Appraiser brings history to life

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Carol Sorgen
Ross Kelbaugh (right) talks with a participant on
“Chesapeake Collectibles,” MPT’s local version
of “Antiques Roadshow,” in which appraisers
evaluate items brought in by viewers. Kelbaugh,
a former history teacher, collects vintage
photographs and writes books.
Photo courtesy of MPT

Talk to Ross Kelbaugh for even a few minutes and you’ll see why he was a successful history teacher for 30 years.

Kelbaugh’s passion for bringing the past to life is contagious, a fact that did not escape the producers of the MPT-produced television program “Chesapeake Collectibles,” a local version of the internationally popular series, “Antiques Roadshow.”

For the local show, area residents bring antiques and collectibles to the MPT studios to be appraised by area experts and filmed for possible airing.

During the program’s inaugural season last year, Kelbaugh brought in a pre-Civil War object to be appraised. Not only was his filmed interview included in one of the first-season episodes, but he was later invited to become one of the appraisers for the second season of the program.

The producers were impressed not only by the 62-year-old Baltimore County resident’s knowledge, but by his on-air presence. The fact that he was a “local boy” made him even more attractive, Kelbaugh related, as the producers were seeking to have more Marylanders as appraisal experts, instead of bringing in folks from out of town.

Kelbaugh will appear in eight of the 13 second-season episodes, which began airing on MPT stations in January.

To tape those eight programs, Kelbaugh spent two “very long and difficult” days this past June, seeing countless people who brought in their treasures in hopes of finding out more of the objects’ history — and, of course, perhaps learning that they were sitting on a small fortune.

Becoming a collector

Kelbaugh, whose specialty on the series is collectibles and ephemera, did come across a few gems that made his heart beat a little faster, including a set of letters written in 1941 between a mother and her son who ultimately lost his life later that year in the bombing of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

For Kelbaugh, his work on “Chesapeake Collectibles” is just an extension of his days in the classroom. He taught history to junior and senior high students in Catonsville until retiring in 2001.

“I would always bring objects in to show the students,” he said. “I wanted to teach them not only about the artifact itself, but about the people related to it. There’s excitement in uncovering someone’s life…I’ve always enjoyed that hunt.”

If you like to play along on shows such as “Chesapeake Collectibles” and “Antiques Roadshow” and think, ‘Hey, I could do that,’ know that Kelbaugh has spent virtually his entire life acquiring the vast knowledge he has when it comes to the world of antiques.

In grade school, he began collecting stamps and coins. By the time he was in sixth grade, which coincided with the Civil War Centennial, he was captivated by that era of American history.

“I was attending Pikesville Elementary School, which was located next to what once was the Home for Confederate Soldiers [now Maryland State Police headquarters],” Kelbaugh said. That piece of history, virtually in his own backyard, “ignited my imagination,” he said.

He wasn’t alone, Kelbaugh recalled. Among the boys of the Sudbrook Park neighborhood in which he grew up, collecting Civil War relics was an avid pursuit.

From then on, Kelbaugh continued his collecting ways, fully encouraged by his parents, who were also interested in antiques. From flea markets to antique shops, he began picking up relics from the Civil War era.

As a high school student, he even brought in a Civil War musket to his initially doubtful history teacher, who soon realized that the young Kelbaugh knew what he was doing.

At the age of 13, Kelbaugh’s parents took him to a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, and for the first time he was exposed to “living history,” which led to his participation in Civil War reenactments himself.

It also inspired him to march in the Fife and Drum Corps (Kelbaugh plays the fife) in the country’s bicentennial parades, both in Washington, D.C., and in Philadelphia — something he still recalls as an “incredible thrill.”

A focus on photography

As a college student at the University of Maryland College Park, one of Kelbaugh’s early mentors was Burt Kummerow, now the president of the Maryland Historical Society. It was Kummerow who sparked Kelbaugh’s interest in early photography and took his collecting in an entirely new direction.

“Burt came early to the field of early American photography, a field that didn’t get much respect in the museum world at that time,” said Kelbaugh.

It was in 1971, as he was graduating from college, that Kelbaugh had the “epiphany” that set him on the 40-year path that led to his having one of the most important collections of 19th century/early 20th century photography — especially Maryland photography — in the country.

“I realized that there was a lot of material out there waiting to be bought and appreciated,” Kelbaugh said.

He sold off most of his Civil War collection of artifacts and started buying photographs. One of his first acquisitions was a daguerreotype by Baltimore daguerreotypist J.D. Marsters.

That early purchase led Kelbaugh to what he calls a “great adventure,” although he says that with the Internet and the growing interest through the years of museums and deep-pocket collectors (such as rock musician Graham Nash), early photographic images are getting increasingly more difficult to find — and more expensive.

When he first started building his collection, Kelbaugh could purchase vintage photos for less than a dollar (though he has also spent in the “five figures” he said).

His collection grew to number in the thousands. Some he lives with, others he stores, and still others he has sold. One of the latter— the only known photo of a black Civil War soldier and his family — is now on loan from its purchaser to the Library of Congress.

Through the decades, Kelbaugh continued his own collecting efforts, “running the roads” on weekends, attending flea markets, antiques fairs, estate sales, etc., in search not only of Civil War-era finds, but also 19th-century folk art and furnishings.

“I was always interested in what was good, whether it was a direct interest of mine or not,” he said. As a result, Kelbaugh developed a broad spectrum of knowledge about antiques, or as he said with a laugh, “I know a little about a lot of things, and a lot about a few things.”

These days, Kelbaugh doesn’t scour antiques shows as frequently as he once did. Now he can just sit at his computer and see what’s for sale on eBay.

But Kelbaugh also admits that as he gets older, he realizes that the work of acquiring and caring for a collection may be more effort than he wants to put in.

“At this time of life, you begin to think about downsizing,” he said. At the same time, he laments that younger people don’t seem to have the same acquisitive nature as his generation did —at least not for historical artifacts.

A full plate

By virtue of staying closer to home, Kelbaugh has been able to pursue other areas of his interests, such as the creation of Historic Graphics (www.historicgraphics.com) — a multifaceted company through which he buys and sells vintage images, displays photographs from his collection online, and provides graphics and research services for other publications and even for films, such as Steven Spielberg’s Gettysburg.

Among Kelbaugh’s other recent ventures was serving as guest curator for the Maryland Historical Society exhibition, “The Civil War in Maryland: Rare Photographs from the Maryland Historical Society and Its Members.”

He also produced a 3-D short film for the society about the beginnings of the Civil War, and is now working on one about the Battle of Antietam.

Kelbaugh is also the author of several books. The most popular, Introduction to Civil War Photography, is in its 10th printing.

His most recent book, Maryland Civil War Photography: The Sesquicentennial Collection, will be published this spring by the Maryland Historical Society.

Between all that, Kelbaugh says, “My plate is full.”

Still, if you weren’t one of the 1,200 visitors to the most recent tapings of “Chesapeake Collectibles” and want Kelbaugh to give you the benefit of his expertise, you can catch him at some of his upcoming public appearances at antiques and military collectibles shows and at open appraisals.

He will have a table at the annual Maryland Arms Collectors Show at the Timonium Fairgrounds on March 17 and 18, where he will be selling and buying fine military photographs in addition to other mlitaria.

On March 24, Kelbaugh will be appraising antiques at “Treasured Heirlooms,” sponsored by the Historical Society of Frederick County. (For Kelbaugh’s full appearance schedule, visit the Historic Graphics website.)

For would-be collectors, Kelbaugh said that the Middle Atlantic and New England states are the richest source for anything related to American history. “Thrifty New Englanders held on to everything!” he said.

And though you might think that 150 years after the end of the Civil War there would be no artifacts left to find, you’d be mistaken, Kelbaugh said. “There’s still a lot of stuff coming out of family homes.”

While the Internet may open up new avenues for collecting, Kelbaugh said that there’s still nothing like attending an antiques show, flea market or auction.

“There’s just no substitute for seeing an object in person and holding a piece of history in your hands,” he said.