Antiques Capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Our Association is proud that the Massachusetts General Court has designated Berkshire County as the Antiques Capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This tribute is recognition of the quality of our members’ offerings and their importance to the local economy. Along with the cultural, scenic and culinary attractions of Berkshire County, our tradition of superior quality antiquing makes the Berkshires a world-class destination.

Berkshires Named The Antiques Capital

by Patrice Mullin

States in the United States have an official bird and flower, but now Massachusetts has the unique distinction of possessing an antiques capital region, namely the Berkshires. The House of Representatives has officially recognized the area, via a beribboned Resolution, as the Antiques Capital of the Commonwealth, acknowledging the many dealers who ply their trade from one end of the county to the other.

Rep. William Smitty Pognatelli presents the House of Representatives’ Resolutcn of Antiques Capital to Edith Gilson, president of BCAADA. Photo contributed

Rep. William Smitty Pognatelli presents the House of Representatives’ Resolutcn of Antiques Capital to Edith Gilson, president of BCAADA. Photo contributed

The politician responsible for this act is Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli of Lenox. He responded to the idea proposed by his constituent, Edith Gilson, president of the Berkshire County Antiques and Art Dealers Association (BCAADA). It was a formidable match, as both have done much to promote tourism–he serves on the House Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development; she has served for 6 years on the board of Berkshire Visitor’s Bureau (BVB), and as former Executive Director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike many legislative acts, this proclamation is symbolic, akin to the bird/flower designation. But, then again, it absolutely clarifies the impact of the antiques industry, so prolific in the Berkshires. The statistics, noted in the Resolution, show that 69% of visitors to the Berkshires frequented antiques shops.

Lauri Klefos, president and CEO of Berkshire Visitor’s Bureau, the area’s tourism agency, clarified that this figure came from a survey of visitors asked to list what activities tley participated in over the last 3 years of Berkshire jaunts. Just who are these tourists? Klefos’s figures tell as they are a median age of 52, with a household income of over $100,000; 80% are married, 55% have a college education. The top place of origin (home) is New York, second is the Boston metro-area, and third is Hartford/New Haven, CT.

Klefos said, “Antiques are a great example of why we have such diverse experiences here. We attract die-hard antiquers to those who simply take them in with all the rest.” And there is plenty else to experience in the Berkshires, of course, from a multitude of cultural activities to nature to recreation to dining and shopping. The highest activity preference, at 79%, is for museums/historic sites, thus it’s not surprising that antiquing is also so popular.

The Resolution also takes note that the region was the first in die country to have an association of antiques’ dealers. Gilson explains that in the early 1970s, a group of Sheffield dealers formed an association to promote themselves, as well as to “regulate” and define the industry. Shop dealers had to apply and be approved to belong, a practice that continues today. Art dealers were also added to the group in the 1990s.

Gilson states the Resolution takes note of the fact that “BCAADA was the first organization of its kind in the nation that brought together dealers with a commitment to accurate dating and full description of their offerings. This was so that antiques’ buyers could feel confident that their pieces were properly labeled with respect to condition and origin.”

Gilson indoctrinated Pignatelli to support her idea of an Antiques Capital. He had a penchant for collecting at the lower-end of the scale, remarking to this winter that his favorite haunt at the moment is a repro/junk shop in Lee. But he was not previously aware of what Gilson refers to as “the shops where dealers have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventories.”

Gilson took Pignatelli to many antiques shops, showed him what was available, ranging from fine Americana, to European and Asian imports, to such specialities as wicker, paintings, fine china and folk art. “He was surprised; he could not believe how extraordinary the shops are.” She said he learned how the dealers take great strides to present their wares, in store, online or at top national shows; he was educated on how there was a whole back-field of subcontractors who contribute as well, such as truckers, Upholsterers, restorers in many venues ranging from lighting to clock repair.

This knowledge pooled for Pignatelli when he came out of his local office at the Lenox Town Hall (the rest of the time he’s in Boston). “I was walking out of my office, there were some Argentinean tourists, speaking Spanish, and 1 asked them why they came to the Berkshires. They said ‘because it had three stars’ in some sort of rating—and then they asked where they could find antiques.” It was a galvanizing moment for him.

Gilson saw she knew she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with Pignatelli if he weren’t so “hands on.” He has a reputation for helping people in red-tape situations, serious matters, and as a result, he has an office, she says, “which is extremely helpful, responsive and smart.” She reports she knew he did his homework on the issue, dredging up more statistics to support her argument, which, in a nutshell, is that antiques are a quiet industry, but contribute in a notable way to the tourist economy, both directly and indirectly.

Pignatelli said he thinks television shows like “American Pickers” and “Antiques Roadshow” have greatly added to the appreciation of the industry—and he confessed that these programs are favorites of his.

When quizzed as to why he drafted the Resolution, he said, with a chuckle, “Edith made me do it.” Seriously, though, he noted, “I always noticed a lot of antiques shops. You start counting them and there are quite a few. There’s a big concentration in South Berkshire.”

He’s also impressed by BCAADA. “The dealers work well together, they are competitive, but they have a mutual group. Other businesses could learn from this concept.”

The reason the antiques shops are plentiful here, Gilson says, is because the area once had many palatial homes filled with such. Records indicate that Sheffield, an early Americana bastion, had dealers in the early 20lh Century, either selling to the “Berkshire Cottage” crowd, or later buying from them as estates closed down. A popular auction gallery, Bradford’s Auction, operated for many decades in Sheffield, acting as a major catalyst and clearinghouse for both dealer and collector.

Another widely visited venue, in Great Barrington, was Joneses Antiques, which emptied many a dwindling Stockbridge or Lenox estate, with the store’s mid-20th Century origins attributable to the fashion of replacing antiques with Fonnica. For four decades, Joneses’ customers sorted through the piled-up junk, often finding treasure.

Click to view The Proclamation

Click to view The Proclamation

Mostly scattered along Route 7, the varied shops offer a wide range today. Group shops started to open in the late 1980s. Sometime in the 1990s, Lee and Leslie Keno, notable New York antiques dealers who often appear on “Antiques Roadshow,” proclaimed the Berkshires “an antiques mecca.” This fact is quoted in the Resolution.

Gilson notes that once the antiques shop proprietors were “locals,” but now “it has evolved to include ex-New Yorkers,” she herself being one. For 20 years, she was in advertising, rising to become a senior vice president with J. Walter Thompson. She went from becoming a weekender, to antiques shop-owner two decades ago, operating Cupboards and Roses in Sheffield, specializing in Swedish antiques.

BCAADA pools its dues to advertise on behalf of the group. When asked what she thinks is the best advertising vehicle for BCAADA, she believes it is their brochure. Since its birth, the group has printed a shop directory, listing each store and its specialty, along with a handy map. The brochure is also available online at Berkshire Visitor’s Bureau circulates thousands of copies, and the rest are placed in major tourist sites and in all member shops. Meanwhile, Gilson has had a logo designed, a special graphic declaring the designation, which is now a permanent part of the brochure.

Asked if he was going to put up a sign on the turnpike denoting “Antiques Capital,” Pignatelli said he didn’t think so, because such signage is strictly regulated. But he urged the individual towns to consider road signs, saying the real value of the designation is for BCAADA marketing, to solidify awareness of the trade.

Klefos said the Berkshire Visitor’s Bureau knows “antiquing is one of the top activities in the region,” although she calls it a subtle one, when compared to, say, the performing arts. “In the fall, it’s one of our key messages—antiquing in the Berkshires—so in September, our newsletter will do a blast on this Antiques Capital designation.”

Will the Antiques Capital designation spark fishermen on the Massachusetts shore to ask for Seafood Capital, or maple tappers to request Maple Syrup Capital? Who knows? But Internet research shows that, for now, this is the only official Antiques Capital in the country.

It is a joint coup for Pignatelli and Gilson, a marriage of brass and brawn. He serves on five House committees in Boston, and, thus, is a most busy legislator. In 2006, Gilson was awarded by the Berkshire Visitor’s Bureau an outstanding member award in recognition of “extraordinary vision and leadership.”

“My mind is always working, and I look for opportunity,” she said. Gilson admitted the idea came from a rumor she heard about an area in a state elsewhere that was contemplating calling itself an antiques capital. “I made a mental note to ask Smitty.”

She and “Smitty” were friends because she’d bent his ear on other tourism-related issues. It helps to have friends in high places, but then again, it’s good to have a dealer who is passionate enough to go the extra mile to get recognition for a sizable but often overlooked industry.

One sees the flags outside antique shop dotting die countryside; by themselves they aren’t able to survive too well, but their collective number and their combined sales revenue and visitors, truly qualifies them now as The Antiques Capital.