FEATURE — Fall 2008

Antiques appraiser Helaine Fendelman (left), A.B. ’64, and her husband, Burton Fendelman, B.S.B.A. ’60, J.D. ’61, decorate their New York apartment with art deco furnishings. (Photo by Jennifer Weisbord)

Appreciating Antiques and Art

Alumna Helaine Fendelman turned a love for old things into a successful appraising business. Knowing the value of a trained eye, she also shares advice in her numerous books and feature columns.

By Kristin Tennant

Helaine Fendelman, A.B. ’64, is an English-major-turned-“psychiatrist”-teacher-writer-celebrity-art historian. Her career is complex, varied, and, she says, perfect for her: Fendelman is an appraiser.

“I love my job,” Fendelman says of the career she’s been building for more than 30 years. “I’m a lay psychiatrist who gets to help people in times of stress, such as divorce, debt, or a death in the family. It’s writing, psychology, and art appreciation all rolled up into one career.”

Fendelman’s love for her work stems directly from her love for people, antiques, and art. She credits these same loves for driving her significant success. She’s the owner of Helaine Fendelman & Associates, a fine arts, antiques, and household property appraisal and sales firm in New York; is a past president of the Appraisers Association of America, Inc.; writes a feature column for the magazine Country Living; and is a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. Fendelman also has written more than 14 books on antiques, decorative arts, and the appraisal profession, and co-hosts the PBS television program Treasures in Your Attic.

Although people have always been important to Fendelman, her love for “old things” did not develop until after college.

On their mantel, the Fendelmans display a mid-19th-century American pine oval box, which was painted in the middle part of the 20th century by Peter Hunt in Pennsylvania-style decoration. (Photo by Jennifer Weisbord)

“When I was growing up in the ’50s, nothing in my family’s home was around for more than two weeks,” she jokes. “People finally had a bit more money, and the focus was on buying new things.”

Later, as an English major and theater minor at Washington University, Fendelman took an art history course, but she confesses that her impulse was “to take naps when the lights were turned down for the slides.”

After graduation, Fendelman worked as an English teacher for learning disabled children in the St. Louis suburb Ladue. In 1965, she and her new husband, Burton Fendelman, B.S.B.A. ’60, J.D. ’61, moved to New York City. As they made a home for themselves there, it was the attraction to a bargain that sparked both Fendelmans’ love for antiques. With little money and virtually nothing to put in their Bayside Queens apartment, the newlyweds began frequenting antiques shops and secondhand stores. One of the first treasures the young couple bought was a 1930s lighted globe on a stand.

“We just bought what we liked—what appealed to us and what we could afford,” she says. “We weren’t trying to be commercial entrepreneurs.”

Eventually, Burt was hired as an attorney by the New York Stock Exchange, and Helaine earned a master’s degree in education. Money wasn’t necessarily tight, but they were hooked on things with a past.

“Not all people love old things,” Fendelman says, “but for people who do, it’s the story—the link to the past—to which they’re drawn. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the piece was grandma’s or not. There’s still a story, and it’s one you add to when you buy the piece.”

In 1968, with their apartment bursting at the seams and their patience with the Long Island Expressway wearing thin, the Fendelmans bought an 1870s three-story farmhouse in Scarsdale, New York. The house inspired a new collection; besides the seemingly endless square footage of space they suddenly had, Fendelman says the 1920s golden oak furniture they had been collecting in Queens “didn’t look right” in the farmhouse. They began collecting 19th-century paint-decorated furniture and folk art, amassing a significant collection that was later auctioned at Sotheby’s in the early 1990s.

It was also in 1968 that the Fendelmans organized their first barn sale, turning their first profit in the antiques business.

“We had found a pair of chairs for $25, and we turned around and sold them at the sale for $90,” she says. “We thought we had died and gone to heaven, and that may have been the only profit we ever had.”

While buying and selling antiques is partly luck, learning the appraisal business and earning money in it are hard work.

“When I started, there were no classes or programs,” Fendelman says. “You just have to train your eye at antiques shows, dealers’ shops, and museums. You build an eye bank and a memory bank, so you have something to measure things up to.”

Gradually, Fendelman educated herself in every way she could, taking continuing education courses, reading stacks of books about antiques, and visiting as many sales and auctions as possible. Later, she started working toward a doctoral degree in American decorative arts at Boston University then continued her studies at the Winterthur graduate study program in Delaware.

In their New York apartment, the Fendelmans also display an early 20th-century American folk art toothbrush holder in the form of a standing man (above) and an early 20th-century American art deco covered plastic box, known as Cleopatra’s Manicure Set (below). (Photo by Jennifer Weisbord)

While furthering her education in the 1970s, Fendelman also was busy mothering her two young sons and working at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, where she was responsible for “a lot of everything.” What had been a side career in antiques appraisals was stepped up a notch when St. Louis acquaintances Dick and Libby Kramer began organizing high-profile antiques shows around the country. They asked Fendelman to be their PR person for the well-known “Heart of Country” show in Nashville. It was a resounding success, and other shows were established in Philadelphia, Houston, and Indianapolis. Fendelman was right there, riding—and in many ways propelling—the wave of the shows’ popularity.

“I worked with Johnny and June Cash, and Martha Stewart before anyone had any idea who she was,” Fendelman says. “I also met Rachel Newman, who was the editor of Country Living at the time. I said, ‘You don’t have a what’s-it-worth column.’ She said, ‘Write it.’”

The time had come to leave the museum world, redirecting her energy into her appraisal business.

Fendelman says her ability to connect with people—combined with good doses of serendipity—has been the linchpin of her success. The people she meets along the way always seem to translate into new connections and opportunities down the road.

“A lot of my success was about perseverance and follow-through, which all stem from a Midwestern upbringing,” says Fendelman, who grew up in Evansville, Indiana. “I’m a sharer and a giver. Burt and I connect with people. We show that we’re interested and caring in a profession that isn’t usually that way.”

Although Fendelman jokes that she’s becoming an antique herself, she shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to a full schedule of upcoming appraisals, Fendelman is working on her next book, a second edition of All About Appraising. The family’s Scarsdale house was sold in 2002, and the Fendelmans now divide their time between a house on Sanibel Island, Florida, and their apartment in New York City. Two homes, of course, mean two distinct collections: the Florida house is filled with “1950s funky stuff,” while the New York apartment has “high-end art deco.”

“What’s so fun for me is making a room speak,” she says. “It’s like dressing yourself—you’re figuring out what you want to say. When you get a new piece, you decide how to fit that into what you already have.”

Her advice for buyers of antiques and art?

“The important thing is that you buy what you like and enjoy the items,” Fendelman says. “If they go up in value, you’re lucky, but if not, at least you have something you’ve enjoyed.”

Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois. She also is a writing instructor for MediaBistro and author of the blog www.halfwaytonormal.com.