cliffs. We thought we would have the place to ourselves, given the early hour. Wrong. Pods of surfers darted like sleek seals through the waves. Joggers and dog walkers joined parents pushing baby strollers and Sunday-morning philosophers meditating along the cliffs.

An ethereal gray fog hung over the whole scene, making it look like a painting in a gallery from the day before. Surrounded by clumps of lavender, feathery stands of bamboo waved in the sea breeze. Despite all the people, there was a lovely sense of quiet -- another reason to return when the antiques show comes back to town.


Budget for two

Actual expenses for this trip:

Del Mar Inn, One night, with tax $157.30

Lunch, Fish Market Restaurant $34.63

Dinner, Sbicca $50.95

Admission, Antiques fair $16.00

Wheelchair rental $16.16

Gas, parking $31.00

Final tab $306.04


Del Mar Inn, 720 Camino del Mar, Del Mar, CA 92014; hotel information (858) 755-9765, toll-free reservations (877) 424-6423, fax (858) 792-8196,

Del Mar antiques show, Del Mar Fairgrounds, off Jimmy Durante Boulevard; (800) 943-7501 or (760) 943-7500,