People running up the Rocky Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be met at the top by a 12-foot white wall.
A 26,000 square foot tent has been erected across the entire East Terrace, the new home of The Philadelphia Show, an expo of antique and decorative arts dealers from around the country. It’s now celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Inside the tent are rare treasures.
“I’ll show you something I love,” said Diana Bittel, an antique dealer based in Bryn Mawr, pausing while setting up her booth at the Philadelphia Show earlier this week.
She opened the doors of a wooden carrying case and showed off a fully rigged, three-mast ship carved out of bone.
“This is a Napoleonic prisoner of war bone model,” she said. “Made out of soup bones by the French prisoners of war in England during the Napoleonic Wars from 1793 to 1814. It’s all made out of soup bones. It’s all they had to work with.”
Around the corner is the booth of Jeffrey Tillou, of Connecticut, who lured a reporter into his booth.
“You want me to show you one of the most incredible things in the booth?” he said. “C’mon.”
Tillou is a second-generation dealer whose family has been participating in the Philadelphia Show for over 50 years. He says he reserves special items for this show, like a 1770 dresser carved by an unknown Philadelphia artisan out of tiger maple: the pale wood is streaked with a wavy grain pattern that appears to ripple across the surface.
“This is one of two that exists. The other is in a collection in New York,” Tillou said. “My father had passed away, and it’s a piece that I inherited. So technically it’s not really inventory. It’s a personal piece. But what better place to show it than here at the Philadelphia show?”
Since it started in 1962, the Philadelphia Show has built a reputation for featuring high-quality dealers and attracting active collectors. Dealers like Tillou have followed the show in its various iterations over the years. It has moved from the 33rd Street Armory at Drexel University, to a tent at the Navy Yard, and now, for the first time, under a tent atop the Rocky Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Art Museum took over the Philadelphia Show in 2018, but almost immediately paused the in-person expo because of the pandemic. This year is the first time the museum is hosting the show on its own, iconic turf.
“What better way to roll into town, see the museum at the end of the block, and to see the tent?” said Tillou. “I consider this one of the top two or three shows in the country. In this area, in the mid-Atlantic region, there’s really serious collectors. I foresee this being a very good show, especially because there hasn’t been a show for a couple of years.”
The tent is significantly smaller than the previous setup at the Navy Yard, by 10,000 square feet, so the 42 exhibiting dealers are a bit more squeezed.
The tighter location causes some logistical complications. There is only one access road to the terrace, so moving trucks have to line up to unload furniture.
Nevertheless, many dealers who were forced online during the pandemic have returned to the Philadelphia Show with renewed vigor.
“We were meeting virtually, which — I don’t know — that’s not so exciting,” said Arthur Liverant of Connecticut. “Trying to see without feeling, without smelling, without caressing a piece of furniture, it’s not the same. Buying it through photographs is just not the same. You have to really see it and commune with the objects to understand how great they are.”
Because of the Philadelphia Show’s proximity to its new operator, the Art Museum, it can offer visitors convenient access to the Museum’s American decorative arts galleries, and gives the show better access to the museum’s curatorial staff. Curators have been giving free online talks on collecting and Americana.
“The education part is something that the museum is able to help with that the show did not have before,” said show chair Lynn Gadsden. “It’s not that they weren’t interested – they had lectures during the show, but not necessarily as academic as these are. They’ve been fabulous.”
In the center of the tent, on a riser built over the East Terrace fountain, is the Philadelphia Show’s annual exhibition. The curated theme this year is “Zero to Sixty,” highlighting the best of the past 59 exhibitions, including antique children’s furniture, vintage firearms, paintings, and folk art.
The first show 60 years ago was called the University Hospital Antiques Show. Since then, the word “antiques” was dropped.
“The heart and soul of this show has always been about antiques and decorative arts. However, over the years folk art was introduced, and then fine art, and now design,” said show manager Huntley Platt. “Also the timeline has broadened. We have works from the 17th century through to contemporary artists.”
Having the big white tent on top of the steps has been its own advertisement. Gadsden said people have been calling to ask, “What’s up?”
It also gives visitors convenient access to the American galleries inside the museum.
“There are things all over this floor that are fine enough to fit into the collection of American decorative arts in the Museum itself,” said Liverant.
Saturdays just got more interesting.