Beth Karp’s carefully decorated home is in a bit of disarray. Open boxes scattered around a room of antiques reveal turn-of-the-century Christmas decorations wrapped in tissue paper. She’s graciously agreed to an October photo shoot for this article; as such she’s had to sift and sort through the hundreds of pieces that make up her collection. Her resulting display is only a small sampling of what family and friends are privy to during the holiday season.

Her husband, Jay Karp, auctioneer and appraiser at the longtime family-owned Main Auction Galleries Inc. in downtown Cincinnati, asks her why she doesn’t include a particular Santa she thinks is scary in her arrangement.

“You really think that’s scary?” he asks.

“Honey, most people wouldn’t think that’s a cool thing,” she replies.

Admittedly, the Santa is a little scary-looking. But it’s an exception. Her Santas, almost all of which were handcrafted in Germany between 1890 and 1920, look distinctly different from the plastic, light-up, blow-up Santas available in supermarkets today. These days, the only thing new in her collection is garland.

Outside of the holiday season, Karp busies herself with her landscape design business: Beth Karp Designs. In addition to designing yards, she has about 10 regular clients for whom she plants annuals and designs containers every year. Her own 3-acre Indian Hill property is a bold testament to her work.
Despite the dry summer, individual garden rooms burst with life and color, and carefully designed patios and walkways provide for a delightful walking tour.

Her eye for texture in landscape design translates nicely into the displays she spends two weeks creating — and up to a month perfecting — in five rooms in her house during the holidays. In addition to Santas, Karp has a fondness for antique snow babies and feather trees — artificial Christmas trees made with real goose feathers dyed and wrapped tightly around wires. The sparse number of sturdy branches allows her antique ornaments, many of which are made out of spun cotton, to really stand out.

“I’ve always liked old furniture,” Karp says. When she met Jay in the late 1960s, her passion for antiques grew, largely because of Jay’s family business. For years she studied, sought out and bought antique dolls, toys and holiday decorations — so much so that she’s often asked to share her expertise when these items come up for sale at Main Auction Galleries. And once her three children were grown, she began collecting nicer items.

“Dolls are a little more fun because you can leave them out all year,” she says. But because of the time Karp spends setting up her holiday displays, she often leaves her holiday collection out through January. And during the off-season, when she’s not designing garden rooms or working in her yard, she’s hunting for yet another item for her collection.

Although she doesn’t have a favorite, one Santa she’s particularly fond of came from Hamilton. “Like a doll, he had glass eyes,” she says. “But he was in bad shape.” However, she knew her friend, Jay Arnold, a restorer in Cleveland, would be able to fix him. The next day her husband went out, alone, to buy the Santa for her. Fearing he wouldn’t purchase the Santa upon learning how much it cost, Karp decided to drive out to Hamilton to meet him. She convinced him to go out and grab a bite to eat. He did, and she bought the Santa while he was gone. Her husband still laughs at the story.

Although one can easily spend thousands of dollars on antique holiday decorations, Karp rarely spends so much. Antique Christmas postcards, for example, can cost as little as 50 cents. And she refuses to buy pricey, hand-blown glass ornaments, which can easily be knocked off trees and broken. But if something catches her eye and she can afford it, she buys it.

Even though Karp says she occasionally buys items that turn out to be reproductions, her husband insists she has “an unbelievable eye.” Smiling at her, he says, “If she spots something, that means it’s good.” Looking at her collection spilling out of cardboard boxes, it’s difficult to disagree. ■