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Collecting, selling stoneware is Bartlewski tradition

Tom Bartlewski’s Red Wing garage is full of stoneware and other treasurers, including this rare crock with a message on the back he's holding June 27, 2017. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor

Collecting, selling stoneware is Bartlewski tradition

Don't ask Tom Bartlewski how much Red Wing Pottery he has.

Over the past 35 years he has acquired many more pieces than he could — or would even want to — keep.

"The hunt was always the thing for me," he said, "the thrill of the find."

So for years, he and wife Nancy have been selling Red Wing as well as buying it, especially rare and unique pieces they find at auctions, flea markets and sales.

This is about the 10th year they have filled their garage at 533 Frenn Ave. with treasures to sell to other pottery hunters coming to town for the July 6-8, 2017, Red Wing Collectors Society Convention. He's been a member himself for 35 years.

Pottery has always been a part of Bartlewski's life. He has lived in Red Wing all of his 66 years, and recalls that "We had pottery around the home" when he was growing up.

"Grandpa did sauerkraut" in a big old crock, he said. His grandfather Red Wing native Charles Fridell Sr. was a charter member of the Red Men Club. Bartlewski has a statuette and a mini-jug that Red Wing Potteries made for the club.

Need for accent pieces

The Bartlewskis started buying antique furniture when they bought their first home and needed to furnish it. "We would strip and fix up and refinish pieces," he said.

"We needed accent pieces," so they began picking up Red Wing crocks and art pottery, Bartlewski added. "We pretty much collected all that was available until around 1992," when they bought the Frenn Avenue house.

"We sold off everything we owned and moved up here."

But of course the new empty space had to be filled, so they began what he calls "Round 2" as collectors. This time they were more selective, "seeking harder to find pieces rather that the common ones. ...

"We gave up on dinnerware and art pottery and concentrated pretty much on stoneware," he said. From the start he had been attracted to it, particularly the advertising pieces. "They tickled my fancy."

Eventually they realized they had too much, "so we got in the collecting, buying and selling business," Bartlewski said. He rented booths at antique shops in Red Wing and Cannon Falls and sold off much of their collection there and at auctions.

"We got even more selective" in the next stage, he said. "We started buying nice things and enjoying them for a while then selling them to other collectors for them to enjoy. ...

"Since I retired in 2001 from UPS, I've pretty much done this as a hobby."

Today their collection consists mostly of advertising and salt-glaze stoneware — a type of pottery that dates to the 1880s. Production switched to a zinc glaze in 1906.

"It just got in our blood," Bartlewski admitted. "But now we sell only during the Red Wing convention. Otherwise we're retired."

The hunt has changed, he noted. "You can buy a lot online now, through social media." There aren't many auctions to attend these days, as most sales are being conducted online.

He misses the camaraderie of auctions, Bartlewski said. When you spend several hours at an auction to bid on just a couple of items, "there's lots of time to visit."

He still keeps an eye out for rare and special pieces, especially if he knows one of his "regulars" is looking for the item.

'Like it, buy it'

Having watched buyers come and go for a decade, Bartlewski has some theories about today's collectors.

"We're seeing much more of younger collectors, people in the 30-to-40 age range. They like good stuff," including miniatures, salt-glaze and advertising pieces, he said.

"A lot of the older people still come around and visit. They don't buy like they used to. They probably have a house full already."

Out-of-town collectors who attend the convention come prepared to buy, he said. They know they'll find lots of Red Wing here, but there will be plenty of competition for the rare pieces.

His advice is always, "If you see something and you like it, buy it."

Bartlewski enjoys knowing that treasures he found and sold went to good homes. He had a lion doorstop that went to a Colorado collection, and a 1915 Potters Excursion jug that went to Illinois. Each sold for about $7,500.

This year his garage is filled with about 80 percent Red Wing and 20 percent miscellaneous items such as Scandinavian tine boxes, advertising signs and toys.

Nancy Bartlewski will have some specialty items for sale, too. She creates needle punch scenes and stained glass pieces, including red wings.

Their garage will be easy to spot. Sitting in the driveway is a one-of-a-kind "rat rod" made by their son, Cole, using a 1930 Ford body and a 1965 Ford 6-cylinder engine.

If you stop to dicker, keep in mind that you're dealing with a dyed-in-the-wool collector who shares your passion.

"I never buy with the idea I will make money on it," Bartlewski said. "I buy because I like it, and I know someone else will probably like it too. I'm not in it to make money. It's just fun."

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