In the world of antiques, Maine Antique Digest is one of the publications that virtually everyone in the industry knows about, having been around for over 40 years and consistently putting out some of the best content there is. With that in mind, we were very pleased to sit down with its editor S. Clayton Pennington for a discussion about how how the antiques industry is changing, what the most impressive antique he's ever seen was, and what to expect in the future. Enjoy!
1. Thanks for speaking with us, Clayton. How did you come to be Editor of the Maine Antique Digest?
S. Clayton Pennington: My parents, Sam and Sally Pennington, founded the Maine Antique Digest in 1973. At that time, almost nothing was published that addressed the market for art and antiques, other than annual price guides. I grew up in the business, along with my four sisters. We would spend hot summer days in the old shed on our homestead, using glue sticks to apply subscription forms to sample copies of the newspaper. After college, I came back to the company full time in 1992 and became editor in 1998. My older sister Kate came back in 1995 and became managing editor in 1999. We’re the only siblings actively involved in M.A.D. My father, who died in 2008, worked full time up until a week before he passed away. My mother, in her eighties, still works here part time.
2. What was the best part of growing up in a home that was so passionate about antiques?
SCP: I hate to say it, but we kids couldn’t stand antiques growing up. We lived in a drafty old 1773 house in rural Maine, and everything we had was old, often with a crusty surface because that’s what our parents preferred. It wasn’t until we all moved away that we came to appreciate the antiques. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about the simple majesty of an Antonio Jacobsen ship portrait or the warmth and charm of a red-painted country blanket chest at the foot of your bed. As you grow older, the appeal of antiques—honest, made-by-hand objects—grows.
3. What effect has the internet had on the way your publication investigates and reports stories, or on how it reaches out to readers?
SCP: The Internet has changed publishing forever. Not only do we have to be quicker and more nimble, we now compete with thousands of bloggers and other news sources. We still maintain our high journalistic standards, which is harder in the publish-it-now-on-the-Internet world. The Internet, however, means our stories and advertisers have a global reach.
4. What criteria do you typically look for when you decide to do a feature on a certain antique? Can you give us any examples of notable antiques you've covered recently?
SCP: The editorial focus of Maine Antique Digest is the market: what’s selling, for how much, to whom, and why? We do very few feature and exhibitions stories. Even though the title includes the word “Maine,” our publication is national in reach. We cover auctions and sales across the USA and abroad. We consider ourselves a trade paper that is read by more than the trade. That drives our coverage.
Is it newsworthy? That’s the question we most often ask. And it doesn’t always have to be expensive to be newsworthy.
In our May 2014 issue we ran a story about a watercolor portrait by Paul Revere—yes, that Paul Revere—that sold for $39,975. It was labeled as depicting “Major John Pitcairn,” an important British soldier during the Revolutionary War. The buyer, however, thinks it’s not Pitcairn but rather General Thomas Gage. Revere apparently changed his drawing as events in the war unfolded. Drawings by Revere are almost unheard of.
5. You've had a front row seat to the American and Canadian antiques trade for decades now. Do people prefer the same kinds of pieces today as when you first began, or has the public's tastes in antiques evolved over time?
SCP: I don’t think people collect with the same narrow focus that they used to. They are much more willing to mix and match styles and periods. Ultimately that’s good for the market. In the old days, collectors would concentrate on one category in depth. That’s pretty rare now. It’s not unusual to see modern furniture with early American furniture. The same with paintings—contemporary art can coexist with earlier art.
The change in the auction market—from a wholesale environment to a retail environment—is a huge change. Even with the auction houses’ massive marketing and research prowess, it’s almost always best to consult dealers—they are experts, and many a collector could have avoided a serious pitfall had they only engaged a dealer when they were interested in an auction purchase.
6. When you look back at all of your years in the industry, what was the single most impressive antique that you ever came across, and what was so notable about it?
SCP: I don’t think I can narrow it down to one antique, but when I saw the Ralph Esmerian collection of American folk art displayed at Sotheby’s in January 2014, all I could think was, “This is the best that ever was.” The collection of folk art, sold by the order of the bankruptcy trustee, was collected over decades with attention to quality. Ralph has a great eye—and he leaned on great dealers to help him.
7. What do you have in store for readers of the Maine Antique Digest in the future?
SCP: We’ll keep doing what we do—bringing our readers a wealth of market information and hard news. It’s too much fun to do something else.
We'd like to thank Clayton for taking the time to talk with us. If you'd like to subscribe to the Maine Antique Digest or keep up with their latest finds, you can visit them at www.MaineAntiqueDigest.com, follow them on Twitter at @AntiqueDigest, or like their official Facebook page.