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Yet the venue for the April 6-10 fair is hardly akin to the haute reaches of New York’s Upper East Side, populated with collectors like takeover titan Henry Kravis and the downfallen Alfred Taubman, Sotheby’s former chairman. Held in the cradle of liberty’s non-chic western section in an armory used by the National Guard, Philadelphia’s 33rd Street Armory is hardly akin in ambience to Park Avenue’s turreted Seventh Regiment Armory with its rooms designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White.

At show time in the Philadelphia armory, tucked away on the Drexel University campus, the volleyball net is hoisted high while basketball hoops remain. There are no elaborate decorations, nor dramatic lighting.

Despite such unprepossessing surroundings, this show’s opening night is packed with a record 1600. In a town well known for its sense of Quaker thrift, any thought of frugality is forgotten. Tickets are a stunning $100-600 and preview partygoers are ready to spend. It’s not just a show catering to locals. Dealers report that clients from as far away as Seattle trawl the floors. Guided tour groups hail from all over the country, including the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, of course, the Colonial Dames consider this fair de rigueur.

One measure of the show’s success is that last year the 200-women-strong committee turned over the proceeds, $776,000, to their beneficiary, the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.

Another came this year after that expensive preview party from Deb Donaldson, the show’s associate chairwoman. “When I came in the following morning, I saw a measles epidemic,” she said referring to the plethora of red dot stickers signifying sales.

Despite all the dramatic upheavals that have taken place since last year’s fair, buying was as strong as in 2001 and for some exhibitors stronger.

What’s the measure of connoisseurship in such ordinary quarters? More collectors were spotted turning out drawers, studying dovetailing and peering at the undersides of highboys than at any other show chronicled by this reporter. Checking out the prices of choice Americana were Sotheby’s folk art enthusiast Nancy Druckman and Christie’s Deputy Chairman, Americas, John Hays, as well as New York consultant Susan Kleckner.

“Dealers save their very best for this show,” says Hays while surveying a 1791 Pennsylvania dower chest with Pennsylvania dealer Philip Bradley. Hays pronounced the chest, painted with the requisite red tulips and in superlative condition “a drop dead, slum dunk, homerun jewel”. It sold within the first half hour of the show reportedly for a six-figure price.

One index of how this show raises the bar on pricing benchmarks was a federal mahogany and cherrywood veneered serpentine sideboard with New York dealer Leigh Keno. Although it was only attributed to Providence cabinetmaker Joseph Rawson, the sideboard sold within hours of the preview party for a whopping $650,000 to a new client.

What’s decidedly different about this Philadelphia event is that there is a continued taste for folk art, while New York has witnessed the closing of two premier folk art dealers: Giampietro and America Hurrah in recent times. “There’s more of a folk art market here,” says Connecticut dealer Wayne Pratt who sold two Windsor chairs, a rooster weathervane and several folk art paintings on opening night.

Childhood embroidery, too, is highly favoured by this crowd to the point that Amy Finkel of M. Finkel & Daughter dubbed this her best show ever. She sold 34 examples with prices from $2000-80,000 and her prize piece, a band sampler (1701 Judah Hayle School from Ipswich, England), went to an American private New York area collector. A Hayle School example is in the V&A. “Recent research and new books are spurring the interest in embroidery,” says Finkel.

While the fair is predominantly made up of Americana dealers, other specialities are represented. Among the 56 exhibitors standing this year was Oriental dealer E.J. Frankel of New York. He racked up a staggering 31 sales during the five-day run. Buyers fancied netsuke, jade jewellery and Ming porcelain costing from $5000-35,000. “We’re in a recession, but here there’s a mood to buy,” says Joel Frankel.

This show is no isolated event. Also on during Antiques Week are the Navy Pier Antiques Show and the Center City Antiques Show, a raft of auctions and gallery shows further confirming the city’s status as a veritable mecca for antiques.