Out collector adds LGBT sensibility to antiques show

Mo Wajselfish became an antiques dealer almost by accident. He had been a painter and a musician during his university years. But when he was 23, his father died.

 

The two were very close, said Wajselfish, who was born in Israel but moved to England when he was 12 for boarding school. He happened to run across a ceramic plate that said “From an affectionate father.”

“I bought the plate, but then the whole thing was interesting to me,” said Wajselfish, now 65. “I got into it in a big way, researching it and finding other people who were interested in it.” 

Wajselfish started collecting china made for children, particularly pieces that were produced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Staffordshire. Then he realized he could make a living by selling some of the pieces he found. 

He made his first sale to an aristocrat, which he called “very symbolic.” Soon after, cast members of the long-running British soap opera “Coronation Street” became clients, along with Bob Geldof, who organized Live Aid in 1985 and was considered pop royalty at the time.

“I built a crowd following,” Wajselfish said. 

He eventually opened a shop on Portobello Road in London.

Part of what Wajselfish liked about becoming an antiques dealer was its “liberated culture.”

“There are quite a few gay people in the antique business,” Wajselfish said.

He credits trips to Amsterdam with helping him through his own coming-out process. The Gay Liberation Front in the United Kingdom was gaining steam when Wajselfish was a young man in the early 1970s. He said he went into his first gay club in Amsterdam and found his first gay-liberation pamphlet in one of the clubs.

“The antique community and the theater community are very similar in appealing to the gay community because they’ve always been tolerant,” said Wajselfish, who now owns Leatherwood Antiques in Sandwich, Mass.

He and his partner, Johnny Young, specialize in children’s pottery, Black Forest carvings with a focus on bears, cold-painted Vienna bronzes and sailor woolwork pictures, called woolies.

They will have their wares on display at the annual Main Line Antiques Show next weekend. The show takes place from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Oct. 3 and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 4. It will be held in Dixon Center at Cabrini College, 610 King of Prussia Road, Radnor Township.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the show, which benefits Surrey Services for Seniors in Chester and Delaware counties.

“Mo has such a variety of different things,” said Nick Vandekar, chairman of the antiques show. “He definitely has a very good eye and a specific flair for what he does.”

Wajselfish came to the United States in the 1990s. He met a fellow dealer named Jesse Caldwell, who invited him to travel to shows together. The two men became business partners.

Caldwell was the original owner of Leatherwood Antiques. After he died of prostate cancer, Wajselfish continued the business. 

A year later, Wajselfish met Young online and the two have been partners in love and work since then. Young is originally from North Carolina and has a degree in computer science. 

“We trust each other completely,” Wajselfish said. “We each felt the other will bring the other part of the puzzle, so to speak.”

It has been an interesting road for the pair. Wajselfish is Jewish and Young is Christian. Wajselfish said he is used to the more cosmopolitan views of Europe and Young comes from a conservative Southern family.

“All in all, we are happy,” Wajselfish said. “The business is our life. It’s a business you live. We do shows all over the place.”

Despite their travels, coming to Pennsylvania is relatively new for the couple. They often participate in shows in Delaware, but Wajselfish said he noticed about 80 percent of their customers came from the Keystone state.

He said he’s dealt with Pennsylvania customers who have a lot of interest in and knowledge of antiques. For buyers in the Philadelphia area, Wajselfish thought they would be especially interested in some of the children’s pottery. 

“Ben Franklin was around at the time the pottery was big and he was traveling the world,” Wajselfish said. “His mottos would often end up on china like plates and mugs. Earlier on, his name was not affixed, but later it was.”

Wajselfish said the gay community would also be interested in the Black Forest bear carvings.

“In the gay world, we are called bears,” Wajselfish said of him and Young. “A bear is a man with a beard who is stockier.” 

He said many men have started to collect bear art to embrace the symbolism. 

“When I was young, the gay male world was all about being slim and pretty,” Wajselfish said. “My taste was never that. I liked people who had more meat on them. Now, you can like bigger people, not just slim people. You started to have a movement within the gay community.”

“No longer did we have to be thin to be admired. You could be chubby and bearded and still be admired. It was OK.”

Vandekar, the chairman of the antiques show, said visitors can learn tidbits like this by attending “booth talks” Oct. 3 to hear brief chats about a dealer’s specialties. Usually dealers will talk about the history of a specific item and its standout qualities, he said. 

Vandekar noted Wajselfish would not be the only member of the LGBT community at The Main Line Antiques Show. There will be at least one other LGBT vendor coming from Chicago and others from across the country. 

For more information, visit www.mainlineantiquesshow.com.