'Collecting should be fun', says Down East publisher

Sam Pennington, a publisher, believes that "taste, a little bit of money, and some guts" are all it takes to become a successful purchaser of antiques. But many collectors scouting the nebulous territory of flea markets, yard sales, auctions, and shops for choice bits of Americana will tell you it also helps to read the Maine Antique Digest.

Mr. Pennington, who started publishing the straight-talking monthly tabloid back in 1973, when there was no publication of its kind, is hardly likely to object to that addition: He has devoted much of the past seven years to the kind of practical and investigative (some antique dealers say muckraking) journalism that builds that kind of reputation. Surrounded by the cozy clutter of his office, Mr. Pennington is quick to reflect on the reason the Maine Antique Digest (or MAD, as it is generally known) has done as well as it has.

"The way to start a successful magazine," he says, "is to do everything yourself."

He doesn't quite do everything. His wife, Sally, manages the business end and edits her husband's copy. With the aid of a small staff, Mr. Pennington serves as publisher, editor, reporter, proofreader, and photographer of ads. This last is no small feat, as MAD, usually a bulging 180 pages, is 75 percent ads, mostly from antique shops counting on photos of tap tables and Windsor chairs to attract customers. Pennington no longer does most of the ad photography, but can recall when, in MAD's fledgling days, he would travel to the shops and offer his photographic services free of charge.

Sally Pennington remembers the days when the newspaper was produced with a portable typewriter in the pantry of their home. Their children, then teen-agers, worked long hours handling the mailing and shipping to what soon became a nationwide readership. In 1978 the operation grew to include the Weekly, a general newspaper serving Waldoboro and Damariscotta, towns about halfway up the Maine coast.

"It began as a real family operation, and it still feels like it to some degree," Mrs. Pennington says. "The only drawback is that it's so hard to get away from the business. We're talking about it at the breakfast table at 6 a.m. -- either in an argument or in a discussion -- and we're still talking about it at 9 p.m. We live and breathe the business. I love it."

The Penningtons now work out of small, clapboard building that was once a funeral parlor. Outside is a wooden sign bearing MAD's logo, which has a folk-art rooster rising out of the 'i' in the word 'Antique.' Inside, a nifty collection of vintage toy airplanes hanging from the ceiling above the paste-up counter and an early Windsor knuckle-armed bowback chair behind the publisher's own paper-heaped desk are clues to what the publication -- and Sam Pennington -- are all about.

Most of MAD's 16,500 readers are antique dealers or serious collectors, and Pennington himself has had experience in both of these enterprises. When asked about his collection of antique planes, he says that he "started collecting them because they were both interesting and cheap. They are no longer cheap, and so I no longer collect them."

Despite what has happened to old toy planes, he does not share the prevalent concern that rapidly escalating prices and the growing scarcity of good, early items will put antiques in reach of only the richest colectors.

"For the average person, the market is just as good as ever," he says. "You just need to get out and look, steering clear of the big shows and auctions which attract the big money. I don't think things are so hard to find now. Our tolerance has changed and what defines an antique has changed. In 1960 anything 19th century was considered awful. Now 19th century is considered pretty good. And there are things now that we haven't discovered that very well may become antiques of the future."

It doesn't alarm him that choice early American furniture is fetching prices in the many thousands of dollars at the big auction houses. When asked about a rare Dunlop candelstand that recently went for $16,000, he shrugs.

"I don't think everything is overpriced. But things at the top of the market always do well. In a recession, people with the most money are affected the least, and they will scramble for the best pieces. A Dunlop candlestand for $16 ,000 is not much money to the average big collector."

For the small collector, someone to whom $16,000 is a great deal of money, he believes there are many good investments available on a smaller scale. "Just yesterday I saw a top-of-the-line solid cherry Eastlake rolltop desk selling fro consider that a cheap metal desk that goes to the dump in a few years sells for inflation."

Should beginning collectors always look for the highest-quality furniture they can afford?

"That's good advice," he says, "but the best advice is to follow your heart, buy what really appeals to you. Sound advice is boring. Coillecting should be fun."

He doesn't believe there is any foolproof way for a beginner to avoid overpaying for an item. "The quickest way to learn what something is really worth is to buy it and then try to resell it. If there' anything wrong with what you bought, you'll soon have it pointed out. Everyone gets stung once in a while, and sometimes that's the best way to acquire knowledge."

"My other advice is to read, read, read. If you acquire just one bood, get Wallace Nutting's three-volume 'Furniture Treasury' [Mcmillan] which has over 5, 000 photos in it. Study them. It's great compendium of American furniture."

He believes there are a lot of "schlock books" on the market and is not too enthusiastic about the numerous price guides also available. "They're good for what I call the 'old multiples,' glassware and such that was produced in quantity.But to use them for furniture is to take on a stamp collector attitude. Who's to say what a decent piece of furniture is worth? It's worth what someone is willing to pay for it."

Although he frequently prints articles on how to spot fakes, he doesn't think they are much of a pitfall. "Some fakes are so well done that they have become highly collectible; they're worth as much as the real thing. In most cases, people get taken by fakes because they're greedy. They think they are getting something cheap, something that the seller doesn't know the true value of."

While auction coverage -- accompanied by photos of items and the prices they fetched -- are a MAD staple, it is writing about what he calls "the dard side of the antique business" that fascinates him. It was his own diligent reporting that broke part of a national story last fall: maneuvers on the part of Steven Straw, a Newburyport, Mass., art delaer, to sell, among other things, an extensive collection of antique furniture that did not belong to him.

Yet he believes the antique business to be, on the whole, more honest than other business. "Most dealers are extremely honorable. You can leave goods at a shop on commission and not worry about them at all. There is little documentation in his business, and most transactions are made on trust."

"It's really the last bastion of free enterprises," said the publisher who has undertaken a bit of that himself. "You don't need a degree or fancy connections, it's all based on whatm you know. Anyone can take load of goods to a flea market and just start in."

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