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  The Power of the Pennington

With a little bit of money, a simple concept, and no idea if it would work, Sam Pennington launched what would become the paper of record for the American antiques business and changed the industry for good.

By Maria Blackburn
Photos by Herb Swanson

Everybody collects something: Scottish provincial silver or Scooby-Doo lunchboxes, Bombé chests or Beanie Babies. Call it acquisitiveness, obsession, or just simple pleasure — there is a basic human desire to surround ourselves with multiples of things we like.

Sam Pennington, A&S '52, collects lots of things: antique toy planes, Empire furniture, paintings of dead fish, art medals, classical sculptures in marble and bronze.

Over the last three decades he's acquired something else: a reputation for producing one of the most influential publications about American antiques.

Since 1973, when Pennington and his wife, Sally, launched Maine Antique Digest (MAD) from the kitchen of their Waldoboro, Maine, home, the monthly publication has become a $2.5 million a year business. The fat black-and-white newsprint tabloid — an average issue runs about 300 pages — has attracted a readership of some 25,000 dealers, auctioneers, and collectors.

With its uncomplicated design and folksy tone, MAD may look homespun, but it's serious. "The antiques business has all of the elements of life — passion, greed, money," says Pennington, 75. "It's a business that rewards knowledge. And we just try to be as honest as we can."

The digest reads like the community newspaper of American antiques, with headlines like "The Walters Sale: The Maturing Market for Folk Art" and letters to the editor that begin simply with "Dear Sam." There are obituaries of collectors and dealers, book reviews, news briefs about dealers pleading guilty to mail fraud, and notices about new hires at Sotheby's. The bulk of MAD's stories chronicle recent auctions and shows and highlight the major items that sold, to whom, and for how much. However, MAD's writers have also broken major, national stories.

And then there are the ads. MAD is thick with hundreds of paid advertisements from antiques dealers around the country showcasing their 19th-century blown glass inkwells, miniature duck decoys, and Staffordshire spaniels for sale.

"The brilliance of Sam Pennington is that this was a market that wasn't being taken care of before MAD," says Wendell D. Garrett, senior vice president of Americana at Sotheby's and editor-at-large for The Magazine Antiques. "Mom and Pop antique stores really didn't feel that they could advertise in The Magazine Antiques. They needed a tabloid type publication, and Sam provided it."

As for the editorial content, that proved irresistible, too. "Everyone is interested in personalities and money," Garrett says. "What Sam created is like the People magazine of the business."

Pennington says he fell into the business on a lark. He was a freshly retired Air Force navigator with a wife and kids, a $2,500 investment, and the idea to start a magazine. He hadn't gone to journalism school or written for a major newspaper, and he had no idea whether MAD would be a success. "We had no subscribers," he says. "We just did it. We were too stupid to know we couldn't."

Such blunt assessments come naturally to Pennington, a stocky, white-haired grandfather who is known as much for his no-nonsense style as he is for his antiques expertise. You're more likely to see him in khakis, red suspenders, and a button-down oxford than a suit and tie. Catch him in the office after mid-day and he'll probably be padding around in his stocking feet, his white leather sneakers abandoned under a desk somewhere.

He's not the kind of person who aims to impress you by talking about his achievements. In fact, unless pressed, he doesn't talk much at all. He listens. And when Pennington hears something that intrigues him, he follows his instincts.

The Maine Antique Digest offices today. One morning, after seeing a quartet of bronze Art Deco sculptures attributed to Paul Manship — one of his favorite sculptors — in a catalog for an upcoming auction in Fairfield, Maine, Pennington decides to see them for himself. The auctioneer, James D. Julia, has estimated the figures will sell for between $20,000 and $30,000 apiece. But Pennington thinks that if the 22-1/2 inch figures were really by Manship, they'd go for more — perhaps as much as $60,000 each.

His interest is personal, not professional. Before long Pennington is zooming the winding two-lane country roads to Julia's auction house in his 1990 red Mazda Miata. The car is sporty, not sturdy, and certainly not understated — but he can explain: "My wife got this for me for my 60th birthday so I wouldn't feel old," he says. The car is from the first model year, he adds, so it is a collectible of sorts.

Seated behind the wheel, Pennington grows more comfortable with talking about himself. He grew up in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood in an 1850s house that he and his parents, younger brother, and sister shared with his great-aunt and grandmother. It was filled with Victorian and Empire-era wardrobes, secretaries, couches, tables, and chairs. This was during the Depression and money was scarce, so instead of replacing worn furniture, the family repaired it. "Things were always breaking, so every year there was this cabinetmaker who came to the house and melted his glue on the stove and repaired things," he says. Pennington and his siblings loathed the glue's strong smell. They weren't fond of the heavy old furniture either.

"We hated antiques," Pennington says. "The only reason we had them there was because we couldn't afford anything better."

The pieces were sold for "next to nothing" at auction years ago. "It would have been nice to have saved some of those things, but we didn't," he says with some regret.

Pennington attended Baltimore's Calvert School and prep schools in New York and New Hampshire — all on scholarship — before winning a scholarship to Johns Hopkins, where he majored in French. "I was a terrible student," confesses Pennington. "I spent more time at the movies than I did in class."

He delights in telling the story about how, back when the magazine was just getting started and he was its only writer and photographer, he got tired of using his byline on all of his work. Inspired by his French skills and MAD's distinctive chicken weathervane logo, he adopted the pen name "Lance Poulet" for an issue. "In my fractured French, it was supposed to mean chicken on a stick," he says. He signed his new name to a single story — one on weathervanes, he thinks — that ran in an early issue. Years later Pennington says he learned that "Lance Poulet" was French slang for "prostitute on a stick." He guffaws at his mistake.

After college Pennington headed off to the Air Force and spent the next 21 years stationed all over the United States and in Newfoundland and Guam. He met Sally Gene Clayton in an education class in Fort Worth, Texas, and they married in April 1958. Four months after their wedding the couple bought a Georgian house in Waldoboro that was built in 1775. Their plan was that Sam would leave the Air Force, they would move to Maine, and both would teach school. "Then I started having babies," says Sally. So Sam stayed in the Air Force and they rented out the Waldoboro house.

During MAD's early years, the Pennington children acted as the circulation department. "If your subscription gets fouled up," Pennington wrote in issue two, "let us know."
Photo by Sam Pennington
While Sam was stationed in Bangor, Maine, in the late 1960s, the couple ran an antiques shop part time. They specialized in Early American painted furniture but grew frustrated when they couldn't find a reliable source of information about the pieces they were buying and selling. This was before eBay and Antiques Roadshow on PBS, before every little old lady with a computer knew the value of her doll collection. Dealers and collectors didn't have a way to share information, which meant that an uninformed buyer could be at the mercy of a greedy seller asking too much.

When they moved to Waldoboro, they started MAD.

"It is with some trepidation, but a deep sense of pride that I launch this publication," Pennington wrote in his first editorial in November 1973. "As to our purposes and aims, we shall try to be both enlightening and entertaining in covering the Maine antiques scene. . . . We will try to examine some of the problem areas of the business such as fakes, thefts, lack of retail trade, and whatever else comes our way. We shall try to be forthright and call them as we see them, favoring neither collector nor dealer in this rather wonderful, fun game of antiques."

He also wanted to print prices, "the last big secret of the antiques business," Pennington says. "There were no sticker prices. The dealers just kept price to themselves." Pennington thought of it as an essential piece of information. "The price is part of the story," he says. "It lets you know if you are in the ballpark."

Sam was the editor and Sally was advertising manager, but they both did everything. Every month Pennington drove hundreds of miles all over New England visiting dealers and convincing them to buy ads. He photographed their items for the ads for $10, then sold them the ads. He spent the remainder of his time writing and editing. "We had an awful lot of sweat equity in the early years," he says. "You learn to do everything yourself."

Even their five children were involved. There's an old black-and-white photo in Sally's office of Mary, Samuel Clayton, Sarah, Nellie, and Kate, aged 5 to 14, clustered around the dining room table preparing the first issue of MAD for mailing. The picture ran in the second issue, captioned, "A special note to our subscribers: We thought you might like to see that our Circulation Department is strictly human. If your subscription gets fouled up, let us know."

Response to MAD was so positive that within a few years the magazine had a reasonable subscription base and Pennington had broadened its coverage to New England and beyond. (Highlights from MAD's first three decades have been collected in Maine Antique Digest: The Americana Chronicles, edited by Lita Solis-Cohen and published by Running Press in September 2004.)

There were other antiques publications, glossy magazines like The Magazine Antiques and even the weekly newspaper Antiques and The Arts Weekly. But MAD was different, says Ronald Borgeault, owner of Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was immediate, accessible, informative, and yes, dishy. "Let's say that Sam Pennington was the Ted Turner of the Americana world," says Borgeault, who has subscribed to MAD since its beginning. "He took a closed good old boys and girls society and opened it up so that there was a free flow of information about what was happening at auctions and shows. He published interesting, sometimes controversial stories that made everyone aware of what was going on."

In the mid-1980s, MAD broke one of its biggest stories ever. It involved the Oath of a Freeman — "the Holy Grail of Early American documents," as Pennington explains.

The oath was taken in the 17th century by educated and landed Massachusetts freemen who had a right to vote. Printed in 1639, it is said to be the earliest American printed document. However, an original copy had never been found.

In 1985, a manuscript dealer named Mark Hofmann sold a copy of the Oath of a Freeman — which had passed all sorts of authenticity tests — to a New York dealer for $1 million. MAD, of course, covered the story. Later that fall, Hofmann was charged as a suspect in three bombings that killed two people, and he was accused of making and selling early Mormon documents and defrauding collectors. He told police that he was an important manuscript dealer who had just sold a $1 million document and couldn't have been involved. Pennington got curious. "Our assumption," he says, "was that since Hofmann had sold so many fake documents that the Freeman's Oath wasn't real either."

"There are people who adore him," Lita Solis-Cohen says of Pennington. "There are people who are furious at him because he's so honest. And there are people who are afraid of him because of the power of his pen." Pennington and MAD reporters Solis-Cohen and David Hewett did some digging, talked to dealers about whether it could be a fake, and broke the story, headlined "Scout or Scoundrel?"

"When you get your teeth into a really good story with characters who are greatly bad, it's wonderful," Pennington says. "And when you're the one to get it before the national press, it's even better."

There have been other big stories, too. One of Pennington's favorites is that of Steven Straw, the son of a New Hampshire auctioneer who set himself up as an art dealer and sold half interests in pieces of fine art and antiques. There was only one problem: Straw didn't actually own the pieces he was selling. "It was a real con game," Pennington says. "He sold a West Coast dealer a half interest in a Rembrandt. The guy walked into a Los Angeles museum and saw the painting he thought he owned hanging there."

Pennington got a tip about the case, found the court documents, and got the scoop on that story, too.

According to J. Michael Flanigan, owner of J.M. Flanigan American Antiques in Baltimore, Pennington hasn't just covered the antiques business, he's changed it forever. "The business of antiques was pretty much a small-time, local affair when Sam Pennington started writing about it," Flanigan says. "What he created was the Wall Street Journal of antiques. What had been whispers and rumors before Sam became stories with dates and times and prices. The Digest became the paper of record for the state of the antiques market. Sam has increased our level of knowledge and the speed with which we can use it. This has increased the honesty and efficiency of a marketplace that has very few means to do so otherwise."

Whether MAD is the People magazine of the antiques world, the Wall Street Journal, or the CNN, Sam Pennington certainly doesn't seem to care. What he cares about — in fact, what he's always cared about, he says — is that the workplace he created is the kind of place where people could be left to do good work and have fun.

With its staff of 22, Maine Antique Digest is Waldoboro's fifth largest employer. The sign outside the 6,200-square-foot clapboard building on Main Street is small and understated (though the two modern sculptures on the slice of front lawn — one a William Zorach of a nude family clustered around a book, the other a Rowan Gillespie of a figure blowing a horn — do call out for one's attention).

Inside are hundreds of pieces of furniture and works of art Pennington has collected over the years, including a mahogany sideboard carved with pineapples and a bronze bust of women's rights activist Parker Pillsbury. They share space with thousands of antiques reference books and dozens of yellow file folders containing stories for upcoming issues.

There are few rules in the Digest's offices. "No secretaries and no supervisors," Pennington proclaims as he pads out of his wife's office, which is filled with suffragette dolls, "Uppity Women Unite" posters, and other women's rights collectibles. Pennington shares his own office with his son and editor, Samuel Clayton Pennington. His daughter Kate Pennington is managing editor, and daughter Sarah McCleary is business manager.

"For a long time we tried to make all meetings standing up so they'd be shorter," says Clayton. "There's not a lot of peering over your shoulder here."

MAD is still a family affair. From left, daughters Sarah and Kate and son Samuel Clayton peruse the latest issue with Sam and Sally. Sam Pennington's title may have changed since MAD started (he's now the publisher), but his level of involvement has not. He arrives at the office each day around 8:30 a.m. to read and respond to the 100 or so e-mails that have arrived overnight and to make sure the magazine's Web site — which contains full and partial stories from the print edition as well as a database of 30,000 antiques sold at auction — is up and running. Hunting and pecking on his keyboard, he writes news briefs and covers the occasional show or auction. On the first Wednesday of the month, deadline day for advertising, he stays until the last copy comes in and is laid out, often until 9 p.m. And no story or advertisement goes to press until Pennington has had a chance to proofread it first. "It's not done until the fat man reads it," reads a sign hanging in the MAD offices.

"He's a wonderful editor," says Solis-Cohen, one of MAD's two staff writers. She has written for the magazine from her home in Philadelphia since 1975; MAD also has several dozen freelance writers. "He's a natural who sets the standards for the whole trade. There are people who adore him. There are people who are furious at him because he's so honest. And there are people who are a bit afraid of him because of the power of his pen. Sam doesn't let anyone get away with anything," she says.

Pennington explains that he's just doing a job that he loves. He's the journalist, the storyteller. "We definitely are not the experts here, the dealers are," he says. "We just go to auctions and listen."

Having arrived at James Julia's auction house, Pennington does a lot of listening. Julia, an effusive former biology teacher who has been in the auction business some 40 years, is eager to show Pennington his wares. He leads Pennington all over the auction floor and through storerooms, pointing out $55,000 Tiffany lamps, rare cast iron coach toys, historic guns, and Red Baron memorabilia. He talks nonstop.

Pennington listens carefully, asking a few questions, nodding, and smiling. Finally, when Julia points out the stylized Art Deco sculptured panels he's attributed to Paul Manship and calls them "stylistically just great," Pennington takes more of an active interest. He inspects the pieces closely, feeling the edges with his fingers.

The pieces are a little crude, he thinks, probably created as part of a decorative fence, not as fine art. And although they have a certain resemblance to some Manships, he's not convinced. Plus, they are unsigned.

"They really have no marking anywhere?" he asks Julia. The auctioneer shakes his head. Pennington says nothing. He's busy thinking, Do I want these?

He doesn't need the panels. His house and office are already filled with his huge, eclectic collections of furniture and art, he says. So full that he has no more wall space. So full that his wife has issued the edict, "If something new comes in, something old goes out."

But does he want them? Julia's price estimate is too high, he reasons. And Pennington's true passion right now is adding to his collection of art medals — which numbers in the hundreds and includes seven Manships — not collecting fence panels in Manship's style.

He's tempted. More stories are told, pleasantries exchanged, and their business for today is over. Pennington is soon heading across the parking lot to his Miata. He's left the panels inside the auction house. They're not for him. Not today anyway.

"There's an element of greed in collecting," Pennington says. "You look at what you've got and you want more. But still at some point I think you have to temper your acquisitiveness with a little bit of common sense."

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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