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The Call to Collect

Melyssa Fratkin displays part of her vast "flasher"-button collection--plus a flasher picture of Douglas MacArthur. (Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post)


By Mary Jane Salomon
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 1, 2002; Page WE30

Afghans and buttons and cookbooks and doorknobs,

Egg beaters, folios, glassware and heartthrobs,

Ivory, juicers, knives, linens, much more,

Text Box: Click here to go directly to the political collectibles section.
Needles and oyster tins, postcards galore;

Quilt squares and rolling pins, swizzle sticks, toy trains,

Urns, frilly valentines, decorative watch chains,

Xylographs, yardsticks and zithers with strings,

These are a few of our favorite things.

(With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein)

Stuff: Some of us just can't get enough of it. But not just any stuff: collectible stuff. And just what makes something collectible? These days, judging from the array of stuff fetching respectable sums on eBay's online auctions or at antiques and collectibles extravaganzas like the Big Flea, almost everyone is collecting something, and some folks seem to be collecting almost anything!

According to TIAS.com, the biggest online catalogue of antiques and collectibles, the hottest items of 2001 (based on Internet searches) include china, cookie jars, dolls, furniture, lamps, carnival glass, books, plates, Depression glass and Roseville pottery. At the D.C. Big Flea, a periodic show featuring hundreds of dealers in Chantilly, 1950s and '60s toys, patriotic items, old-fashioned hankies and tablecloths, antique wood furniture, local maps, decorative pottery and kitchenware seem especially popular.

"For antiques, it's the rarity and condition; contemporary things, it's just individual appeal," says Elinor Champion, president of the Dollology Club of Washington, D.C., describing desirable characteristics that apply not only to dolls but to most other collectible items as well.

Over the past few years, PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," on which seasoned dealers estimate the values of everyday folks' family heirlooms, has inspired countless people to take a closer look at their own prospective treasures, or to hunt for such items at yard sales and flea markets. In the process, they often start or add to collections, sometimes as much for sentimental reasons as for monetary ones.

Many people, baby boomers in particular, are starting collections based on fond childhood memories. In 1986, while packing up household items following his grandmother's death, Harvey C. Linn Jr. reached up on a high kitchen shelf and discovered three brightly colored dinner plates.

"A flood of memories came back," says Linn, now 38, recalling how the grandkids used to fight to eat off those dishes of red, cobalt blue and green. He soon discovered that the dinnerware was part of the Homer Laughlin China Co.'s Riviera line, which his grandmother had bought at G.C. Murphy in the 1930s or '40s. He began buying more pieces at auctions and antique stores, and "it kind of kept her memory alive."

From that humble beginning, Linn's collection grew and grew, gradually gravitating more toward the Laughlin company's Fiesta ware. Now, he owns thousands of pieces.

Linn acknowledges the competitive urge he and many collectors experience.

"I think most collectors are looking to have something the other collector doesn't have," he says. That spirit of competition frequently sends prices soaring on eBay, the most prominent online auction site. Linn peruses Fiesta listings daily and has gotten into bidding wars over a couple of rare pieces.

EBay has "democratized" collecting, says Robert Fratkin, a political memorabilia collector. "You get a chance to have people from all over the country see what you've got."

But online prices can be erratic, he cautions, citing an "LBJ for Senate" poster that sold for more than $500 one week; an identical piece fetched only $151 just a few days later.

While eBay seems to offer an endless variety of rare items in hundreds of categories, some dealers and collectors lament that online sellers are keeping the best things out of traditional antiques and collectibles marketplaces.

"People [dealers] are holding on to their unusual things because they're putting them on eBay. The true antique is not what it used to be," says Carolyn Gallier, a dealer specializing in decorative hankies at the D.C. Big Flea.

Still, judging from the wall-to-wall crowds at the Big Flea and similar weekend shows geared toward collectors, there's no substitute for viewing items in person.

"If I'm going to buy a doll . . . I want to see it and bond with it," says doll collector Virginia Ann Heyerdahl.

Regardless of their collections' scope or value, most collectors agree on one thing: A collection should make you happy.

"Collect what you really like, and enjoy it!" Champion says.

Linn serves company on the dinnerware he collects even some of the most expensive pieces. At Halloween, he fills a $5,000 bowl with penny candy.

"It's not a lot of fun if it stays in the case. It's nice to actually use it!"

FUN WITH FIESTA

When the Homer Laughlin China Co. introduced its Fiesta line in 1936, nobody dreamed that 66 years later the simple, art deco-design dinnerware would become a hot collectible. Now, both vintage and new versions of the vibrant china inspire fanatical devotion.

The dishes' popularity is soaring "mostly because a lot of people remember it from growing up," says Matthew Whalen, 31, whose Fiesta information Web site,

www.mediumgreen.com

, receives an average of more than 19,000 visits daily. Whalen also is a founder of the Crystal City-based Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, a 900-member organization devoted largely to Fiesta collecting.

Originally manufactured in five solid hues red, cobalt blue, light green, yellow and ivory the dishes served as a colorful alternative to pricey china for Depression-era working-class families. Over the next 36 years, the company introduced eight additional tints turquoise, rose, chartreuse, gray, antique gold and three shades of green before ceasing Fiesta production from 1973 to 1985. Homer Laughlin reintroduced the line in 1986, with new shades of black, white and apricot (now retired), along with revamped variations of rose and cobalt blue. The company has continued adding colors, some of which appear exclusively in certain retail stores or retire after brief runs.

With a rainbow of hues from which to choose, which color proves most popular with collectors?

"The color that's just been discontinued!" Whalen says. Right now, that would be juniper, which ceased production in 2001. Collectors can expect to see rising prices on these dark green dishes, which were manufactured for just two years. Of the vintage hues, Whalen especially likes, as his Web site name suggests, "medium green," which he describes as the color of a spearmint Tic Tac or John Deere tractor. Manufactured from 1959 to 1969, it's the most difficult to find and most expensive Fiesta tint, he says.

Prices for Fiesta ware vary widely, ranging from $10 for a small, new piece to thousands of dollars for rare vintage items, Whalen says. As with many collectibles, Fiesta pieces with unusual features, experimental glazes or limited-edition styles, for instance, excite serious collectors. A 10-inch Fiesta-style vase manufactured in maroon a color normally used for Homer Laughlin's Harlequin line sold for $11,500 at auction, Whalen says, and a piece like an onion soup bowl in turquoise can fetch anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000.

Linn, of Frederick, says Homer Laughlin employees in the 1930s sometimes made one-of-a-kind experimental pieces just for fun, which still occasionally turn up in auctions. Linn looks forward to the annual East Liverpool High School Alumni Pottery Auction, held in East Liverpool, Ohio, just across the river from the Homer Laughlin factory in Newell, W. Va. The event features antiques from local potteries, as well as rare, coveted new pieces that never went into mass production. Linn owns one of only 24 chartreuse Fiesta coffee servers, which sold for upward of $2,000 apiece when auctioned in 1998. This year's event, to be held on June 17, will feature 24 two-quart Fiesta 2000 pitchers, glazed in "SunFlower" color, numbered and signed by designer Jonathan O. Parry, who died last year.

The probable "Holy Grail" of newer Fiesta ware, Linn says, is the item designed to commemorate the 500-millionth piece of Fiesta in 1998. The company manufactured 500 presentation bowls in a unique raspberry shade to give mostly to company family members and stockholders. Now, the rarely available pieces fetch more than $7,000 apiece.

Linn also likes to regularly visit the company's factory store, about a five-hour drive from his home.

"You walk in there for the first time and you're overwhelmed!" he says. During Linn's initial visit, employees had just discovered in a back storage room some forgotten boxes of Fiesta in limited-edition lilac. An elated Linn loaded up his Ford Explorer with items like pyramid candleholders that now sell for more than $1,000 a pair. During the store's twice yearly sales, he says, shoppers stand in line for five or six hours at a time just waiting their turns to enter the building.

Linn recommends that beginning Fiesta collectors become familiar with pieces and colors, especially before bidding on items.

"Make sure you learn your old pieces from your new pieces," he says, pointing out that novices sometimes pay outlandish sums on eB

ay for contemporary items falsely represented as vintage. He also advises that collectors think before they get carried away spending.

"Do I want this vase, or do I want to eat this week?"

HOMER LAUGHLIN CHINA COLLECTORS ASSOCIATION P.O. Box 26021, Crystal City, Va. 22215. 877/874-5222. Web site:

www.hlcca.org

. The $25 annual membership dues include quarterly issues of the 16-page newsletter, the Dish. The association's third annual conference will be held Aug. 3-5 in Pittsburgh.

Other helpful Web sites:

FIESTA FANATIC @ WORK

www.fiestafanatic.com

. Jam-packed with information about all areas of Fiesta ware collecting, the site features lots of colorful photos accompanied by bouncy music.

HOMER LAUGHLIN CHINA CO.

www.hlchina.com

. Visit the Homer Laughlin China Co.'s official site for information about current products, events for collectors (including the infamous annual auction), tour details and factory retail store hours.

MEDIUMGREEN.COM

www.mediumgreen.com

. The only site listed on the Homer Laughlin China Co.'s links page, Matthew Whalen's labor of love includes a price guide, message boards, a personal database feature and lots of online Fiesta photo albums.

OHIORIVERPOTTERY.COM

www.ohioriverpottery.com

. This site helps collectors identify Fiesta and dozens of other American-made dinnerware, especially styles manufactured by companies of the Upper Ohio River Valley.

LITTLE PIECES OF HISTORY

It's probably no surprise that political memorabilia is a hot collectible in the nation's capital. What many people may not think about, however, is the huge variety of campaign-oriented materials available to collectors. The American Political Items Collectors (APIC) association boasts special-interest chapters that focus on such areas as causes, women's suffrage, third parties and hopefuls, labor history and numerous presidents.

"There are buttons and badges and pins and posters . . . for every candidate," says Melyssa Fratkin, co-chairman of APIC's National Capital Chapter.

"You can never have a complete collection, because nobody knows exactly what was made," says Robert Fratkin, a serious, longtime collector who, like most political memorabilia enthusiasts, keeps all of his items locked away safely in the bank. "I've called this America's last great treasure hunt."

Fratkin started his collection at age 18 with Adlai Stevenson bumper stickers; over the years, he amassed a collection of quality political buttons dating from 1896 to 1964, about 50 of which are the only known examples. Few early pieces exist because most people threw them away after elections, never fathoming that the items would one day be prized as historical artifacts.

"You can read all the history books in the world and not really find out the emotions of people of that day unless you look at some of the slogans," he says.

"When I was 12, my father said, 'Pick something you like and start collecting it!'" recalls Melyssa Fratkin, Robert's daughter. Now, 16 years later, Melyssa's hobby has turned her into something of a celebrity: She owns what is, to the best of her knowledge, the world's largest collection about 400 of political "flasher" buttons, mostly pin-back buttons bearing pictures that change when tilted. While her assortment includes well-known presidential slogans such as "I Like Ike," it also features virtually unknown candidates from local elections.

"Sometimes I'll get one that says, 'I'm for Joe,' " she says.

Another local collector, Ronnie Lapinsky Sax, specializes in materials related to women's history, with such sub-topics as women's suffrage, women in business, women's roles during the 1940s and '50s, abortion and "Women for . . ." items. The latter category contains things like a "Housewives for Humphrey" button and a powder puff adorned with "Gals for Goldwater."

Lapinsky Sax collects buttons, ribbons, posters, sashes, calendars, advertising, banks "anything you could look at which would tell you something about history." Items become more desirable when they include dates and identifying information about a person and/or place, she says.

"I probably have the largest collection of women's suffrage items," she says. "It's red-hot. It's scarce . . . the prices are exorbitant."

The cost of political items has risen steadily over the past few years as people have come to recognize the pieces' significance. Melyssa Fratkin paid $5 to $6 each for buttons when she began collecting; now, some rare items sell for as much as $1,000.

"Hot" collectible candidates right now include Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman and the Kennedys, Robert Fratkin says. "The most expensive items are for James Cox ," a Democratic presidential candidate in 1920 who had Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate. A rare Cox-Roosevelt double-picture button sells for upward of $20,000.

Robert Fratkin advises beginning collectors to concentrate on a specific candidate or area of focus.

"If you're a young person, you should start collecting political memorabilia from elections held during your lifetime," he suggests. "You can get things by going to a local headquarters."

He also emphasizes the importance of learning as much as you can about your topic and the items related to it.

"With any hobby, a great part of success has to do with self-education, with knowing more than the next person," he says.

AMERICAN POLITICAL ITEMS COLLECTORS 18222 Flower Hill Way No. 299, Gaithersburg, Md. 20879. 301/926-8663. Web site: http://apic.us    This group of more than 3,000 members includes numerous regional and special-interest chapters. Regular national membership is $30 ($10 for youths) and includes three issues of Keynoter, a research journal, and the monthly Political Bandwagon newsletter. A membership application is available online. The Web site offers many links to specialty collectors and sign-up information for a free political collecting e-newsletter.

THE NATIONAL CAPITAL APIC CHAPTER SHOW AND SALE takes place from 9 to 4 on March 23, 2002 at the Holiday Inn Tysons Corner, 1960 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean. Admission is $3. For further information, contact Melyssa Fratkin at melyssa (at) fratkin (dot) com

DEVOTED TO DOLLS

Washingtonians were collecting dolls long before a typical eBay search yielded more than 80,000 items containing the word "doll" in their titles or descriptions. According to the United Federation of Doll Clubs, doll collecting is the nation's No. 2 hobby, right behind stamp collecting. The blanket organization for doll collectors boasts 16 D.C./Baltimore area clubs that focus on various types of collecting, from antique dolls to Barbies and finely detailed creations by contemporary artists.

"Collectors today are trying to recapture their own childhood, so they will go after the dolls they had when they were young," says Virginia Ann Heyerdahl of Cheverly, a writer and editor who specializes in doll-related articles. Hard plastic and vinyl dolls from the late 1940s and '50s, such as Sweet Sue, Betsy McCall and Ideal Toni dolls "are very hot and collectible right now." They're easier to find and less expensive than antique dolls, Heyerdahl says. On eBay, Toni and Sweet Sue dolls start at around $25.

Contemporary dolls, especially those designed by established doll artists, are also popular with many adult collectors. While Barbie in her many incarnations maintains a loyal following, the latest trend in fashion dolls is a more sophisticated look, particularly the elegant Gene by Ashton Drake and realistic Tyler Wentworth designed by Robert Tonner, which both sell for $100 or more.

But antique dolls never go out of style with many collectors. Lois Schworm of Past Presents, a doll dealer who participates in the D.C. Big Flea, says that many collectors who come to the show like tiny bisque dolls, such as the German ones created around the turn of the century, and Japanese designs from the 1920s. They range in price from $15 to $195, depending on their condition and details like hair and clothing.

"One man bought all the 'Frozen Charlottes' that I had," she says, describing a kind of porcelain doll with straight, non-moving arms, named after a storybook character who went outside in the cold and froze stiff.

Heyerdahl in 1994 started a club and newsletter devoted to another storybook character: Hitty, the old-fashioned, 6-inch wooden doll in the Newbery Medal-winning "Hitty: Her First Hundred Years," written by Rachel Field and illustrated by Dorothy Lathrop in 1929. The real doll who inspired the book probably dates to the early 1800s, Heyerdahl says, and can be seen at the Stockbridge Public Library in Stockbridge, Mass. Generations of readers have taken a fancy to the little doll, and as early as 1946 some folks began carving their own versions of Hitty.

"I like to have one from every artist who's making them," including local doll artist Judy Brown, says Heyerdahl, who travels around the country giving talks about the dolls, which look like antiques and cost anywhere from $75 to $900. She's far from the only Hitty enthusiast: Her Friends of Hitty club membership grew from a core group of 10 to more than 850 worldwide since 1994.

Hitty is among the favorites of Elizabeth Mizerek, vice president of the Maryland Doll Club. Mizerek, who primarily collects dolls of modern vintage, suggests that beginning doll collectors read books and join a doll club to learn more about features that make a doll collectible. Old or new, a quality doll should have all of its original parts, pieces and accessories and be clean and in good condition, she says.

Champion, whose Dollology Club boasts about 120 members and is one of the nation's largest doll-collecting groups, says that the hobby's appeal goes beyond the dolls themselves.

"Part of doll collecting is the friendships that you make, and meeting people (with shared interests)," she says. The Internet has influenced even that aspect of the pastime.

"We now have clubs that meet online," Champion says. "People who can't get away from home can now enjoy getting together."

FRIENDS OF HITTY 2704 Belleview Ave., Cheverly, Md. 20785. 301/772-1555. E-mail:

VAHHitty@aol.com

. Subscriptions to the quarterly newsletter are $12. The second Hitty Convention takes place Oct. 24-27 in Williamsburg, Va.

UNITED FEDERATION OF DOLL CLUBS INC. 10900 N. Pomona Ave., Kansas City, Mo. 64153. 610/355-7688. Web site:

www.ufdc.org

. Membership-at-large in this 15,000-member organization, open to doll enthusiasts ages 18 and older, is $32 and includes a subscription to the quarterly publication Doll News. First-time members also must pay a one-time $15 fee. The federation offers an online club for collectors. To join a local UFDC-affiliated club, visit the Web site for details or contact Region 11 Director Catherine Sue McKinney, 636 Rivendell Dr., Bridgeport, W. Va. 26330, 304/842-6440. The director will contact a club that fits your interests, and you'll be invited to attend a meeting. The federation's annual convention will be held July 28 through Aug. 2 in Denver.

Other helpful Web sites:

BARBIE BAZAAR

www.barbiebazaar.com

. The Web site of the Official Barbie Doll Collector's Magazine includes a price guide, sample articles, classified ads, a message board and more information for Barbie fanatics.

DOLL READER

www.dollreader.com

. Doll Reader magazine teams up with the About network to provide extensive online information for collectors.

VIRTUAL DOLLS

www.virtualdolls.com

. This online magazine and doll-collecting community includes doll news, links, a message board and numerous pages devoted to different types of dolls.

Upcoming Events

MARCH 2 AND 3 Eastern National Antique Dolls, Toys and Games Show, Montgomery County Agricultural Center (fairgrounds), 16 Chestnut St., Gaithersburg. 800/676-2188. Web site:

www.bellmanevents.com

. This large show, specializing in collectible dolls, takes place quarterly; other dates this year include June 1 and 2, Sept. 14 and 15 and Dec. 7 and 8. Hours are 10 to 5 Saturdays, 10 to 3 Sundays. Admission is $5.

MARCH 16 Now & Then Doll Club Annual Show and Sale, Riverside Convention Center, Fredericksburg, Va. 703/580-1188. The event includes an educational display called "Dolls in Entertainment." Hours are 10 to 5.

APRIL 20 AND 21 The Mid-Atlantic Doll, Bear and Toy Show & the Barbie Show, Richmond Raceway Complex, 600 E. Laburnum Ave., Richmond. 804/589-5400. Web site:

www.damorepromotions.com/doll.html

. Billed as "Virginia's Largest Doll Event," this show features 300 tables and includes appraisals and repairs. Hours are 10 to 5 April 20, 10 to 4 April 21. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children ages 6 to 12.

The D.C. Big Flea in Chantilly features hundreds of dealers.