20 Mar Chapter 1: Beginnings
Now in our mid-70s, I look around our house and wonder how we got here … how we developed a compulsion to possess more antiques of various sorts than any normal person would or should contend with. I count four corner cupboards (not including the one stored in the laundry room), five stepback cupboards, two paint decorated jelly cupboards and three other cupboards of varied design, a Federal secretary, seven tall case clocks, two 18th century highboys including one in the family room filled with toys for the grandkids, four mule chests, four slant lid desks (and a Queen Anne maple desk-on-frame), five painted blanket chests, twelve (!) chests of drawers of various types including four tall chests, an equal number of late 18th and early 19th century portrait paintings, nearly two dozen 19th and early 20th century trade signs, a small collection of early decoys, paint decorated storage or document boxes and weathervanes, several sets of painted Windsor chairs (plus the unpainted Windsor settle in the living room), ten work tables, two tavern tables and two tilt top candle stands, a compliment of Enterprise coffee mills ranging in size from #2 to #9, an assortment of ten miniature 19th century chests, a dozen or so small watercolor paintings scattered about and mixed in with nearly two dozen late 18th and early 19th century American needlepoint samplers along with several watercolor family records. I suppose I should add to this inventory our small collection of quilts, Victorian era theorems on velvet, burl bowls, depression-era folk art carvings and a few pieces of decorated stoneware. Keeping in mind that we don’t live in some 10,000 square foot mansion, but a more conventional 3,000 square foot home, and you can begin to understand our decorating scheme: “We can fit it in if we move that three inches to the right and that four inches to the left.”
So how did we get to a state of affairs that in the opinion of some qualifies us for an episode of Hoarders and in need of intervention? Well, it’s been a long process that began inconspicuously but gathered steam quickly. One thing my wife and I had in common when first married was a taste for contemporary furnishings of glass, chrome and Danish teak modern. Our bedroom set was a strictly modernistic design lacquered a slick white with chrome accents, the living room coffee table was all glass and brass, the kitchen chairs were chrome and vinyl, the dining room set all teak, our bed was a waterbed, and we preferred lighting fixtures that looked like abstract art — something akin to a large artichoke hung upside down would definitely have had its appeal. And although we’d saved enough beforehand to purchase these things new along with our rosewood paneled sofa and an assortment of glass and metal side tables, our budget ran thin when it came to decorative accents. So imagine a full-sized plaster torso retrieved from a store display thru which I dug a large hole, sanded and painted black, all set on a perfectly finished wood pedestal that had also been a store display accessory. Art for the walls required a bit of imagination — a stretched canvass painted black, a random splash of white and a big red misshapen dot to match the abstract rug on the floor. What we hadn’t fully appreciated at the time, of course, was that as we began building a family, the glass coffee table beautifully displayed art in the medium of peanut butter, the gap between the back and seat cushions of the kitchen chairs served as a convention center for old cheerios and dried peas (along with other veggies the kids pretended to eat), that whatever underlay that slick white lacquered finish to our bedroom set shrank and expanded with the seasons to yield a surface mimicking a jigsaw puzzle, and the tweed seats to our teak dining chairs had a magnetic attraction to spaghetti sauce. We also learned that our modernistic light fixtures took light bulbs supermarkets were not considerate enough to stock. Such things, though, were mere inconveniences since the décor fit nicely into our newly built suburban home with its cathedral redwood paneled ceilings, floor to ceiling windows and wine colored wall to wall carpeting.
It was around this time that I read Robert Penn Warren’s All The Kings Men wherein I was especially taken with the words “and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaves of the willow”. Although Warren’s novel offered a semi-fictionalized account of Huey Long’s rise to power in Louisiana, little did I know those words would apply to us and to a wholly unanticipated but long-lasting love affair with antiques.
As much as we loved our suburban split level contemporary home, the breeze that ruffled the leaves to our willow was a decision by someone in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to reconstruct Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill tunnel. Perhaps they were right or perhaps it was just another way to shuffle public monies from one pocket to another, but my fifteen minute commute to work became a one hour nightmare. There may be people who don’t mind such things, but I wasn’t one of them. So into the city we moved – into one of those large Victorian-era brick three story homes that describe the housing stock of a city whose heyday was the second half of the 19th century. Of course, it wasn’t the love of things old that led us there with its full basement, wrap-around front porch, four second-floor bedrooms, sweeping oak staircase and balcony, a fireplace in every room, and ten foot ceilings. Somewhere along the line my wife and I, as irrational as it might seem to a normal person, thought it would be fun to rehabilitate a hundred year old home that had been allowed to slip into disrepair.
Don’t ask me about the genesis of that idea – it simply appeared – but there we were, the proud owners (along with the bank) of a house that, even with three kids aged 5, 4 and 2, we rolled around in like marbles in a bowl. The house, needless to say, needed more than mere cosmetic work – a new kitchen was essential, every room needed new paint and wallpaper, the first floor windows all required replacement, we wanted to convert at least one of its seven fireplaces from gas to wood burning, much of the trim on the front porch was rotting, repairs were needed for the 100 year old slate roof, the stairs to the basement needed to be rerouted so we could add a first floor powder room, the attic needed insulation and the plumbing to the second floor bathroom had to be replaced. But we were young and wholly uninformed as to what it would take in terms of time, energy and money to bring things up to snuff. But we did it. It took two years, but in the end we were pleased with what we had. And unlike the house we’d abandoned in the suburbs, we felt a kinship to this one given all the sweat, tears, money and words-not-to-be-said-in-front-of-children we’d poured into it. As it turned out, however, we’d bought more than a house – we’d also bought a hobby that over the years threatened, even more than the house, to become all-consuming.
That hobby wasn’t restoring old houses. Neither of us was sufficiently brain damaged to think that rehabilitating an aged Victorian home once wasn’t enough for a lifetime even if half the work was contracted out to professionals. Two years of living in a half finished kitchen, plaster dust, ladders and stepstools strewn about for painting and wallpapering, drying varnish on newly sanded floors, and exposed plumbing is enough for one pass on this planet. However, what this restoration and reclamation project did do was give us an appreciation for things old – in this case, how homes were built when labor and material were cheap. Sometimes that appreciation came in aggravating ways. When I wanted to move a wall, I learned that not only were the wall studs 4 x 4s that actually measured four inches by four inches, but that they were toe-nailed into the floor and ceiling joists using nails more appropriate to spiking rails to railroad ties. And when it came to ripping out the cupboards to the pantry so the room could be converted into the kitchen (yes, the pantry was that big), who could imagine using five inch finishing nails just for cove molding trim? But the second thing we learned once our reconstruction began to take shape was that our contemporary furnishings seemed wholly out of place. As the plaster dust settled and the paint and wallpaper paste dried it became increasingly evident that those ten foot ceilings and spacious rooms made our contemporary furnishings look like postage stamps on the floor. The five foot teak dining table posed as a miniature in our twenty four foot long dining room, the delicate rosewood veneered parsons table that fit perfectly in the entry of our suburban home seemed an orphan in an entry hall whose size matched the family room in our previous residence, and while a crib and dresser had earlier filled the small nursery bedroom, they hardly muted the echo in the corresponding room of our remodeled Victorian. With furnishings that were more than adequate for a 1,600 square foot ranch, we now had the feeling of living in a 4,500 square foot semi-empty warehouse.
The problem, though, was that rehabilitating the house had taken whatever funds we had, and then some. I know there are those gifted people who could take what we owned and with the right choice of paint, wallpaper, carpeting and window treatments, make everything suitable to a feature article in Better Homes and Garden. But when the line formed for such a gift, we weren’t in it. Hiring a decorator was out of the question as was starting from scratch with a house sale that unloaded everything we owned since everything we owned fell into the category of “used furniture”. So, making do with what we had, we looked anew at the heavily painted table and chairs the previous owners had left behind on the third floor. Originally destined for the Salvation Army or worse, we decided that if they were rehabilitated in some way, they might serve a purpose in one of the kid’s rooms. At least they’d take up some space. I don’t know who ultimately made the decision not to throw these pieces away (most likely my wife) but both the chairs and table were unlike what we owned. They weren’t chrome, plastic, veneered or particle board – they were wood! Real wood! Solid wood! And since we’d refinished the waist-high wainscoting in the dining room, we were emboldened to try our hand with them. Neither my wife nor I had ever refinished furniture before, but what the heck — at worst we could repaint them or use them in our reconstituted fireplace. I did a little quick reading on how to strip paint from wood and learned, in effect, that aside from burning your hands with stripper, there really isn’t much that can go wrong if done in a well-ventilated place (e.g., the back yard). Just glop the stuff on, scrape it off, wash it down with TSP — the critical ingredient then of most powdered laundry detergents – rinse it off with a garden hose in the sun and pray the paint you just removed wasn’t put there to hide an infection of cigarette burns.
We got lucky. Whoever painted the table and chairs had done so simply to mask a worn and faded finish. So it was back to the hardware store for sandpaper, steel wool, stain and something to use as a finish, which at that time, since we didn’t know better, was polyurethane (hang in there folks … we got smart later so don’t slam this book closed yet). And although we didn’t appreciate it at the time, we’d gotten lucky in another way. Not only were there no cigarette burns, but the original finish had only partially worn off before paint was applied. This kept the paint from moving into the grain of the wood and made its removal a veritable piece of cake. It also minimized the amount of sanding that had to be done before staining and applying a finish. Our first experience with refinishing, then, gave us a false sense of mastery over the things people can do to wood – a sense that would soon enough acquire a healthy dose of humility. But there we were with a set of rather nice chairs and a table … not antique, but still wood with a warm finish and, to our eye at least, as good as anything that could be had out of a furniture store.
It was then, however, that my wife had one of those dangerous epiphanies wherein she decided that refinishing furniture could be fun. Remember: We were young, wholly inexperienced and surely a tad stupid. We also didn’t have a lot of money, so if it was fun to refinish things, they had to be cheap things. And just about the cheapest thing you can find are chairs … painted chairs, beat up chairs, odd chairs that don’t match any other chair. So to make a long story short, in a matter of months we ended up with a half dozen or so wholly mismatched but beautifully refinished chairs (let it not be said that we didn’t go overboard in things from the start). But now, what to do with this rather odd collection? We had a dining and kitchen set, so scratch using them there. None were the sort that belonged in a living room. And the demand for chairs in a bedroom was minimal.
Enter one of the world’s great inventions. I don’t know where or when it first appeared … doubtlessly in antiquity when someone had too many clay pots littering their mud hut hovel. I’m referring of course to the flea market. My wife and I were already familiar with such markets as a source of inexpensive household items (as well as beat up mismatched chairs). So why not give our refurbished chairs a try? And there was just the right monthly market north of the city that seemed to draw a crowd with an eclectic mix of things for sale (read: lots of junk). So ignoring whatever preferences our kids might have for spending a full day in the sun and crossing our fingers that we alone weren’t the market for odd chairs, we loaded everything into the family station wagon along with some household items we no longer needed (including three of the four bread warmers we’d gotten as wedding presents) and set ourselves up at a Sunday sale. And it was there that one of those life-altering events occurred: Over the course of the day we sold all the chairs … every single one of them! I don’t recall what happened to the bread warmers.
On net we probably just covered expenses, but suddenly here was a hobby unlike any other we had ever tried – a hobby that reproduced the money put into it. Other hobbies took us elsewhere financially. My vegetable garden could never compete with the supermarket. Growing roses was a black hole – they’d either croak as fast as I planted them or become scraggly ugly things. I’d tried painting, but that required a level of talent that, along with decorating skills, I’d been shortchanged in at birth. And the time and money we spent on refurbishing our house surely added value, but in Pittsburgh’s then depressed housing market, not enough value to make that a paying enterprise (besides, that really WAS hard work). But refinishing chairs … that we could do, we could do it together, there was a sense of accomplishment when a job was done, and we got our money back. Can a hobby be any better than that?
Something else happened at the market. Two rather scruffy looking men – short, stocky, unshaven and looking like they were there to pick up the trash — bought three or four of our chairs and then asked if we refinished furniture? Without giving the question and its implications much thought, I said yes. “What about Hoosier cupboards?” Frankly, I had only a vague idea what a Hoosier cupboard was – something from Indiana maybe? — but far be it for me to display any ignorance, so I said ‘yes’. When asked what I’d charge I had to stop and think: Did I really want to let the hobby become an actual business? What if we screwed up and made a mess of things? And how was I supposed to know how long it would take to refinish something we’d never attempted before? Well, here the challenge of the unknown (and hadn’t we just ‘refinished’ an entire house?) overcame any sense of caution or inadequacy and I quoted a price … a number that’s faded into irretrievable memory, but one I’m sure put me at a wage scale below that of bagging groceries at the local supermarket.
A few days later our two new “friends” – for the sake of anonymity I’ll call them Mario and Jerry — showed up at our home with the Hoosier in their truck. Fortunately we had a separate garage out back — we liked to refer to it as a carriage house, but in truth it was simply a large garage that was built when people owned carriages and not cars. So in it went, awaiting a burst of weekend energy on my part. Now I don’t know if you’re familiar with such cupboards, but generally they come in two sections separated by a porcelain or zinc center tray for kneading and rolling out the dough of that homemade apple pie. The bottom section would normally have at least two doors for storage, and perhaps a pull-out bread cutting board and an arrangement of several other drawers. The top section, in contrast, came in a multitude of forms, but generally they’d have at least one long vertical door to one side that when opened revealed a tin flour bin with sifter, several other doors for general storage across the top, and a section at the bottom that had horizontal slats that rolled up or vertical slats that opened from the center to either side to reveal more storage space. Some versions might have frosted glass panels to the doors of the upper section, but the variations in form were largely irrelevant to the labor involved with refinishing any one of them. Figure 1-1, then, taken from a listing by Painted Porch Antiques on 1stDibs.com illustrates a typical cupboard.
Fig. 1-1: Typical Hoosier Cupboard
We subsequently learned that there had to have been literally tens of thousands – no, hundreds of thousands — of these cupboards made in the late 19th century thru the early part of the 20th. The stock kitchen cabinets you’ll find today at, say, Home Depot or that can be custom made by some upscale kitchen redecorating operation are strictly a 20th century invention. Before that there were Hoosier cupboards, and they were probably as ubiquitous as Singer sewing machines or early oak ice boxes. And as with anything made in such numbers by so many different manufacturers, there were quirky differences among them, although for the most part, if you’ve seen one Hoosier, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The nice thing about the one that had been delivered to my garage, though, was that it was a piece of cake to refinish. Yes, the doors had to be taken off and hardware removed to do the job right, but that was merely a bit of extra time and not an obstacle that required technical solutions. The only slight glitch was the cupboard’s roll top, which consisted of a series of interlocking oak strips held together as a flexible sheet by a backing of canvass. The original canvass had, of course, disintegrated in the refinishing (or perhaps it was simply a disintegrated mess before I began … I don’t recall). But buying a sheet of canvass and gluing the refinished strips onto it posed no problems. What made things deceptively easy in addition to the cupboard suffering initially from only a badly deteriorated original finish was the fact that the brand of polyurethane I was using seemed a natural finish for oak wherein it could be rubbed down with steel wool to a lustrous smooth surface. So there I was, thinking I was now a fully experienced refinisher prepared to take on the world with a hobby that actually EARNED money. Now, though, began a series of stumbles that nearly drove us back to chrome, plastic and glass.
My wife and I had become familiar with several of the antique shops in the area in our earlier search for things to buy, refinish and resell. It was then that we made our first mistake … not a tragedy, but nevertheless a definite learning experience (translation: a total screw up). One of the dealers we’d gotten to know had a set of six Thonet bentwood chairs. The chairs were painted a hideous green and the seats, unlike the chair illustrated in Figure 1-2 (taken from a recent listing on 1stDibs.com), were caned but, for the most part, kaput. Once again, when asked how much we’d charge to strip and refinish them and then re-cane the seats I picked a number out of the air – and when I say “out of the air” I mean it, since neither my wife nor I had ever caned anything in our lives. But isn’t that what books are for?
Fig. 1-2: Thonet Bentwood Chair
To again make a long story short, disassembling the chairs, stripping and refinishing them, and learning to cane posed no problem, provided we didn’t mind, on the basis of my quote, to again earn far below the minimum wage at the time. After all, this was a hobby, right? But now comes the critical all-important step – reassembling the chairs. And here’s what I believe is a law of nature: Take six bentwood Thonet chairs, disassemble them without keeping track of what piece went with what other piece and upon reassembly you will find that the first five chairs go together more or less like clockwork, whereas the sixth will not go together at all! I know this is a law of nature because in a wholly scientific way I replicated the experiment a dozen times with precisely the same result – five chairs, no problem; the sixth chair, nope!
Of course, as anyone familiar with Thonet chairs can tell you, their parts weren’t stamped out by a machine on some assembly line so that each was identical to any other. Their parts were bent by hand with steam heated wood, so that each chair is subtly different from the next – an eighth of an inch here, a five degree angle there, and so on – and where minute differences magnify themselves as steam-bent wood changes shape over time. Those subtle differences, taken one at a time, allow for relatively easy assembly initially if one is pulling parts from a substantial pile. But by the time you get to the last chair (or possibly even the next to the last), you have parts that simply cannot be bent, pushed, wiggled or squeezed together — you most likely have incompatible parts drawn from six nearly identical but subtly distinct chairs.
I don’t recall how many parts those chairs had, but here’s some mathematics for you (the mathematically challenged can skip this paragraph). Suppose there are 8 distinct parts to a chair. Pick one, say the caned seat, from the disassembled pile. Now pick a right front leg. The odds that you’ve picked the correct right leg – the one that originally went with that specific seat – is 1/6. But at this stage of assembly, any leg will do. Now pick a left leg and the odds it went with that seat is also 1/6. So the probability that both legs go together and with that seat is 1/6 times 1/6 or 1/36. Do that for all seven pieces that need to be added to the seat to form the chair and the probability that you’ve chosen the correct pieces every time is 1/6 times 1/6 times 1/6 times 1/6 times 1/6 times 1/6 times 1/6, which is approximately 0.0000036. But that’s only the first chair. Suppose by some miracle you got that one right. Now you’ve got the next chair to assemble and the probability of getting it right is 1/5 times 1/5 times 1/5 times 1/5 times 1/5 times 1/5 times 1/5 = .000013. For the third chair we have 1/4 times ¼ times ¼ etc = 0.000061, for the fourth chair we get 0.00046 and for the fifth we have 0.0078. Of course, if the first five chairs are all properly assembled, the sixth comes together automatically so no need for a calculation there. Thus, the odds of picking parts randomly and having all six chairs assembled as they had originally is 0.0000036 times 0.000013 times 0.000061 times 0.00046 times 0.0078, which is approximately 0.00000000000000000001. That’s right, a “1” preceded by nineteen zeros! By this calculation if there’s a one in one hundred million chance of hitting one of those super-hyped megabuck state lotteries, you actually have a thousand times better chance of hitting TWO such lotteries in succession than you have of getting these chairs together as they came out of the factory!
Actually, things aren’t this bad — witness that I did ultimately get the set assembled (without help from on high since, if there is an “on high”, it certainly wasn’t about to give me a hand after what I’d been saying to myself and anyone within earshot when trying to reassemble the set). Parts may be uniquely formed, but there is a degree of tolerance when reassembling them. Also, if a piece isn’t quite bent enough to fit the chair currently being assembled, search for a part that’s bent a bit more or go back to a chair that you seemingly forced together because that part didn’t quite fit properly there. So rather than take multiple lifetimes, it took “only” the better part of three days to complete a job I’d originally estimated would take an hour or two. The lesson here is that although I learned how to make the above calculations when earning my PhD, I hadn’t learned about the relative uniqueness of individual Thonet chairs or the advisability of labeling the parts as each chair is disassembled. So much for the inadequacies of higher education and the absence of a required course labeled Common Sense 101.
But while one lesson was learned with the chairs, another wasn’t, since once again the chairs had a finish under the paint that protected the wood. The harder lesson was learned with our next purchase. Having refinished a Hoosier for someone else, we decided it would be more profitable if we found our own to restore. Why work for someone else? And that wasn’t hard to do back then since it seemed that the storage room of any antique shop held at least one Hoosier in need of restoration. So still operating on a limited budget, we bought the least expensive painted example we could find that nevertheless had all its parts. It was only when we unloaded it into the garage and attacked it with the first few brush strokes of paint stripper that we found, like the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that all Hoosiers aren’t created equal (or is it that some are more equal than others?). Ours wasn’t oak but poplar and, horror upon horrors, it had been painted at the factory. I don’t know what kind of paint was used, but it seemed impervious to my can of stripper, which was indeed a problem since I’d always bought the strongest deadliest stripper I could find – a can that preferably said something to the effect of “if swallowed, don’t bother calling a physician … you’re a dead man walking” or “if splashed onto the skin, bite hard on a piece of rubber for a few hours until the pain subsides.” Eventually the stripper did soften the paint enough that it could be scraped off, whereupon came the next bitter lesson: Paint applied at the factory is paint applied to raw wood, and paint applied to raw wood is paint that seeps into the grain and is there forever. Even a heavy dose of wood stain wouldn’t solve the problem since, with the paint removed in some places better than elsewhere, the stain merely gave the cupboard a splotchy look akin to leprosy. There was only one thing to do: Repaint the cupboard, use it for storing tools and old paint cans, and assign its cost to the “tuition” that must be paid when learning something new – a tuition that we came to understand was a recurring charge.
OK, so we were learning, but we had little idea as to how far we had to go. Sometimes there’s nothing that best sustains one’s confidence as does ignorance: and when one is learning something new from scratch, one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. We might have by then learned enough if we stuck to chairs and Hoosiers, but a hobby with that narrow a focus soon becomes no more fun than watching my rose bushes die. We had to expand our horizons. Lo and behold, an opportunity was found literally down the street. An upholstery shop was going out of business and having an “its all gotta go” sale – bolts and bolts of upholstery fabric plus all the supplies you might ever need. But more important from our perspective, the shop also had an inventory of stripped down Victorian-era frames for chairs, sofas and loveseats. “Wow, we don’t even have to refinish this stuff.” So after pretty much emptying what little was in our savings, I filled our recently purchased van with bolts of fabric, boxes of springs, webbing, muslin and, as I recall, two sofas and a set of six Eastlake-era (ca 1880) chairs. All walnut and all needing “only” to be upholstered. The justification for all of this, I now know, was the aberrant short circuit in the brain that led me to think I could learn to upholster just as well as the next guy. Well, that might be true, provided “the next guy” was as inexperienced as I was.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to watch a professional upholstering something. It looks so easy, but that’s all a giant deception. You’d think that once the webbing and springs were in place and tied down, all you had to do was cover it with padding, stretch some muslin over that to secure everything firmly, and then apply the upholstery fabric. Simple, right? Sorry, wrong! I’m convinced now that “they” make it look easy to frustrate those of us stupid enough to try it on our own. It’s a giant fully coordinated conspiracy by the professional upholsterers of the world. They appear to do it quickly and effortlessly when someone is watching so that when we ordinary folk try it, we become so utterly frustrated we’ll pay ANYTHING to have it done professionally. Take that first chair out of the set of six, for instance. Actually, getting it right isn’t all that difficult, unless of course you encounter a problem that often characterizes antique upholstered furniture; specifically, the odds are that your chair has been reupholstered multiple times, making the wood to which the webbing and fabric must be attached akin to dried out Swiss cheese or Turkish halva. The damned nails just don’t hold or when they do, they threaten to splinter the wood further. Suppose, though, that you’ve surmounted this obstacle (epoxy wood filler really does have a purpose) and progressed to nailing down the muslin … the fabric that lies immediately beneath the upholstery fabric and which holds the padding in place over the burlap covering the springs. Now suddenly you encounter those parts of a seat to which no hammer of any design shall ever be allowed to go (principally around the chair’s back braces). How the heck do you tack down the muslin there? I’m not going tell you because I don’t remember. But suppose you’ve figured that out. Good, because that also solves the problem of tacking down the finishing fabric, whereupon gluing down the trim to complete the chair is a piece of cake. Of course I’ve ignored the issue of how an upholsterer folds the fabric at the two front corners so that both folds are identical, unobtrusive and the fabric lays perfectly flat and tight. Here I believe is one of those tricks of the trade that professionals are drummed out of the business if they ever reveal it to anyone else. Oh, they’ll show you how it’s done. But like the magician with a card trick, there’s a sleight of hand involved they don’t tell you about and that you’ll never figure out.
Nevertheless, suppose that by some combination of miracle and pure chance, you get it right … at least the chair looks “good enough.” You might think you’ve conquered the mountain and all that remains is to take the lessons learned from the first chair and apply them to the second, third and so on. Wrong again! You look at that first chair with a sense of arrogant accomplishment and eagerly move to the second. Everything seems to go smoothly this time until you finish tacking down the muslin. You put the two chairs side by side. Hold on … the seats … they’re both good … but they’re a little different. One is slightly higher than the other, or rounder than its twin. The seats, in other words, are not a perfect match. So off comes the muslin, on or off comes some of the wadded padding, and back on comes the muslin. If you’re lucky you have it right this time, but the odds are you’ll still need a few more hours of frustrating adjustments. And then, when it comes to the upholstery fabric itself, there are still those corners to get right.
Let’s suppose that you, your marriage and everything within easy reach of you survive the time and frustration completing the set of six chairs. You stand there for several hours admiring your work, self-satisfied with your newfound skills but committed to never doing it again. However, there is still that sofa frame, boxes of springs, rolls of burlap and muslin, and yards of upholstery fabric. Damned if you’ll throw it all away. I won’t survey here all the potential pitfalls and sources of maddening frustration and the occasional temptations to use those sofa frames to heat the home in a fireplace. Suppose you’ve even conquered all of that. You are indeed king of the mountain – you’ve saved the family from financial ruin by resurrecting that horrid investment and ended up producing something of value, something you can sit on. Now comes the killer – trying to sell your masterpieces. Whether it’s at a house sale (our first attempt), a flea market or consigning your work to an antique shop, here’s what you learn: That beautiful (and expensive) yellow brocade fabric you used for the sofa looks exquisite, but she, whoever ‘she’ might be, wants it in green. OK, so you upholster the second sofa in green. But now the first ‘she’ disappears and the next ‘she’ – a different ‘she’ from the first ‘she’ – wants blue. Well, not really blue, but something that matches her patterned draperies. That fabric doesn’t exist, and even if it did it wasn’t one of the bolts of upholstery material you bought from that shop that’s no longer in business. You are now beginning to understand why other dealers weren’t walking over your face to buy what you bought at that going-out-of-business sale.
Let me conclude this dissertation on upholstered furniture with this advice: If you’re ever tempted to dabble in antiques as a dealer, treat upholstered furniture as radioactive. If offered to you for free, think of it as having been exposed to every communicable disease known to man. There are exceptions, such as laminated rosewood Belter pieces, 18th century Queen Anne wingchairs or period Chippendale sofas. But these are the exceptions because such pieces can be sold with no upholstery on them whatsoever — collectors will buy the frames. Indeed, if they are upholstered, the odds are that knowledgeable dealers or collectors will want to tear the upholstery off to see if the frames are legitimate period pieces. Otherwise, stay away, run away!
So scratch upholstered furniture as a way to branch out from Hoosiers and chairs. The next logical direction to go in the search for new realms to conquer seemed at the time to be those tables of various description that languish in the backrooms of antique shops because they’re badly in need of refinishing. And it was here where we began to learn the tricks of the refinishing trade – how to stain, how to match stains, how to bring back a finish without stripping things down to the bare wood and which finishes worked best on what woods. More often than not it was trial and error, and although I can no longer recall the details, I’m certain there were pieces that we refinished more than once because the first pass yielded something unacceptable. It’s one thing to refinish a chair with its absence of a large flat surface whereas tables require greater attention to the details of refinishing for the simple reason that imperfections in a table’s top will jump out at you and render the piece an eyesore. In fact here’s a hint for you: Don’t try to match the super slick semi-glossy finish on furniture you see today on furniture showrooms. First, you probably can’t do it without driving yourself to distraction. But second, there’s often no need to even try. Ignoring the possibility of reconstituting an old finish (more on that in a minute) step one is to remove the old surface using your deadly paint stripper, washing things off with a solution of TSP or powdered laundry detergent and letting the piece dry in the sun. And don’t be afraid here to use the garden hose to wash things down. Water will NOT damage wood – it’s STANDING water, water left for days that will do some damage. Water will damage contemporary Ikea-quality furniture since such pieces are typically made of particle board or plywood. But particle board and plywood are made of cheap porous wood along with a hefty amount of glue, neither of which likes water. A hardwood such as maple or cherry, on the other hand, is virtually waterproof. Hell, if you’re of an experimental frame of mind, throw that piece of solid wood furniture into your swimming pool and let it float around for an hour or two. If you then pull it out and dry it in the summer sun I’ll guarantee there’ll be nothing wrong with it. Once dry, the next step is to rub it down with 0000 steel wool, making certain the original finish is wholly gone. If, because of differential exposure to sunlight the wood has differentially faded or if you want to deepen the color, use an alcohol based stain as opposed to what you commonly find in your local hardware store. There are two reasons to prefer this kind of stain. First, it doesn’t seal the wood, which means that continued applications will incrementally color and darken the wood. Thus, you can approach what you want in steps whereas the oil-based stain from a hardware store will seal the wood and what you get is what you see with its first application. But second, suppose you over-shoot and generate something too dark, too red or too brown. Well, alcohol based stain can, for the most part, be removed by successive “washings” of the surface with denatured alcohol (which is what you’ll use to dilute the stain in the first place). In other words, you can undo the mess you’ve made of things. The final step is to NOT apply a finish. Assuming we’re dealing with a hardwood such as cherry, walnut, maple and to a somewhat lesser extent, mahogany, just give the surface a good rubdown with that 0000 steel wool again, followed by a good coat of paste wax. Hardwoods are hard, which is to say they can be polished with steel wool and given a soft sheen with a good coat of wax. The beauty here is that if you don’t like what you see – if you really do want that slick glossy finish – you can always give the piece another wash of alcohol to remove the wax, and proceed as if you know what you’re doing better than me.
Suppose you do want to give whatever it is you’re working on a slicker finish than what you get from a simple rubdown with steel wool. OK, then, here’s my advice. Unless you’re dealing with oak (since with oak, polyurethanes such as Deft really do work well) and since I assume we’re talking about antiques, never use anything but shellac. And never brush it on straight out of the can from the hardware store. Dilute the shellac with two parts denatured alcohol to one part shellac and then either brush it or rub it on with a tightly balled cloth. Using the shellac straight out of the can will only yield brush strokes you’ll never be able to rub out. Using the diluted solution, in contrast, may require several coats with some rubbing down between coats (it will dry fast with the alcohol) but you won’t get any brush strokes and you’ll be able to incrementally move toward the level of sheen that most appeals to you.
There were also any number of other tricks and shortcuts that we learned over time. We also learned, for example, that one didn’t have to get a Victorian era beveled mirror resilvered; instead, strip the deteriorated silvering off and then back the old glass with a brand new mirror. We learned that one didn’t have to spend countless hours wearing down one’s finger tips removing a century of tarnish from old brass candlesticks and furniture hardware; a muriatic acid bath works wonders here. We learned how to straighten warped wood, and we also learned when trying to do so was a hopeless venture. We learned how a wash with potassium permanganate could give raw wood a patina that mimicked the real thing. And we learned how a wash with Oxalic acid could remove stains such as those black rings left by a flower pot or a wet glass; but we also learned that if that stain was ink, then it was best to learn to live with that imperfection. And perhaps most important of all, we also learned that oftentimes it was wholly unnecessary to remove an old finish and start from scratch. Since we were dealing with antiques, if the piece in question was made before, say, 1870, the finish was most likely shellac. And shellac has a property that is both good and bad at the same time; namely, it dissolves in alcohol (and over time, even in water). The “bad” is that it’s susceptible to water stains or even simply to moisture in the air. The most common affliction here is shellac that’s turned white because a damp cloth was left on it. And then there’s the ring in the surface itself from a coffee cup left standing with a wet base. Shellac – especially old, dried shellac – also scratches relatively easily (you can do it with a fingernail). But the “good” is that none of these afflictions necessarily calls for a complete refinishing. With your handy dandy supply of alcohol based stains, you’ll find that a light coat of stain will more often than not hide those scratches and color those white patches. Because the stain is alcohol based, it will penetrate the shellac and recolor it. But suppose that doesn’t do the trick. The next thing to try is reconstituting the old shellac. Soak some 0000 grade steel wool in denatured alcohol and begin rubbing things down. If the piece is finished with only a thin coat of shellac, the alcohol will readily dissolve and recoat the surface, which can then be rubbed down with steel wool once dry. If, on the other hand, the shellac is thick and yields a somewhat gloppy mess, rub everything down with a cloth soaked in alcohol to remove the mess. You won’t, however, remove it all – absent the use of paint stripper, a thin coat of shellac will remain. Let things dry and then steel wool again with a dry 0000 pad before waxing. Odds are you’ll love the result (and if not, you can always get out that can of paint stripper).
But beyond learning all these little tricks, we also learned about wood — about how to differentiate between oak and chestnut, between walnut and mahogany (not always easy), between cherry and maple (again, with the ‘proper’ stains, not always easy), between American and European pine, as well the difference between pine and poplar. There are a multitude of reasons for knowing your woods, the most important being that wood is the primary clue in determining a piece of furniture’s origins. For example, European antiques commonly used oak as a secondary wood (i.e., drawer interiors, glue blocks, etc) whereas on occasion chestnut was used on American pieces. Thus, seeing drawer bottoms that ‘look like oak’ doesn’t necessarily label the piece European. Poplar is perhaps the most common secondary wood for American antiques, with pine a close second, whereas if the secondary wood is pine with lots of knots and a bold grain, the piece is most likely European. On smaller pieces or the interior of the small drawers to a desk, for instance, Europeans sometimes used mahogany whereas Americans almost never did. But I have seen American pieces with walnut as a secondary wood, so as with oak versus chestnut, it pays to learn to distinguish walnut from mahogany.
Now don’t take what I’ve said as biblical text. When early colonists searched around for something to ship back to England to earn a few shillings they didn’t have to go far to find something of value – generally, only a few feet. I’m referring here to trees – nice big towering pines, maples, oaks and so on. Walk outside of the log cabin, dodge a few arrows by disgruntled Indians, and voila – exportable goods. In contrast, Europe, and England especially, had pretty much denuded their forests of old (read: usable) trees whereas North America was loaded with the stuff (I once read where, when colonists first stepped ashore, a squirrel could go from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without touching the ground). So a lot of wood was shipped East (with the Royal Navy, determined to out-build the French and/or the Spanish and/or the Dutch, the best customer). But things also worked in the other direction. The ship that sailed from Southampton and limped into Boston harbor or up the Chesapeake leaking like a sieve wasn’t simply turned into firewood. If deemed a total loss, more often than not it was disassembled and the wood put to good use, in which case European oak and elm sometimes ended up in furniture made here. There are, in short, no hard and fast rules – only clues and probabilities and its up to you to learn how to attach those clues to probabilities in order to reach a defensible conclusion.
There is, however, a wood out there that, despite being nonexistent, is perhaps the most common label given to a piece of furniture: “Cherrywood”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen some auctioneer or dealer saying that a piece they’re selling is cherrywood as if that label sets the item on a higher plain than any competing object. Imagine me glowering down at you in imitation of Judge Judy’s theatrical attempt at publicly humiliating and belittling you, yelling “There is no such thing as cherrywood just as there’s no such thing as maplewood, walnutwood or oakwood!” Seems that auctioneers and dealers alike, presumably those who don’t know their woods, apply the label ‘cherrywood’ to anything stained red. I’ve seen that label applied to mahogany, to walnut, poplar and maple with a red stain, and to cherry itself. But let me tell you: Cherry can be brown, and so can mahogany, while walnut can be stained red as can maple. And you can make poplar just about any color you want, including blue or green if you’re so inclined. The identification of wood comes from the grain and NOT its color. So again, there is no such thing as cherrywood and when you see someone using that label, you know they haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about.
We also learned something else as we branched out from chairs and Hoosiers, which was that the various antique shops serving as the source of restoration projects would often take the pieces we’d restored on consignment, thereby encouraging us further in the pursuit of something that was morphing from mere hobby to tax writeoff. It’s impossible, though, to feed a compulsion with antiques whether as collector, hobbyist or dealer without eventually getting sucked into what is perhaps the primary source of antiques – auctions. It’s too early in this volume to review some of our experiences here, good and bad. Suffice it to say that auctions can be an expensive classroom. Think about it: At least two thirds of the people at a typical antiques auction will be dealers, while two thirds are collectors (and yes, for the mathematically challenged, that means the two subsets intersect). And there’s one thing both dealers and collectors have in common: For the most part, they know what they’re doing – they know the approximate value of things that interest them, they know how things can be faked, and they know what things ought to look like if they were in perfect or near perfect condition. All of this adds up to one fact if you’re the novice in the room: With virtual certainty you will be subject to the winner’s curse. That is, if you win the bid on something, you’ve just paid more for that something than everyone else there who, knowing what they’re doing, is willing to pay. Now consider the implications of that fact: To assume you got a bargain, to suppose you stole something out from under the noses of a room full of savvy dealers and collectors presupposes that somehow everyone fell asleep at the switch or they aren’t as smart as you. There is a chance that one or both of those circumstances holds from time to time, and once we too learned what we were doing we have in fact gotten some tremendous bargains at auction. But if you’re a novice, don’t bet on getting those bargains! The odds are against you and more often than not you’ll pay what the piece is worth and possibly more. To believe otherwise is to give meaning to the Yiddish word Chutzpah.
Another danger at auctions for the novice is buying things you know little to nothing about, or things you really don’t need or know how to sell. More than once you’ll say to yourself when loading a purchase into your car “what the hell was I thinking when I bid on this?” And you’ll also learn (and perhaps already have) that attending auctions is akin to hemorrhoids – the more you scratch, the more it itches. Even bad buys don’t eliminate the itch, and can even make you into something akin to a compulsive gambler: OK, so you’re on a loosing streak, but you can feel your luck changing any day now. There’s something about auctions that make them, for some people at least (including myself), addictive — perhaps it’s finding things you can’t find anywhere else, or the testosterone level that rises when the bidding begins, or the sense of ultimate victory when the auctioneer points his finger at you and says ‘sold’ (akin, I think, to a hole-in-one in golf, or winning the downhill at the Olympics for those of us who are athletically impotent). Whatever it is, once you begin traveling this path, you’ll find yourself with an addiction for which there is no known cure short of bankruptcy or death.
What this all means is that things will accumulate – things you over-paid for, things you never should have bought at any price because they’re damaged in irreversible ways, and, things you like and want to live with for awhile before selling. At this point there are four solutions: Stop going to auctions and find a new compulsion. This, though, was an option we never considered – a definite sign that the addiction was permanent if not fatal. Alternatively, one could begin setting up regularly at some monthly flea market. The problem there at the time was that we had three little kids, and keeping them somehow entertained at a market might be feasible once or twice, but thereafter, especially in a hot summer sun, it approached the impossible. A third option was to consign things to local auctions. But at this stage we didn’t know any auctioneer well enough to know how to proceed and almost certainly the value we added by refinishing and restoring didn’t cover the fees auctioneers charged for selling our inventory. That left the fourth option, which seemed the most straightforward: Rent a space in some antique mall in the hopes of finding the next ‘sucker’ for that weird item that once seemed a bargain but now serves as exhibit #1 that you still have a lot to learn.
Our first attempt at renting a small space in a shop went well enough, but we were still accumulating things faster than we could sell them, which illustrates the first fact of the antiques business: It’s ALWAYS easier to buy than to sell. The space wasn’t in one of those mega antique malls but rather a cute little shop with 5 or 6 rented spaces, all catering to women in search of something decorative and relatively inexpensive (e.g., Victorian era glassware, Limoges dishes, quilts, country kitchen accents) or inexpensive feminine things such as rhinestone jewelry or an uncommon perfume bottle. We were certainly able to fill a small booth with such things, but we still had a problem owing to the peculiar way our interest in antiques developed. Most antiques dealers begin as collectors. But collectors collect samplers, fraktur, old bottles, teacups, paintings, decoys, Staffordshire plates, dolls, cookie molds, vintage Christmas ornaments, stoneware, folk art carvings, perfume bottles, fishing lures and so on. In other words, they collect “small” things that fit in a box. And when collecting those things, that’s what they become expert in and what, if they become dealers, they specialize in. On the other hand, people don’t collect round oak dining tables, china cabinets, chairs, corner cupboards, library tables, Hoosiers, or drysinks. But we’d begun with furniture, and at this stage, that is what we knew if we knew anything. And the space we’d rented was simply too small to accommodate more than two or three such pieces. Neither my wife nor I ever learned much if anything about jewelry and while we certainly liked various forms of 19th century glassware, it was pretty hard to compete in that category at auctions back then. Neither glass nor jewelry, moreover, allowed me to partake of the pleasures of refinishing or restoring something and bringing it back to life. In fact, about all we could effectively compete for, given our limited budget, was furniture that needed restoration. At least there, with our labor, we could add value to what we bought. The consequence, though, was that a small booth in some boutique antique shop could only be a temporary solution to the problem of finding an outlet for our ever-increasing inventory. Yes, there was room galore in our house, but how many library tables, Victorian armoires or Hoosier cupboards can one use or need?
It is here, then, that our two scruffy “friends” re-enter the picture. To this day, some 40+ years later, I honestly don’t know much about their backgrounds. Both were in their late 40s at the time, but I have no idea how long they’d been partners or how long they’d been “into antiques”. But when we met that first time at the flea market selling our chairs, they’d just bought a shop some twenty miles north of the city. The shop consisted of a two story three bedroom house, the first floor of which was to be their shop with one of them living with his wife and son on the second floor. Then there was the back building … in essence a one story warehouse some 150 or so feet long and maybe 25 feet wide. Their plan was to rent out spaces there and keep the front building for themselves.
Now the last thing I want you to picture here is some prissy shop that among the antiques one finds an assortment of neatly arranged pillows and linens with the smell of scented candles or potpourri filling the air. Scratch even from your mind the image of the antique mall with a seemingly endless series of small neatly arranged or even slightly cluttered booths, each only marginally related to the one next to it in terms of what’s for sale and where, if you inadvertently slop over into the neighboring booth, the wrath of Zeus is visited upon you. Think the opposite … the extreme opposite! Picture a shop piled high with just about anything under the sun, a shop one has to walk thru sideways because everything is squeezed in with no thought given to display, a shop that if it had three period chests of drawers in it, they’d most likely be piled on top of each other, a shop you could visit five times and still find things you hadn’t noticed on previous trips. Moreover, insofar as our “space” in the back building was concerned, there was no designated space per se: “Just bring it in and we’ll put it somewhere.”
Our two “friends” were, in fact, what are called pickers in the antiques trade. Pickers have four essential qualifications: First, they know a lot about a lot. They know the difference at a glance between an 18th century Chippendale chest and a 19th century Centennial reproduction, they can easily differentiate at ten feet between a genuine Tiffany vase or leaded glass lamp and a 20th century knockoff, and they know without even picking it up when some cast iron mechanical bank is one a collector would want opposed to some 20th century copy. Second, they know the approximate value of virtually everything. They may not know the full retail upper-end value since they rarely if ever even visit the neighborhoods of shops that advertise in Antiques magazine or Maine Antique Digest. But they do know what they can ask when wholesaling something to another dealer so that dealer will return again and again to see their latest finds. Third, they “have an eye”. They may not be expert in any specific category, but they know something is “good” when they see it. They may never have been in an art museum, but they’ll often have an encyclopedic knowledge of listed artists. And their scruffy appearance will belie the fact that not only do they know in an instant whether they’re looking at a $100 19th century clock or a $5,000 one, but if the $5,000 one is for sale, they have the money in cold hard cash to buy it. Finally, they know the difference between “antique” and “collectible”. They know things don’t have to be “old” to be valuable and that people collect the strangest things. Even if you and I wouldn’t want it in our house – whatever “it” might be — doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there lusting to possess it.
Pickers also share one other attribute: They are both a tad unscrupulous and honest at the same time. To understand what I mean by this, consider the nature of their business. Pickers don’t generally sell to the retail public. The housewife or collector who wants to know the provenance of things, or who wants a written guarantee that the scratch in the table top came when some signer of the Declaration of Independence used it, are, for the picker at least, more a pain in the butt than anything else. If they’re sitting in some corner of the shop playing solitaire and a retail buyer walks in, they’ll offer a polite “hello” and “let me know if I can help you” before returning to their cards; but if a dealer walks in with whom they’ve done business before, they’re out of their chair in a flash and only too eager to show their latest acquisitions. They are the middlemen of the business and their target market is other dealers. Their primary contact with ordinary folks is when they buy things, which means their contact with any one member of the retail public is, for the most part, a one-time thing. Perhaps their connection comes from a garage or yard sale or the person selling to them is answering an ad in a newspaper that advertises “we buy antiques” (more on this later … much more). Whatever the source of the connection, the picker’s objective is to get what they can at the cheapest possible price. This may require a bit of deception as to how interested they are in buying what’s being offered them, and more often than not they quite sincerely have to convince the seller that what he or she has is worth less than what they think it’s worth because the seller watched too many episodes of Antiques Roadshow and think their “treasure” is identical to something that’s just been appraised for $50,000. We’ll expand on this later and with some of our own adventures, but anyone whose seen the TV program Pawn Stars knows how inflated people’s expectations can be and the only way to convince them otherwise is to accentuate the negative features of their ostensible treasure (or to invent such features if you have to). The long and the short of this, though, is that since the picker and seller aren’t engaged in any ongoing relationship, the picker is almost certainly going to try to buy at the cheapest price possible even if that means outright lying and even if that, in turn, means the seller later comes to believe they’ve been had.
In contrast to the buying end, pickers generally sell to a handful of dealers with whom they have an ongoing relationship, and often to people who know as much about what they’re selling as they do. In this case deception plays little to no role. In fact, precisely the opposite is required. There are times when the picker is selling something to a dealer who knows less about what is being offered than the picker. But since pickers are primarily interested in quick turnover, they prefer to sell to the first dealer they approach and are thereby likely to argue “trust me, there’s money left in this piece.” And it’s here that reputation comes into play — a reputation for selling things at a price that affords the buyer some profit. It’s a repeat business at this end of the market, and the picker needs a reputation for selling at fair wholesale prices.
For a case in point, I recall a carved oak dining room set that Mario and Jerry had in their shop. It was a magnificent expression of late 19th century excess in oak: Twelve highly carved chairs, a dining room table that with all its leaves might stretch across an interstate highway, a server and a two-part china breakfront that had to be disassembled to be moved, all heavily adorned with lion’s heads, claw feet and so on. Even back then this was, without exaggeration, a $20,000+ set retail. However, even at an asking price of $14,000, it wasn’t likely to sell quickly to a retail buyer since it took someone with a special (read: huge) home to have a place for it. Nevertheless, they sold it the day it came in. One of their regular clients was an auctioneer from the Southwest who drove up two or three times a year looking for merchandise – primarily Victorian and oak. So they called him, described the set, quoted a price and voila, the check was in the mail. You can’t do business that way unless you have a reputation for knowing what you’re selling and for selling at a price that leaves room for a worthwhile profit.
All of this, in turn, explains the nature of Mario and Jerry’s shop and other shops like theirs. They could have cared less what the housewife thought of the chaos encountered when walking in the door since sales to housewives were incidental to their business. They were set up to sell to dealers – dealers down the street, dealers from neighboring states and dealers from as far away as Texas, Oklahoma and California. These were the heady days of the antiques business, the 1970s, when dealers and auctioneers from across the country made seasonal treks East in search of merchandise, knowing they couldn’t afford to not fill their trucks or trailers. Dealers of this sort, upon entering a shop smelling of potpourri, weren’t likely to spend more than 10 minutes poking around since the operant assumption there (not necessarily correct) is that there would be few if any bargains to be had. Prissy shops, in other words, were too high up the food chain (and why wholesale when you have a good retail clientele?). But when entering a shop of massive clutter, of boxes on top of boxes, chests tipped upside down so they could rest on the ones below it, and where an 18th century corner cupboard will most likely be set next to a 1930 china cabinet – now here was a place that reeked of the promise “antiques at or below wholesale”.
Mario and Jerry might never have graduated high school or even attended one and they were surely not what you’d want your daughter to bring home on a date. But they knew how to run this kind of business. Of course, being at the wholesale end of things didn’t necessarily require having an open shop. They could just as easily have sold out of the back of a truck or opened the shop only when one of their dealer-clients called to say they were in town. But these weren’t only heady days for antiques, there was also money to be made buying gold and silver. In the hyper-inflationary world of the 70s, the price of gold was moving steadily upwards with a rate of increase exceeded only by the price of silver as the Texas Hunt brothers attempted to corner that market. An open shop gave them access to people who wanted to cash in a high school class ring or sterling dresser set that had languished in a drawer for decades. But if you’re going to run an open shop, do it right. And a part of ‘right’ was renting out the space you didn’t need at the cheapest price possible to dealers who didn’t have a taste for pillows and candles – for dealers who were just as likely to pile things in as if their space were a storage locker.
Since Mario and Jerry intended to buy all the gold and silver brought to the shop, they made no requirement that other dealers work the shop a specific number of hours or days and such an arrangement suited us fine. On a Saturday or Sunday morning we could load the van with whatever we had in our inventory at home, haul it to the shop, let them find a spot for it, collect a check if we’d sold anything during the week, and head home for an otherwise relaxing day (or for the next auction). And we could in fact relax because we knew every effort would be made to sell our merchandise. The shop’s customers often pulled up in 25 foot trucks, or set what they bought aside until the 40 foot semi they’d hired arrived to pick things up. In other words, the shop was designed as a virtual a one-stop “shopping mall” for dealers, haulers and auctioneers who’d driven across the country and had only a finite amount of time to travel around buying. And with our supply of Hoosiers, library and dining tables, sets of oak pressback chairs, Victorian armoires, curved glass china cabinets, marble top bedroom sets, and so on, we were the perfect match for the shop. Indeed, from Mario and Jerry’s perspective, in the short run it mattered less whether any specific dealer on a buying trip bought from the back building or the front, as long as they bought and were likely to return on their next pass through.
All of this added up to the simple fact that our ‘hobby’ had become something that was both a hobby and a business — a small, marginally profitable business perhaps, but a business nonetheless. But what dawned on us then was that by moving into this shop we’d also moved our indulgence to a level that required greater attention to what we were doing and a more comprehensive knowledge of the things we were likely to buy and sell under the label ‘antique’. But not only did we need to learn more, we also needed to buy more wherein the occasional trip to a local antiques shop in search of something to be refinished, or even weekly attention to the local farm auctions, was insufficient for maintaining our inventory. In other words, we also had to learn more about how to acquire antiques for resale.
In the chapters that follow I’ll elaborate on our experiences as we moved ever deeper into the world of antiques and the dividing line between dealer and collector began to vanish. Before I do so, though, I feel compelled to get on my soap box a bit. As I write this book interest in American antiques seems on the wane. Even ignoring that ‘antique’ flea markets offer more things that if not new are labeled “vintage” because they’re no longer in WalMart’s current inventory, it’s no secret that prices are down nearly uniformly across the board for legitimate antiques. The 4-drawer Hepplewhite or Sheraton chest that once sold for $2,000 and up can now be had for $500 or less; an 1830s slant front desk that might have set you back $3,500 ten years ago is now cheaper than a particle board some-assembly-required desk from Ikea; early 19th century portraits that might have once brought $4,000 at auction, can now be had for $1,000; and quilts that a few years ago ranged in value from $250 to $600 are now priced between $125 and $250. It may be that the very top of the market has held up, but the middle has definitely sagged and the bottom seems at times to have disappeared altogether. To illustrate, Figure 1-3 graphs realized auction prices for four disparate categories of things people collect today. A good deal of the variance around each graphed trend line is due to the fact that in collecting this data I paid little attention to the finer details of things as well as overall condition (I did eliminate the most glaring examples of inferior items). We can also attribute some of this variance to who happens to be in the room or on the phone at the time of bidding. Two testosterone driven bidders might have gone head to head in one instance whereas in another there was but a single serious bidder interested in whatever is being sold. Nevertheless, regardless of the source of this variation, one thing is clear – prices have declined and in some instances decline precipitously.
Fig. 1-3: Auction Realized Price Declines for Four Categories of Antique
What explains this and what are its implications for the future? Well, explanations abound. First, there’s the purely economic explanation; namely, the recession that hit in 2008 or the malaise that began with 9/11 (2001). It is the case, after all, that antiques are a luxury good, and with economic declines we can assume that antiques will be the first domino to fall and the last to rise back up. The data in Figure 1-3, though, are too few to evaluate this hypothesis; what we need instead is something that provides both more data and data that goes back further in time. One such possibility are the paintings by Antonio Jacobsen. During the years 1876 to 1919 Jacobsen produced some 6,000 paintings of ships of every description and today is deemed the premier marine artist of the period. There is then an active collector market for his work with easily accessible auction records going as far back as 1989. With some 700+ observations and average prices moving roughly between $10,000 and $20,000 per painting, we are afforded the opportunity to estimate not merely an average trend line, but also to allow for the possibility of gradual reversals in price trends. And that estimate is the dark curved line in Figure 1-4a, which suggests that prices began leveling off around 2001 and a discernible decline taking root in 2007 or 2008.
Fig. 1-4a: Unadjusted Auction Prices Realized, 1989 – 2017
Figure 1-4a, then, is consistent with the view that the price declines we see today are the result of some simple economic forces … a halt to any price appreciation owing, perhaps, to 9/11 in 2001 followed some years by a discernible decline beginning in 2008 with a severe recession that was itself followed by a slow foot-dragging recovery. However, before we satisfy ourselves that this is the whole story, we should take account of the fact that $10,000 in 1989 is not the same as $10,000 today. For example, in 1990 the average cost of a car was roughly $17,000 whereas in 2013 it was a bit more than $31,000. Similarly, while a loaf of bread in 1990 set you back seventy cents, in 2013 you had to pay a buck ninety eight. In fact, over the period of the data in our figure prices rose by an average annual inflation rate, as calculated by the Consumer Price Index, of 2.6% per year. Thus, a Jacobsen painting that set you back $4,400 in 1989 would, all things being equal, cost you $9,000 today. So suppose we adjust the numbers in Figure 1-4a for inflation. What do we learn then? The answer is provided in Figure 1-4b. Here we see the same rough pattern of price rise and then decline, but with a subtle difference. Now prices begin leveling off not around 2001, but before that — roughly 1998 or 1999, with a discernible decline taking hold a bit earlier as well.
Fig. 1-4b: Inflation Adjusted Auction Prices Realized, 1989 – 2017
Figure 1-4b, then, suggests that there’s something going on in addition to simple economics, although I offer the caution that drawing conclusions from a single graph is akin to seeing cats, dogs or religious images in clouds. Nevertheless, there are other explanations, including ones of a more sociological nature. There’s the argument, for example, that the twenty or thirty year olds who should replace older generations in the antiques marketplace prefer more contemporary styles or simply fail to differentiate between a 1790s Chippendale chest and one made in 1930 – to them, both are “antique”, old or simply used. The era of the internet with its barrage of advertising may have made changing tastes a more sweeping phenomenon whereby concepts such as “shabby chick” and “mid century” as decorating schemes leave nothing in their wake as they sweep aside the alternatives. Or maybe it’s that millennials live a different lifestyle altogether – living longer with mom and dad, and, when finally booted out of the house, moving to smaller abodes, apartments in particular. While early American antiques might fit nicely in grandma’s four or five bedroom Georgian colonial-style home, it’s a stretch to employ a comparable decorating scheme in an apartment whose architecture emphasizes glass, chrome and pastel painted walls. And then there’s the view that it’s all merely cyclic and that everything goes thru cycles, although without explaining why this time the cycle seems to have hit everything.
The notion that we are experiencing but another swing in taste fits the timeline outlined in Barbara Smith’s After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Nineteenth Century (Pantheon Books, 1985) wherein prior to WWI the artifacts of America’s history went largely unappreciated in favor of the desire of the day’s dictators of taste (that 1% again) to collect European finery: It wasn’t worth collecting unless Marie Antoinette dropped some cake crumbs on it. Between 1920 and the 1945, the likes of Ford, Dupont, Rockefeller and the Daughters of the American Revolution step in and, seeking to underscore the country’s Anglo-Saxon heritage before an audience of immigrants bearing funny or unpronounceable names, latch onto the idea that one couldn’t know America or be American unless one was familiar with Philadelphia tea tables, Paul Revere silver and Newport block front desks. The democratizing influence of WWII and such things as the GI Bill yielded yet another swing – this time to a deeper appreciation of how ‘ordinary’ people lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, thereby giving rise to the impulse to collect painted firkins and pantry boxes, itinerant folk art and, yes, apple peelers.
In this spirit, then, let me offer a not very politically correct alternative explanation for the current swing of things that can be viewed as an addendum to any economic explanation. We live in a time where for a considerable share of the population it’s no longer fashionable to be patriotic and where although you cannot be stopped from burning or walking on the American flag, a homeowner’s association can prohibit you from flying one or a university can choose to keep theirs in storage for fear of offending someone. We live in a time of seemingly mindless political correctness wherein there are those who wish to do away with the Star Spangled Banner because Francis Scott Key owned slaves; who want to purge our currency of the slogan “In God We Trust” because it offends atheist sensibilities; who decry our national anthem because they deem it too militaristic; where a university founded by Thomas Jefferson moves to purge quoting him because of his linkages to slavery; who think the University of Chicago should pay reparations because of its historical connection to Steven Douglass (who never owned a slave) and his support of the Dred Scott decision in his vain attempt to avert a civil war; or who argue that Thanksgiving ought to be abolished as a holiday along with Columbus Day because of … well, you get the idea. In today’s politically correct society a student can gather 1500 signatures to change the name of her high school, James Madison High, because Madison owned slaves and the name, so she says, causes her discomfort. Along the same lines, a broad spectrum of interest groups, political activists and Hollywood celebrities now tell us on a seemingly daily basis that American foreign policy, education policy, racial policy and health care policy or our history of dealing with Native Americans or the Japanese or the Middle East or the environment renders us, as opposed to the USSR, Mao’s China, Islamic terrorists or Putin’s Russia, the “evil empire”. Mimicking Stalin’s purges and the rewriting of history, we now watch monuments to the South’s Civil War heroes being torn down, as if this manifestation of political correctness can purge a part of the country’s history that is only imperfectly understood, if it is understood at all, by those claiming to be offended by those monuments. We live in an era when a vocal share of our political establishment, including a recent President, denies the idea of American exceptionalism, seeks to set as the cornerstone of our foreign policy the minimization of America’s footprint on the international stage, apologizes to whoever cares to listen for the mistakes we might have made in the past and who freely attach the labels Nazi or fascist to anyone with whom they disagree or has a political ideology to the right of a Venezuelan communist. We live in an era when college students are taught that America has been the great evil of the 20th century, ignoring the unparalleled contributions to human misery and death by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler. This message of America as an evil is reinforced when, in lieu of the likes of a Kate Smith singing God Bless America, the country’s premier sports event, the Super Bowl, offers as its halftime entertainment a performer paying homage to cop killers. And we live in a time when, despite the facts of history, America’s Judeo-Christian foundations are denied or equated, as if in some Alice in Wonderland drug induced world, with the “contributions” of a religion that played no role whatsoever in the country’s development and whose philosophy is wholly orthogonal to the Republic’s founding principles.
Interest in the surviving material elements of the American experience is diminished, then, when the most active cohort of consumers in the economy – people in their 20s and 30s – are told to be embarrassed by their American heritage and, in lieu of studying our history, art and literature, can now satisfy their college humanities requirements with courses in ”cultural sensitivity”, “white privilege” or, when assigned a history book, are told that the principal preoccupation of early colonists was to kill Indians, that Thomas Jefferson was but another white guy with a negro mistress and where the space devoted to the likes of the anti-semite Louis Farrakhan is set equal to that of a Madison, Hamilton, Adams, Washington or a Franklin. We’ve raised a generation who think a bloodthirsty killer such as Che Guevara is a hero, but who denigrate the memory of America’s greatest general, Robert E Lee, without understanding a single thing about what motivated his decision to lead the Army of Northern Virginia in lieu of accepting Lincoln’s offer to command the Union forces. The golden age of Hollywood surely whitewashed American history both literally and figuratively, but today the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme wherein it seems that everyone in the past was a member of the KKK, a merciless Indian killer, a shamelessly corrupt politician, a racist, an evil entrepreneur or a gun-toting maniac. The unashamed patriotism of a Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper is now a thing of the past and instead it’s the Hanoi Jane Fondas who are feted as Hollywood royalty. The likes of Bing Crosby and Ray Charles are now distant memories; the soft beauty of a Ginger Rogers or Claudette Colbert must now step aside for in-your-face under-dressed celebrities sporting artificial oversized butts and busts; and the objective reporting of an Edward R Murrow who told us what was both good and bad about America has been replaced by TV personalities who are more concerned that their hair stylist got it right before appearing before the TV camera than in any objective reporting of the news. Core values, in turn, become perversely skewed and an understanding of who we are as a society or hope to be is lost when the nation’s main stream media becomes obsessed with memorializing the passing of a rubber-nosed celebrity with at best bizarre tastes but takes no notice whatsoever of the near-simultaneous death of a WWII veteran who parachuted into Normandy on June 6th, and again into Holland during Operation Market Garden (look it up if you don’t know what that was), was one of the defenders of Bastogne, and after fighting his way into Germany participated in the liberation of at least one Nazi death camp (I’m referring to Darrell Powers, portrayed in the TV series Band of Brothers, who died June 17, 2009). How can we expect today’s millennials to appreciate the artifacts of our history when they not only have no idea as to the existence of movie classics from the 30s or 40s such as Casablanca or Citizen Kain, but have no interest whatsoever in watching them because they’re in black and white and lack surround-sound acoustics? All of this, in turn, yields a diminished demand for the things that link us to the complexities of our history and to those who were a part of that history. And how are we to feel about our past when a wife tells us that only upon the election of her husband as President was she finally proud of America or proud to be an American? Put simply, if we aren’t proud to be Americans, then we aren’t likely to be interested in surrounding ourselves with the artifacts of the country’s past.
I cannot say when or whether this will change. Perhaps we require a new generation of politicians, opinion leaders and captains of the media who aren’t ashamed to be patriotic, aren’t ashamed to say “God bless America”, who think that journalists should be investigating and reporting the news rather than making it (or making it up), who are not so “intellectually sophisticated” as to bury everything in some morass of moral relativism, who are wise enough to not belittle the values and moral precepts of people with whom they disagree, and who, in lieu of apologizing for our history, still see America as the world’s best last hope. Or perhaps a diminished demand for and appreciation of Americana is indeed all just a cycle that marches with the economy and that I’m merely an old cranky curmudgeon who refuses to see the virtues of Formica tables, McDonald’s happy meal toys, white painted and sanded furniture, and the collectability of Corning-ware. Be that as it may, I’ll proceed in my private time warp and assume that my readers have tastes that somewhat match mine.