COUNTRY CRAVINGS Almost anything goes as collectors of Americana broaden their scope


Who would have thought that rock and roll album covers and "artifacts" from the '70s like beanbag chairs would be considered potentially hot country collectibles? Whatever happened to album quilts and wicker baskets?

That's how much the meaning of country has changed since 1980, when Mary Emmerling's first book, "American Country," helped launch the most influential mainstream decorating style of the last decade and a half.

In her early books -- she's written 15 -- Emmerling featured simple rooms filled with Americana, pine furniture and country collectibles. Then country got more complicated. Designers looked elsewhere for inspiration, drawing from English country (faded chintzes and clutter) and more recently French country (sun-washed colors, armoires and sleigh beds). Country came to mean almost anything informal, comfortable, familiar and nostalgia-inducing.

But no matter how times have changed, the appeal of American country antiques and collectibles has never diminished. In fact, it's grown so much that, as Mary Emmerling says, "Virtually any piece of Americana dating from before 1945 now enjoys the status of antique."

And what isn't antique is still very collectible.

That means, for instance, that recently a 1969 Mattel Hot Wheels toy van sold at auction for more than $4,000.

So when Emmerling brought out her latest book, there really was something new to report. "New Country Collecting" (Clarkson Potter, 1996, $40) shows how collectors of Americana have gotten more sophisticated and knowledgeable, and how their interests (and collections) have broadened.

The younger generations just now getting into collecting aren't necessarily interested in American primitive, even if it is old and beautiful. They may very well want to surround themselves with things that are part of their collective memories. Lava lamps and Charles Eames chairs.

At least that's one theory. Another is that collecting goes in cycles: Quilts, for instance, are big again, says Emmerling (during a quick interview between trips to Guatemala and Arizona). But these are quilts from the 1880s to the 1930s. Earlier quilts have become quite rare and terribly expensive.

"People understand things that should be preserved," says Molly Culbertson, editor-in-chief of Country Home magazine. "Country collectibles suggest to us a simpler, better time. They remind us of personal stories even if they aren't our personal stories. And they are wonderful decorative accessories."

Under that definition, almost anything goes -- a beanbag chair or a bird's-eye maple Sheraton youth bed made on Boston's North Shore.

So is it possible to pin any trend in country collecting down? Is anything hot?

Yes, says Mary Emmerling. One of the most important is the current fascination with religious folk art and artifacts from New Mexico, Mexico and Central America. (See sidebar on Page 47.) She points to this interest as a good indication of how the times can influence collecting trends.

"If it were 1950 coming up and not the millennium," she says, "it wouldn't be so big. Everyone is into the fabulous religious art of the Southwest. People are soul-searching [as the 20th century draws to a close]."

When asked about other currently popular collectibles, she mentions creamware, the cream-colored porcelain that's thinner than stoneware but still has a comfortable, informal look.

Mercury glass is much in demand, she says -- vases, glasses and those antique Victorian glazing globes that have gone from high kitsch to high style in the garden.

And she points out that people are collecting regional art and artifacts, particularly from their own region: face jugs from Georgia, for instance, and California turquoise pottery.

In Maryland, regional collecting has become so specialized that people in Baltimore have different interests from people in Annapolis, contends Lois Scheminant, owner of the Annapolis Antique Shop (one of only four Maryland stores mentioned in "New Country Collecting's" resource guide). Bettie Mintz, owner of All of Us Americans Folk Art in Bethesda, says her customers are interested in Maryland and Pennsylvania collectibles, particularly album quilts (pieced and appliqued) and painted furniture.

But local dealers agree with Emmerling that customers are looking for a broad range of country collectibles.

Joseph Frank, owner of Baltimore's Another Period in Time, reports a growing interest in '30s and '40s furniture, as well as more conventional country collectibles such as baskets, spool cabinets, pie safes, jelly cupboards and crocks.

"People are using '50s refrigerator jars for country decorating," says Lois Scheminant. "And Fiesta ware. They like the vibrant, bright colors against the pale wood of country pieces." Rag rugs are selling well for her, along with pewter. "And religious icons -- crucifixes, rosaries -- everybody's collecting them."

With more than 2,000 categories of popular collectibles to choose from (according to Country Home magazine), everyone's list of what's hot is likely to be a little different.

Editor-in-chief Culbertson points out that some things that began to be collected in the '70s, right after the Bicentennial, are still very popular: quilts, for instance, and vintage advertising and kitchen tools.

Others seem very much a reflection of the times. One of the fastest-growing categories, she says, is garden collectibles -- rustic benches, watering cans, beautiful old pots, statuary. It's no coincidence that at the same time gardening is one of America's most popular leisure activities.

There's also a rising demand for miniature houses, Culbertson says, in the form of doll houses, architects' models and elaborate birdhouses (one of these last sold at a spring antiques show for $8,000). "We Americans have a great passion for home," she says, which is reflected in these miniatures.

And that, perhaps, is what country collecting is all about. Whether it's an old pine table or a delightful collection of "smalls" (diminutive objects like miniature chairs or porcelain figures), we are happiest when we surround ourselves with things that are comfortable and familiar -- and have a bit of history as well.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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