In the Trade
For more than half a century, Norman and Mary Gronning have been selling period American antiques. They’ve developed an inventory that is both broad and deep. They sell formal, high country, and painted furniture from the 17th through the early 19th centuries, along with paintings, folk art, metalwork, all kinds of hearth equipment, and architectural elements.
Norman and Mary Gronning in front of a japanned Massachusetts Queen Anne highboy from their collection.
The Gronnings’ home.
A partial view of the massive timbers in their Dutch barn home.
But their first love has always been Pilgrim-Century material, and the results of their dogged pursuit of the earliest American furniture overwhelm you when you walk into the 50' main room of their reconstructed Dutch barn in Shaftsbury, Vermont. It houses much of their collection, and it’s as chock full as any furniture showroom you’ve ever been in, except, of course, here all the William and Mary highboys, Connecticut “sunflower” chests, gate-leg tables, and Boston chairs are real.
From the earliest days of their marriage (they’ve been together 54 years), Norm said, “We decided we liked early things.” Mary added, “A lot of dealers didn’t like it, which was great for us.” In fact, they still have the first “serious” piece they acquired shortly after their marriage: a Pilgrim-era chest from Plymouth, Massachusetts, that they bought as impecunious young teachers; they paid for the piece on time payments because they couldn’t pay the price all at once. Collecting anything, Mary noted, was a stretch “when you were making a hundred and seventy-eight dollars every two weeks.”
Pilgrim-Century furniture has never been cheap, and in the early 20th century it was a particularly hot commodity with blue-blood collectors. But for the past 50 or 60 years, it has been a comparatively quiet, steady market. It has avoided the massive runups and subsequent busts that have afflicted so many other areas of the period furniture market.
You can’t say Pilgrim-Century furniture has been ignored for the last five decades, but it, in general, hasn’t been chased by the big money and then abandoned when the next flashy collecting fad came along. It’s a field that attracts and rewards collectors with a studious bent.
Over the decades, the Gronnings said, they’ve used their sales of whatever was popular to subsidize their purchases of early material. Mary noted, “We always said we bought Federal to use the profit to buy early stuff.”
An early uncarved six-drawer tall chest from the Deerfield, Massachusetts, area, $9500. “This is one of the rarer models,” Norm said. The brasses are period; the paint is later.
Early 19th-century portrait on panel, $3500. The frame is actually pieces of wood attached to the panel with big rosehead nails and is original to the painting. “It’s never been cleaned,” Norm said.
A very partial view of inventory storage.
A copper “onion” lantern. “It’s the only one in copper I’ve ever had, and it has always been for candles, not later whale oil,” Norm said. He had just finished polishing it when we visited and hadn’t set a price yet.
Of course, that’s no longer the case. Dealers in Federal and Classical furniture these days are hard pressed to make any profit at all. Pilgrim-Century furniture, on the other hand, continues to be solid. “Pilgrim and early has stayed strong,” Mary said. “We’ve seen a little bit of movement with earlier things now bringing more than nineteenth-century things. People seem to be liking these types of things now.”
Norm pointed out that this state of affairs is both good and bad: the material that they have collected retains or increases in value; on the other hand, as dealers they can’t easily acquire things that other dealers used to pass on.
Although this market may be comparatively healthy, it is not deep. As is the case with most subsets of the antiques market, it skews old. Mary said, “Go to the shows and look at the line at preview. You see no young people.” “We still get some very serious collectors,” Norm said but added, “they’re roughly from fifty upward. I don’t think we have any people under thirty-five.”
In addition, he said, early furniture is a mature market: “Most already have tons of stuff. They’re looking for some little thing.”
If you should want to become both a serious dealer and a serious collector, the Gronnings’ career would provide a good model to emulate. First, it helps if you have lots of energy. Despite their age—Norm is 79—they appear to have as much of that as ever. One of their few concessions to aging is that they no longer truck their own stuff to shows. At the last show they did in New Hampshire, Mary said, “We had all our stuff trucked over and back. It’s the first time we’ve done that.”
And they are clearly just as excited as ever about the scholarly side of their field—a necessity for anyone who expects to become a serious connoisseur.
But perhaps most important of all was their choice of careers outside the antiques trade. They both taught for 30 years. You could say that teaching is the ideal complement to the antiques trade: you have summers and school vacations off, and you have a predictable income, which means you are less likely to be tempted to compromise your standards as either a collector or a dealer.
The couple met at the State University of New York at Buffalo and graduated as teachers. Mary’s first teaching job was in Buffalo; Norm’s was in Niagara Falls. By the time he was in high school, Norm had already developed an interest in antique weapons, which still make up a substantial part of the couple’s collection. Mary said, “He was buying and trading guns and swords. The weapons took us into antiques shops. We were always stopping in antiques shops.”
A 3rd Model Brown Bess musket from the late 1780s, $2800. “This was standard issue for British troops from the late seventeenth century until after the American Revolution,” Norm said.
A partial selection from the Gronnings’ andiron inventory. Norm said, “Our best luck with andirons in the past three years has been with iron. Brass has just died.” Lurking in the midst of this assemblage is an early clock jack for cooking in a hearth. It hadn’t been priced yet, but Mary said, “They’re always expensive.”
New York Chippendale highboy with canted and fluted corners, ball-and-claw feet, and original brasses, $12,500. It is made of gumwood, which is typically associated with Hudson Valley kasten. The George Washington andirons, $1500, are bronze rather than the usual iron.
And since they were in the shops anyway, they started looking at other things. Mary recalled an era that will sound familiar to readers of a certain age: “Like a lot of young people, when the weekend came, we’d say, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we’d check the shops.”
And it wasn’t just on weekends. Norm said, “When I was teaching in Niagara Falls I would go to secondhand stores after school, and if I had time I would look in Buffalo too.”
If you were young and liked antiques, it was a good time to be in the Buffalo area. Norm said, “There were a lot of older good dealers who taught me about furniture.” He recalls the names Tommy Miliam, Gay Cardell, and Florence Kellerman, all of whom had large inventories and took time to educate young enthusiasts. Also, the young Tillou brothers—Peter and Dana—were active, although, Norm noted, Peter was just then moving from Buffalo to Connecticut.
Buffalo, like many cities at the time, had a section with many antiques shops. It was called the Allentown district, and the Gronnings soon opened a shop there. They also started selling at Hickey’s flea market in nearby Clarence. Mary said, “We’d load up after school on Friday, then go to Hickey’s early on Saturday and unpack on Sunday.” To which Norm added, “And go back to school Monday morning.”
Before going to SUNY Buffalo, Norm, whose father worked for Alcoa, had lived in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area. But he wasn’t particularly rooted to any place. “Every five years we had a big move,” he said. For instance, he had also lived in Bethel, Connecticut, when his father worked at Alcoa sites in Bridgeport and New Haven.
Mary, on the other hand, had deep roots in the Hoosick area that borders Vermont—just a short drive from where the couple lives now. “Mary’s family had a big family farm,” Norm said. For a corporate kid who had bounced around during his childhood, the life he saw in rural New York had immediate appeal. “I loved this area,” he said.
So in 1968 the pair decided to look for jobs in Mary’s home area and move across the state. They got hired right away. Mary said, “Jobs were easier to get in those days. They [school officials] flew out and interviewed us at the Buffalo airport.”
Back in eastern New York they worked at various education jobs. Norm’s longest-running position was as a social studies teacher for some 25 years in the Hoosick Falls school system. Mary’s longest stint was in the Mechanicville district north of Albany, from which she retired as an assistant principal.
While in Buffalo, the pair had already amassed a substantial collection/inventory. Mary said, “We had a big space in the basement of our apartment.” “And we quickly acquired twenty-five Shaker chairs and filled up the space,” Norm interjected.
“The movers said they had never seen so many chairs come out of an apartment,” Mary added.
Arriving in eastern New York, they first rented an early house in Cambridge and then bought the earliest home in nearby White Creek, which had been a Quaker settlement. “It was a 1770 Colonial—the John Allen house,” Norm said. They opened shops in both places.
Mary and Norm didn’t just live in early buildings. After a time, they began to deconstruct and sell them as well. It was a sideline but one that involved major exertions.
Norm said, “I was always fascinated by post-and-beam construction and always liked how early iron was forged. We’d have hinges, latches, early paneling in the shop. There was a real surge in the late ’70s and early ’80s of people looking to recycle early buildings. We thought we could make some extra money reselling early houses with blueprints to reconstruct them.”
Their first major project presented itself when a woman stopped in their shop. “She was with a group that decorated tôleware,” Norm recalled, and “she said there was an interesting wall in a house in West Fort Ann [a town to the north that also borders Vermont].”
The house, known as the Van Wormer house, was a Dutch-style home built circa 1750 or 1760. “We’ve always liked Dutch culture more than the English. We were able to buy it with the promise that we had to take it down,” Norm said. The diaper-patterned wall in question was of particular interest in that it was done freehand and not stenciled.
“The wall was plaster on lath on plank,” Norm explained. “I had some of my high school students help. We cut it out and put wood handles on the back to carry it.”
The wall is now in the collection of the New York State Museum in Albany. “If it hadn’t been for those ladies in the tôleware painting guild I would not have known about that house,” Norm said. The rest of the house ended up in Southbury, Connecticut.
After living for 18 years in White Creek, the couple decided to undertake a recycling project of their own. They bought land just over the border on Route 7A in Vermont and found a 17th-century Dutch barn slated for demolition in Hoosick Falls. They transformed it into the house in which they have lived for the last 30 years. The Gronnings point out that the actual design for turning the barn into a livable house was produced by their son Erik who, at the time, was in the tenth grade. (Erik, who graduated from the University of Vermont as an entomologist, now heads Sotheby’s Americana department and is well known for his scholarly articles on American furniture.)
Norm said the massively timbered barn dates from about 1680 or ’90, which, he noted, probably makes it the oldest structure in the state. He also said that another Dutch barn exists in Pownal, Vermont, near the New York state line, but that it is in poor condition.
Actually, Mary and Norm didn’t buy just this one massive barn. The seller required that they buy and remove five other barns as well. In addition, they had to build a road—to Department of Transportation specs—just to remove the structures and get around the objections of a farmer who didn’t want to see the barns go. They took down the barns in 1983, stored them for three years in their own White Creek barn, and then started construction.
The entire process was not for the faint of heart. Norm said, “I took a year off work unpaid to do the takedown, marking the timbers and blueprinting.” He was back working during the construction phase but noted that he would be on site every afternoon after school. It took another year to erect the barn on a new foundation. “At some points we had a crew of ten or twelve people,” Norm said.
Nicely decorated Knights of Pythias columns, $1600.
A 17th-century French crossbow in cherrywood, $4500, accompanied by the “cranequin” pulley contraption used to draw the weapon for shooting.
And there were always unforeseen problems. Perhaps the most unsettling was dealing with those 50' timbers. When the beams arrived, it turned out that the tractor trailer transporting them couldn’t make it up the long driveway to the site. (Even all these years later, the steep, twisting drive to the house can be intimidating and, in winter, unnavigable without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.) The huge beams had to be stood up at 45-degree angles in a dump truck to get them up the hill.
“Doing this was our last hurrah,” Norm said by way of understatement.
And what happened to the other barns from the original site? “Three were sold to people who live in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. The rest were just good for parts,” Norm says.
One of the barns the Gronnings had for sale drew the attention of a very high-profile celebrity (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear). Norm recalled the incident: “A friend in Manchester [Vermont] told us this celebrity was looking to put up an early barn and he’d send them down to us.” The point was for the celebrity to see what an early barn could look like when turned into an impressive family home. The celebrity arrived with an entourage and barely looked at the structure of the Gronnings’ home or the impressive collection it housed, but managed, Norm said, to stop and primp in admiring self-regard before every mirror in the house. Norm explained the reconstruction process to the celebrity, talked about blueprints, and then took the celebrity to look at the deconstructed barn on offer. To which the celebrity replied, “What’s to see in a pile of beams?” and left, never to be heard from again.
That barn, Norm said, eventually went to Texas, where it forms the entrance to a 15,000-square-foot home owned by “somebody who builds nursing homes.”
Given their teaching schedules, the Gronnings didn’t exhibit at many shows. Norm said, “We’d do maybe three or four shows a year,” usually during the summer or during one of the school vacations. These days, he added, “The biggest show we do is New Hampshire: Karen DiSaia’s show at Saint Anselm College.” They’ve also usually done the Vermont Antiques Dealers’ Association show. Mary added, “Jackie Sideli’s shows were always good. We liked her shows.” They also used to do Russell Carrell’s Salisbury, Connecticut, flea market; Mildred Spargo’s Mt. Anthony shows in Bennington, Vermont; and Madison-Bouckville in central New York.
They wouldn’t mind doing another summer show now but haven’t come across any likely candidates. Mary said that summer shows seem to be hurting, except for those during Antiques Week in New Hampshire in August. “Dealers who seem to know what’s going on say shows in July are not so great because collectors are saving their money and waiting for New Hampshire week.”
The Gronnings also have done a fair amount of appraisal work over the years. Norm made it clear that as a 30-year member of the Appraisers Association of America, he’s serious about the profession. He said, “Many dealers pay fifty bucks [to a less-than-reputable ‘appraisal’ group] to call themselves appraisers, and all they want to do is get into people’s houses to buy.”
He pointed out that when working as appraisers, “We don’t buy. We give people the names of auctioneers.”
They’ve done appraisal work for museums, and Norm said, “the Bennington Museum has been good to us.”
Today they are not eager to take on large appraisal jobs. Mary said, “They can drive you crazy. The bric-a-brac goes on and on.” And they shy away from divorce appraisals. “You never know what you’re walking into,” she added. On the other hand, they don’t mind doing estates of the deceased. “We like them. They’re easy,” Norm said.
Given how much enjoyment they’ve gotten from their antiques business, we asked Mary and Norm if they ever regretted not leaving their teaching jobs earlier. Mary said, “When we retired in the mid-’90s business was so good, we said, ‘Why did we teach so long?’”
To which Norm, observing the current state of the market, said, “Now we don’t say that anymore.”
For more information, contact Norman Gronning Antiques, Shaftsbury, Vermont; (802) 375-6376; website (www.gronningantiques.com).
Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest