20 Mar Chapter 6: “Acquiring Antiques”
I may be possible to run an antiques business buying solely at auction or relying on the occasional flea market or estate sale find. I know people do it, but frankly except for those with deep pockets or a catalogue of clients with virtually unlimited funds, they always seem on the edge of financial oblivion.Thus, when an antique shop posts a “going out of business” sign, unlike those electronics and gift stores around New York’s Times Square, they mean it! Similarly, the identity and permanence of dealers at most antique malls and cooperatives mimics a slow motion game of musical chairs except that only the number of dealers and not the number of chairs shrinks. More than once my wife and I thought we’d merely become a part of this game with our space at Mario and Jerry’s. It was soon evident that to pay even our minimal rent without dipping into household funds required finding a more plentiful and cheaper source of merchandise. Exacerbating matters was the fact that the shop we were in catered primarily to other dealers and only incidentally to the retail public. So why should a dealer buy what we’d won at auction when they could simply outbid us and buy it themselves?
Well, the solution was apparent … or at it least seemed so. Keep in mind that neither the internet nor global warming were yet a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. Unaware that technology was about to nudge them in the direction of the Soviet Union’s dustbin of history, daily and Sunday newspapers reigned supreme wherein antiques dealers, whose primary market was other dealers, advertised themselves as someone who bought antiques (and paid cash!). Today, of course, it isn’t just the internet and websites like Craig’s List that’s undermined a contemporary repeat of the experiences I am about to describe, but also the proliferation of estate sales. Seems that people no longer call in one or two dealers to sell the contents of grandma’s treasures, but instead rely on the ever-expanding domain of the estate sale. This isn’t to say there weren’t such sales in the 1970s and ‘80s, but only that they hadn’t yet come to dominate the market as a source of dealer inventory as they have today. So today you can compete with dealers simply by getting up in the morning to stand in line alongside them awaiting the opening of the next sale. But back in the ‘70s and ‘80s we had a problem with mimicking other dealers. There were already a hand full of ads in the local papers proclaiming a willingness to empty grandma’s house for you, some of a size that if we matched them would put our household budget under water. And, to make matters worse, how were we to compete against a multi-column ad by someone in the Yellow Pages?
Scratch the idea of the Yellow Pages – we could afford that only if the electric, telephone and gas companies became philanthropic. And as far as the newspaper was concerned, the best we could do financially was a daily four or five line ad, which meant we’d disappear into insignificance among at the biggies – UNLESS, unless we could find a way to be listed first in the relevant classifieds category. The papers, though, made that a challenge. Not wanting to encourage a “war of A’s” they disallowed ads that began with, say, “AAA Antiques” only to have someone top that with “AAAA Antiques” and so on. So your heading had to make “sense” to whoever it was that oversaw the classified ad section of the local paper. That meant sitting down with a dictionary and, beginning with Aardvark (not that I ever seriously considered naming ourselves “Aardvark Antiques” although now that I think of it, maybe that wasn’t such a goofy idea), finding a word to precede Antiques that was grammatical and conveyed the idea that we were prepared to empty your home of its treasures. What we hit on was the title to this book: “Acquiring Antiques.” It may not have been genius, but it did put us at the top of the list and it was good enough that no one over the years contrived an alternative that topped us (we have a friend, though … one of those little grey haired ladies you need to be careful not to upset … who did one-up this heading when it came to naming her shop: About Antiques. Not sure that would work for a newspaper ad, but it sure as heck moves you to the top of any alphabetical listing in the Yellow Pages. See … I told you little old ladies were slick!).
I don’t know what you know about buying antiques directly out of homes (or, perhaps of more relevance to most readers, selling), but for us it was an incredible learning experience. We did it for only three or so years, but it left us with a card catalogue of experiences, good and bad, and a better appreciation for the nuanced complexity of the human species. Regardless of who or what we are, the personal acquaintances of most of us are not much different from what we ourselves are. The people you socialize with will be similar to you in age, income, residence, family status, job, and so on. If you’re a college professor, most of your social relationships will be with other professors; if a plumber, then most will be if not with other plumbers then most likely people of approximate the same incomes; if you live in the city, your friends will most likely also live nearby; if you have little kids, most of your friends will have them too, and on it goes. But if you end up spending a day with someone simply because they responded to your ad, then regardless of who you are, you’ll encounter a far broader spectrum of humanity and circumstances than you might otherwise experience. You’ll meet the young destitute couple selling their kitchen set to meet the month’s rent, the little old lady selling her treasures before her detested kin get their hands on it, the widow or widower trying to move on in life by selling a deceased spouse’s collection of whatever, the urban couple who inherited grandpa’s farm and a barn filled to the rafters with “stuff”, or the owner of the Venus Bar and Grill selling the contents of a long boarded up whorehouse and speakeasy.
The first thing that likely comes to mind, though, when thinking about this subject is the image of the slippery slimy antiques dealer who, once in the door of the poor widow living off Social Security, tries to buy her $10,000 antique Sarouk rug for $100 or works to convince her that the family’s 18th century Newport kneehole desk with shell carvings is barely worth the effort it takes to load it into his truck. Well, let me tell you … the world is full of slippery and slick people and not all of them are antiques dealers. One of my most memorable experiences in this respect was a call I got from yet another proverbial little old grey haired lady. She led me down to her basement, which with but one exception, was filled with junk — and I do mean junk: rusting empty paint cans, busted window frames, window shutters with half the slats missing, worthless scrap lumber, oily rags, broken chairs, and so on. But sitting there, dead center on the floor was the most perfect Victorian-era child’s paint decorated buckboard you’ll ever see, complete with everything needed to hook a goat or a dog up so it could pull little Lord Fauntleroy around some now long gone and forgotten family estate. The lustful gleam in my eye was surely noticeable when I asked “how much?” “Two hundred dollars” she replied, and as my heart skipped a beat I said simply “I’ll give you $200 just for the buckboard.” Slick, aren’t I? Perhaps, but she was slicker still: With a sweep of her hand she said “No, its $200 for EVERYTHING!” She had me, and she knew it. I could have the buckboard, but only if I PAID HER for the ‘privilege’ of cleaning out her basement! And you know what? I did it. I spent the evening loading trash into the van, putting the buckboard in last, driving to a local landfill, setting the buckboard aside, and pushing the van’s contents out the back and down the hill.
I also learned to always carry a tape measure. At the time one of the things hotly sought by California dealers were waterfall bedroom sets – sets made in the 1930s of either maple or mahogany bleached out with rounded corners in an Art Deco style. But first picture this: Pittsburgh is hilly and a good number of its smaller working-class row homes are built on the side of steep hills. From the front one sees only a narrow two or three story building, but from the back it can be a sheer 100 foot drop from the upper bedroom windows to the ground. That fact seemed irrelevant when I first encountered one of the nicest waterfall bedroom sets I’d ever seen — in addition to a bed, nightstand and chest of drawers, it had a piece I didn’t even know existed: a waterfall highboy (imagine a standard Queen Anne 18th century flat top highboy; round ALL the edges, the top, etc; make it maple with the wood grain running in different directions; bleach the maple; attach Bakelite and chrome hardware – beginning to get the picture?) There was no way I wasn’t going to buy it because I knew that California dealers would have a sexual experience upon seeing it. So after paying the owner, I had a friend help me bring it down from the 3rd floor bedroom. Well, not exactly. Let’s say I had a friend TRY to help me. Turns out, the set had been in the bedroom for decades, but in the interim, the house had been remodeled … the staircase in particular … so that now the highboy couldn’t be brought down short of breaking off the legs. What to do? I’d already paid for the set and it was my responsibility to get it out of there. Perhaps at this point you can guess where I’m going with this … that’s right, removing the bedroom window, getting a block and tackle, and lowering the highboy out the window to the ground some 100 feet below. Never let it be said that an antiques dealer can leave a bargain behind.
Fig. 6-1: A Typical Waterfall Bedroom Set, ca 1940.
I learned as well to never give up the search in a home. There was, for instance, the call I got one day some thirty or forty miles out of the city – a beautiful home nestled in the Western Pennsylvania countryside that I was certain would be filled with a vast array of treasures. Alas, from room to room I went in search of an antique, but I found nothing older than myself. Even the basement turned out to be a bust – the “antiques” she called me about were some essentially unsellable broken chairs and dressers whose veneered surface had been efficiently attacked by the basement’s humidity. The trip seemed like a bust until I noticed a small two foot square door on the basement’s wall. I asked where the door led, and was told “to the crawl space under the front porch.” Far be it for me to not want to take a peek. With only modest effort the door opened and shining my light in I had the pleasure of seeing – 100 years of dirt that had filtered down from the gaps in the porch’s floorboards. Another bust, right? Oh wait … what’s that round thing I see barely poking up above the flat surface of the dirt? Ok, I’ll tell you now what was buried under that porch – about two dozen 19th century salt glaze stoneware canning crocks all with cobalt decoration and all in absolutely perfect condition. Where else would you store stoneware canning crocks if you didn’t plan on immediately using them but also didn’t want to throw them away?
From time to time one also encountered family tragedies. We got a call one day from a woman who was desperate to sell the contents of her deceased aunt’s house, explaining over the phone that it consisted primarily of a huge collection of salt and pepper shakers. To be honest, if salt and pepper sets aren’t at the very bottom of the list of things I’ve ever been interested in, they sit pretty darned close to the bottom. But the woman pleaded with me to come to the house and so I agreed, figuring there may be other things to buy. What you need to appreciate now is that the words “huge collection” were an understatement of historic proportions. The house had a half dozen or more 50 gallon cardboard barrels filled with salt and pepper shakers, there were salt and pepper shakers covering the floors throughout the house, including the attic (yes, it was impossible to walk anywhere without walking on salt and pepper shakers!). And if you cleared away the rubble from in front of closets, you found yet other containers filled with salt and pepper shakers. It was surely not only the largest collection of salt and pepper shakers on the planet, it was perhaps the largest collection of salt and pepper shakers that will ever exist until the Big Bang of the universe wholly reverses itself. And, insofar as I could tell, the entire ‘collection’ was totally worthless! I spent upwards of an hour searching for something unique, or something made in Occupied Japan, but all I found were cheap five and dime store sets. How many salt and pepper shakers were there? I have no idea, but if someone told me a million or ten million, I wouldn’t argue. This poor woman’s aunt had spent a literal fortune buying worthless salt and pepper shakers and so desperate was she to clear out the house, she offered them to me for free. Now don’t get me wrong – I realize that there are people out there who collect salt and pepper shakers, and I’m sure there were some in this house that might have interested collectors. But the niece wasn’t looking for someone who would pick out a half dozen or so pairs. She needed someone who would take them all. Think of it this way: Suppose someone offers you a BigMac for free. Good deal, right? Suppose they offer you ten BigMacs for free? Ok, I guess you could immediately find ten people who might want them. Now suppose you’re offered 1,000,000 free BigMacs and you had to take them that day (i.e., the offer wasn’t for free BigMacs the rest of your life). Think of the storage problem, the hauling problem, the problem of immediately finding 1,000,000 people eager for a hamburger (without the fries or Coke), the problem of finding a landfill to unload the 999,998 BigMacs you weren’t able to eat that day. Just about the same problem, I fear, with this collection of salt and pepper shakers, unless of course you wanted to devote the rest of your life to being a world renowned salt and pepper shaker dealer. So needless to say, I declined and told her that the thing to do was have a dumpster parked out front and hire some men to shovel everything into it … perhaps two or three dumpsters. I don’t know what happened to that collection, but odds are it’s now taking up a good bit of space in some landfill.
There were also instances when I refused to buy something that was good. Answering a call late one evening, the person who answered my knock on the door said that the house with antiques was just up the hill. So with flashlight in hand we walked to it and upon opening the door what I saw was a half foot of pure garbage, wall to wall. And I don’t mean trash — I mean garbage! The house wasn’t merely a health hazard – it was a pandemic in the making. But standing at the front door my flashlight also caught a 2-tiered marble top Renaissance chest of drawers with its mirror at the far end of the house. Not only was such a piece eminently sellable at the time, but when you immediately see something like that, wild fantasies swirl in the head as to what else might be there. So far be it for a half foot of garbage to deter an antiques dealer when he sees something of value that might be cheap and the tip of the proverbial iceberg. But just as I was about to step into the house, its owner said “I just bought this property last week. Perhaps you read about it in the paper?” No I hadn’t, so he explained: “Yes, I bought it just for the land and will be knocking the house down. But when we went into it the first time the other day we found a man half eaten by rats” (I’m not making this up!). There, bet you weren’t expecting that! Neither was I. I stood there, the beam of my flashlight moving in the dark from the garbage to the marble top chest at the far end, then back to the garbage. Let just say, I have no idea what else was in that house and it wasn’t that long a drive back home in my empty truck.
Buying directly out of houses also gives you a chance to see a bit of society’s dark side … or at least that’s what I think I saw. One evening I got a call from someone who I guessed was in his 30s. As it turned out he descended from a family that had been one of the original settlers of Pittsburgh, in the early 1800s. And his apartment validated his asserted genealogy. Explaining that he’d inherited a share of the family estate, he showed me a collection of antiques that ranged in age from the early 1800s to 1900 or so – from early federal pieces to turn of the century oak bookcases and the like. In addition he also had some items that might legitimately be called “museum quality”. I remember, for instance, a woman’s hair comb engraved “Presented to _____ at the Ball for Lafayette” as well as a full sized tole tray bearing the image of Pittsburgh as viewed from across the river in 1810 or so. But he wasn’t selling everything. He knew what he had and was selling from 1900 and working backwards in time. Instead, what he said was “I need $700, so pick out some of the oak pieces you’d pay that much for.” I did and went on my way. Two weeks later I got another call from him: “I need $650 tonight, can you come over right now?” Of course I could. This process repeated itself 3 or 4 more times, each time with him telling me “I need ___ by tonight, can you get here before ___PM?” So slowly, bit by bit, I found myself working my way back in time, buying one or two pieces, all the while lusting after that hair comb and tole tray (and whatever else might be hidden in some drawer or closet), figuring that at my current rate it would take half a year to get to them. As it turned out, we moved to Texas before I got to the good stuff, and I never learned why he needed those specific amounts on those specific days. My guess was that he was an inveterate gambler trying to avoid having someone come to his house to break his legs. He never told me and I never had the opportunity to ask.
For a more direct encounter with the dark side, I also learned that one of the dangers of buying directly from people is that sometimes they sell things that aren’t theirs. And as much as you think you can protect yourself from this, it isn’t always possible. On yet another call, I went to an apartment, rang the bell, and a 30 year old gentleman answered the door. He led me into a bedroom and said that he was moving, didn’t have the space for the walnut Victorian bedroom in it, and that he wanted to sell it for $400. That was a fair price at the time – neither too expensive nor too cheap so as to raise suspicions — and after paying and loading it onto the truck, I drove home and put the set in my garage. A few hours later I got a call from someone identifying himself as the brother of the person I bought the set from: “That wasn’t my brother’s bedroom set … it was mine … that was my apartment and he broke into it to sell my stuff.” This was a new one on me, so all I said was “well, there are two choices here. You can come here and buy the set back for what I paid for it, or we can take it down to the police station and you can file charges against your brother. Of course, if we do that the bedroom set will be confiscated by the police and it may take years before you get it back, if at all.” Needless to say I got my $400 back.
There are times, though, when its obvious the merchandise is hot. A young man called one day to say he’d like to come by the house to show me some stained glass windows he wanted to sell. Keep in mind now that Pittsburgh is a city with a considerable supply of late Victorian era homes, and a good share of them still have their original stained glass windows. But over time they were being replaced since, for the most part, they’re impractical when old … they leak air, wind and water and are an invitation for some extraordinary winter heating bills. So there was, at least back then, an active market in stained and leaded glass windows and I wasn’t immediately suspicious when he arrived with a friend … both in their 20s. But suspicions soared after he showed me ten or so windows filling the bed of his truck. First, there’s only one way to legitimately get such windows … out of a home that was being redecorated or demolished. And these two characters sure didn’t look like they were in the home redecorating or demolition business. Second, there were too many windows. I can understand someone finding one or two at an estate sale and the like, but fifteen? And why bring them to me? There were at least two or three shops in the city specializing in architectural antiques, including stained glass windows, and the logical thing would have been to bring them there. The clincher that all was anything but kosher came when I asked how much for the windows … $50 each. Now let me tell you that only an idiot would buy those windows at this point. They were easily $300 or $400 windows (each), and $50 was simply TOO CHEAP. If they weren’t stolen they could have taken them to any of the architectural antique shops and sold them for three or four times what they were being offered to me for. And sure enough, a week or so later I learned that one of those architectural shops had been broken into and its inventory lessened by substantial number of stained glass windows.
Encounters with shady characters and stolen merchandise were rare, and for the most part it was all fun (and profitable). There were, though, situations where I’d wished we had a different way to stock our space up north. Pittsburgh at the time was going through a gut-wrenching economic transition. The steel industry had more or less vanished and the metro-area was losing both population and jobs. For some people these were hard times. So what do you do when you get a call from a young couple on the edge of financial oblivion who want to sell their kitchen set to pay the rent? I told them that they’d never be able to replace the set for what I could pay for it, but they insisted. And I knew that if I refused, they’d simply call someone else.
As disruptive as it was for the city to lose its historical industrial base, the city’s economy, owing in part to the leadership of its universities, was slowly shifting direction and part of that shift entailed a resurgence of its downtown. Several new corporate headquarters were under construction or in the planning stage, one of them being the headquarters for PPG industries. Scheduled for demolition, then, was the Venus Bar & Grill (no, I didn’t make that name up), which occupied a corner of what was then an otherwise empty 3-story city block large brick building. I think I answered the bars owner’s call largely because I was curious as to what such a place might have in the way of antiques – a question that was answered when, heading for the stairs to the second and third floors of his building, I was told “back in the 20s and 30s this place had been a speakeasy and whore house. But sometime in the 30s the top two floors were boarded up and they’ve remained vacant ever since.” And sure enough, what I found was a dozen or so bedrooms, all fully furnished with Victorian and oak bedroom sets (covered, of course, in multiple layers of dirt and grime).
If this call didn’t underscore the admonition of never judging a book by its cover, another did. It was again one of those small homes built on the side of a hill, and as soon as I entered I wondered why I was there. The first floor and then the second held nothing that was older than 1960 — and nothing terribly valuable at that. It was when they took me to the third floor that things changed. Saying, as at the Venus, “we closed up the third floor years ago,” the owner opened the door to reveal several rooms packed with 19th century furniture, paintings, photographs, etc. “This was my grandmother’s house and when we moved in after she passed away we put all her stuff up here and locked it up to save on heating.” I can’t recall the specifics of what I found there, but apparently grandma never threw anything away, including whatever she might have gotten from her grandmother.
If you’re going to be buying out of houses, though, its best not to be too picky as to what you deal in or collect. If all you want is late 18th and early 19th century painted furniture or folk art, forget about this route. We knew from the start that we had to be generalists, and that sometimes meant not even buying things that were antique. There was, for instance, the time we got a call from a company that manufactured department store displays. They were going out of business and unloading their entire inventory of things already made as well as the raw materials for making those displays. They called us originally because they had a roll top desk, but condition moved it past the point of restoration. Otherwise there wasn’t an antique in the building. But that didn’t stop me from looking around and what I found stacked up in a corner was two dozen recently made Victorian-style sleighs that a department store had used for Christmas, complete with metal runners and a handle to push them thru snow they’d never see. Back then the real thing cost in the vicinity of $350 to $600 (if you could find one), but these were only $5 each. Hmmm … could it be that people might like them to hold Christmas presents next to their tree or on their front yard as part of their holiday decoration? Only one way to find out and that was to fill the van and haul them up to Mario and Jerry’s. And guess what? At $25 each they flew out of the shop. Housewives bought them, neighbors bought them, even dealers bought them. Now you might say: “I though you were writing about antiques — the sleighs were new.” That’s true. But if you’re a young couple with minimal disposable income looking for a way to make money so you can stock your space with legitimate antiques, why look a gift horse in the mouth?
The other thing we learned from running an ad in the paper was “move fast!” When you got a call that sounded good, you couldn’t sit around and make an appointment to see things next week or even the next day. Get there pronto! When we moved from Texas to California, we’d left Texas in the ’87 oil depression and hadn’t yet sold our home there before buying a new one here (we thought we’d sold it … but nothing is ever done until its done). So we decided to sell a few of the antiques we’d brought with us and, assuming things were the same out West as back East, I began calling some of the local antique shops only to get the same response: “Why don’t you take a few pictures and bring them to the shop when you get a chance.” One thing was obvious: A California dealer would starve to death back East. There was, for instance, the call I got about a curved glass china cabinet roughly forty miles east of Pittsburgh, and the description over the phone made it sound like a good one. I don’t know what the market is today for such cabinets, but back then they were like roll top desks … money in the bank. So into the van I went without worrying too much that the gas gauge was nearly on empty – there’s always twenty or thirty miles to go when it hits zero, right? Well, I made it and to say it was a good china cabinet was indeed an understatement: The door was serpentine glass, curved glass sides, carved columns, claw feet, bonnet top, a lion’s head on the center crown, etc etc etc. If it wasn’t a 10 on a 0 to 10 scale, it was a 9.5. And the price was right. But shortly after paying for it and having the seller help me load it into my van (it only fit propped diagonally at an angle), he asked “There’s another dealer coming to see it. What should I tell him?” From his description I knew it was someone running one of the mega-ads in the paper, and with an evil grin, I gave him my card and told him to give it to this other dealer: “He’ll know where to go see it.” And sure enough, as I headed home, who do you think shot past me in the opposite direction on the country road leading to the house I’d just left?
It wasn’t always possible, though, to fully judge what lay at the end of the road on the basis of a telephone call. First, people generally have a difficult time describing what they have and I think my wife, who tended to handle all phone calls, developed a skill that any police interrogator would be proud of. But it was also sometimes the case that things would become for sale that the person in question hadn’t anticipated selling or that they’d sell only after they got a good price for whatever they first offered. Take, for example, the Victorian bedroom set I went to see once. The house was Victorian heaven – 19th century marble top side tables, a Regina double comb disc music box, cut glass and leaded glass lamps, stack bookcases, a Victorian walnut armoire, and so on. But no, the owner was insistent on not letting me pause at or discuss any of these things while leading me directly to the bedroom set. It was in fact a quite nice set, but the owner claimed she didn’t know what it was worth. This, though, brought me head to head against the first rule when buying out of a house: If at all possible, NEVER quote a price! It’s here, in fact, that we encounter a situation that students of decision theory and the mathematics of game theory can map out precisely wherein the seller has a number in their head they prefer not to reveal to the buyer – the minimum they’d be willing to take for the object in question – while the buyer (dealer) has a number in their head corresponding to the maximum they’re willing to pay to purchase the object. And as the mathematics of the situation show, whoever reveals even an interpretable hint about their private information first is thereafter at a insurmountable strategic disadvantage. But while the mathematics of this situation may be complex, its strategic character is understood in an intuitive way by most people. Thus, while most sellers claim they haven’t the foggiest idea what they want for it, it’s safe to assume their claim is a lie. Everyone has a number in their head. It may be a goofy crazy number, it may be a number that has no logical basis whatsoever, it may be a number that occurred to them after one too many beers, it may be a number suggested to them by a friend or relative who knows nothing about antiques and it may be a number that is indeed tentative – but, THEY HAVE A NUMBER! And when, as a dealer, you’re buying out of houses, it’s your job to learn that number. Talk with them, smooze with them, drink that cup of horrid coffee with them while eating that dry crumbly cookie with a smile on your face … do what you must, but learn that number!
Aside from what the mathematics of such situations reveal to us, there are several reasons why dealers will often go to extraordinary lengths trying to tease out a seller’s expectations. First, even though most people understand that dealers are buying for resale, a good share of the public has little to no understanding of the profit margins with which an antiques dealer must operate. Have you ever watched, say, Pawn Stars on TV, seen someone bring in something that requires an expert’s appraisal, had that expert appraise the retail value of the piece at, say, $2,000, and then, when the person who brought the item in is asked what they’d take for it, they answer $1,900? Sorry, folks, but unless it’s a pile of twenty $100 bills that’s being sold, neither pawn shops nor antiques dealers can operate on that small a margin. Acceptable margins vary, but don’t be shocked to learn that fair wholesale is one half retail on most things. The problem for a dealer, though, is that if the seller thinks his antique is worth $2,000 and you offer them $1,000, there’s a good chance you’ll immediately be shown the door. The strategic advantage becomes yours, though, if you learn the number in the seller’s head. Suppose it is $1900. At this point you can either abandon any attempt to buy the piece or you can proceed to try to explain why, as someone who buys for resale, you can’t pay that close to retail. Once the seller is convinced that you can’t and won’t pay $1900, if they truly want to sell, they’ll begin lowering their expectations while still suffering from the disadvantage of not knowing what you’re truly willing to pay. How close to $1000 you can get them now depends on your negotiating skills and whatever rapport you establish with the seller.
There is, though, a second and more important reason why experienced dealers are hesitant to quote a price before getting some indication from the seller as to what they expect. I said that everyone has a number in their head, but that number is clouded in uncertainty. It’s actually more an aspiration, a hope, than a hard and fast price. And if people are truly uncertain as to the value of their things, it’s only prudent to get several opinions. Thus, the first dealer to make an offer will generally not be the dealer who gets to buy the item in question. All that first dealer has done is provide a free appraisal, and all it takes for an uncertain seller to check things out and see if they can get more is to say “I’ll think about it” and then to make another phone call. And that was precisely what had been the case with this bedroom set and the dealer who’d seen it before me.
On the other hand, if the seller has some expectation about value, the odds are low that any dealer’s offer will match that expectation. Either their offer will be higher than what the seller is hoping for, or lower. In the first case, a seller might respond with “oh, I didn’t realize my ____ is that valuable. Maybe I better not sell it.” Or, having suddenly realized that what they have is more valuable than they otherwise thought it to be, they might reasonably decide to find out how valuable it really is by getting other opinions. So once again, the dealer making an offer is left in the cold. In the second case, with an offer that doesn’t measure up to the seller’s expectations, the seller might simply assume that the dealer it attempting to rip them off, taking everything as confirmation of their suspicion that antiques dealers are on a par with their representative in Congress when it comes to honesty.
All of this, of course, yields a half-choreographed dance in which dealer and seller are each trying to get the other to do something they don’t want to do – in the case of the seller, to reveal a minimum price that would induce them to sell; in the case of the dealer, a maximum price for which they would buy. Who wins this battle depends on the stubbornness of the seller and the strategic skills of the dealer. I don’t want to give away all the tricks of the trade, but here’s one: After a half hour or so of eating stale cookies over meaningless chit chat, a dealer might try to find something that’s for sale and cheap, then offer the seller more than its worth. Now you might think this is a pretty transparent tactic to build confidence in the mind of the seller as to the dealer’s honesty – and you’d be right. But now comes the second part: Paying for that inexpensive item. Specifically, imagine a dealer now pulling out of his pocket a large wad of cash, preferably a thick roll of $100 bills. Do you know what the first reaction is of most people to seeing that wad? Well, 99 percent of the time, greed takes hold and they want it! They might not be willing to sell their first born to get it, but pretty much everything else is suddenly for sale. The last thing they want is for that dealer to leave their house with the role of money intact, and if they have to sell some of their possessions for what they think might be a little on the cheap side, so be it – they want the money, the cold hard cash. It’s not for the heck of it that Rick on Pawn Stars always reminds potential sellers that they pay in cash.
Now I can’t say I was the best or even very skilled at eliciting prices from people, if only because I‘d seen dealers in action who were absolutely superb at it. These were people who could have worked for the CIA or KGB and done away with the need for truth serum, waterboarding or toothpicks under the fingernails. Still, I was good enough to ultimately extract the fact in the case of the bedroom set that another dealer had ostensibly offered $1,600 for it. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to believe this number since it was too close to retail. If it was a valid number it might have been offered simply as a free appraisal (and free appraisals are worth what you pay for them) or the dealer was highballing the bedroom set for the same reason I was about to say I could match the offer. Specifically, the unspoken question floating thru my brain then was: “What about the other things in the house? Might they be for sale ultimately?” This was decision time and required a roll of the dice. If they’d been offered $1600, I felt I could buy it for that number since I was there and whoever made the offer wasn’t. On the other hand, if the number quoted was simply something made up in seller’s head based on who-knows-what, I had to worry that the reason why nothing else in the house was yet for sale was because no dealer had yet agreed with the owner’s self-appraisal. The question then was whether to agree to pay $1600 or to try to bargain. Taking a chance (and knowing that while I might not make any money, I wouldn’t lose any either), I said “Well, that’s pretty close to retail but I can pay that and still pay for my gas out here” (which is an absurdity since no one buys a three or four piece bedroom set to pay for a tank of gas). Immediately the bedroom set was mine. But then came what I was hoping for: Everything else in the house was suddenly for sale as well. And it was for sale at prices that more than made up for what I’d paid for the bedroom set.
This example highlights another lesson learned about buying out of homes and serves as a warning to those of you who might invite a dealer into your house: Whether conscious of it or not, you’ll most likely focus on a single thing in judging whether or not you’re getting a good or fair deal, perhaps inflating its value in your mind while other things fade in importance (and value). Thus, once I had the confidence of the bedroom set’s owner that I was paying a fair price for what she’d focused on, everything else in the house immediately became available – and at prices that left me considerable room for profit. I think I left not only with a densely packed van, but with things piled high on the roof rack as well as various and sundry items tied to the back, hanging over the bumper. It had indeed been a good day. So here’s the warning: If you’re selling more than one thing, a skillful dealer will try to learn which item if any is the key to your thinking. Once they learn that they can follow the tactic of acting as if everything else is of secondary interest – that you’ll be lucky to find someone willing to haul it away – while negotiating a close-to-retail (and even, possibly, agreeing to pay above retail) price for the object you value most. As a seller, then, you have two things to hide – the minimum you’ll accept for any one item and which item you’re most attached to and value most highly. And keep this in mind: While you might have prices in your head you prefer not to reveal -– the minimum you’re willing to accept for an item before you allow it to leave your possession — the dealer you’re negotiating with has prices in his or her head as well – the maximum they’re willing to pay for any specific item. In addition, though, keep one other fact in mind during the tiresome dance between the two of you: The dealer can’t make a dime unless they buy something. So unless grandma’s house needs to be cleaned out by tomorrow, a dealer’s incentive to buy is most likely greater than your need to sell. You can always call in someone else if a satisfactory deal cannot be consummated, whereas that dealer is most likely operating under the assumption that as soon as they leave your house with empty hands, they can kiss the home’s contents goodbye.
I hasten to add at this point that everything I’ve just said about quoting prices and the like pertains to an environment in which there are multiple dealers in the area all in the hunt for the same things. That is, the actions of any one dealer are predicated on the assumption that he or she is in competition with an unknown number of other dealers, whether they are physically there or not. My description of what transpired with respect to the bedroom set is also set in the context where the seller for the most part doesn’t know one dealer from the next and, quite reasonably, takes a cynical view of everyone’s motives and tactics. But now consider the opposite extreme, where there are only one or two dealers in the area dealing in whatever a person is selling – a context that largely describes the market for Americana today in a place like Los Angeles. You might think sellers are at a supreme disadvantage here, but in fact the opposite is true. Dealers operating within a limited market with few competitors don’t take an invitation to buy antiques out of someone’s house as a one-time thing. They most likely have a reputation they want to maintain for being both knowledgeable and honest, in which case making low-ball offers is unwise. Better to pay a decent wholesale number for things since collectors of what you’re interested in are likely to know and talk to each other. In other words, unlike the situation with the Victorian bedroom set, things are now a repeated game.
I realize, of course, that most people reading this book will not be advertising for antiques in newspapers or anywhere else. In fact, neither my wife nor I have advertised for antiques for upwards of three decades, and I’m sure some things have changed, though I’m not sure what. Most likely you’ll be on the other side of the transaction, selling. So summarizing, here’s some simple advice.
First, learn what it is that you’re selling. This bit of advice seems so obvious that you’d think it’s not worth stating. But consider this example: I got a call once for “an oak cabinet … my grandmother’s and I think it’s at least 50 or 60 years old.” Usually when you get a call like that, an antiques dealer can’t get off the phone fast enough so they can do something productive. Just because grandma owned it, doesn’t make it old. Maybe grandma bought it the week before she died. But it was a slow day, I had no reason to go to my office and I was doubtlessly bored, so I headed out to see the piece. Maybe there were other things in the house – you never know. I was immediately led to the basement which had been converted into a large game room, so when I first saw the cupboard it was perhaps thirty feet away at the other end of the room. But even from that distance I could see that it was NOT oak and it was NOT 60 years old. It was an early 19th century cherry 16-lite 2-part stepback cupboard that someone, most likely in the late 1800s when oak was the vogue, had grain painted to imitate oak. The first words out of my mouth were “It’s not oak,” whereupon she responded dejectedly “oh … does that mean you don’t want it?” Now I’ll tell you – I’m all for buying things at a bargain price, and perhaps some dealers at that point might have tried to buy the cupboard from her for less than the already absurdly low price she was asking for it. But I wasn’t feeding my family with my profits and I didn’t wear a mask. So I told her what she had and, quite truthfully, multiplied her asking price by 2 (and still doubled out when selling it).
Second, do your homework and come to a realistic appraisal of the retail value of what you’re selling. Don’t head to the TV to see what prices are being quoted on Antiques Roadshow or some other such program. The appraisals there are often for truly unique and rare items (you think they’re going to spend four minutes of TV time dealing with something worth $100 or even $500?) and the odds that anything you have to sell matches what you see there is about as close to zero as you can get. Go to the internet, check out auction records, see whether what you have sold recently on eBay. And I emphasize, see what comparable things sold for as opposed to what people are asking. As I write this I checked out asking prices for ordinary Grandmothers Flower Garden quilts on eBay, and the three most expensive are listed at $1,250, $1,175 and $695. However, of those that actually sold, the three most expensive sold for $550, $395 and $280. I think you know what that means. Also, keep in mind that the sticker prices you see on things in antique shops are not necessarily a retail price. People expect a discount for all but the most exclusive shops, so those stickers have an automatic 10% or 20% discount built into them.
Third, when evaluating what you’re selling, its best to ignore published price guides. The prices there are either realized auction prices at a major auction house or a simple reporting of the price tags the author found by visiting antique shops. But now here’s something to consider: Take the example of a relatively rare cast iron doorstop called The Snooper. If one consults realized auction prices on the internet, you’ll find numbers between $250 and $2,000. Similarly, if you try to learn the value of a Fairbury cast iron bull windmill weight, you’ll see prices between $300 and $1,600. If you were the author of a price guide, what number for each of these items would you report – the pessimistically low price, the median price, the average price? And keep in mind that each of these collectibles is fairly standard so it’s not like you’re looking at prices for, say, a drop leaf table, where some are Queen Ann, some Chippendale, some formal and others country, some refinished and some retaining their original paint or finish. So if prices for a factory made doorstop or windmill weight can vary by factors of 2, 3 or 4, imagine the potential variation for less standard things.
Fourth, you need to confront the fact that whatever you’re selling might not be in perfect condition. Whatever apologies it has might not seem like a big deal to you, but for dealers it can be the difference between something they can sell versus something guaranteed to collect dust in their shops. A cracked crock, however unobtrusive the crack, is worth less than half what its undamaged cousin might sell for; a post card with bent or worn corners is worth a fraction of one in mint condition; a toy with replaced wheels simply cannot be compared to one still in its original box; a repainted decoy will most likely be of no interest to collectors; a late 18th century refinished blanket chest is a different creature entirely from one that retains its original painted surface; and a portrait with flaking paint or extensive restoration, however otherwise appealing, may be worth less than the frame that holds it. Beware of the possibility, moreover, that sentiment is clouding your valuation of things, such as when a piece has been handed down in the family through several generations. But dealers must take a more objective and cold-hearted view and the market value of your sentiment is basically zero. So if what you’re selling is in less than perfect condition, be prepared to be unpleasantly surprised when you learn its true market value. This isn’t to say that you can’t also be pleasantly surprised on occasion. Consider a 1880s silk crazy quilt. If you try to determine the value of yours by attending several flea markets to see what people are asking for theirs, you might conclude that yours is worth no more than $100 or $150. But keep in mind that because silk deteriorates over time, examples in perfect condition are uncommon, even rare, and those you find at the flea market will most likely be damaged in some way. Suppose, miracle upon miracle though, that yours … or rather, your great great aunt Betsy’s – having been stored for 100+ years in a bag in a drawer, is in perfect condition. Its quite possible that because of the rarity of that condition, yours can be valued at five or ten times those you saw elsewhere.
To illustrate what I’m saying here, take a look at the two images of The Snooper cast iron doorstop mentioned earlier and shown below in Figure 6.2 from the website liveauctioneers.com, which as I previously noted reports auction results from a broad spectrum of auction houses. One is reported to have sold for $225 and the other for $770. Can you guess which is which? Take a close look, study the pictures carefully. Can you see it? Well, the one on the right has the top of a bottle poking out of his pocket whereas the one on the left is missing that top – it’s broken off. So from the perspective of collectors, and thus dealers, these are not comparable items – the doorstop on the left is seriously compromised and was perhaps lucky to bring even $225. Which one is your doorstop?
Fig. 6-2: Snooper Cast Iron Doorstop
Fifth, keep in mind that antiques dealers are not charities and most have overhead to contend with. If you’re offered half what you think is the retail value of a piece, that’s probably a fair offer. The margin upon which dealers operate varies from one class of items to another. Highly sought after collectibles like turn-of-the-century German windup toys, for example, are easy to sell and take little space. If someone offered me one for, say, two thirds of what I think I could sell it for, I’d be a buyer. Most furniture, on the other hand, takes space and sells slowly. I’m unaware of anyone, for example, who specifically collects step back cupboards. Most houses will hold only one or two and still retain some semblance of a rational decorating scheme. So once a person buys a cupboard or two, they’re no longer ‘collectors’ of such pieces. But collectors of toys, decorated stoneware, folk art paintings or carvings, quilts, dolls, silhouettes, needlepoint samplers, trade signs, decoys or weathervanes are NEVER done and never fully satisfied. They may sell part of their collection but often only because they’re upgrading. Hence, while the market for furniture can stall, the market for collectibles goes on. Dealers know this and out of the simple imperative of survival necessarily aim for a higher profit margin on furniture than on collectibles. And in today’s dismal market that can mean planning on a markup of 200% before they’ll add to their furniture inventory.
Sixth, come to some understanding of the nature of the market near where you live. As I’ve already noted several times, the market for Americana is considerably weaker on the West coast than the East. Similarly, there are regional variations for things Victorian and for furniture and decorative accessories that fall into the Arts and Crafts or Mission categories. Southern stoneware is, surprise surprise, most heavily collected in the South; Pennsylvania cobalt decorated stoneware most strongly sought after in – surprise again – Pennsylvania (with some spill over into Ohio), California (read: Bauer despite the fact that the company began in Kentucky) pottery is a collectible category all its own on the West coast, and most likely used for ashtrays and potted plants in the garden in the East. In my mind at least antique Southwest furniture is crude and generally poorly made. It wasn’t that people who made furniture back then in places like New Mexico, Arizona, Mexico and Southern California were less skilled than furniture craftsmen elsewhere – they simply had fewer (if any) trees (if you’ve driven thru Angeles National Forest on Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles heading to the Central Valley you’ll know what I mean – it’s a ‘forest’ in name only [aren’t forests supposed to have trees?]). But such furniture fits nicely in the decorating schemes of houses with a corresponding regional architectural style. So don’t expect an example of furniture fitting that style to sell for the same number in, say, Boston as it does in Santa Fe. Conversely, there are categories of things for which the appeal and demand is universal – diamonds are diamonds, gold is gold, and Tiffany is Tiffany. So when assessing what it is you own, make a judgment as to whether it has universal or regional appeal and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Finally, insofar as imperfections are concerned, keep in mind that not all imperfections are created equal. Nearly any antique, because it’s old, has something imperfect about it, but this means that things in absolutely mint condition are truly rare and command a price that might be orders of magnitude greater than one that’s merely “good”. Consider the highly collectible category of toys. Toys, of course, were made to be played with, and your now long-gone great uncle Fred didn’t imagine that the windup German Lehman toy he got for Christmas at the age of six would ever become a valued collectible. Like most toys, it accumulated a myriad of wear, scratches, and possibly broken or missing parts. Actually, lets back up and suppose uncle Fred was an anal kid, so that your inheritance is mint and even has the box it originally came in. That toy might be valued by collectors at something like $1,500, even $2,000 for someone with deep pockets. Now throw away the box. Sorry, but your toy’s value just dropped to perhaps $1,200. Ok, retrieve the box, but instead put some slight wear in the toy – perhaps a subtle scratch here or there and wear on the wheels. Uncle Fred might have been anal, but he nevertheless did play with his toys, and now you’re down to $1,000. Oh wait, the toy is a car and the little tin man driver is missing. Too bad, you’re now at $700. Oops, you didn’t notice the small area of rust on the underside. A shame, but you’ll probably now learn that your valued inheritance is so valued any more – you’ll be lucky to get $350 for it.
This last bit of advice leads to one more observation. There is, of course, no clear distinction between “antique” and “collectible”. Objects such as fraktur, samplers and stoneware are clearly both antique and collectible, whereas other things people collect such as post cards, dolls and 20th century quilts, need not be antique. And there are things that straddle the categories in an ambiguous way. A turn of the century trade sign is, I suppose, “antique” in that it’s more than 100 years old, but somehow it seems to be less so than one from, say, the 1830s (if you’re ever lucky enough to find one). And dating things that are on the edge of being antique can often require knowledge of a truly esoteric sort. Take for instance the cigar store trade sign in Figure 6-3. It certainly isn’t new but is it antique in the formal definition of the word (i.e., 100 years old)? The first thing to notice is that the “lacing” on the headdress are actually machine extruded finishing nails. That certaily puts this piece into, at best, the last part of the 19th century. But next, those “buttons” on the headdress are actually 21 tooth metal bottle caps, which wasn’t invented until 1892. The 1892 version, though, used cork as a sealer between the bottle and the cap whereas these, if looked at from the underside, give no evidence of there ever having been a thin layer of cork glued to them. So that definitely pushes the sign into the 20th century. Now how do I know all of this about bottle caps? Simple: I looked it up on the internet. And that’s what you’ll have to do more times than you might imagine if you’re serious about collecting anything. Oh, and as for that sign … if I had to guess I’d say it was made no earlier than the 1940s and quite possibly even the 1960s.
Fig. 6-3: Cigar Store Trade Sign.
So the above sign isn’t antique. That, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t collectible and something that a collector of trade signs might not turn their nose up on. The same is true with weathervanes, decoys and toys. A 19th century decoy, toy or weathervane is clearly both antique and collectible. But what of an example from the 1930s? Neither a vane nor a toy nor a decoy from that period is an antique by any formal or legal definition, but they are definitely collectible. However, take a hand made, folky weathervane from the 30s that’s sat on the roof of a barn for fifty years. My guess is that any collector of folk art or weathervanes wouldn’t object to having it in their collection. A. Elmer Crowell is perhaps the premier carver of decoys, yet most of his work is 20th century. Should I put up my nose at one of his carvings because it might not qualify as antique, keeping in mind that at $1.3 million he holds the record for the most expensive decoy ever sold at auction? I think not! In any event, I’ve raised this subject now to note that when judging the impact of imperfections in an item, it’s often important to distinguish between antique and something that’s deemed ‘merely’ a collectible. If collectible but not antique, collectors will generally discount heavily for imperfections. Japanese tin windup or battery operated toys from the 1950s, for instance, need to be in virtually mint condition before a serious collector would consider acquiring it. Greater allowance for imperfection will be made, though, for an antique toy from the 1880s. Recall my earlier mention of the French windup that brought $5,000 on eBay and the 19th century deck of playing cards that sold for $1,500. Neither was in perfect condition. The lady in the toy lacked her original dress (and its box was long gone), while the playing cards (also sans box) had definitely been used and showed corresponding wear. In general, then, the discount applied to collectibles depends critically on age and the expectation of there being examples of the item without apologies. And as for trade signs, the virtue of the one in Figure 6-3 is that the paint on it is wholly original … no repaint, no touchups, etc. That’s what we demand for a 20th century sign. If, on the other hand, that sign were 50 or 100 years older, we’d doubtlessly be more tolerant of a repaint or restoration of some sort. What sign after all hangs outside of a store for 100+ years without needing some sort of restoration from time to time?
All of what I’ve just said holds especially true when it comes to furniture, but here an element of taste also comes into play. Here we have two dimensions with which to evaluate condition: Structural things versus surface things. Structural things can include anything from replacing the drawer slides of a chest to replacing the drawers themselves; or from dinged, scratched and scuffed feet to replaced feet. Generally, replacing anything exterior to a piece of furniture wrecks havoc with value. A sackback Windsor chair in its original state might sell for $1500 whereas one whose feet have been ended out one or two inches might not bring $200 at auction. Again, though, the impact of a restoration depends on the rarity of the piece. They made a lot of Windsor chairs around 1800, so there’s a reasonable expectation of finding one that hasn’t been tampered with structurally. On the other hand, take a New England birch bonnet top chest on chest such as the one in Figure 6-4. There aren’t a whole hell of a lot of these floating around, so the discount that would be applied to the fact that one drawer lip is damaged and the face to one of the feet is replaced would be minimal. There would be a discount for sure, but not one that involved an orders of magnitude difference in price.
Fig. 6-4: New England Birch Chest on Chest ca 1790
Insofar a non-structural apologies are concerned, I’m talking here of the matter of original surface versus refinishing. Yes, people will pay a premium for original surfaces, but how much of a premium depends on what kind of a surface. If the piece was originally painted, then refinishing it is akin to running a torpedo into a ship. When people speak of “antique nuts” the emphasis is generally on the word nuts. No matter how cruddy, worn, scratched or chipped the paint might be on furniture that was originally painted, collectors will still pay a hefty premium in comparison to something that’s been skinned and refinished down to the bare wood. But what of pieces that were never painted? Well, consider again the chest on chest in Figure 6-3. Originally the birch here was stained to make it appear as mahogany, but clearly she’s been refinished without an attempt at restoring her to its original appearance. Frankly, I’m not sure how much of an impact the refinishing has had on value but I wouldn’t be surprised if its value hasn’t be decreased by at least a third. But that’s assuming that she was merely scratched and showed normal wear after 200 years. If that were the case, then the refinishing verges on the criminal. But suppose instead that the original finish had deteriorated badly and presented itself as an unsightly mess. In this case, things are different than if she’d been painted. A badly deteriorated finish is generally unacceptable and a careful refinishing is the only way to go. I’m not prepared here to give lessons on refinishing, but I do want to emphasize the word careful. There are good refinishing jobs and there are those that ruin a piece. Let me conclude simply by saying that if sandpaper of any sort was used in the refinishing, you’ve walked up to the edge of “ruin” and possibly even jumped over it. In that case your best option is to shoot the refinisher and at least gain some satisfaction from that.
Well, seems I have wandered a bit far from talking about experiences with buying antiques directly out of homes and slipped into talking about things I want to discuss in greater detail later … assessing the age of things and the implications of imperfections in what you find. I did so, though, to underscore the importance if you’re selling things from an estate or goodies you’ve found by the roadside, to pay attention to details and specifically to imperfections. One thing certain to kill your ability to sell whatever it is you want to sell or to realize a fair value is to fail to appreciate either whatever imperfections actually exist or what potential imperfections fail to describe what you’re selling. While saying this might seem to be little more that restating the obvious, I think it’s accurate for me to report that well over half the times I bought or attempted to buy something from a private individual they had little to not accurate understanding either of what it was they were selling or of its fair market value. So don’t automatically assume that you’re somehow in the minority.