Mary Jo Case: The Queen of Tennessee Collectors
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 27, 2016Mary Jo Case saves pieces of history: art, pottery, furniture, silver, baskets and even a house. When she falls in love with a piece of history, even if it's been mistreated throughout the years, she restores it.
Her grandmother introduced her to collecting and the importance of the history associated with individual pieces.
"She was a great collector, and she collected until she passed away in her 90s. I went along with her when I was young. She used to take me to antique shops and to the relatives and talk to me about the history of pieces the family owned. That's where the bug hit me, but I didn't begin collecting until many years later," Case says.
Before Case began collecting, she went to High Point College and N.C. State and married Wayne Case. In the 1960s, they moved to Kingsport.
"My grandmother gave me my first pieces. They were castoffs, things to start housekeeping with," she says. When Case's four children were young, she would load them up in the car and, "I'd take off. I had to stay pretty much in this region because of the kids. That's how I started collecting."
When she first began collecting Tennessee furniture, it may have been because she needed to stay close to home to raise her children, but it was also because she loved it.
"I never realized that one day Tennessee furniture would be as popular as it is now. Good Tennessee furniture is up there as far as desirability and rarity. I had to stay close while everybody else was going to Pennsylvania, because I had those four children." What most people would see as a restriction, she turned into an advantage.
She soon discovered a passion for Tennessee furniture, pottery and art and decided that she needed to educate herself. "I started going to some of the museums, and I felt like that was an opportunity to learn by looking. I went to Old Salem to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, the William King Museum of Art, the Tennessee State Museum and good house museums."
Her first piece of Tennessee furniture was a pie safe (a cabinet with decorative pierced tin panels, originally used to store pies after baking). She has an affinity for Tennessee pie safes, has several of them throughout her collection and has donated some to museums.
"They have always been a passion for me. Pie safes from this region have good forms and desirable tin piercing. The cases are usually walnut or cherry; you don't see that much unless it's a pie safe from Pennsylvania, but their tin patterns are different. Tennessee tin patterns tend to be urns, flowers and tulips. Wythe County, Virginia, uses those as well, but their cases are different. It's hard to tell the difference between a Wythe County and East Tennessee safe, unless you've looked at them for years. If you collect them for a while, you'll know from the turnings, configurations of the doors and drawers," she says.
Initially she didn't collect only Tennessee pieces, but as she learned more about the subject, she began to ease non-Tennessee pieces out of her collection.
"You learn to recognize things from this area. Families in the 19 th century moved along The Great Road (the trail through the Appalachian Valley from Pennsylvania to western Virginia and beyond) and stuff gets around when families move, so I'd find some when we were going home to North Carolina on vacation."
She found her treasures at estate sales, auctions, antique stores, flea markets and through relationships she developed throughout the years.
"I had people who would call me, if they had an item for sale. Most of the time it wasn't anything I wanted, but I would take a look at it. I went to flea markets. I'd get up really, really early (generally by 4 a.m.) because I had to be back by 8 a.m., so Wayne could play golf. I used to find things there. It was a fun thing to do, but it was hard work. The relationships helped. They don't come immediately but develop over a number of years. It's not intentional, it just happens. People will know you love something, and they'll let you know when they come across it."
Her most significant finds came at an auction in Asheville, North Carolina, and they're divided among her house and two museums. She found a group of furniture that came from the Devault Tavern.
"I had very little knowledge of the Devault Tavern. I hadn't gone planning on buying these. The pieces were listed as Leesburg and people didn't know if that was Virginia or Tennessee, but they were listed as coming from the Devault Tavern and I knew where that was. I was just appalled that there was no more interest than there was in them. I bought a chest, rocker, pie safe and two chairs. One of the chairs is at Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one is in Williamsburg. They're really unique. Ron Hurst at Williamsburg said it was the most unique Windsor chair he'd seen and is one of his favorite objects," she says.
When her collection began to get too large, and she wanted to remove the non-Tennessee pieces from her collection, she opened Anchor Antiques in Kingsport, Tennessee.
"My neighbor owned the building, and he asked me if I could use it for a gift shop or something. Well, I didn't want a gift shop, but I thought I'd like to open an antique shop," she says. Owning an antique shop turned out to be educational. "You learn so much from other people and other dealers. You get a feel for whether something is right or wrong."
Two of her children, David and John, are both involved in the family business. They caught the "bug" when she took them along on her searches for new finds for her collection.
"She was definitely the matriarch who got us interested," David Case says. David has taken over the operation of Anchor Antiques. John operates Case Antiques, Auctions and Appraisals in Knoxville, Tennessee. "She kept it fun and got us interested in discovering and finding things," David Case says. "We'd go into places where things had been left to the elements and find monumental pieces of pottery or coverlets."
He says she once found a stack of coverlets made by a textile mill in Maryville in a house with a leaking roof. "She could see a corner of one of them under other bedspreads. She just started pulling back all these bedspreads, and there they were. If she hadn't found them, they would have been lost."
Whether she finds Tennessee treasures in an antique shop, a barn or a flea market, she never loses her excitement or her willingness to share her knowledge.
She advises new collectors to educate themselves. "Go to any local or regional museums. Go to exhibits and ask questions. Invest in books on regional furniture or pottery, because knowledge is power. Talk to collectors and look at collections. Lots of collectors have open houses or are willing to share them with you. You learn by seeing good collections. Find out information from people who are selling you something. If you have any doubts, try to research it yourself. MESDA's files are so useful. It's the largest collection of decorative arts research in the South, and you can pull it up online."
Her bottom line -"You have to have passion."
> Museums benefit from Mary Jo Case's Collection
This Greene County, Tennessee, food safe was given to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, by Mary Jo Case.