In the Trade
When I first ran across Nancy Barshter and Bentley Chappell, I said to myself, “Wow, these people are really specialized.”
Chappell sells British Aesthetic Movement transferware pottery from the 1870s and ’80s, and Barshter sells British pottery made for children: mugs, ABC plates, and Lilliputian tea sets.
Bentley Chappell and Nancy Barshter.
The couple’s one-of-a-kind home. The siding behind the fretwork in the gable is a riot of colors ranging from red-orange through pale yellow to sky blue. The main siding of the house is a green somewhere between lime and chartreuse; the trim is a purple somewhere between violet and aubergine. Porch brackets are turquoise; eaves are lavender; and the roof edge is striped with turquoise and pink. The house was designed by local Renaissance figure Llan Starkweather (1929-2018), who built a number of quirky homes in the Pioneer Valley. This one was built in the 1990s. Barshter and Chappell bought it in 2008. “We signed the contract right when the market crashed,” Barshter said.
I assumed that anybody catering to such a thin slice of the antiques market must be doing it as a sideline supported by a “real” job or perhaps by a trust fund. After all, how many people out there are clamoring for those ubiquitous white-and-brown factory-made Aesthetic Movement dishes from the later 19th century or plates for kiddies printed with pictures of rabbits or Little Red Riding Hood?
It turns out that the answer to that question is a lot of people. Barshter and Chappell work at this full time. They sell to customers all over the world, courtesy of the Internet. “It’s all we do,” Barshter said.
A daily parade of FedEx, UPS, and U.S. Postal Service packages travels up and down their tortuous driveway. “We’re doing our part to keep the post office from going bankrupt,” Chappell said.
That is a good thing, because if you’re going to support yourself selling this stuff, you had better sell a bundle of it. Although there are rarities from the late 18th and early 19th centuries that command thousands of dollars, the vast majority of these wares sell for comparatively reasonable prices. After all, crockery with printed designs was not meant to be precious. It was not fragile, hand-painted porcelain. These were mass-produced pieces turned out in the millions by potteries, mostly in Staffordshire but also in Liverpool, Swansea, Leeds, and Scotland, to supply the growing middle class that developed during the Victorian era.
Barshter and Chappell work entirely from their quirky home in Montague, Massachusetts. The multihued house is surrounded by gardens and looks as if it might have emerged from a Beatrix Potter book. It’s called the Peacock House because there’s an image of that bird in the stained-glass window in one of the gables. They spend the day, except for an occasional break, at their computers in separate offices. He works downstairs; she works upstairs. Their two cats roam between them. Their inventory is evident in every room of the house—including the bathrooms—and fills the basement as well.
They don’t do shows, and they’re not in any group shops. Barshter said, “You can’t do an active Internet business if you’re on the road or at shows. At least we can’t figure out how to do this and do shows. And you can’t do it on a smartphone.” So they stay home. “It’s a great job for introverts,” Barshter said. Chappell added, “It really works for me. It fits my personality: semi-fractured. We made a wise decision about ten years ago that we should just do Internet.”
This doesn’t mean they’re exactly hermits. Barshter said, “I do most of my buying in England. I go a couple of times a year for two weeks at a time. I have pickers and friends over there who have things they save for me. When I go, Bentley stays home and mans the fort.”
Wedgwood Seaweed pattern tureen, circa 1875, with matching ladle, $1250.
Vividly decorated carpet bowls used for indoor bowling. Virtually all were made in Scotland. These are sort of a sideline for Barshter and Chappell. Most are priced in the $100 to $150 range, although exceptional examples can bring much more. The mocha one in the upper right of the group in the round bowl, for example, is $500.
ABC plates with animals. Barshter said nine or ten separate animals are depicted in the set. She prices ABC plates at $200 to $450 each.
A huge, five-gallon Doulton Potteries milk bucket, circa 1885, with its original brass fittings, $3200.
Little Red Riding Hood ABC plates. The plate at lower left depicts “Red Riding Hood Starting,” at the top is “Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf,” and lower right—with the wolf in bed--is “Red Riding Hood and Her Supposed Grandmother.” This series, Barshter said, “was probably the most popular of the ABC wares.”
Despite Barshter’s trips to Britain, they buy much of their inventory sitting in their offices. Barshter said, “We can sit at our computers all day. Sitting and watching an auction online can be a real sleeper, but you have to do it: just like you’re sitting there live [at the auction].” Chappell noted, “You can scour the English countryside for auctions on the Internet,” and Barshter added, “You can do six English country auctions in a day.”
Chappell and Barshter have separate sites on the Ruby Lane platform. When you type in the website addresses for each of their businesses, you are taken directly to Ruby Lane. When we checked recently, Barshter had 562 items on the site; Chappell had 1372. The couple has been on the site for about a dozen years. “Ruby Lane has been really good,” Barshter said.
She has also sold on eBay for years and still does. She said, “I’ve had something on eBay every week since I began. It’s been my bread and butter.” She does the same on Ruby Lane, always posting new inventory. The strategy builds a group of followers who check in on her frequently. “What works more than anything is consistency,” she said. “We’ve had people buying from us for fifteen years.”
There are marked differences between what sells on eBay and on Ruby Lane. Barshter explained, “On eBay there’s a total glut of ABC ware. I’m not going to put it on there to sell for twenty-four dollars. I sell mostly tea sets on it.” (ABC wares are children’s pieces, mostly plates, with the alphabet on them, usually around the rim, with a scene of some type in the center.)
Her ABC material goes on Ruby Lane, where, she said, “ABC ware is eighty percent [of sales].” To sell, she explained, “ABC wares have to have animals and humor. We shop for animals.” “Whimsy” and “quirky” describe what she’s looking for.
Selling on eBay is relatively formulaic, but Ruby Lane is more personal for both Barshter and Chappell. “Ruby Lane is a different kind of customer. People call us a lot,” Barshter said.
“Grocers’ slabs were in every store that sold any edible commodity,” Chappell said, and added, “The margarine is much harder for us to find and harder to sell.” They are $1250 apiece. “These are hot, hot right now,” Barshter said.
A child-size blue-and-white dinner set, circa 1830, by Ridgway, $650. It even comes with two pickle dishes (left foreground). Sets like this weren’t just for play. “They were used to teach children table manners,” Barshter said.
Stick spatterware plates depicting rabbits playing sports. Chappell said, “No one knows anything about them. They’re very hard to find. They have 1905 registration marks.” The rabbits on the left-hand plate are playing baseball; those on the right are playing tennis. They are priced around $1000 each. Chappell added, “Ones with rabbits just running around are about $400.”
Children’s mugs in the $150 to $400 range.
One small corner of the couple’s basement where inventory is stored.
Japonesque Copeland tazza with colored birds and cherry blossoms, circa 1880, $250.
Receiving phone calls is not something they complain about. It adds a note of human contact when you’re sitting in front of your computer all day. Barshter said that lack of interaction with real live people—schmoozing, she called it—is the one drawback with their type of operation, although people do occasionally come to their house. “We’ve had customers from far away come and visit us here,” she said.
The compensation for not dealing with customers in the flesh, of course, is that Chappell and Barshter reach customers all over the world. “I’ve shipped to Tanzania, Israel fairly regularly, Russia, Egypt, China,” Barshter said. Chappell added, “I have a couple of steady customers in Japan, and I had someone from Brazil, but that didn’t work because he didn’t have a PayPal account or a credit card. The one place we haven’t hit yet is Antarctica.”
Although the couple sells to many collectors, Chappell said, “We have a pretty big decorator market and a lot of people who just want to decorate their homes.” Barshter said, “On my side it’s mostly collectors. I have a lot of people who are doll collectors. We also have a lot of dealers who collect ABC wares. And I sell a lot to young moms, who perhaps can only afford to buy two or three pieces at a time.”
Barshter noted that she sells to quite a few military wives. Why that should be is anyone’s guess, but as she noted, if you’re a young mother confined to a military base in someplace like Bahrain, browsing the Internet and collecting stuff for your kids could be a pleasant pastime.
About half of the material Chappell sells features brown patterns on white pottery. While lots of it was made in Staffordshire, it’s very different from the earlier wares that people tend to think of as Staffordshire, namely blue- or mulberry-colored wares with foliate borders and landscape scenes in the center. The brown patterns—of which there are at least hundreds, if not thousands—that Chappell deals in were considered “artistic” in their time, but until recently they have been treated as the poor siblings of other Staffordshire wares. In collectors’ minds they were more often associated with dingy boarding houses than proper Victorian interiors. But today, their Japanese-inspired, informally balanced decoration makes them look much more modern than traditional Staffordshire.
Brown-and-white transferware received a boost in the late 1990s when Martha Stewart started buying it and featured it in her magazine. “She combed an entire Brimfield buying it,” Barshter said.
Not all Aesthetic Movement transferware is brown and white. There are also colorful examples, and when colors are combined with the period’s more freewheeling patterns, the effect can be “absolutely psychedelic,” Chappell said.
In general, the brown-and-white versions of this style were more popular in America than in Great Britain, and they still are. “The English collect blue-and-white,” Barshter said, and she added that when she started to collect brown transferware in the 1970s and ’80s, “Nobody in England wanted it.”
The couple sticks to transferware made before about 1890. It continued to be produced later, but, Chappell said, “After 1890 it’s milky.” “It withers,” Barshter added.
The couple also has added a few pottery collectibles—carpet bowls, “pot lids,” and grocery “slabs”—that are related to but lie a bit outside of their main inventories. Carpet bowls are vividly decorated pottery balls that were used for indoor bowling. The term “pot lids” refers to crockery pots, with their lids, in which everything from anchovy paste to quack medicine was sold. The advertising on the lids is the interesting part, but you want to buy jar and lid together.
Grocery slabs are chunky white pottery platforms on which comestibles were displayed in turn-of-the-20th-century food stores. What they held—“PURE BUTTER” or “MARGARINE” or just about anything else that was edible—is printed across the front.
Chappell grew up in Columbus, Georgia; Barshter, in Buffalo, New York. After substantial careers elsewhere, both landed in central Massachusetts and were introduced to each other by a friend. On their second date, Bentley recalled, “On my mantel I had some children’s pottery that was my great aunt’s. She [Nancy] collected the same pattern. That set the hook.”
Chappell said, “When I was growing up, my family had a lot of nineteenth-century ceramics. We ate off them. I had no idea that there was any value in them.”
His younger self did not envision ceramics in his future. When he graduated from high school he began his own business as a nurseryman. “I knew from day one that I would be my own employer, and I always have been.”
His first venture was growing herbs for a monastery. He explained, “When I was eighteen, I was building a house for myself and I needed a stained-glass window for it. At the huge monastery nearby they had people making stained glass, and I had them make a window of the setting sun.” In return, he grew herbs for the monastery. “I made a lot of money doing it,” he said.
From herbs he moved into landscaping and garden design; then he bought a retail nursery business and expanded it. Eventually, however, living in Georgia became too much for him. “The oppressive heat finally took its toll on me,” he said. After a 30-year nurseryman’s career he moved north.
“New England met my temperature range, and it was a nice liberal society,” he said.
His first New England home was in southern Vermont, where he moved in 1996. He said, “It was beautiful, peaceful, and remote. I didn’t see anybody for three months.” He continued, “One day I was listening to the radio, and they said, ‘Call this number and we’ll give you tickets to a Richie Havens concert.’ So I did. The concert was in Northampton [Massachusetts], and there were all these people.” Discovering so many congenial people prompted him to move to the Pioneer Valley.
Barshter graduated from Ithaca College with a music degree (with which, she said, “I did nothing.”). She went on to earn advanced degrees in special education in Arizona and worked in that field on the Papago reservation and for school districts in Oregon.
Some “pot lids.” The pottery jars contained everything from toothpastes to poisonous health “cures.” They are generally priced around $150.
Colored Aesthetic Movement floral tiles by various makers, $125 each.
In 1982 she moved back to Buffalo and got her law degree at the State University of New York law school. Her law career took her to Florida, where she taught at the University of Miami law school and worked for the state attorney general. Ultimately it wasn’t the heat that drove her back north. “I left because of the oppressive politics,” she said.
She also used to come north to shop at Brimfield three times a year and had bought a cottage in town. Sixteen years ago, she made the break and moved to her house there, although she didn’t completely cut her Florida link. Her former boss, Robert Butterworth, had become head to Florida’s Department of Children and Families, and he called her to build a department to provide legal services for children.
Barshter commuted between Brimfield and Florida from 2005 to 2008 and is proud of her accomplishment: “That department now has about four hundred lawyers across the state.” She also noted that the healthy consultant’s fees she earned on that job helped underwrite the inventory of her fledgling antiques business.
Barshter said her interest in children’s crockery is natural. “My career path has always had something to do with children,” she explained. Moreover, she added, she started collecting the British wares “because I was drawn to the story.” That story is not just about teaching alphabets and manners to middle- and upper-class Victorian children. Sadly, it also involves child labor. Making tiny versions of adult wares often meant that nimble little fingers did the work. She said, “I have a plate with a five-year-old’s fingerprint impressed on the back.”
After moving north, Barshter landed a job as assistant editor with New England Antiques Journal. During her three years there she took her first tentative steps as a dealer. She said, “I would list five items on eBay and see what would happen.”
When Bentley met Nancy, he became besotted not only with her, but with the Aesthetic Movement transferwares that she had been collecting for three decades. “He developed a tremendous interest,” she said, “As my business grew, Bentley took an interest in it and started putting things online.”
Today, Barshter and Chappell appear to be a textbook example of how a couple can forge a substantial business in the 21st century. It’s a simple formula, said Chappell: “We really love what we do, and we really work at it.”
For more information, contact Bentley Chappell and Nancy Barshter, 393 Federal Street, Montague, MA 01351, by appointment, (413) 205-9289 and (413) 367-3061. Websites (www.childhoodantiques.com) and (www.aesthetictransferware.com) go directly to the couple’s sites on Ruby Lane. The couple also has a website (www.aestheticantiques.com). They also can be found on Facebook at “Aesthetic Transferware.”
Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest