The first rule of antiquing on Nantucket: There are few bargains here. Just as the Ralph Lauren store on Main Street carries the highest-end Purple Label line, the antiques retailers on-island have the most drool-worthy items on display.
The first rule of antiquing on Nantucket: There are few bargains here. Just as the Ralph Lauren store on Main Street carries the highest-end Purple Label line, the antiques retailers on-island have the most drool-worthy items on display. They’re targeting a moneyed crowd looking to decorate their vacation homes with the best pieces, and often with ones that are true to the island’s history and vernacular. This means you’ll see lots of maritime folk art, whaling ephemera and Nantucket handicrafts. There’s also a healthy mix of English antiques and early-American furniture with a smattering of pieces from the Continent and Asia.
Equip yourself with the know-how to recognize absolute-must-have Nantucketania by visiting the recently renovated NANTUCKET WHALING MUSEUM (13 Broad St., 508-228-1894) for a crash course in the island’s rich history of decorative arts. You’ll find that sailors off at sea for a few years will produce remarkable objects: whirligigs carved from pine, baskets woven from split cane, shell collages set under glass (sailors’ valentines), and whales’ teeth and bones engraved with images and often carved into tools like corset stays and piecrust crimpers.
NINA HELLMAN MARINE ANTIQUES (48 Centre St., 508-228-4677, nauticalnantucket.com) could double as a wing of the Whaling Museum. On one wall of framed photos, prints and paintings, you’re sure to find at least one by Henry S. Wyer, a late-19th-century Nantucket photographer who once owned a shop on Federal Street. The grainy black-and-white images capture early-20th-century island life and landscapes, with subjects ranging from ladies in fashionable hats to a salty old sailor with a long pipe jutting out of his long, white beard. Hellman’s descriptive labels provide much more than price and provenance. You may learn, for example, that the black-and-yellow nameboard from the A. M. Aiken spent five months underwater after the ship foundered in an October 1882 storm, sank and surfaced in March at Coatue, a barrier island on the other side of the harbor.
SYLVIA ANTIQUES (6 Ray’s Court, 508-228-0960, sylviaantiques.com) is a few minutes from town’s center, and well worth the walk through a few labyrinthine lanes. John Sylvia is a third-generation Nantucket antiques dealer—his grandfather bought this shingled house in 1927. Wend through the large rooms and you’ll find a revolving array of folk art paintings and objects, scrimshaw, lightship baskets, farm tables and hooked rugs. You’ll also find Sylvia, a laid-back guy who lights up when he discusses a piece by James Walter Folger, a 19th-century Nantucket artist who taught himself to paint after training in Boston as a wood-carver. (Folger’s work is at the Whaling Museum.) “I have a dog head carved by him, but I’m not selling it,” says Sylvia. “I’m like a little boy with his stuff.” Some of the more unique pieces at Sylvia’s one day last summer included a carved-wood figural trade sign that had been in a Nantucket house for three generations and a copper whale-shaped weathervane with a beautiful patina. Sylvia also runs the FOUR WINDS CRAFT GUILD (15 Main St., 508-228-9623), a showcase for island craftsmen, particularly basket-weavers, located at the base of Main Street. Visit to see how these contemporary artists are bringing a historic Nantucket craft into the 21st century.
Parallel to Main Street, LYNDA WILLAUER ANTIQUES (2 India St., 508-228-3631, lyndawillauerantiques.com) is ensconced in a grand home built in the late 1840s for Captain Nickerson, a ship captain in the India trade. “So the house has good karma for Chinese export porcelain,” says Willauer, who presides over a warren of rooms that somehow manages to look as elegant as it is cluttered. Different chambers highlight her specialties—English Staffordshire pottery, 19th-century majolica and several varieties of Chinese export porcelain. There are also displays of boxes (inlaid wooden tea caddies, tortoiseshell and tartan) and “shell souvenirs” made between 1895 and 1910—a time when the beach became a popular holiday destination, thanks to railways that made it easy and affordable to get to the coast.
Back on Main Street, you’ll find WAYNE PRATT ANTIQUES (28 Main St., 508-228-8788, prattantiques.com). You may recognize Pratt, who’s likely to be sipping coffee on the bench outside his shop, from Antiques Roadshow. His main store in Woodbury, Connecticut, is known for its fine 18th- and 19th-century American, especially New England, furniture. He carries some of these pieces in his Nantucket store, plus some beautiful reproductions, but the biggest draw here is the large collection of vintage lightship-basket purses made by José Formoso Reyes, a Filipino who came to Nantucket in 1947. Reyes’ name carries cachet because of the quality of his work and because he was the first basket-maker to think of adding a lid to a lightship basket and marketing it as a handbag.
Near the Nantucket Whaling museum, shop owner Carla Finn stocks THE ENGLISH TRUNK SHOW COMPANY (8 Washington St., 508-228-4199, englishtrunkshowco.com) with treasures she finds during her annual winter jaunt across the pond. Finn became hooked on carpet balls, tea caddies, garden gnomes, “ship woolies” sewn by English sailors and other Anglophilic artifacts during a five-year stay in England.
Some highlights of her shop are the transferware in blue, green, red, black and brown; botanical prints set off by the mirrored and seashell-bedecked frames that she has custom-made by “a gal in England”; heaps of delicate antique linens on the cozy second-floor balcony; and the sundry odd objects such as vintage copies of the Victorian-era guide to British domestic life, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, vintage tins, brass candlesticks and a 1940s milk glass lamp with a hydrangea-print shade. If you can’t get enough of the botanical prints, JANIS ALDRIDGE (6 Coffin St., 508-228-6673), about a block away, also specializes in botanicals—including prints, lithographs, engravings and watercolors. Aldridge’s light, airy shop is filled with Continental and English furniture, including unusual pieces such as a pale fruitwood farm table.