20 Mar Chapter 8: Westward Ho
Frankly, upon leaving Texas and heading to what local propaganda still proclaimed to be the Golden State, the last thing that concerned us was antiques. Our inventory had been largely disposed of and what survived were things we chose to live with. Besides, my professional interests took a turn that required extensive foreign travel to places like Taiwan, China, Russia, Poland, Chile and Ukraine. My wife, in the meantime, returned to her true profession as a nurse. The kids were growing older, attending and then graduating from high school, and preparing for college. All of this in combination with the experience of having our antique business go belly up in Texas led us to go cold turkey when it came to antiques. In my mind at the time California was a vast wasteland for Americana. If in Pittsburgh we sold a depression era china cabinet you couldn’t otherwise give away, it went to a California dealer. If you sold a $25 pressback oak chair for $100, it too went to California. If you one of those 1930s waterfall bedroom sets out of a home, the odds were better than 50-50 it would find a new home in California. I also recalled that whenever I’d traveled to California professionally and slipped away from a conference or workshop to poke through a nearby antique shop with what promised an inventory of legitimate antiques, I often found price tags that astounded me: That $400 or $500 refinished Hoosier was ticketed then at $1,500; the Windsor chair with contemporary latex paint on it was now priced at three or four times what it would sell for back East; and a beat up one door cupboard missing its feet sported a price that left one wondering what planet you were on. So for our first five or so years here we lived under the assumption we were in the land of bad taste and high prices. Still suffering from the hangover of our Texas experience, I don’t think we walked into an antique shop or attended a flea market, even out of curiosity. We were done, finished, kaput! Or so we thought. Indeed, little did I realize that my involvement with antiques would soon enough become more intense that it had ever been.
The resurgence began with one of our sons. Having hauled our kids to countless auctions, shows and flea markets, we assumed that any interest in antiques had been driven out of them. I hate fishing because in my youth my father dragged me off to every fishing hole within fifty miles of Boston, and I assumed our earlier dabbling in antiques had an equivalent impact on the kids. So it was a surprise when our oldest asked if I’d go with him and his new bride to an auction to advise on some antiques to furnish their home. With a five year and 1500 mile gap in things, I wasn’t sure what help I could be, but I went. The auction itself was dull and consisted largely of things that confirmed my prejudices about California’s tastes. After all, what can you expect of a place that builds plastic cell towers to mimic palm trees, treats browned out grass by painting it green and where various landscaping establishments sell astroturf or its contemporary equivalent. How can a people who suffer emotional trauma with the death of some Hollywood celebrity they’ve never met appreciate an 18th century chest of drawers or an early 19th century needlepoint sampler? Now rest assured, even after some 30+ years I haven’t wholly dismissed my jaundiced view of taste out here. I still can’t reject the hypothesis that the surest way to sell a cherry Federal chest in Los Angeles is to paint it green and hang brass off the corners so as to mimic some tawdry French or Italian style. So I was a tad surprised to find, admittedly out of place at the auction, a cherry five-drawer 1820s Sheraton tall chest. Not a spectacular country piece by any stretch of the imagination, but wholly legitimate nevertheless. Digging back into the memory banks as to what it might have sold for in the past, I told my son that a fair price would be something between $400 to $800, figuring that my estimate was broad enough to maintain some credibly when it sold. Needless to say I was more than mildly surprised when they bought it for $200 – a definite bargain.
As I said, in addition to bad taste, I’d always had the impression that California, with its Tinseltown money and semi-mythical neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Malibu and Bel Air, would be an expensive market for the sorts of things I liked if those things even existed out here. Suddenly here was a counter-example. Perhaps it was fluke – stranger things happen at auctions — but I had to question my assumptions when, a month or so later, they dragged me off to another auction and much the same things happened – a cherry pembroke table along with a federal card table sold for what I thought was half the cost of the wood. So to test the waters further, I finally pulled myself out of bed early one Sunday and made it, as if a tourist, to one of the local flea markets – the nearby Rose Bowl, which with a healthy dose of exaggeration and pomposity advertised itself as the “Brimfield of the West” (assuming you can ignore the countless rows of used jeans, t-shirts and sneakers). I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Actually, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. But when I came across a nice Hepplewhite one-drawer work table for $60 and several overshot coverlets in great condition for what back East would be a steal, how could I resist?
Things always seem to come in bunches and this was but another example. The flea market after that also yielded a coverlet or two – dated Jacquards in this case, including an uncommon New York Sate example in a salmon weave with lions in the corners. I was doubly lucky there in that the dealer obviously hadn’t run off to consult a price guide that might have led him to ticket the coverlet at $700 or so. Indeed, it suddenly seemed that early to mid 19th century coverlets were more plentiful in California than they’d ever proven to be at their origins. And cheaper too! Well, the cheaper part I could understand since who needs a wool coverlet in Southern California to keep warm? But what were they even doing out here? There was no need, though, to answer that question; more important was deciding what to do with them. I didn’t want to start a collection but I also felt that I’d best read a bit since my knowledge of coverlets wasn’t extensive. And here’s where fate stepped in to once again ruffle the leaves of that ever-present willow. I learned that a secretary in my building had just collaborated with someone to open a nearby antique shop specializing in Americana with a nice library of reference books. So off I went to explore this new shop and sure enough, there was her partner not only willing to make his library available to me but also willing to take my coverlets on consignment.
Now frankly I didn’t have much hope of selling the coverlets in the shop … there was a reason why they were so cheap at the flea markets; to wit, there was almost no market whatsoever for them in California and at the flea markets I was the market. Be that as it may, given the shop’s accessibility and willingness to take things on consignment, I began hitting the flea markets more regularly. In a backhanded way I was again slipping into the antiques business, and little did I realize how steep and slippery that slide could be. Tom (the shop’s owner) had just moved from a small space in one of the local antique malls and decided to roll the dice with a shop of his own, knowing full well that he was taking one hell of a gamble. Even then, when the antiques business was going full steam, other dealers told him he was nuts and probably wouldn’t survive more than a few years. That, if memory serves me correctly, was more than twenty years ago (although he did recently close his shop). In any event, after discovering our mutual passion, we began attending flea markets together and in lieu of making claims to ownership of what we found, we treated things as jointly owned. Matters accelerated when his partner (the secretary) moved back East. Tom was now positioned where he wanted to be – in sole control of the shop, wherein he’d have to answer to no one as to how it was run. In the meantime we continued our joint excursions and soon found our collaboration expanding to include local estate sales and auctions. As I’ve already noted, four hands are often better than two at an estate sale. So bit by bit our joint inventory grew until after a year or so a majority of the shop’s inventory was jointly owned (which wasn’t hard since, when he opened, his inventory could at best be described as minimal). However, unlike my involvement with antiques in Texas, this one suited my preferences perfectly. With Tom preferring to be the shop’s owner, operator, etc, there was no need for me to do anything except spend money and cash the monthly check from our sales. And if something needed repair or refinishing, the back of his shop and parking lot provided all the space and resources needed to do the job. Antiques had become the perfect hobby.
Actually, it was even more perfect than it had ever been. With an exclusive focus on Americana there was no need to pursue peripheral things things merely because they might help pay expenses. Under an arrangement in which a fixed percentage of all sales was my only obligation toward meeting the shop’s overhead, those expenses were no longer my concern. That monkey was on Tom’s back, and in fact I never even attempted to learn the precise magnitude of Tom’s shop overhead. There were other advantages as well for me. In a considerable number of categories – art especially – Tom’s expertise greatly exceeded mine. While whatever I knew came primarily from my experience over the years with buying and selling at the wholesale level … and with no specific focus I was endowed with no specific expertise … Tom had made learning about Americana more of an academic exercise, studying it as it ought to be studied (hence his library of reference books). And if there was an area in which both of us fell short in terms of knowledge (and there were indeed many), the shop’s focus meant that those with the requisite expertise often found their way to us. We each learned a lot about clocks, samplers, quilts and pewter, for example, from people who became regular clients and who were more than eager to put their knowledge on display (which, I might add, is a general characteristic of collectors).
There was for me one other advantage to this arrangement. Tom’s shop, at least in Southern California, stood atop whatever passed for the local food chain for Americana. Unlike our experiences in Pennsylvania where our market was largely other dealers, Tom’s was overwhelmingly retail. Thus, I could approach things with a bit more flexibility in my purchasing decisions (i.e., my willingness to take shots in the dark and thereafter pray I wasn’t a complete boob). I no longer had to worry that what I paid for something made it impossible to wholesale. And that, in turn, meant I could buy things I truly liked even if I had to pay at the upper end of wholesale for it. Prior to that if I guessed something would retail for, say, $1,000, I didn’t dare pay more than $400 for it. And in the Northeast’s competitive Americana market, all I can say is good luck buying it for that price, whatever “it” might be. Now, however, if I deemed a piece eminently sellable such as an early 19th century sampler with what I guess had a fair retail value of $1,000, I could readily pay $600 or $700 for it.
There was, moreover, one additional consequence to this arrangement … I began collecting once again. Take that sampler for example, and suppose for whatever reason it languished in the shop. Well, since I was now focused exclusively on legitimate Americana in my hunt and purchases, I was also more often than not buying something I would mind owning. In fact, as was often the case, I might myself pay close to $1,000 for something I judged to be worth little more than that if, at the same time, I could envision hanging it on the wall in my house. I might first try to squeeze out, say, a $200 profit, but if that failed then so what … I’ll add it to my ever increasing collection (incrementally turning the house into what my kids came to call ‘the museum’). Many of the things pictured in this volume were acquired in precisely this way.
Now I have to say that what’s critical for this arrangement to work is for both sides to be tolerant of each other’s mistakes since mistakes are as mush a part of the antiques business as are pimples to a teenager. Two experiences come to mind. First there’s the stretcher based tavern table I pursued via an internet auction. Guaranteed to be of the period, antique prices hadn’t yet crashed as they would following 9/11 and then the “Obama recession” and I think my final winning bid was $3,000. However, when it finally arrived from New Jersey, it turned out to be a total fake. Not a reproduction, but a fake! Unfortunately this occurred when there were no protections or opportunities to return the item. The fault was largely mine. Buying on the internet was new to us, and I failed to apply due diligence by believing a description provided by a less than honest seller. Around the same time, however, Tom and I went on a house call in the Hollywood hills, and although we bought a few nice items, there was one piece that left me cold but that, in Tom’s words “sang to him” – a ladder back chair covered in late 19th century American postage stamps. Now this might sound pretty damned weird to you, especially when I tell you that the price of the chair was $2,500. It was pretty damned weird to me. But this is California and you’d be surprised to learn what people out here sometimes deem high end folk art. Besides, Tom had been an art major in college whereas my first degree was in engineering, so who was I to question people’s taste in “art” and assume that the singing in Tom’s ears was the result, as Ebenezer Scrooge might have guessed, the result of some undigested cheese. Those mistakes occurred more than 20 years ago, and insofar as I know Tom still eats off that tavern table in his dining room whereas it took upwards of ten years to finally sell the chair, and at a considerable loss.
One of those mistakes was mine, the other Tom’s, but we were wholly capable of stumbling together wherein afterwards we’d look at each other and say “why didn’t you stop me?” A family down by San Diego purchased several pieces of furniture from us, but the sale required that we take their late 18th century painted pewter cupboard as partial payment. Tom had seen the cupboard and, without inspecting it closely, lusted for it. Now if you don’t already know, one of the most desirable forms of American furniture out there is a pewter cupboard, and examples sporting original paint – well, you just don’t see them and if you do, you best have a healthy balance in your checking account. Needless to say, we jumped at the offer without questioning why anyone in their right mind would want to trade away a rarity. A degree of disappointment hit us when we drove down to retrieve it and learned, when putting it into the truck, that termites had attacked some of the crown molding. But heck, how bad can that be? Ok, so some of the molding will have to be replaced, but it would still be a fantastic addition to the shop – or so we thought. After getting the cupboard home, we removed the damaged wood, only to discover that the termites had been a tad more adventurous than we’d imagined: They didn’t stop at the molding and had made the cupboard an ongoing feast. Now here’s a fact for you: Termites like neither light nor paint, so if you’re one of those vociferous little critters what you do is eat just below the surface, gobbling up all that nice clean wood without leaving a visible trace of your travels on the surface. But once one begins to see that damage has been created – once you begin pushing on the wood with your thumb and it feels like a dry sponge – there generally is no end to the discovery process. Hope springs eternal of course, especially when you’ve made a blunder of this magnitude. So we kept on probing to see precisely how much epoxy wood filler would be required to dig us out of our hole. Let me just say that the cupboard remains outside in the back of the shop to this day, now rid of its infestation and a convenient place to store wood stain, wood filler, cans of shellac and whatever else might prove useful in resurrecting other things. In other words, pretty much a total loss!
Fig. 8-1: A Bug-infested Pewter Cupboard Put to Good Use
There were also more fortuitous instances in which signals between partners get confused but they remain nevertheless on the same wavelength. Here I’m thinking about an absolutely fantastic twelve foot late 18th century trestle table we previewed together at an auction. We agreed that it was something we wanted for the shop, but we were both unsure as to value. A table that old in perfect condition doesn’t come along all that frequently. But twelve feet! Can a table be too long? In any event, we agreed to limit our bid to $X (not gonna tell you that number so don’t bother asking). Tom had to watch the shop the day of the auction, so I went alone, and once there, the more I looked at it, the more I wanted it if only so that no one else could have it. It was my monopoly theory of antiques: If it’s a great piece, no one else should have it. And I did buy it, but not for $X – rather, for $X + 30%X. Now if you’re partners with someone, spending not only your money but theirs as well, when X is a four digit number that you’ve exceed by thirty percent or so, where the first digit of that number isn’t a “1” and where you’re not even sure of the marketability of what you’re buying, you hold your breath. This is precisely what I did when pulling into the shop’s parking lot to tell my erstwhile partner what “we” had paid for the table. Let’s just say there was a big sigh of relief on my part when he said “fantastic … I was afraid you’d let someone else get it.” That’s when you know the two of you are in sync.
Making things even more enjoyable was the opportunity to incrementally upgrade the shop, slowly ratcheting up the quality of its inventory. But herein is a warning for anyone thinking of opening a shop or who currently has one: Don’t outstrip your clientele. If there was a mistake being made here that went unnoticed because of its incremental nature it was in pricing some of our clients out of the market. As the quality of the shop’s inventory rose, those $50 and $100 decorative accessories – bed warmers, kitchen scales and floral hooked rugs — slowly disappeared, to be replaced by $250 and $500 items, so that we became incrementally dependent on customers with ever deeper pockets. Not to worry – Los Angeles has lots of people with deep pockets. Or so we assumed.
However, before I throw a bit of cold water on everything, let me note that, as in Texas, if you’re going to run an upscale and focused antiques shop, you had best participate in the local or regional antique shows. At the time this meant the country show just south of San Francisco in Los Altos and LA’s higher end annual antiques show in Santa Monica. Setting up at them is a learning experience all to itself. The first thing learned is that Hollywood’s overpaid and under-educated celebrities have about as much interest in or knowledge of Americana as my chocolate lab retriever. Unlike the show in Los Altos, the one in Santa Monica offered an eclectic mix, from cut glass to fancy French accessories to early 20th century California art. Nothing wrong with that, but how would you like to sit in your booth watching an actor from the TV series White House coming down the aisle in your direction? Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Here comes the money, right? After all, not only are you looking at someone with deep pockets, but also someone who spends their days on a Hollywood sound stage surrounded by a décor that mimics the interior of the White House and some of the finest American antiques in existence. But as he passes your booth does he even turn to look in? Does he even bother to acknowledge your existence? Nope! And he wasn’t alone among Hollywood personalities. Of the half dozen or so I could recognize in the course of a few days, I don’t think a single one showed more than a glancing interest in our booth. Frustrating? You bet! No surprise then that even some of the East coast Americana biggies no longer do that show.
In contrast, the California Country show at Los Altos was far more to our liking. Held twice a year, it was without question the premier country and Americana show on the West coast – fifty or so dealers offering a range and quality of Americana that could readily compete with some of the mid-level shows back East. If you were a country Americana dealer anywhere on the West Coast, you did that show! The only thing to dislike about it then was that, since there were few other focused sources in California of what was being offered there, you wanted to spend more than you sold. And sell we did – at least in the beginning. The first time we set up at it in the late ‘90s we couldn’t write sales tickets fast enough even working in tandem. Collectors from the full length of the state as well as from neighboring states (and keep in mind that California is big so someone driving down from, say, Oregon had just covered a distance the equivalent of a ride from Boston to Philadelphia!) came, and they came to spend. The show’s special feature was that it was one day only – Sunday, from 10 AM to 4 PM. The “be backers” and “I’ll have to see what my ____ [husband, wife, dog, parakeet] thinks about it” were few and far between. People either bought it or they didn’t. It was, in other words, an antiques dealer’s paradise – a paradise surrounded by first rate motels and restaurants. Even taking into account the time spent packing before and after the event, it certainly made driving up California’s Central Valley, which is akin to driving on the moon, a far less onerous task (I was once told that if the US had been populated from West to East instead of the other way around, the country never would have come into existence – people would have crossed from the coast into the Central Valley, looked around, and said to hell with it and turned back).
Things got even better when the managers of the Los Altos show opened a parallel venue in Southern California. These were indeed the halcyon days of Americana on this side of the continent. Moreover, if you’d gotten your hands on a high end formal piece or a superb example of folk art that might not appeal or be priced out of the range of your usual clients, dealers from the East could be found who were taking a shopping trip West. Thus, when we discovered a New Hampshire Dunlap chest on frame at a local auction, we didn’t worry about whether there was a market for it here or whether there was anyone within 500 miles of us who knew anything about the Dunlap school of furniture styles. There was certain to be a back-East dealer through soon enough who’d appreciate what we had.
All of this, however, was a nasty trap. When things are going good there’s an irresistible impulse to incrementally upgrade and expand one’s inventory for the same reason that a collector upgrades his or her collection over time — it feels good being surrounded by increasingly better, more expensive things. This, though, is the time to consider some simple economics of the antiques business. As I said earlier, antiques are, for the most part, luxury goods and if you’re in the bottom half of the income distribution, you probably aren’t even reading this book. There are a variety of ways of looking at things now, but suppose your family income is in the range of $40,000 to $100,000. The last time I looked, approximately 50% of the population falls into this category, which more than likely includes a good chunk of those who, when shopping in antique shops, will limit their “compulsive spur-of-the-moment buying” to things priced under $300 – an early silhouette for the living room, a Victorian-era scale for the kitchen, or a 1930s quilt for the guest bedroom. For purposes of argument, suppose on average such a person would spend $200 in your shop. If on the other hand your family income exceeds $100,000, you now fall into a category occupied by but 5% of the population, and suppose people here can afford to let their compulsive purchases reach up to $600, spending $400 on an average compulsive purchase. Now assume that in upgrading your inventory you lose all of your “$200” customers. To make up the lost income you’ll have to find one new “$400” customer for every two who no longer visit your shop. This might not seem bad – picking up one new customer for every two you’ve lost, especially if you assume that to make up the difference all you need do is take out an ad in one of those glossy-page regional design magazines. But hold on – things aren’t quite that easy. You’ve now limited yourself to a considerably smaller pool of potential clients. To see what I mean, suppose the pool of everyone earning above $40,000 per year equals, for purposes of a numerical example, 100,000 warm bodies, and suppose the upgrade costs you 2,000 potential clients. That loss represents 2% of the overall pool, whereas the 1,000 new clients you must now attract to make up the difference represents 10% of that $100,000+ pool. That is, whereas beforehand you were surviving by attracting a mere two percent of the potential pool of retail buyers, your one-for-two trade now requires that you attract five times the share of your reduced target client base.
Of course, one can play with these numbers to conclude that the upgrade is the only way to go. Heck, it might even be the case that you should ratchet up the quality and value of your inventory so as to shrink your client base down to a select 100 wealthy free-spending folks. If each spends $25,000 a year (one can only dream), you should certainly do better than merely squeak by. It’s been my experience that antiques dealers rarely if ever make such calculations, largely because dealers are inveterate optimists. Instead, it’s all touchy-feely, upgrading when things are going swimmingly, and compelled to do an about face when things head south. And things, sadly, can head in that other direction rather quickly. First came 9/11 and the gloom that followed it. The demand for antiques – at least what we were selling — took a nosedive. Naturally, we assumed that would soon pass, but to our surprise, while there seemed an occasional uptick, full recovery never materialized. In fact, overall sales continued to head down. It was, you might say, at least for Americana and for us, Texas redux in slow motion. The Los Altos show began to shrink, both in terms of the number of dealers and the number of customers. Then its Southern California extension was cancelled. Ownership of the show changed hands, which had to be one of the poorest investments ever made by anyone in antiques. That show died a slow agonizing death. In the meantime the higher end Americana dealers – those with full or half page ads in places like Antiques magazine — began pulling out of the high end LA show until there were none left, which ended their shopping trips West. This isn’t to say the market for Americana wholly vanished, but things sure weren’t what they had been in the late ‘90s or the first few years of the new millennium. As I said earlier, when a President announces that Islam lies at the core of the founding of the Republic, that the Founders themselves were nothing but a bunch of slave-owning white guys and where it’s illegal to fly the American flag at your home, the demand for Americana seems to wane.
The squeeze was on everyone, but mostly on anyone trying to maintain a shop and whose primary income came from antiques, Americana in particular. Tom was anything but an exception and since he, unlike me, depended on the shop for ordinary household expenses, soon enough he was unable to sustain it on the same terms as before. His mistake was that he hadn’t married an heiress to one of the railroad Robber Baron fortunes or the daughter of some Hollywood producer. So the first step in trying to survive was renting out space in that part of the shop he’d expanded into when times were good, followed by greater emphasis on taking consignments as opposed to buying inventory outright. It wasn’t long, however, before even those renting a space bailed. Not only were “$200” clients vanishing, but their potential “$400” substitutes began to disappear as well. And what this all meant was that our previous collaborative arrangement could no longer be sustained. Frankly, if the shop had been mine, I’d have closed it. But my perspective was different. I viewed everything as a hobby (albeit one that yielded taxable income) whereas for others, Tom included, it was a profession (and perhaps even a manifestation of self-worth). And few if any partnerships can survive if only one side has the capital to sustain a joint inventory and the other uses a credit card to pay the phone bill.
At some point in this process Tom and I agreed that it was time to dissolve the partnership wherein he’d maintain the shop, but with its inventory moving decidedly in the direction of consignments. But something else had changed – in me. It goes without saying that I’d always liked being around antiques, but my collecting was of a peculiar sort. Whatever I owned was always for sale so when setting up at a show I often took some of my best pieces from home. If I had that $1,000 sampler I was hoping to squeeze an addition $200 out of, its target were those shopping at a show. As my wife ceaselessly complained, nothing was permanent and nothing was “ours”. But what changed along with the economy and the diminished opportunities to retail things was my desire to possess – to own things I had no intention of selling. However, there was only one way to do that since my practical wife insisted on using my regular income to pay the mortgage, food, dentist and utility bills rather than letting me spend it on the latest sampler, fraktur or piece of decorated stoneware I encountered. An end run around her, then, required that I somehow convert my share of the shop’s inventory into cash, use part of that money to feed my increasing passion to collect and the remainder to buy things at estate sales and flea markets I could sell quickly over the internet, to specific known clients or could consign to Tom’s shop.
So here’s a question: How does one dissolve a partnership when its assets consist wholly of an inventory that can be liquidated quickly only at a significant loss and where one of the partners isn’t yet prepared to take those losses – isn’t prepared in fact to liquidate because they want to maintain the business in some form? Well, here’s a solution akin to having two people deciding how to divide a pie fairly. Letting a coin toss determine who moves first, that person makes two lists, where each list consists of a portion of the inventory not so exceed, say, $10,000 in approximate value. That person’s opposite number then chooses which list he prefers with the inventory on it then belonging to him, and the inventory on the rejected list belonging to whoever made the two lists. Roles are then be reversed, with whoever made the first two lists now afforded the opportunity to choose between two lists made up by his opposite number. Back and forth they’d go until the inventory is exhausted. And that’s precisely what we did, whereupon a sizeable portion of my now solely owned inventory was left in the shop on consignment and the remainder taken to shows or sold on eBay.
Tom, amazingly, continued to hang in there, although his inventory shifted so that more than 90% became consignments. Fortunately, he’d by then justifiably earned the reputation of being supremely knowledgeable and scrupulously honest – perhaps even THE Americana expert in Southern California. Indeed, sitting in a shop with little to do for a good share of the time gives one an opportunity to read extensively and to develop an expertise in areas that could challenge even a specialist. Thus, after one client consigned his collection of several hundred (!) 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century candlesticks, Tom read extensively so as to become an expert himself – a process that repeated itself when collections of English cream and pearlware appeared or when the heirs to the inventory of some eclectic collector brought that collection to the shop to be sold. Moreover, he’d been in business long enough that some of the things he sold ten or fifteen years earlier began to return, some of which he could buy back and other things taken on consignment. That’s one of the beauties of antiques – unlike that particle-board desk or bookcase from Levitz or Ikea, they don’t die. They just get older. If you buy a some-assembly-required chest, take it home and assemble it, what you then have is a USED piece of furniture, fit for a yard sale or a donation to the Salvation Army as a (minimal) tax write-off. Antiques are different, and in a non-recessionary economy they are generally worth more a few years down the road than what you paid for them. It’s fair to say, then, that for long-established dealers, a not insignificant share of their business consists of buying back and reselling things they’d sold ten, twenty or thirty years earlier.
But recessions happen and, as in Texas, antiques are the first domino to fall. Actually, antique dominos have a hierarchy depending on the market being served. Things may be different back East, but in California, the first “antique domino” to bite the dust was Americana. Fancy French or Italian antiques seemed to hold on relative to Americana, supported doubtlessly by Hollywood and movie studio celebrities and elites furnishing their Beverly Hills castles. This might seem the death knell for anyone such as myself who merely dabbles to combine collecting with selling Americana, using any profits earned to spend on additions to one’s collection. As it turned out, that’s not precisely what happened. First, absent the constraints imposed by either having a shop to maintain or, in my case, having to focus one’s purchases on the things deemed appropriate to a specialized shop’s inventory or that didn’t embarrass you in the eyes of your partner, a new sense of freedom arose. For example, flea markets and estate sales are replete with inexpensively priced worn out, damaged, torn or stained quilts – quilts you’d never want as part of a shop’s inventory that presents itself as an exclusive upscale outlet for Americana. Nevertheless there is a market for such things. Some can be disassembled for the fabric with which to repair less damaged examples, whereas others can be made into pillows or cut and framed as small decorative accessories. And then there are those people who have the skill to repair almost any quilt and prefer that to making one from scratch. Absent a focus on only those things immediately appropriate for an upscale shop, there’s money to be made here – money that can subsidize the purchase of things more appropriate for one’s collection.
To illustrate what I mean, consider the Pineapple (or Windmill) pattern log cabin quilt in Figure 8-2. Viewed from a distance it is indeed a striking quilt and has the added feature of coming with full provenance dating back to who made it in 1880. But there is a problem. I’m not sure how it happened, but take a close look from top to bottom of the center fold line and the small red squares. What your seeing there is not only some discoloration from age, but also deterioration in the fabric along the fold. All six squares have wholly fractured along with five or six of the horizontal light calico strips. The quilt, then, needs restoration. However, if you’re buying for inventory for a shop that’s at best marginally profitable, you’d have to think long and hard about buying this quilt. How much will it cost to repair? How long will it take to have it repaired? What can you sell a repaired quilt for despite its bold colors and provenance? As the owner of an antique shop, all such questions are ones you’ll repeatedly have to answer when shopping the flea markets or estate sales and, if you want to survive, answer accurately. But if you don’t have a shop to worry about and if your everyday cost of living is met by a real income, who cares what the answers are – so yes, someday I may get the quilt restored. Or maybe not – who knows. But right now it looks fantastic hanging on the wall in a bedroom. I’ll let my kids worry about what to do with it after I croak.
Fig. 8-2: 1880s Log Cabin Quilt in Need of Restoration
A second thing also happened during the period of the dissolution of our partnership; namely, the stuff I liked got a lot cheaper. Here’s a bit more economics for you: It’s true that in a recession people tend not to redecorate and upgrade as often as when times are good. It might seem that this would significantly cut down not only on the demand for antiques but also on supply. But economic processes never operate in the simple-minded way it appears to operate in the heads of politicians competing for office. There are always other forces operating. First, the rate at which people pass on to the great beyond doesn’t change, leaving heirs with stuff they want to unload. Second, auctioneers become less interested in filling their auctions with what corresponds to the first domino and instead direct their offerings at what’s hot or at least at what’s bringing prices that make it worthwhile to take up space and time on the auction block. And what the various auction venues turn down or at least discourage has to go somewhere – and that somewhere often means the flea market or estate sale. Finally, dealers will try to unload that part of their inventory that’s collecting dust but not fingerprints, and shift to buying what seems to have a sustained demand. All of this means that if your first love is that first domino, supply may not fall at all, but prices sure as heck will. And that’s precisely what happened in California for Americana.
An increasingly diminished demand for Americana in the area coupled with a recession meant that a decent amount of goodies could be bought inexpensively. Of course, much of what becomes available may not be quite suitable for a shop hanging by its fingernails that persists in trying to be a premier outlet for early American things. Returning again to the example of quilts, what one learns is that while it may be nice to be able to say you sell the best or at least can offer a selection of uniformly high quality, even when times are good there may not be that many people in the market for a 19th century quilt priced above a thousand dollars. It’s not the case, though, that when the economy tightens up those who might have paid $1,000 for a quilt will lower their sights and buy ones of lesser quality for, say, $300. If anything, they stop buying entirely (keeping in mind that I’m not speaking of those in the market for a $25,000 or $30,000 Baltimore album quilt, who are most likely unaffected by a recession). At the same time, those who might have been customers for a more common 1930s $250 quilt also either stop buying since they most likely bear the brunt of any economic slowdown or, if they still are searching for quilts to decorate with, aren’t willing now to spend more than, say, $100 or $150. The net result of all of this is that not only are good quality quilts now selling at cheaper prices but, with the regional market for Americana drying up, those ubiquitous 1920s and 1930s quilts — patterns such as Grandma’s Flower Garden, Double Wedding Ring, Dresden Plate and Irish Chain — either go unsold at the flea markets and estate sales or dealers will take anything they can get for them. So suddenly you have an opportunity to buy those $150 and $200 quilts for literally pennies on the dollar. You might ask at this point: How many such quilts can you sell? The answer is ‘not many’ if you limit yourself to a part of the country where the demand for Americana has hit (hopefully) rock bottom. But if, via an outlet such as eBay, you can target your sales nationally or even globally and thus to areas where people aren’t ONLY buying Louis XIV or Formica, the answer is: As many as you can get if you can buy them cheap enough.
This raises another question: Isn’t it boring buying and selling the same common quilt patterns time and again? Yes it is, and if you’re doing it solely for the money, you might do better bagging groceries at the local supermarket. But scattered between all those 1930s quilts is the occasional ‘find’ – in my case an 1870s Princess Feather that was bundled up on someone’s table as if it were a packing blanket (and priced accordingly), a more ordinary but still interesting late 19th C Princess feather, a supremely colorful red, white and blue Mariner’s Compass from around 1870, an appliqué quilted at a phenomenal fifteen stitches per inch, a pair of boldly colorful 1970s African-American quilts, a 1940s classic Hawaiian and an 1876 quilt made from flags (39 stars) given out or sold at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition (see Figure 8-3a). Finds such as the ones illustrated in Figures 8-3a through 8-3f keep the juices flowing while the sales of all those Grandma’s Gardens, Dresden Plates and Double Wedding Rings provide the cash to sustain the search.
Fig. 8-3a: The Flag Quilt Estate Sale Find
Fig. 8-3b: A Patriotic Texas Star Estate Sale Find
Fig. 8-3c: A Decent Broken Star Pattern Estate Sale Find
Fig. 8-3d: A Bold Princess Feather Flea Market Find
Fig. 8-3e: A More Complex Princess Feather Find
Fig. 8-3f: Boldly Patriotic Quilt Dated 1919
The hit antiques and Americana in particular took with 9/11 and the Obama recession brought to my attention something else about the economics of antiques; specifically, that the hit was felt differentialy across the country. If prices declined by say 25% back East, they declined by an even greater percentage in California where the market was at best weak to begin with. And that percentage increased by how easy it is to mail or ship an item from West to East. I won’t bother to repeat my discussion of the Pennsylvania high chest discussed in the previous chapter (see Figure 7-4) and reproduced below in Figure 8-4. All I want to add here is that the experience with the chest was not some uncommon event. It’s happened more than once and everything I’ve just said applies (and indeed, applied) to the tall case Pennsylvania clock in Figure 8-5. Sadly, my house is, to say the least, full but I successfully encourage a young (28 year old) collector of Americana to add these two pieces to his newly developing collection.
Fig. 8-4: Mid 18th C Southeast Pennsylvania Walnut High Chest
Fig. 8-5: ca 1810 Norristown Pennsylvania Tall Clock by Wm. Bevens
OK, back again now to what I have been able to fit into my over-filled home. Without the constraint of having to limit myself to things appropriate for an Americana shop (in combination, of course, with the competition for things I like greatly diminished), something subtle and subconscious occurs in the brain – you begin looking for and finding things you overlooked or paid no attention to before but which are close to your interests and for which there remains a reasonable profit to be made. And here one can never know what you’ll find, buy and then sell. There are, for instance, those turn of the century copper food molds, English or Continental pewter plates, flow blue coffeepots or platters, common Currier & Ives prints, yellowware mixing bowls, advertising tins from the 1920s and inexpensive pewter ice cream molds. Such things are hardly “high end”, but they’re relatively plentiful, affordable, collectible, and at flea market prices often leave room for profit when sold on eBay. Other categories of things that continue to turn up with some regularity are coverlets including the occasional Jacquard with an uncommon border, decorated stoneware. Figures 8-6a through 8-6j gives you some idea what I am talking about … legitimate decorative country accessories to be found out here. None of this is stuff you’re likely to find at New York City’s upscale Pier Show, but it’s all eminently sellable on a site such as eBay and perhaps even a few things you might choose to keep.
Fig. 8-6a: Mid-19th Century Paper Cut Silhouettes in Rather Nice Frames
Fig. 8-6b: Mid to Late 19th C Bail Handled Unpainted Pantry Box
Fig. 8-6c: 19th C Pin Prick Watercolor
Fig. 8-6d: Late 19th C Country Store Tea Bin
Fig. 6-8e: Uncommonly Nice Tramp Art Frame
Fig. 8-6f: A Somewhat Uncommon 19th Candle Holder Shelf
Fig. 8-6g: Funky and Folky Trade Sign
Fig. 8-6h: Late 19th C Spongeware Pitcher
Fig. 8-6i: Early 19th C Punched Tin Candle Lantern
Fig. 8-6j: 19th C Doll Cradle … Probably Scandinavian but Nice
Periodically one encounters something that leads you to ask “who the hell did that get out here?” And here I’m thinking of the two trade signs in Figure 8-7. The first is of interest because the wife comes from Binghamton New York. I knew the moment I bought it that it wouldn’t again see the light of day until both of us passed on to the great beyond. But Jones scales were a well-established company with a national reach so perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked to find a sign advertising it at a local flea market. The second sign of the Eden Garage, on the other hand, came as a profound surprise. Discovered at a Hollywood estate sale, I know of but one Eden garage (now long gone) … around the corner on Eden street from where I grew up in Chelsea Massachusetts. Now I suppose the could possibly be another such garage elsewhere in the country (there is an Eden Vermont so that’s a possibility) but I rather like to think this sign originates from a building I passed daily on my way to school.
Fig. 8-7: Two Back-East Hometown Signs found in Los Angeles
Another category of Americana that appears more often than you might suppose out here in the LA area is needlework samplers. I’ll have more to say about samplers later in this volume, so instead, by way of highlighting some of the non-sampler keepers I’ve found out here, there are the two watercolor family records in Figures 8-8a and 8-8b. It’s pretty evident that the first one is 19th century and from New Hampshire – it tells me that straight out. The second family record, on the other hand, is one of my frustrations. You’d think that with all those Barkleys listed it would be a snap to do a quick genealogical search and find out who the family is. Unfortunately, I either haven’t expended sufficient effort or the damned family changed how they spelled the name, but I’ve thus far come up dry. Its American origins, though, are clear – where else did that eagle and shield come from at the top of the record? Oh well, someday I’ll get around to clearing up the mystery or at least will try harder. Both family records, though, illustrate another consequence of the dismal California Americana market. Both came from the estates of long-time dealers in American antiques here in Southern California, with one materializing at auction and the other at an estate sale. At auction I confronted but one competitor … a back East phone bidder … whereas there was none at the estate sale. That, folks, is NOT what would have happened had these two watercolor family histories entered the market anywhere in, for instance, New England (especially since the Chase record is from New Hampshire). In fact, there’s a good chance they’d never have entered the market in any public way at all, and would have simply been sold to another dealer without anyone contemplating putting either one in an auction or estate sale.
Fig. 8-8a New Hampshire 18th C Family Record
Fig. 8-9a: 18th C American Family Record; the Barkleys
Fig. 8-8c: With This It’s Gotta Be American
Now don’t take this to mean that genealogical searches are generally a bust. In fact, what with the internet, its exactly the opposite. Take for example the family record in Figure 8-9. Just a bunch of names, but once one begins poking around it becomes obvious that this record originates from Nantucket — that little island off the coast of Cape Cod next to the one on which Ted Kennedy failed to negotiate a bridge and thereafter let a young woman drown.
Fig. 8-9: 18th C Nantucket Family Record
Speaking of Nantucket, if you want to see what can truly keep the juices flowing out here when pursuing goodies at flea markets or estate sales, take a look at Figure 8-10. Yup, that’s a leather fire bucket, and in its original paint. And aside from the fact that its leather handle has broken off, the paint is fantastic. Moreover, in this instance I benefited from knowing where the family found it … Nantucket. That let me identify U. Swain … it’s Uriah Swain’s fire bucket, where old Uriah (1754-1810) was a sea captain who took the ship Mars to China, opening up the first direct link between Nantucket and the Far East. As a sea captain, Uriah was, of course, a man of some stature, which authorized him to join the volunteer fire department and to hang his bucket on the department’s wall (you don’t really think he took it to fires do you? Heck, I’m not even sure the members of the volunteer fire department fought fires as much as they sat around drinking). It’s at this point of course where you learn (or where I learn) whether you’re primarily a dealer or a collector. Without becoming too specific, lets just say that I paid less than $1,000 for the bucket. I’m not sure how much I could sell it for but a number in the range of $3,000 to $4,000 wouldn’t be out of the question, especially given its condition and provenance. The potential profit, then, is a number of car payments or even a mortgage payment or two. Selling it makes one a dealer; keeping it makes one a collector (or hoarder … you choose). All I can tell you is that it still graces my family room, so call me what you want.
Fig. 10-10: Uriah Swain’s Nantucket Fire Bucket
The failure of Americana to catch people’s fancy out here does indeed yield some fantastic flea market finds not to be readily reproduced elsewhere. It was perhaps two hours into one market where I encountered an early 19th century hand drawn calligraphy valentine in its original gold gilt frame. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not claiming this to be the find of the year or even of the month. But the odds of finding such a piece for $200 back East if you aren’t the first to see it pulled out of a dealer’s van as he or she sets up? Zero! And then of course there’s the case of the 1875 bed rug I discussed earlier (see Figure 4-6).
Fig. 8-11a: Calligraphy Valentine “The Endless Knot”
Fig. 8-11b: The Endless Knot
Now one doesn’t go to flea markets or estates sales in the expectation of finding such treasures with any regularity. But there is the occasional piece of tramp art, the Kentucky rifle with tiger maple gunstock that wouldn’t interest a serious collector but nevertheless makes a nice decorative accent piece, early silhouettes and, from time to time, a paint decorated box or carved whimsy. Floral hand hooked rugs from the 1930s seem to have proliferated like gerbils and I’ve pretty much learned to stay away from them – seems their ONLY market is the flea market itself. On the other hand, if you’re willing, as I often am, to roll the dice, not all hooked rugs are to be avoided. Some time ago I ran across two that were – and note the past tense – absolutely fantastic. They had, though, suffered every indignity a rug can endure and still be called a rug. They surely were nothing one would ever buy for inventory. But I wasn’t buying for a shop, and in their original form they were classics of folk art and they were cheap. They were, of course, cheap for good reason since, after bringing them home, I learned that the cost of professional restoration might have made a down payment on a new car. But as I said, they were fantastic, so I put them on eBay and was delighted when they sold for ten times what I’d paid. The “miracle” of the internet is that there are people out there who appreciate exceptional examples of this form of folk art and who are themselves prepared to restore such things.
These two rugs, in fact, dispel one of the false (or rather “imperfect”) rules of doing business in antiques. It is often said that the three most important dimensions to consider when evaluating an antique are condition, condition and condition. Now it would be absurd – criminal even – to claim that condition isn’t of paramount importance. Replaced feet, over-painting on a portrait, a hairline crack to a crock, replaced works to a clock, and so on all greatly impact value – sometimes to the point of rendering a piece worthless. But there is also something else to consider in addition to condition, and that’s price. Earlier in this discourse I mentioned a Currier and Ives lithograph titled Port of New York. As it turns out, precisely that litho became available to me via an auction nearby in Hollywood. And it was the good one – the rare 1872 image as opposed to its 1892 counterpart. As I noted then, in perfect condition – no rips, tears, stains, etc – such an image can be expected to sell in excess of $8,000 at any of the upscale East Coast galleries. This one, however, had a dark brown stain running vertically down the center. Some time in the past when framed it had been backed by two boards and the discoloration corresponded to a gap in those boards where the air oxidized the paper. Such stains can be removed by a careful (and professionally administered) bleaching. However, even if everything goes well and the hand coloring is unaffected, what one is left with is a paper that loses the subtle brown tone that it acquires from simple exposure to air over the course of 140 years. Such a piece will not command the big numbers from a serious collector. Perhaps now it can be expected to sell for $4,000 or so, although I honestly don’t know what a collector would pay for it at this point. But I did know this: With that stain marring the image, the print would never appeal to a retail buyer and was thereby likely to sell cheap at an auction whose primary focus was 1970s and ‘80s movie posters. And indeed, that’s precisely what happened. Not only did no retail buyer bid on it, but my Hollywood dream came true too as no one else did either and I bought it at a price ($250 I think) where I could sell it and render the cost of everything else I bought that day free (which included an early Mt. Lebanon Shaker carrier, a smaller more common Currier and Ives litho, a wicker doll carriage, an English Lighthouse marquetry box and another large folio 19th century hand colored litho of New York). So yes, condition mattered, but that’s not to say that price doesn’t matter also.
For another example, consider the tiger maple federal-era candlestand in Figure 8-12a. There are, of course, the rather unsightly stains to the top, but I know how to get rid of those (check this volume later for a discussion of Oxalic Acid). Next, take a look at figure 8-12b. That’s the underside of this candlestand and reveals that it’s a tilt top – or rather, that it was. As figure 8-12c reveals, someone some time ago decided they didn’t want the top to tilt and so they drilled a hole and inserted a peg that fixed the top to the base. Whoever did that should, of course, serve a severe penitence of some sort – perhaps a trip to an estate sale loaded with Americana but with no money, checkbook or credit card in their pocket. One can, of course, always remove the peg to restore the table to being a tilt top. But no amount of magic will eliminate the plugged hole. In other words, the table is forever compromised. But so what? Yes, its not a $1,250 table any more. But would you pay $100 for it? Well, I got it for $75 at an estate sale, so you know my answer.
Fig. 8-12a: Federal Tiger Maple Candlestand
Fig. 8-12b: Underside of Above Caldlestand
Fig. 8-12c: Peg in Top of Candlestand
A final example of condition not being the sole criterion of value is the butterfly table discussed in Chapter 5 (see Figure 5-7). Once again we have a piece that’s compromised in a visible way – the strip of wood inserted in the full length of the table to where, presumably, a crack was cut out of the top (see Figure 8-13). There’s no question that this “repair” drastically impacts value, and surely moves it down several pegs from any exalted $5,000 or $7,000 estimate. But keep in mind that the top is original to the piece and that its base fully retains its early 18th century painted surface. In other words, the base alone with its original drawer, paint and full height is probably worth upwards of $1,000. And if, by the way, the dark strip of inserted wood bothers you, there is the ‘miracle’ of wood stain to make everything less of a contrast. So yes, condition matters, but that’s hardly the same as saying the table has little to no value.
Fig. 8-13: Compromised Top of Butterfly Table
The trick, if one wants to call it that, to making the search both exciting and potentially profitable – or so that it at least holds the promise of being an activity that pays for itself while retaining a few things for oneself – is to know how to take advantage of an antique’s imperfections when, as in the case of the above mentioned Currier and Ives lithograph and butterfly table, imperfections are likely to be overly discounted by people at an auction, flea market or estate sale. Earlier I briefly mentioned the John Bell crock I found late into an estate sale. It had been passed over by everyone, including myself initially, because it had been drilled out at the bottom to make a lamp. Now it’s true that such a thing can literally kill the value of most stoneware – or at least make it uninteresting to anyone but those who are merely decorating for “the country look”. However, Bell’s work is highly sought after by collectors, with some of his pieces commanding four and even five digit prices. This jug/lamp wasn’t in that category, but hole or no hole it was still a steal at the estate sale’s sticker price ($50 as I recall). And, if you allow me to brag a bit, this experience was repeated a few years later at a flea market with a Richard Remmey decorated stoneware cooler that had been similarly drilled.
Or take for instance the log cabin quilt in Figure 8-2 I discussed earlier. With discoloration and wear running straight down the center, condition here is certainly an issue. This is definitely not a quilt that’s easily displayed, to say nothing about actually using it on a bed. Has condition impacted its value? Silly question. Of course it has. What might have been a $1,000+ quilt if in good condition is now, as is, worth considerably less. But is it worthless? Well hardly. It can be restored and as I said, I might someday send it to someone for that purpose. It might not appeal presently to a retail buyer, unless that buyer is a quilter prepared to tackle the restoration of something as fragile as this piece. But it would be criminal to discard it, or even for that matter to cut it up for pillows and the like.
For perhaps a more dramatic example of where condition matters but isn’t “everything”, just recently I encountered a New York Ulster County dated Jacquard coverlet hanging off someone’s van at a local flea market. However, it took only seconds to see it had a hole in it the size of a baseball. Normally I’d walk away from a coverlet with a problem that apparent, but its deep blue color, date along with its origins clearly spelled out made me examine it further if only for the hell of it. Things didn’t get better when I found a second hole and then a tear at the border (in Figure 8-14 look to the immediate left of the center medallion and also to the upper right – those are holes). My inspection, though, also revealed that its center motif was four American eagles in the classic format of shield, arrows and olive branches. So here was a badly damaged Jacquard but with an uncommon and highly desirable patriotic pattern. So yes, I bought it – paid all of $50 for it and subsequently sold it on eBay for around $130. Now here’s a case of had the coverlet been in perfect condition, I can easily imagine it bringing something in the vicinity of $650, possibly even more. So clearly the damage did it no favors and I hardly impacted my style of living by buying and selling it. But the damage also didn’t render it worthless. Once again, it pays to be able to at least guess at the tradeoffs between condition and price.
Fig. 8-14: A Badly Damaged but Interesting Jacquard Coverlet
A second trick to successful shopping is to not close your mind (and eyes) to anything. Now this doesn’t mean branching out into areas about which you know nothing, unless of course you’re a true gambler willing to pay some tuition to learn about entirely new areas of collecting. This is especially true when considering things for which there is a relatively thriving market around you. Hence, I’ve assiduously refrained from dabbling in Native American artifacts. This is a complex category, wherein it can take years of experience to learn what it is you’re looking at. This fact was brought home to me when early in our collaboration Tom and I bought an early Native American knife and decorated scabbard. We were convinced it was worth far more than what we’d paid for it and proudly showed it to one of the shop’s clients – a full blooded Nez Peirce. One look at it, though, led him to announce that it wasn’t worth much. Unconvinced, we queried him as to the basis of that opinion. Taking the knife in hand he proceeded to dissect its qualities (or lack thereof), concluding with the statement “no Indian would have made such a piece for himself.” And indeed, after all of its subtle yet numerous flaws had been brought to our attention, we had to agree that we owned something that was little more than a cheap knock-off, most likely from some roadside tourist shop. Our eyes simply weren’t trained to detect its flaws. But we were smart enough to know that when the next artifact crossed our path, we’d still be untrained since the flaws we knew enough to detect were only those shared by our knife. We also knew that in the Southwest, there are uncountable numbers of people far more knowledgeable than us, so if some Native American artifact seemed a bargain at a flea market or estate sale, the odds were that it was still there unsold for a good reason – and not a reason we had the knowledge to recognize.
Another area similar to that of Native American collectibles is oriental rugs. If you like it, if it goes well with your decorating scheme, if its in good condition and if you can afford it, then by all means buy it. A good oriental will outlast any factory woven rug, especially those you might find in Ikea, Home Goods or Wal-Mart. But here’s a piece of advice offered me decades ago by an auctioneer: If you bought it at auction, then the odds are you just paid retail (or more). The fact is that not only is the market for oriental rugs universal, so is expertise about them. I even know people who can look at a rug, turn over a corner with their shoe while it lays on the floor, and tell me what VILLAGE it was made in (and when)! All of this is especially true here in Southern California. When the Shah of Iran (Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi) fell in 1979, he moved to Los Angeles and was followed by a substantial number of Iranians seeking escape from the new Ayatollah Khomeini regime and who had little desire to have their women walk around covered from head to toe in black or blue bed sheets. Needless to say, included in that mix was a substantial supply of experts in oriental rugs, which affords anyone out here an opportunity to witness another characteristic of oriental rug dealers: They protect their market. By this I mean that if an auction has a decent supply of such rugs, the dealers will bid them up so that retail buyers are unlikely to get bargains. Now it might seem that pursuing such a strategy will eventually lead to bankruptcy – why would dealers want to fill out their inventory by paying retail? However, consider this: As I type this page there’s an auction upcoming here in Los Angeles that will offer twenty seven oriental rugs, whereas a week ago another auction in the state sold thirty one rugs. It’s reasonable ask then as to where all these rugs are coming from. The answer is simple: From rug dealers. There simply aren’t that many grandmothers going to the great beyond who have their homes carpeted wall-to-wall in oriental rugs. And whose bidding on those rugs? Well, I don’t have hard proof (no one will tell me), but I’ll give you odds that a considerable share of bidding activity comes from the dealers who consigned those rugs. And do those dealers have an arrangement with the auction house to not pay a commission on the things they buy back? Frankly, I don’t know. But again, given what I know about the antiques business, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that they did. Am I being overly cynical? Do I have too little faith in my fellow man? Perhaps, but I’ll still take bets and give you odds. It’s not just country farm auctioneers who play games, except in the case of the auction houses selling these rugs, there’s little in the way of entertaining humor during the bidding.
All of this means that when I speak of “branching out” I’m not suggesting giant leaps into the unknown. The last truly successful leap in the dark that I’m aware of is when the likes of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Washington decided to foment a Revolution. It’s only common sense to say that while it pays to learn about things you know little about, you should do so incrementally and not in ways that threaten next month’s mortgage payment. If you are going to venture forth into uncharted waters, as I have done in a temporary way with stuffed bears and dolls, it’s best to do so under the protection of a partner who knows more than you and who can direct you away from acts of utter stupidity. Instead, what I’m thinking of here is the time I ran across a large hand carved wooden pig. Now keep in mind that what I’m about to recount is hardly a reason to buy every wood pig you might encounter – or any wooden pig at all for that matter. But I’ve long had an attraction to hand carved things, especially those that can be classified as folk art owing to their amateur and itinerant origins. So here I’m referring to a carving that was clearly hand done, appeared to have acceptable age for folk art (early 20th century), was surely not a commercially mass produced item and retained a nice early coat of original paint. Needless to say, I had no idea at the time what such a thing might be worth, or if it was worth anything at all above the $40 I paid for it. I can also safely say that I had minimal experience, to say the least, with carved pigs or collectors of carved pigs (Stop laughing! There are such people! Do you really think that what you collect makes sense to everyone?). Thus, I could only guess how it might do on eBay. Well, I’m proud to announce that my taste was shared by at least two competing bidders. The same was true of a cast iron cow I found some years later (and this is not an argument, when coupled with the above example and the ones that follow, to run out buying effigies of farm animals). I bought the cow out of curiosity (confusion?). First, it was a solid cast piece, which set it apart from most dimensional cast iron commercially made things that are typically made in two halves and then screwed or welded together. So its construction alone rendered it uncommon. In addition, it wasn’t light – nearly 19 pounds — which might suggest it could have been a doorstop except that its legs and tail were far too delicate. They’d have broken off the first time a door hit it with any force, but it had no repairs. I also tried imagining it as a windmill weight, but there was too much attention to detail in its casting. In fact, I had no idea what its original purpose might have been, and to this day I am no better informed. But once again, I let instinct rule in judging it a wonderful piece of folk art (if cast iron can be thought of as folk art). Its ultimate buyer appeared to have agreed with me and when I queried him afterwards as to its original purpose, his guesses were no better than mine.
Fig. 8-15: The Mystery Cow
While on the subject of farm animals, take a look at Figure 8-16. Yup, that’s another pig, only this time it’s a sheet metal one. When I encountered it at a flea market my first guess, from a distance, was “weathervane remnant.” But on close inspection I couldn’t find any evidence that it had ever been attached to anything so as to serve that purpose. Ultimately I decided it was a trade sign – perhaps something a farmer hung in front of his property to indicate that he raised and sold pigs. But at $45, who cares – it certainly had “the look” and I didn’t doubt that someone somewhere would like to decorate with it. It was then with a degree of confidence that some time later I encountered the trade sign in Figure 8-17, in this case most likely made for someone who raised and sold chickens.
Fig. 8-16: Weathervane or Trade Sign?
Figure 8-17: Chickens Anyone?
In fact, when one wanders into the domain of folk art – and surely old tin pigs and roosters qualify as folk art — you often have only your instinct to guide you since more often than not you’re dealing with wholly unique items. Take for instance the two items in Figure 8-18. Both were found at local flea markets. The first, a carved wood goose appears to be a whirligig except that only an all out category 4 or 5 hurricane would cause those tin wings to rotate. So what is it? Damned if I know. How old is it? That’s another good question for which I have no answer I can confidently defend. But it appealed to me as folk art and hence, while I might have grumbled a bit, I willingly paid $100 for. Then there’s the rooster. Here I’m pretty sure it was originally part of a weathervane. But how old is it and where did it come from? Again, those are good questions. I certainly can’t reject Mexico as an hypothesis. But like the goose it appealed to me as a funky piece although I grumbled a lot louder in this case when I had to fork over $300 to own it. Now admittedly, neither piece (nor my farm animal trade signs) are likely candidates for inclusion in New York’s American Folk Art Museum. But hey … we’re talking here of things found at the Pasadena Community College and Long Beach flea markets so don’t go getting all snooty on me.
Fig. 8-18: Two Folk Art Flea Market Finds
Don’t also get all snooty on me because something I might classify as folk art isn’t even as old as the car my father drove when I was a child (a 1939 Plymouth). Take for instance the whirligig in Figure 8-19. Now while this piece isn’t new, it is admittedly only a few steps removed from those one sees for sale along a Cape Cod road or at some ‘farmer’s market’ populated by not only six varieties of cucumbers and eight varieties of peaches, but also by locally crafted jewelry, tie dyed silk scarves and hand made wood toys. You know what I’m referring to – geese or bluebirds with whirling wings or a little wood man that bobs up and down as if sawing wood when the blades turn in the wind. If I had to guess and wanted to be kind, I’d say the example in Figure 8-19 dated to the 1950s or 60s. However, despite its rather recent vintage, it does have its attractions as folk art – bold patriotic color, a somewhat unconventional form, and a man whose either a cowboy or a clown. Whether you’d want it in your collection, then, is a matter of taste and the depth of your pocketbook since this one shouldn’t set you back more than $150 or $200 tops.
Fig. 8-19: 1950s or 60s Whirlygig
This little excursion into folk art allows me to make the point, now, that not everything of interest in the domain of Americana has to originate back East to be worthwhile. Even excluding Native American artifacts, this is especially true of folk art, which is likely to have been produced anywhere and everywhere. Consider the schoolhouse carving in Figure 8-20. Found here in California, I actually have no idea as to its origin, though it seems evident that this wonderfully carved and painted piece is 19th century. If on the other hand one is looking for something definitively from California, consider the expressive hoedown carving in Figure 8-21. In my mind at least, this diorama-like work should be welcome in any collection of American folk art. Every figure conveys movement as if there were a mechanism beneath it that might, with the press of a button, bring each dancer to life. And in this case I know its provenance. Nicholas Stedman was born in Billings Montana in 1875, but moved to Los Angeles around 1912 and died sometime in the 1960s. Nicholas apparently suffered from schizophrenia and his art is a not uncommon manifestation of that disability. This example of depression-era folk art, then, is exclusively West Coast in origin, as is the one in Figure 8-22, which is another of Richardson’s creations.
Fig. 8-20: 19th C Folk Art Carving found in California
Fig. 8-21: Nicholas Richardson’s ca 1930s Hoedown Carving, California
Fig. 8-22: Nicholas Richardson’s “49ers” Carving, ca 1930
Another local depression-era product in the stagecoach in Figure 8-23 with its wonderfully carved horses and figures. And while the carvings in Figure 8-24 were “merely” found in California (the artist here is Herbert Mills of San Antonio Texas, from the 1920s) they too illustrate something that originates from this side of the Mississippi. Finally, Figure 8-25 offers a folk art carving whose origins remain a mystery. But want to guess where it was found? A thrift store! How’s that for widening your search.
Fig. 8-23: Folk Art Stage Coach, ca 1930
Fig. 8-24 Herbert Mills Carvings, Texas, ca 1920
Fig. 8-25: A Thrift Store Treasure
At least in the domain of folk art, then, the West Coast can claim its own contributions. Indeed, were it possible to begin amassing and cataloging a larger collection of carvings by the likes of Richardson and Mills, there’s little doubt that prices for examples of their work would begin to compete with those realized by the likes of Wilhelm Schimmel, Aaron Mountz and Edgar Tolson. However, with respect to branching out, it’s true that collecting folk art didn’t take me too far afield since it all fell into a category of collectibles with which I had some experience. But consider this example, which might seem to contradict what I wrote earlier about Native American artifacts and which, perhaps, proves that there are no hard and fast rules about how you should or should not try to expand your horizons: Northwest Coast Indian carvings. Here again is a category about which I was and for the most part remain uninformed (no, a better word is ‘ignorant’). But then there was the estate sale offering a sizeable collection of Northwest Coast items, including a half dozen or so rather elaborate figural carvings. All were signed and all were priced in the neighborhood of $700. However, for reasons that still elude me, none had sold hours into the sale. I liked them but I sure as heck wasn’t going to roll the dice for a seven hundred dollar lottery, especially when operating under the assumption that there were people at that sale far more knowledgeable of Native American crafts than me. Out of curiosity, though, I headed to the internet after returning home, and sure enough, I found a number of examples made by the same now-deceased carver selling in the range of $1,000 to $1,500. Now this is hardly a reason to rush back to the sale to scoop up the carvings. Even though they were priced below realized auction numbers, those numbers most likely came from auctions that featured Native American artifacts and, thus, attracted serious collectors to the bidding. Lowly me had no immediate access to those collectors and thus little reason to think I could get prices anywhere near what I was finding on the internet. Nevertheless, on a whim (and out of a surfeit of time to waste) I returned to that sale the next day on the chance the carvings would still be there with discounted prices. Sure enough, they were there priced now around $350. It’s at this point that buying them wasn’t that much of a leap in the dark since the downside seemed minimal. This, in fact, is the kind of leap you ought to look for: You don’t know what you can sell something for, but you’re fairly certain you can get your money back. And in this instance, with the internet at my disposal they did sell for numbers comparable to what their original ticketed prices had been at the sale.
Now before you go running off buying this that and the other thing whenever it’s discounted by 50% at an estate sale, consider this example carefully. Notice first that the ticketed prices on the carvings were already below realized auction numbers, yet they still hadn’t sold. There are three relatively innocuous explanations for this: (1) everyone who saw them and knew what they were had no greater access to collectors than I did; (2) the auction numbers I saw were exaggerated due to their coming from the sale of a well known collector, and the carvings were in fact priced close to normal retail; or (3) people who might know what they were simply hadn’t gone to that sale. I had no idea which if any of these hypotheses applied, but I was confident on the basis of my own inspection that a fourth non-innocuous possibility didn’t apply; namely, that they were damaged or somehow compromised. The second thing of note is each piece was signed, which allowed me to not merely research the value of “similar things”, but rather to research absolutely equivalent items. Even taking my overall ignorance into account, I didn’t have to worry that I was comparing apples to oranges – a piece of Native American pottery, for instance, made by a well-known and highly collectible potter versus a lesser piece made on an industrial basis. I didn’t have to worry that I was confusing a poorly made knife and sheath that “no Indian would be caught dead with” with a legitimate artifact. Third, even though the ticketed price was below realized auction sales, I knew the estate sale would be halving its prices the next day and thereby had a chance to buy something that was highly collectible at one quarter of the numbers I was seeing on the internet. When you can buy something at that discount, you no longer need collectors to make a profit — you can hope to wholesale things and leave room for the next dealer. So all three characteristics of the situation – confidence in an item’s quality, an opportunity to research nearly identical items, and prices that allowed you to sell into the expanded market of collectors and other dealers – had to be satisfied before I branched out in this instance.
There are, of course, things I’m always on the lookout regardless of whether or not I collect them if I think they are likely to be underpriced or mis-identified at the sales I attend. For a case in point, consider brass candlesticks. Long ago I learned to stay away from 19th century brass candlesticks since unless there’s something truly uncommon about them (and I’m not even sure what that means) I can’t do much with them regardless of condition. But here it pays to learn the difference between 17th, 18th and 19th century forms. A pair of 19th century brass pushup candlesticks can often be found at flea markets for as little as $20 a pair, but even still there isn’t much profit left in them. They’re common, of no interest to collectors, and they’re competing directly against late 20th century reproductions. But if they’re 18th century, they can often be sold for $300 a pair and up; and if 17th century, you can even reach a four digit number. The nice thing here, though, is that more often than not flea market dealers along with their estate sales counterparts will price them all the same. Thus, on one occasion I found a pair of 17th century brass Capstan candlesticks for the price of their 19th century counterparts and on another occasion a pair of early 18th century candlesticks for the same price. Not bragging here – just telling you that here’s an area where you should get a book and learn the difference.
Now I will admit that I am prone to roll the dice perhaps more readily than I should, yielding my fair share of disappointments and outright blunders. Shopping on the West coast has spoiled me and induced a few bad habits (along with the fact that I have a steady income that doesn’t depend on antiques). Knowing that the market for Americana is thin here I’m more prone than I would be back East to assume that something is languishing in a seller’s booth because no one else with my interests has yet seen it or is even likely to see it. Back East shoppers for Americana are as common as … well, let’s just say they’re everywhere. Hence, if something languishes at a market for several hours in say Amherst New Hampshire or Clarence New York, there’s generally a good reason – condition, price or it’s a fake. But here in California one has to also add the possibility that you’re the only person within 50 miles with an interest in whatever you’re looking at, in which case you become much more likely to shoot from the hip in your purchases. In general that has served me well, but there are the inevitable exceptions. There was, for instance, the six foot long Ice Cream Parlor trade sign I bought that was, so I thought, exquisite – a single 12” wide 8’ long board, beautifully weathered — and a bargain at $150. The next month the same dealer had what appeared to be its mate. Thinking that it wouldn’t be uncommon for a store to have had two similar signs, I bought that one as well. It was the month after that, though, when yet a third such sign showed up at the market that I had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. The proverbial “oops!” This time I asked where the sign came from – a question I hadn’t asked before because I was in too much of a hurry to get my ‘treasure’ away into my car. The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I should have guessed: Quite forthrightly I was told “oh, my wife makes them … she works really hard on them and they look damned good”. Indeed they do as Figure 8-25 demonstrates!
Fig. 8-25: Reproduction Trade Sign
Have I made other blunders? Silly question. There was, for instance, the set of nine (!) 8” diameter pewter plates. They sure looked old, they had some nice wear and they each bore a touchmark, albeit one I didn’t recognize (Figure 8-26). But I should have known better. You never find nine identical 18th or early 19th century pewter plates all the same size and all by the same maker. Well, maybe you might, but its also possible I suppose to kill three flies at once with your fly swatter. As it turned out and much to my chagrin, they were contemporary reproductions from Italy. And then there was the beautiful Scherenschnitte (paper cut) valentine I bought in a rather nice mid 19th century frame (Figure 8-27). Beautiful it might have been, but it was a complete fake, with the paper toned no doubt by an overnight bath in tea.
Fig. 8-26: Pewter Plates from Italy
Fig. 8-27: Fake 19th C Scherenschnitte
I’ve also learned – the hard way – not to buy a quilt in the dark or even in the dim morning light, and to hold off buying any Currier & Ives print until, in crisp daylight, it can be inspected closely and with a loop (there are some damned good reproductions out there). Cast iron doorstops are another thing to stay away from unless you know PRECISELY what you’re doing (and needless to say, the same holds true for cast iron toys and banks). And never, under any circumstances, take at face value a dealer’s assurance that the quilt they are selling you is in “perfect condition.” This isn’t to say they are lying, since they may have spent no more than fifteen seconds inspecting it between the time they bought it and when they set it out on their table for resale. There are those things, moreover, that fall into the category of being “too good to be true”. Notable here are weathervanes. As I said before, a contemporary reproduction doesn’t have to sit on the roof of a house all that long before it begins to look wholly legitimate. And unless a dealer is brain dead, no one will sell you a wholly legitimate 19th century vane for under $500 (or even $1,000 for that matter). I’m not saying it can’t happen. That’s the problem – it might happen and it probably has happened. But if you’re too quick to reach into your pocket for some cash, be prepared for unpleasant surprises.
Clearly, the eternal optimism of the antiques nut precludes accepting the hypothesis that there are no brain dead dealers, and I count myself among the nuts. I’ve already mentioned the early 19th century Pennsylvania dower chest I bought from someone who saw no difference between it and a Scandinavian painted chest. And to this example I should add the diminutive early 20th century barber pole in original paint I found for $75, the pair of bow back Windsor chairs a dealer judged to be little more than used furniture and priced at $60, the 24” diameter 19th century maple bowl in original paint that I absconded with for $100, the period miniature empire chest I found for $20, and the rare cast iron clown shooting gallery target I had to pay all of $100 for because the dealer was sure it was “something good” and held firm at her ticketed price. And there were times when mutual ignorance worked in my favor. I’m thinking here of a relief carved steamship diorama I found. Neither I nor the dealer who sold it had the slightest idea what ship it portrayed, and it was only until I got it home and had the chance to do a little research that I learned it modeled one of the early Catalina Island steamship ferries. Now that additional information might not mean much to you, but there are collectors of Catalina historical memorabilia and I ended up selling that piece to the daughter (or was it the granddaughter?) of someone who’d actually worked on that ship. In that case at least the carving found a good home.
The advantage, once again, of there being a thin market for Americana out here is that by visiting the flea markets regularly, those who set up at them get to know you, get to know what you’re looking for, and oftentimes will draw your attention to something you might have missed in their booth. They might not even set that special something out until you show up (provided you show up early). Here I could provide a nearly endless list of things, such as the yellow painted and decorated document box I mentioned earlier, an early half hull ship model, any number of quilts and coverlets, pewter, Bennington stoneware and a variety of early folk art drawings. There is a danger here, of course, of agreeing to buy something you might not otherwise buy simply because you want the dealer in question to keep hunting for you. But in my experience at least, that’s a danger well worth dealing with. If one attends enough estate sales, you’ll also learn who might buy what you like and who is in the hunt for things you could care less about. This is good information to have. I recall one sale in particular that promised a nice selection of early country Americana, but when I arrived I found myself positioned to be only number eighteen or twenty in line. Now if I were back East I’d have to assume that my chances of snagging anything good was the same as the probability that Vladimir Putin would suddenly become a good democrat or that the Iranians would allow unfettered access to their nuclear installations. Not so out here. Recognizing most of the people in line, I guessed (correctly) that most everyone there would head for the vintage clothes in the bedrooms (the women), the extensive collection of books or the garage full of high end woodworking tools (the men of course) or the cases of jewelry (everyone except yours truly). That left me free to move around somewhat more casually than usual in the dining and living rooms to pick off the collection of early 19th century silhouettes, pewter chargers and some nicely decorated stoneware.
I’m happy to report that this experience has been repeated any number of times, which I suppose will make dealers back East wishing they could attend a California estate sale. Naturally I prefer not to encourage that, but 3,000 miles allows me to write about such things. The point I’m trying to make is that it happens often enough to tell me that the Americana market out here is at best in hibernation. There was, for instance, the local estate sale that, among a variety of other goodies, included a set of four mahogany Chippendale (ca 1780) dining chairs along with a nearly matching arm chair. The chairs were hardly high-end Philadelphia pieces – hey, don’t get piggy and demand it all. Instead they were of a more country-like New England style, but they were honest and the sole apology to all five was some out of date upholstery and a scattering of replaced glue blocks. The ticketed price for all five: $1,000! Now again, back East you’d most likely be fighting to rip the price tag off and making a headlong dash to the check out counter, since the armchair alone was worth more than the price for all five. But again, this is California and the only chairs that are about to be scooped up at an estate sale are ones that mimic what’s found at Versailles or deemed post-modern, whatever the heck that is. So I decided to roll the dice and walk away, satisfying myself with a load of “smalls” and a plan to return the next day. And as I’d hoped, those chairs were still there at a 50% discount when I returned. Now think about this: That’s $100/chair for chairs that are approximately 225 years old! They’re mahogany and not pine. No assembly is required. Their pegged solid wood construction means they’d probably survive another 100 years of abuse. Their pop-out seat cushions meant that changing the upholstery fabric would require little more than a staple gun. Go ahead, Ikea — beat that! Moreover, the estate sale wasn’t being held in some marginal neighborhood where you checked your car later to see if your tires were still on it. It was held in one of California’s most exclusive communities where the average resident spends three of four times the price of the chairs per year to fertilize their lawns. But that, folks, is the nature of the Americana market sometimes, why I love being out here on the West coast with my tastes in antiques and why I have absolutely no desire to stop my hoarding of Americana whenever and wherever I can find it.
But now I’ll conclude this chapter with perhaps my most daring West Coast adventure if only as a warning as to where a “hobby” can lead. This was the penultimate example of “shopping the shops” in that it entailed buying out another dealer’s inventory. It was, again, one of those little old grey haired ladies who was moving to a nursing home, which meant that not only was she selling out her shop, but also much of her personal collection (not that there was a discernable dividing line between the two) – an inventory that included multiple shelves of blue spongeware, large wood mixing bowls full of butter molds, a cupboard packed with early stick-spatterware, dozens of Chinese snuff bottles, English porcelain of all sorts, early Baccarat paperweights, a seemingly endless trivet collection, refinished country furniture of all sorts, boxes of early lighting, kerosene lamps from low end to high, and so on seemingly ad infinitum. There was, admittedly, little in the way of anything super special, but it was all eminently collectible and hence sellable. I also don’t want you to think we approached things like bankers who’d make a careful accounting of everything before handing over the cash. Much of the inventory was in storage, largely in inaccessible boxes. So instead we proceeded more like Texas oil wildcatters. After a rough survey of what we could easily see on the surface, and without knowing what precisely lay beneath in storage, we “smelled” profit if we met her price. In other words, there was a big element of a crap shoot about the whole thing.
In any event, the buyout required substantially more than pocket change (boy is that an understatement), which meant we were looking for some fast turnover to eliminate our debt. This fact precluded dribbling things out bit by bit as inventory to my partner’s shop. We were left then with two alternatives: Running an estate sale and listing things on eBay. After culling out a few things for the shop, we pursued both alternatives. But we still had a problem. Included in what we’d bought was a massive collection of 19th century pattern and flint glass, upwards of 400 pieces from toothpick holders to compotes and pitchers. The problem was that not only has the market for pattern glass been iffy at best even before 9/11 (I’d guess that prices peaked somewhere in the ‘70s or ‘80s), but insofar as we knew, there was no market whatsoever for the stuff in California. So once again the internet came into play. We picked out a half dozen pieces that spanned the collection’s range of value and age and listed them on eBay. This, in turn, helped us identify relevant collectors and dealers. With that information we did a painstaking inventory of the entire collection, using a contemporary widely referenced price guide to assess the approximate value of everything. As I recall, that number came to $20,000. We understood, of course, that you “can’t sell it to the book” and that there was no way in hell we’d ever be able to sell the collection, piece by piece, and come anywhere close to that number. But the number along with the identity of the reference book allowed us to offer everything to one person in a way that conveyed some information as to what they’d be buying. And indeed, we did sell it in one lot for something in the vicinity of $5,000. That’s how you sometimes have to operate and the discounts you sometimes have to offer in the antiques business.