If you’re the kind of person who’s always been searching for a quaint little cluster of towns where people pop up like toast to begin power shopping at 8 a.m. (no time for a shower or coffee, it’s an emergency), squabble about the authenticity of 18th - and 19th - century antiques, hang crystal chandeliers from barn rafters, drink Champagne like water, and wear costumes when it isn’t Halloween, then you simply must visit the Round Top Antiques Fair before you croak, dahling.
Last September, I got my first official taste of Round Top — “antiques week” as some call it, while others refer to it simply as “the show.” Having a number of friends in the business of antiques, I’ve known about the goings-on at Round Top for a long while, but was never really tempted to make the two-hour trek until I heard about the Junk-O-Rama Prom, a wild costume party thrown at Warrenton’s Zapp Hall by a design team known as the Junk Gypsies.
Last fall, the Junk-O-Rama Prom brought to mind Cyndi Lauper making a cameo on Bonanza. The look for spring, however, evoked Braveheart invading a cheerleading camp, with a healthy dose of what inspired the the party in the first place — wacky vintage formal wear. Another welcome surprise was the expansion of Zapp Hall’s Bubble Lounge. What six months ago looked like a paleta wagon specializing in Veuve Clicquot is now a fully functional tented lounge, swanky furniture and all. Judging from the number of empty bottles lined up along the bar, 2010 is proving to be a good year for antiques. Unfortunately, the carbonated watering hole is only open two weeks out of the year.
A blog post I wrote last fall (“Bargain hunting in full drag,” October 14, 2009) earned me a lot of respect during antiques week: Show owner Rick McConn personally invited me back as a “featured blogger,” which gained me access to an old farmhouse-cum-internet-lounge smack in the middle of the 43-acre field, and justified what might seem like a frivolous investigation, or possibly a sneaky excuse to shop.
For me it’s an excuse to share with you why I adore this twice-yearly gathering of buyers and sellers from as far away as Virginia. Taking pictures there isn’t always easy, though; many dealers are “allergic to photographs,” as one put it. Responses ranged from touched to horrified when I asked permission to photograph cleverly designed and decorated booths. Tales of elaborate hoaxes and aggressive copycats armed with digital cameras seem to have removed any inkling of trust from this bizarre equation. Julie Harris of Kansas City, who sells impeccably framed antique bathing suits, shared several photo-related horror stories before finally allowing me to snap a few frames (from a distance, after seeing my press credentials). In an adjacent booth, I became fixated on a surreal, yet photorealistic painting of a raw steak surrounded by mushrooms. This piece, as it turns out, was commissioned by the Kirkwood Farmers Market of St. Louis in 1974, and is double-sided. “There’s an amazing abstraction on the other side,” owner Melissa Williams explained. Intent on protecting the painting’s integrity, Williams refused to let me photograph it, citing a customer who wanted to “take a picture of it and put it on the refrigerator.” I was thinking more along the lines of a screensaver. Far-fetched, but part of the rumor mill nonetheless (and reason enough for several dealers to prohibit photographs) is a story about a thief who convinced the local authorities that a particular item belonged to him, based on a photograph he took of it in a dealer’s booth. More than one dealer imitated the crook, whining, “How could I have a picture of it if it weren’t already mine?”
Fortunately, the nearby town of Warrenton offers a crunchy mind-eraser of all the fascinating neurosis of Marburger Farms. Last fall, father and son team Mark and Lance Shrumpf’s hand-carved wooden egrets looked romantic and oddly real gathered in a marshy area connecting two of Warrenton’s fields. This season, the birds are enjoying a folk-art moment. “They’ve sort of evolved by becoming simpler,” Lance explained. Why? It seems they can’t make them fast enough.
Spending money is more of a danger in Warrenton because things are priced very sensibly. While $495 seems to be the default price at the Big Red Barn, a high-end destination down the road, you can leave Warrenton with an armload for $49.50 especially after downing a mimosa. •
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