Nostalgia and memories are where the heart lies — for all of us, but more so for antique collectors, who are always chasing after those pieces of memorabilia that evoke the warmth and safety and love of childhood. No person in New Paltz has more affection for Christmas and Santa Claus than Walter Marquez, longtime owner of the Antiques Barn at Water Street Market in downtown New Paltz.
“I always loved Christmas as a child: the glitter, the tinsel, the decorations…all of it!” said Marquez, facing a glass cabinet collection of his most beloved plastic Santas from the 1950s and 1960s at the Antiques Barn and with a sign that says, “Not for Sale.” That case — which he admits that customers salivate over, and get ornery when he won’t sell his prized collection — includes the only Santas that he has ever bought on eBay. “There they are,” he says, beaming, “purple, blue, red, green, yellow plastic Santas from the ‘50s all with their tools!” Those tools include hammers and axes, sickles and chainsaws, and found Marquez at a store that wanted $300 for the set.
“I love my collections, but I’m not going to spend a fortune on them,” he said. “I love the hunt, whether it’s flea markets, antique shops, estate sales, yard sales…but my love for Santas does not surpass $10 or $20 tops!” The one and only time that the antique dealer dared to go on eBay was to find this collection of 1950s plastic Santas with their tools and was able to procure them for peanuts.
“This is nothing!” said Marquez’s partner Cosmo Lizzi, as energetic as the authentic Santa could ever be. “In his house he has more than 600 antique Santas, all arranged in various areas by those that are ceramic, cloth, wood, plastic…it’s a masterpiece of Christmas love!”
Marquez said that his collection began when he was a child and was the proud guardian of his parents’ and grandparents’ ornaments and decorations. “I’m not sure what began my obsession, but I loved Christmas: all that it meant to me and my family, the beauty and magic of it — and Santa Claus was the reigning figure!”
As an antique collector, Marquez has several collections both personally and professionally, but none that rivals his collection of Santas. “I had almost 900, but with Hurricane Irene my basement was flooded, and I lost hundreds of Santas who were in plastic storage containers that were swept up by the water; and when I got to them, it was kind of macabre and sad. In those tipped-over plastic containers were destroyed objects bleeding red.” Marquez mentions that moment, but notes passionately how a “few antique Santas compared to what all my neighbors and loved ones lost is absolutely nothing!”
Maybe it’s because of his compassion and charm and ability to hunt down a treasure that people come from all over to purchase his antiques, offer their Santas and beg him to sell his Christmas treasures. “Some say it’s a tease,” said Marquez, reflecting on his four-shelved glass case of antique Santas, “but I can’t part with them!”
Although he unveils an extensive collection at his circa-1775 house in Highland during the holiday season, he always saves his most treasured for display at the Antiques Barn in New Paltz. “As you can see, some of them are wobblers [heads that bounce]; some of them have openings in their sacks for candies; others are push-up Santas with bells that ring; and still others are light-up Santas, tree-toppings. They all give a sense of nostalgia and pleasure, and remind me of my childhood and others’ childhoods.”
“That’s the beauty of the hunt,” said Lizzi. “We look all year for Santas at flea markets, yard sales, antique shops, estate sales…He has an eye!”
Lizzi noted that in Marquez’s historic home are “hundreds of more Santas. It’s magical! He has them grouped by ceramic Santas, wooden Santas, cloth Santas, plastic Santas…and it all comes together! I’m compulsive, and I said so many times as he brought boxes down from the attic, ‘Don’t put that one there; put it over here.’ And he ignored me.” This went on for a weekend until Lizzi was silenced, sitting back, ignoring the decorative activity. “I looked up and said, ‘Wow, he knows what he’s doing! These are all so beautifully placed and organized that I’m ready to celebrate Christmas!’”
The joy that Marquez gets from his Santas is not monetary or commercial. “It’s my love. I bring them out once a year, and my clients adore them. They get mad sometimes that I won’t sell them, but they’ve become a seasonal fixture in the store. So many people come just to see them each holiday season. I think it’s because, like all antiques, it elicits that sense of connection with our parents, grandparents, childhood. And who represents that more than Santa Claus?”