20 Mar Chapter 3: Shopping The Shops
One of the aggravating realities in the hunt for antiques is that you can’t be everywhere. Others will get the bargains at the sales you miss, and they’ll even often get things you want at the sales for which you stood in line for hours for no better reason than that they got there two minutes before you did. In addition to deciding which estate sale to attend and how early to get there, another agonizing decision one must make is, as noted earlier, whether to turn left, right or straight ahead when the doors open. Ever notice what people do while milling about before a sale begins? They’re tramping thru the hedges and tripping on lawn sprinklers trying to peek thru the cracks in the drawn curtains, lowered shades or papered-over windows in the often fruitless attempt to see where things are (and perhaps catch a glimpse of a price tag or two). Two and three foot snow drifts, if your up North or back East, are but an inconvenience, not an impenetrable barrier. And damn those people who plant prickly holly bushes in front of their windows. Those who run estate sales are aware of all of this and in what can only be a manifestation of a sadistic gene in our species, they’ll draw every blind, close every curtain and pull the shades down to below every windowsill. So getting what you want or even getting anything at all can be decided by pure chance.
Equally unsettling is the fact that dealers will also get into homes you can’t get into – they have friends who have friends who have things for sale and there’s no way for you to learn about this beforehand. And if they have an open shop, their customers will bring things to them and you won’t see those things until price tags are attached. It hardly needs saying, then, that no matter how compulsively you scurry about at the flea markets, estate sales and auctions, a lot of what you want will be found in shops. But even if you’re a dealer or simply a cash-strapped collector, that doesn’t mean those treasures are forever out of reach at a reasonable price. First, dealers can make mistakes like everyone else. I should know … I’ve done it, big time. My most humbling experience came from an oak table that happened not to be any old oak table. It occurred at a time when we were just getting into antiques and oak furniture was all the rage – late 19th century press back chairs, round pedestal dining tables, china cabinets, plant stands, roll top desks, and yes, Hoosiers. All we thought you had to know was that if you got such stuff at a good price, it was a guaranteed sale and profit. When it came to round oak dining tables in particular, we knew, even with our inexperience, that people preferred pedestal tables and that the more elaborate the carvings on the feet, the better. A solid rather than veneered top was also a significant plus. So when we encountered a 4-legged Gustav Stickley table for the first time we were, if anything, unimpressed. An original piece of Stickley furniture – the essence of the Arts and Crafts style – was, with the exception of the top, nothing but square wood and 90 degree angles. As we read somewhere and as it seemed to us at the time, it was designed for furnishing a tank. And this table in particular had a scratched and worn leather top tacked down by large tarnished brass tacks. It wasn’t at all the sort of thing we were looking for when it came to oak dining tables. But it was priced cheap – on the order of $300 as I recall – and after the wife and I debated between ourselves, we bought it. Hauling it up to our rented space, we had no idea what to charge for it. But back then when you didn’t know what you were doing and no one could give you advice, you put a “big” number on things under the theory that you can always come down. And for us then a big number was anything more than our monthly mortgage payment, $900.
Needless to say were we surprised – stunned actually — when it sold quickly to someone who happened to be driving by and stopped at the shop. Heck, we hadn’t even had the chance to remove that ugly leather top to see what was beneath it or to at least polish those heavily tarnished brass tacks. But rather than question whether we’d sold it too cheap, we simply assumed there was no accounting for taste and that we’d fortuitously found someone who liked the rustic look. I didn’t connect this table, then, to a 2-door bookcase I encountered at an estate sale one week later for $200 that also bore the Gustav Stickley branding mark. I passed on it, however, not simply because its style didn’t appeal to me but because someone had cut out some of the wood from the back of the base so the 8” high baseboard found in most old homes wouldn’t keep the bookcase from fitting flush against the wall. It wasn’t that I was opposed to repairing anything, but any repair would forever be evident and I just didn’t want to sink $200 into something I wasn’t sure I could sell. Both the table and the bookcase then faded from memory and the profit from the table was long gone when the results of a high end Arts & Crafts auction in New York City came to my attention. Boy, do I wish I never learned what I learned then. This was an auction, populated doubtlessly by those Wall Street movers and shakers along with their lawyers, agents and high end dealers buying for specific customers – people who didn’t blink an eye at paying thousands for a cookie jar from Andy Warhol’s collection so they could say they “were there” — that established new benchmarks for Arts & Crafts design. There was the twin to our table with an equally scuffed up leather top. It had brought something in the neighborhood of $30,000. Then, rubbing salt into the proverbial wound, there was the twin to the bookcase I’d passed on at the estate sale. Admittedly, the one at auction hadn’t been modified to fit against the wall, but it was otherwise identical and brought upwards of $20,000.
I emphasize that these were record setting prices and the auction’s attendees moved in circles I was never destined to be a part of. Indeed, even if we’d known about those prices before selling the table or encountering the bookcase, we’d have been lucky to realize one tenth the numbers recorded in New York. People who can earn a million bucks as easily and quickly and you or I earn a hundred can appear to have gone mad when they assume they’re buying “the next hot thing” and thereafter bid at auction as if they were buying shares in Apple Computer at a dollar a share. But one tenth of $30,000 is a tad more than $900 and it took me a long time to be able to look at Arts & Crafts furniture without wanting to slam my head into a wall.
I also want to point out that I’ve also had my share of successes at the expense of someone else’s blunder. There was, for instance, the early 19th century grandfather clock I found in a shop one day. On the negative side, it had wooden works and thus a 30 hour movement – about as low as you can go in terms of the quality of a clock’s inner workings. On the plus side, though, was an otherwise simple case that retained an original grain painted surface. But that’s not what made the clock something I didn’t mind owning. As displayed, both the hour and minute hands were standing vertical so that the name on the dial appeared to read “Thomas Hoadley”. Now I’m no expert on Federal-era American clocks and I knew even less back then, but the only Hoadley with which I was familiar was Silas Hoadley – a 19th century Connecticut clockmaker who, after apprenticing alongside Seth Thomas for Eli Terry, formed a partnership with Thomas in 1810 and then struck out on his own in 1814. At the time I wasn’t sure about the Thomas-Hoadley partnership, but I didn’t have to know much – all I had to do was move the minute and hour hands aside to see the “&” between the two names. In other words, this wasn’t simply any old wooden works clock – this was, quite specifically, a clock made in a narrow window of time and, in effect, the beginnings of the still existent Seth Thomas clock company. This isn’t to say the clock has immense value – it doesn’t. But there nevertheless was a sense of discovery and a degree of satisfaction when buying it. I should point out, by the way, that I never did earn a profit from the clock – at least not a financial one. We never attempted to sell it and it moved with us from Pittsburgh to Texas and then to California. Our children grew up with it and when my oldest son was transferred in his job from here to New York City, he became one of the masses that commute daily between the city and its Connecticut suburbs, whereupon his argument that the clock ‘belonged’ back from whence it originally came was a compelling one.
Returning to blunders, as I’ve already said, if you’re going to venture into the world of antiques you best get used to them both in terms of what you failed to buy or in what you paid or sold something for. It’s all part of the business, all part of the learning process and all part of the tuition you’ll invariably pay for lessons learned. For a less painful example than that of the table that also illustrates the opportunities that sometimes present themselves in antique shops, I remember poking thru a shop many moons ago and finding three wooden tools that in their construction made absolutely no sense to me — and, judging by the price, apparently no sense to the shop’s owner. Two were different sized monkey wrenches and the other a ratchet wrench. But while all three had moving parts as if they were functional, they were made of soft pine and couldn’t possibly serve a useful purpose. My best guess was that they’d been made by someone with considerable woodcarving skill and time to waste – an elaborate exercise of whittling. But hey, they were five bucks apiece, so I bought them. A few months later I took them to a flea market and priced them at $20 each. Now keep in mind that in this business everything, and I do mean everything, is negotiable and it’s only a novice who assumes that a price tag doesn’t contain an automatic ten or twenty percent markup the dealer will easily abandon with the slightest haggling. So at $20 each that meant they’d belong to the first person who came along and offered me $40 or $45 for the set. Well, at some point in the morning someone came up to me and said “I’m going to pay full price for these and then I’ll tell you what they are.” Seemed like a fair proposition and after handing me $60, he said “they’re patent models.”
There are times when you feel utterly stupid because you didn’t see the obvious, and this was one of those times. Of course they were patent models! What else could they have been? I should have known that (and so should you after reading halfway into the previous paragraph). Its true that the patent models prized by collectors are accompanied by their US Patent Office registry tags along with the required schematic drawings specifying proper dimensions and manufacturing details. But still, my “tools” were worth more than $60. So chalk that one up to “tuition”.
Aside from illustrating the fact that bargains can be had by shopping other shops, this example once again illustrates what might perhaps be the first rule to be followed when buying, selling or simply collecting antiques: Never have as your primary goal that of avoiding mistakes and not paying tuition. Knowledge is power, and in antiques it’s often everything so don’t be afraid to pay for that knowledge with an occasional error. Earlier I mentioned a friend who dealt primarily in Victorian era glass. Well, one Sunday he and I attended a flea market together, but since we were looking for different things, we split up immediately in pursuit of treasures. A cut glass celery dish priced at $15 caught my eye in the very first booth, but not only wasn’t that “my thing” it also sported a chip the size of a fingernail. I don’t know much about glass, but I did know — or thought I knew — that chipped or cracked glass was worthless, especially clear cut glass which is as far as I know impossible to repair. So I simply moved on. An hour or two later I caught up with my friend and found him holding the celery dish: “Why the heck did you buy that … it has a huge chip?” I asked. Ok, I’m sure you know what’s coming: “It’s the rarest cut in this company’s cut glass repertoire,” he answered. So yes, it is generally true that chipped glass is to be avoided … unless, of course, there’s something truly special about it. Ever visit a museum with antiquities – vases from ancient Greece, glass from a Pharos’s tomb? If not, the next time you’re in California visit the Getty Villa museum in Malibu – the place is loaded with the stuff. And half the time that Greek vase is stapled or glued together while the Egyptian glass is discolored and chipped. Ever see the condition of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In any event, I learned later that the dish changed hands for upwards of $1,500.
In any event, back to the matter of picking shops. The thing to keep in mind is that like those who run estate sales, shop owners can’t possibly know everything. No one does. Witness my patent models and Stickley table. Dealers might try to protect themselves by selling only what they know. This makes it hard to find a mistake in long established shops – a hidden underpriced treasure. Knowing this, we’re all probably prejudiced a bit against places that specialize and feel that we’re more likely to get lucky in an antique jungle like Mario and Jerry’s “antiques jungle”. In fact, that was part of their strategy – they wanted a jungle wherein people assumed a priori that bargains would be plentiful and perhaps accidental. There is an interesting psychology operating here. Suppose we take some item with a fair market value of, say, $250. Suppose we have two such items, price them identically, and put one in plain sight in a prim and prissy shop with its scented candles and the other in a shop such as the one I described as belonging to Mario and Jerry. Which piece is most likely to sell first?
Now don’t assume there’s a definitive and unambiguous answer to this question. As with most things in the universe, it depends. If the item would most likely appeal to those who feel uncomfortable in chaos and dust, the prissy shop might score first. Such customers might simply be turned off by a presentation that seemed a case study of attention deficit disorder, preferring instead the calm surroundings of a well organized and decorated shop. Or they might assume that if a shop’s merchandise was of so little apparent value to its owner as judged by the lack of care in presentation, then its offerings probably aren’t worth much to anyone. On the other hand, suppose we’re talking about someone who is just ‘poking around’, wandering from one antique shop to the next, and not looking for anything in particular. All they’re looking for is something that catches their eye and seems to be a bargain with money left in it for resale. In this case I’ll place my bets on the shop that’s a messy jungle. My reasoning is this: A person’s assumptions when entering the prissy shop will most likely be that things are priced at fair market value – perhaps even higher since that potpourri (or scented candles if you wish) has to be paid for somehow. If a shop’s owner seems to take considerable care in presentation and atmosphere, it’s reasonable to suppose they take the same care in pricing. If on the other hand things seem slapdash and haphazard and, at the same time, conveys the message “antiques for the wholesale buyer”, then people’s assumptions change and they’re more likely to suppose that $250 price take promises a bargain.
None of this constitutes a hard and fast rule about anything. It’s just something to keep in mind and should alert you to the need for a bit of introspection the next time you venture out into the antiques market. In other words, it not only pays to know what you’re doing, but also how your brain might be subconsciously processing whatever information your eyes send it. Einstein told us not to believe what our paltry senses told us about the universe and I suppose I’m saying the same thing about antique shops. Also what I’ve just described is not a commentary on the likelihood of finding a bargain in a prissy shop – I’m merely addressing people’s prejudices, legitimate or otherwise, and am not offering an argument for shopping only in places that look like the building is scheduled for the wrecking ball. As I said before (and will doubtlessly say again since I do like to repeat myself), the antique business is a marginal one and most dealers, unless they can afford the cost of a full page add in one of the national trade magazines, are hanging by their fingernails. In other words, regardless of how much they spend on potpourri, dealers nearly uniformly have a strong incentive to sell by offering a bargain if they can do so. I have on my wall, for example, an above average North Shore Massachusetts silk on linen sampler. Dated 1817, it’s in pristine condition with no fading, a wonderfully executed floral border and two – not one, but two — houses flanking a tree (see Figure 3-1). And I bought it out of a shop that deals exclusively in 18th and early 19th century Americana and where any degree of discord in the shop precluded its owner from realizing a good night’s sleep. It’s true that I didn’t buy it at a price where it would have been appropriate for me to wear a mask, but I got it at a price that left me room to wholesale it if I so chose (which I didn’t and aren’t about to). Now the point here is that the dealer I bought it from knew precisely what it was and its value. There were no informational asymmetries. So why did he sell it at the price I bought it for? The answer is simple: He had a choice between $X today versus $X + 0.25X at some indefinite time in the future. The problem, though, was that his $Z in shop rent (along with utility and insurance payments) couldn’t be postponed for that indefinite future, so a bird in the hand, etc.
Fig. 3-1: A Better Than Average Massachusetts House Sampler
This is not, I should add, a unique experience. Now it’s true that I don’t frequent shops that advertise in Antiques magazine or are located where rents approach what you might have to pay for a Park Avenue or Rodeo Drive address. Because such places have a clientele who can spend more in a day than what I earn in a year or because the owner is married to someone who inherited daddy’s controlling interest in some Fortune 500 company, I know that the proprietors of such shops don’t need my business. But for the shops I do visit, I can honestly say there’s less than a handful in which I haven’t been able to find and/or negotiate a bargain. Lets go back to where I bought that sampler. I’ve actually done a good deal of business there. There was, for instance, the time its owner had on consignment an entire estate of Americana and was under some pressure from the heirs to liquidate things ASAP. Now there’s ONLY one way to do that short of sending everything back East to auction: Sell cheap! Or, more precisely, sell at or below wholesale. That same shop a year or so later got a call from a local auction house that specialized in Asian antiques. However, in securing a collection appropriate for its clientele, the house had to take in an assortment of some good quality American furniture. Their problem, though, was that in addition to having no expertise here, their client base is wholly uninterested in Americana. So after unsuccessfully running it through one of their auctions, they simply wanted the stuff out of their warehouse – consigned or sold (with a preference for selling, since consigning would only muddy their accounting). As a consequence, they contacted one of the few shops in the area that specialized in Americana with the message “we’ll take any reasonable offer.” Not only is such a phrase equivalent to throwing red meat in front of a hungry lion, but I’d also guess that “reasonable offer” meant virtually anything that wasn’t a self-evident insult. So to make an otherwise long story short, wandering into the shop that became the ultimate repository of that inventory, I ended up buying both an 1800 New England cherry tall chest and 1740 Queen Ann maple desk on frame at prices that were unquestioned bargains.
Fig. 3-2: Our Queen Ann Maple Desk on Frame, ca 1740
I hasten to add that, as with the sampler, this was not the case of me knowing more than the shop’s owner, wherein he unknowingly gave me a bargain. Indeed, almost certainly the opposite was true. In this instance the dealer has a well-deserved reputation for both honesty and knowledge, and if he tells you a piece is absolutely correct, then with probability 0.9999 there will be no unwanted surprises. More than likely, in fact, he’d alert you to issues you might not have discovered on your own, and when buying something your invoice will contain a description of your purchase, including the dealer’s assessment of condition so that if things turn out otherwise, you can always get your money back. So again, the question: Aside from having bought cheaply, why did he sell cheaply? The answer is the same as before: (1) He wasn’t married to an heiress; (2) he didn’t have a clientele of Hollywood moguls and junk bond dealers; and (3) what he paid for things or the prices he’d promised a consignor in no way lessened the rent and utility bills coming due at the end of the month.
The lesson to be learned here is don’t shy away from shops that specialize. Again, you might assume that because the spectrum of their inventory is narrow, they’re unlikely to make a mistake in pricing. That may be true, but because they specialize, they will often have consigned to them some of the best things available. When a collector decides to upgrade or thin out his or her collection, or when the heirs to an estate are deciding where to consign the things they don’t want, they’re likely to choose a dealer who specializes in what will be sold. As a consequence, the shop in question is more likely than others to be the recipient of collections wherein the consignor’s interest is to have a quick turnover. And when both a consignor and dealer share that interest, bargains are likely. Just recently, for instance, I had the good fortune to visit a shop that had just acquired on consignment a collection of 18th century Pennsylvania hand drawn fraktur from someone who was moving to a smaller apartment and thinning out their collection. The consignor was not the least bit interested in getting top dollar – he simply wanted them gone – and the dealer had the ever-present incentive to sell and sell quickly. Now keep in mind that it didn’t take all than many clicks of the computer keyboard to figure out what equivalent fraktur were selling for back East. But the dealer wasn’t back East or doing any shows – he was here, so that collection became one of my better bargains.
Fig. 3-3: Some Pennsylvania Fraktur Bargains found in California
For a few additional examples of some finds at local shops (and keep in mind that my examples here are limited to Southern California … heaven only knows what’s to be found in areas of the country where antique shops are as ubiquitous as used car dealerships), consider Figure 3-4, which is a wonderful oil on canvass 19th century painting of the clipper ship Red Jacket. I didn’t steal it, but it nevertheless was a bargain and even remains so five or six years after I bought it. Or how about the schoolboy hand drawn watercolor world map in Figure 3-5. Pulled that out of a shop as well. Actually, no – not quite. I bought it from a dealer even before it made it into his shop after he’d gotten ahold of an Americana collection on consignment. He knew what I liked because I was a frequent visitor to his shop and he was interested in a quick turnover. So why bring it to the shop when he could simply call me and make a quick sale? And pretty much the same is true of the barber pole in Figure 3-6. This actually made it into a shop, but I met the owner at one of the Sunday flea markets, and knowing what I liked, I made arrangements to meet him at his shop later that day. And then there’s the paint decorated box in Figure 3-7. Here again the dealer knew precisely what he had, but also knew I would probably be his best customer for it. Finally, there’s the cast zinc and painted shoe in Figure 3-8. When I found this at a local shop, I had no specific idea as to its purpose. And neither did the dealer who had it. Our best guess was that it was a “trade stimulator” – something to be set on the counter of a 19th century ladies shoe store for whatever purpose it might serve to induce a sale. How or why it would do that, though, is a question neither of us could answer. But in its original paint, it was something I wanted and was happy to have wandered into that shop to find it.
Fig. 3-4: Oil On Canvass of the Clipper Ship Red Jacket
Fig. 3-5: Ca 1800 Schoolboy World Map Watercolor
Fig. 3-6: Full Sized ca 1900 Barber Pole
Fig. 3-7: 19th C Paint Decorated Document Box
Fig. 3-8: Cast Zinc Trade Stimulator?
Now admittedly, there’s a bit of braggadocio in trotting out these examples. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that if I can find such things it the few antique shops scattered around the Los Angeles area (actually, all within 25 miles of Pasadena), think of what you might find where shops are far more prevalent. Thus, even if you deem the odds low of finding a pricing bargain in a shop with a specific focus, Americana or otherwise, that’s hardly a reason to not visit such shops on a regular basis. Indeed, about the only way you’ll ever be able to take advantage of a fortuitous circumstance such as the owner acquiring a collection that needs quick liquidation is if you visit them at least as frequently as you visit the barber or hairdresser and to let yourself be known to their owners on the not-too-improbable-chance they’ll call you when they have something special. There is, though, another reason for not avoiding such shops; namely, their owners are likely to know where the market is and, thus, what a fair retail and fair wholesale price is. It’s no secret, as I noted in Chapter 1, that prices for most categories of antiques, Americana in particular, took a hit during the most recent recession (beginning around 2009) and that they’ve done anything but recover since then. It’s not at all uncommon to find things that sold for, say, $4,000 ten years ago being priced today for under $2,000. The fact of the matter is that antiques are, for the most part, luxury goods and when money is tight, the spending on such goods drops precipitously. This may not be true for million dollar highboys or paintings – recessions impact the people that buy such things only in that their quadrillion annual earnings drop to half a quadrillion. For the rest of us, mortgage payments and grocery bills remain fixed and crowd out all other expenditures. Dealers who specialize know this and they are likely to keep careful track of where prices are and are heading if only to avoid paying more for inventory than they can sell it for.
Contrast this to the dealer who doesn’t specialize. Dealers in this category are, admittedly, more likely to make mistakes in pricing. But not only are they more likely to undervalue a piece, they’re also more likely to overvalue things, especially in a declining market. Moreover, if they set prices on the basis of a cursory survey of previous auction results for comparable items, they may not have the expertise to take note of subtle but important differences between what they have and what’s sold in the past. Suppose, for instance, they’ve acquired a 19th century Currier and Ives litho titled The Port of New York. A quick look at the auction history of such a litho will reveal prices ranging between a few hundred dollars up to $12,000. Your guess is as good as mine, now, as to what price a dealer might set for a copy in their possession. But there are two facts that a non-specializing dealer is likely to be unaware of. The first is that Currier and Ives published two versions of this lithograph, one in 1872 (reissued in 1878) and another in 1892. Both are nearly but NOT WHOLLY identical. There are subtle differences in perspective, of the ships in the harbor and of the roundhouse overlooking the harbor (see Figure 3.9) — differences that may be important for serious collectors willing to write a 4 or 5-digit check when adding to their collection wherein the earlier version is somewhat more desirable than the later one. The second fact is that both images have been widely reproduced and where reproductions, framed and under glass, are difficult to distinguish from an original. Now nothing I’ve said here is unknown to those who specialize in Currier and Ives lithographs. That cannot be said of dealers universally. How do I know this? Well, as an amateur in Currier and Ives, I knew enough to know that the 1872 version of this lithograph that I saw coming up for auction locally was highly desirable. But that’s all I knew. So, proceeded with due diligence beforehand, I headed to the internet. But seeing realized auction values at the time in the range of $600 to $8,000 simply left me confused since condition didn’t seem to account for that price variance. Only after probing further did I learn about the two versions of The Port of New York as well as the proliferation of reproductions. Would every dealer engage in this research or make the effort of removing a litho from its frame to check the quality of the paper? Frankly, I don’t know, but for reasons I’ll discuss later, I suspect they won’t.
Fig. 3-9: Two versions of Currier & Ives “Port of New York”
This discussion of amateur dealers or dealers who don’t specialize leads me to antique malls and cooperatives – shops with row after row of booths housing the merchandise of dozens of dealers. First, let me address any prejudices you might have against looking for bargains at such places. One might assume that bargains are rare since if a dealer undervalues something or otherwise fails to appreciate what they have, isn’t it safe to suppose that other dealers in the shop will pounce on that item immediately? Well, to my knowledge no one has ever done a careful study of the likelihood of finding a treasure in one type of shop as opposed to another, but I’ve heard enough stories and seen enough evidence to think that antique cooperatives should not be ignored. Let me offer an especially glaring example. A close friend of mine made it a business to hit all the shops in the Los Angeles area at least once a month (and keep in mind that greater-LA is a BIG place so one should never begrudge his finds – a lot of time, aggravation, stop and go traffic and gas money went into them). More often than not the joys (look up ‘sarcastic’) of driving LA’s freeways netted him little more than an underpriced Victorian light fixture or an underappreciated piece of art pottery. But he also found his share of early 19th C American samplers, theorems, paintings, folk carvings and decorated stoneware. And then there’s that one time where what looked down at him from the wall of a cooperative was a hitherto undiscovered mixed media folk art painting of a young girl by the early 19th century New Hampshire husband and wife team of Ruth Whittier and Samuel Addison Shute.
I don’t know what you know about Shute paintings, but I’ll bet you don’t own one and never will. There aren’t many of them and those of children that have appeared on the market command prices into six digits (and where the first digit isn’t necessarily a “1”!). But the price tag on the one on the wall was missing a whole bunch of those zeros. Who knows how long it had hung there, but among dealers who were familiar with 1930s quilts, Victorian and oak furniture, movie posters, turn-of-the-century yellowware bowls, depression glass, fishing lures and 20th century wrist watches, no one had ever heard of the Shutes. So it went totally unrecognized and unappreciated. I won’t tell you more because if I did you might figure out who my friend is and, with a Shute hanging on the wall, he’d have to increase his home insurance considerably to feel secure at night. But now you might say “OK, that’s Los Angeles, where 99.9% of the dealers know little to nothing about Americana and could care less. Don’t expect to find the same elsewhere.” Well, I won’t disagree that the odds of such a find drop considerably as one moves East … but the probabilities don’t go to zero. My cousin has been a dealer in New Hampshire since dinosaurs walked the earth, and guess what he found in an antique cooperative one day many moons ago – a cooperative that specialized in country Americana? That’s right … a Shute! And it too was missing some zeros from the price tag. Now this may have happened before such folk art commanded six digit prices. But five digits back then wasn’t bird seed, and my cousin’s Shute was priced about the same as my friend’s in Los Angeles. So ya never know.
Admittedly, I’ve never had a 6-digit score like that, but who has? On the other hand, in precisely the same mall as my friend’s Shute I did find a Montgomery corn painting that I sold for three or for times what I paid for it while at another cooperative not long after that I absconded with two mid-19th century quilts in mint condition for less than a third their value. And at yet a third cooperative that offered an absolutely random collection of “stuff”, I had two finds only a few months apart – a hand painted suffragette parade banner and a New Hampshire tall chest that retained its original hardware, finish, etc. The thing to understand about cooperatives is that although some of them specialize, most service dealers with a wide range of interests or no specific interest at all. Aside from those cooperatives specializing in Americana and country collectibles, it’s not uncommon to find one booth filled with depression era glassware next to one focused on sports memorabilia, with the one after that specializing in advertising tins or mid-century toys. That means that none of these dealers is likely to buy from each other or even recognize a bargain in a neighbor’s booth. And with respect to cooperatives that do specialize in country Americana, remember this: While dealers might be able to spot a bargain in someone else’s booth, they’re also all in competition with each other. So in subtle and sometimes no so subtle ways, they may also be trying to undersell their neighbors (markets do work, after all, despite what some left-wing politicians might want you to think).
How, you might ask, can a dealer in one booth undersell a dealer in another booth? Well, here’s one way. Many cooperatives, in addition to charging rent for a space, charge dealers a percentage on anything they sell. And, naturally enough, that percentage will be factored into price tags. But it’s also not uncommon for cooperatives to forgo this charge if the dealer sells directly to someone – an off-the-books exchange of cash for the item. Don’t be surprised, then, if, in the midst of a negotiation, the dealer suggests that you meet them outside (don’t worry, it’s a rare dealer who will want to pop you in the nose in some back alley just because you’re a tough negotiator) so he or she can sell it to you ‘on the street’ with the presumption that part of the dealer’s savings in commission to the cooperative will be passed on to you. The long and short of it, then, is that you can often maneuver for a bigger discount if you hold off buying anything until you can negotiate face to face with the dealer selling what you want. So whenever I enter a cooperative and find something of interest, I ask whoever is manning the checkout counter when the relevant dealer is likely to be in attendance.
Not only can shopping the shops be productive in virtually any context, from prissy establishments to antique cooperatives to places that look like a dyslexic’s warehouse, one also shouldn’t discount the possibility of buying directly from a dealer out of his or her home. As a matter of fact, at this moment I can offer a fantastic deal on some mid 19th century cherry corner cupboards. The story behind them is an estate charity sale selling donations where there wasn’t much of interest except for two nearly identical 2-part 12-lite cherry corner cupboards with no repairs or restorations. Now I don’t have a shop and all the dealers I knew who might take such pieces on consignment are packed. But because the cupboards were donations and the charity had every incentive to sell quickly, they were ticketed at $350 each. I know prices have fallen for large case pieces, but this was getting ridiculous. Ten years earlier you couldn’t touch one of these cupboards for under $1,500 and no one would have swallowed their gum if they confronted a sticker price of $2,500 in a shop. And in this case I was confronted by a virtual pair! Well, to make a long story short, there was no way I could pass them up. So anyone in the market for one or a pair of cherry two-part corner cupboards should contact me directly. I can offer you a heck of a deal! In fact, I can package that deal with a friend’s tiger maple slant lid desk. He bought the desk at … drum roll again … a cooperative. But at the time it sported ugly and inappropriate Victorian hardware. That hardware, though, once removed left its telltale marks, which meant the drawers needed a bit of minor refinishing before appropriate reproduction Chippendale bat wing drawer pulls and escutcheons could be attached. However, he had a problem: First, living in a small apartment, there was no place for him to partake of even a minor refinishing job and second, he already owned a desk and had no room, even as storage, for a second. So into my laundry room it went, next to my corner cupboards, where there’s room enough to do what needed to be done to it. He plans to swap out his old cherry desk for this tiger maple alternative once he finds a way to unload the cherry one, but if someone should come along in the meantime who might be in the market for this recent find … well, I’m sure a deal can be arranged.
On a more serious note (since hopefully those cupboards and desk will be long gone by the time you read this), I came in possession a few years back of a rare Tennessee sampler. Needlework samplers from New England, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are ubiquitous as are those from England. But samplers grow scare as you move south or west, especially those that can be attributed to a specific school or have regionally specific characteristics. This was such a sampler, referred to as a “Tennessee Little Dog Sampler” because of the little dog facing the house (and, of course, the fact that it was made in Tennessee). My problem, though, was that I’m in California wherein if I consigned it to one of the few Americana shops in the area, I’d be more likely to hit a jackpot in Vegas than having the sampler seen by someone from Tennessee who also collects samplers. Alternatively, I could have consigned it to some East coast auction house with national visibility, but who knows what would happen to it then. Far be it for me to assume that an auction house, however reputable, might not reward one of its regular customers by closing out the bidding super-fast on my sampler. And even if it did well, I probably wouldn’t see a check for a half year (not to mention the 25 or 30 percent selling commission to the auction house). The third possibility was to try to sell it on the internet, but there again it was a roll of the dice as to whether a serious collector would see it. Deciding to be risk averse, I made some inquiries in search of a reputable Tennessee dealer, got a name, called him and sold it, all of which illustrates a fact of the business: Unlike that candle or chocolate chip cookie store in the mall, upwards of seventy or even ninety percent of an antiques dealer’s business is selling to other dealers. Very few dealers sit atop the food chain with a card catalogue of wealthy clients. Instead, survival depends on selling to those who are one or two rungs higher on that chain or that have clients in the market for what you’ve stumbled upon. All dealers know this and most are prepared to sell at a price that leaves some room for profit for the next person.
Fig. 3-10: My Tennessee Sampler
You might stop me now and say “But I’m not a dealer. I’m a collector. What good is your advice to me?” Well, here’s the BIG SECRET: The vast majority of dealers could care less whether you’re a dealer, a retail customer or an alien from a galaxy far far away furnishing your starship while on the run from The Men in Black. Ninety nine percent of the dealers in the world know that if they’re going to survive, they have to sell to other dealers and so they best be prepared to sell wholesale – and to sell wholesale to ANYONE if that’s what it takes to make a sale. Of course, if you’ve never been in their shop before, they don’t know who or what you are. All they can do is hope your naïve enough to pay full retail, so it’s up to you to let it be known that you’re not a sucker and expect a discount. Bargain, grimace a lot when you’re quoted a price. Heck, unless you intend to start a long term relationship, lie if you must by implication, saying things like “I don’t think there’s enough money left in it for me at that price”. Or if that’s too much of a lie for you, how about “the last one I had went for ___” which leaves it unambiguous as to whether you were the buyer or the seller. Even if you think you can’t possibly live without whatever it is your negotiating over, make it seem like you can walk away with your money still in your pocket. In other words, pretend your dealing with a used car salesman or someone selling knock-off wrist watches in Tijuana, and keep in mind that when it comes to your identity, all the seller cares about is that your money be green.
There’s something else retail buyers need to realize about the prices they see in some antique shops – the influence of interior decorators. Interior decorators are an important customer base for a not inconsiderable percentage of dealers, but lets face it, the closest most people get to having an decorator assist in furnishing their homes is the unwanted advice of a mother-in-law. Thus, while some shops may cater to professional decorators, few can rely exclusively on them if only because there simply aren’t enough of them. But dealers nevertheless love them. First, decorators, when they buy, often buy more than one item. If they’re trying to achieve “a look” for a client, that’s most easily done when they buy multiple things of a similar era and style. Second, decorators generally work on a commission — a percentage of the cost of the decorating scheme’s implementation. And the more something costs the higher the commission, which, as you might suspect, creates a rather perverse incentive. Not only do decorators with the good fortune of working for clients with bottomless pockets like to decorate with expensive things, but the last thing they need is a bargain. Unless their clients gave them a hard and fast budget within which to operate, it can actually be in a decorator’s interest to pay full sticker price. If given a budget of, say, $100,000, far be it for a decorator to work their butts off doing the job for $80,000, rational self-interest and simple greed being what it is. Now it might seem that this arrangement can’t possibly persist, but keep in mind that their clients may be more interested in having the right look than in what it costs to get that look. If you’re making sixty zillion dollars a year as a rock star, professional athlete, shady lawyer or corrupt politician (did I just repeat myself?), what do you care if that ‘absolutely essential special something’ for the corner of the living room costs $15,000 or $20,000? And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a decorator’s clients actually prefer to over-pay since, unless their friends know better, they might believe that the more it costs, the better it must be. There’s the joke about the nouveau riche Russian who encounters a friend on a Moscow street and proudly announces that the tie he’s wearing cost $500, whereupon his friend, unimpressed, tells him ‘you fool … you can buy that same tie around the corner for $750’.
Don’t assume this joke applies only to Russians who just stole half their country’s GDP with the Kremlin’s blessing. It wasn’t that long ago that I attended an estate sale in Beverly Hills advertising, among other goodies, a 19th century all wood “bone crusher” bicycle (see Figure 3-11, compliments again of liveauctioneers.com). Bicycles of the type pictured in the estate sale ad can easily fetch upwards of $8,000 so you can imagine my excitement when I got to the sale, peeked in the window and saw a price tag of $2,150 attached to an example in absolutely perfect condition. Naturally, as soon as the door opened I headed straight to it, only to discover that the tag was inadvertently positioned to obscure a digit when viewed thru the window – the actual price was $21,500 (yes, $2,150 was too good to be true, but one can dream). Speaking later to the owner’s decorator I was told they’d actually paid twice the sale’s asking price. You might think the owners had gone apoplectic if and when they learned they’d paid three to four times what the bicycle was worth. Well, this was Beverly Hills and I was in a house that had just sold for seven million plus (I’ll write that out for you so it sinks in … $7,000,000.00+, which means that if the house had been built for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II and if he was in fact a god who could live forever eating a Big Mac meal or Dominoes’ pizza per day, he’d still have enough money today to continue with this peculiar culinary choice for another 500 years)! All they cared about was that the bicycle, nicely mounted, looked like a sculpture in their living room bay window, which it did. And I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts they eagerly told their friends how much it cost … hell, they might not have bought it if it had not cost them what it did.
Fig 3-11: One Version of a Bone Crusher Bicycle
Now you might ask what the relevance is to you of this little discourse on interior decorators. The answer is that sometimes the prices you see in a shop aren’t intended for us ordinary folk. The target audience might be decorators in the hire of people who regard themselves as a peer of some 19th century Robber Baron. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t buy there or find a bargain. Admittedly the odds are against you when you see numbers twice what you think things are worth, but still – give it a shot (and no, I didn’t buy the bicycle). Whoever owns the shop you’re in might just know they won’t survive selling only to decorators or to clients who just negotiated a deal for a first round NFL draft choice. So it never hurts to ask “what’s your very best price?” and even if you gag afterwards, gagging is rarely fatal. I’d venture to guess, in fact, that more often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised since even those dealers lucky enough to cater to overly financially endowed clients like to move their merchandise.
Of course, the advice I’ve just given probably doesn’t apply to those high end Americana shops running ads in, say, Art & Antiques magazine or who take out full page ads in Maine Antiques Digest. These are dealers who stand at the very top of the food chain and don’t need your money. If shops of this sort are your normal haunts, you shouldn’t be reading this book in the first place. These are dealers who can net $100,000 from a single sale, who routinely spend $20,000 (or more) to do one of the high end Philadelphia, Boston or New York antique shows, and who drop $5,000 or more on that monthly ad. The merchandise they offer will be the best of the best, and it’s not uncommon to see them going head to head with museums at auction in pursuit of inventory. My advice, though, does apply to shops and dealers who are but a step or two down from this exalted height. Their merchandise may also be first rate, though perhaps not “museum quality” (e.g., the kneehole desk they’re selling WASN’T made or attributable to Newport’s Goddard & Townsend, the federal banjo clock is of the period but didn’t come out of Simon Willard’s Roxbury shop, the pair of portraits they have for sale, while attributable to Sheldon Peck, aren’t his best work, the 19th C horse weathervane, while having a wonderful original gold gilt surface, is a relatively common late 19th C factory made piece, and the graphic and colorful trade sign dates to the last quarter of the 19th century and not the first quarter). Four and even five digit price tags may not be uncommon among such dealers, but there’s no reason to suppose, a priori, that they aren’t hanging on financially by their fingernails any less than anyone else and thus as open to negotiation and striking a deal as are dealers further down the food chain.
One other thing should be kept in mind when buying out of shops if you’re operating on a limited budget. There’s one type of shop you should pay special attention to – those owned and operated by little old ladies (I know I’m skating out to the middle of the lake on thin ice here and about to be accused of being a sexist pig, but I’ll take my chances). First, little old ladies, who most likely have been in the business since before you were born, know a lot about a lot. So don’t look for mistakes there – the odds are most certainly not in your favor. It’s a fair bet, moreover, that they aren’t in the business to make money – they inherited all they need from their deceased husbands — so their incentive to discount heavily may be minimal. Their shops, more often than not, are social venues – places where friends come by to chat and to review their inventory of gossip and local scandals. But there’s something else they possess: Knowledge. First, when it comes to their specialties – the thing they’ve collected or dealt in for more decades than there are fingers on a hand, be it dolls, toys, quilts, art glass, clothing, folk art, jewelry or buttons – they know more than you ever will, regardless of who you are. And there’s something else they know – they know ‘where the bodies are buried.’ Well, maybe not bodies per se, but they know where things are, who has what in their house, whose getting ready to sell, whose getting ready to croak, what will be coming on the market soon, who has heirs that hate antiques, and so on. You’ll also learn a lot about other dealers, including some things you really don’t want or need to know. But if she gets to like you (and it NEVER pays to upset one of these little old ladies – they can be as dangerous as a frenzied shark), she’ll most likely become an invaluable source of knowledge about antiques generally. Moreover, if you’re just getting started in the business of antiques or are a young couple trying to furnish your home with antiques as my wife and I were when we started out in this “hobby”, there’s one final reason for cultivating such dealers: Little old ladies don’t refinish furniture. They sell it as is. So if you can find one with a general purpose shop and a back storage building or room, you’ll most likely have a ready supply of mid-level antiques in need of repair or refinishing. Indeed, not only do little old ladies not refinish things, they often already have too much in their shop and if you’re lucky enough to have her think of you as a granddaughter or grandson wherein the cupboard you just bought from her comes with a cold glass of lemonade, she’ll probably also tell you “why don’t you contact ____. She just called me and has some ___, which I don’t have room for.” Can finding antiques get any easier than that?
If you think I’m overstating things, here’s a true to life story. Shortly after getting married my son and his wife decided to furnish their home in early country Americana. One of the hardest things to find, though, is a good kitchen or dining room farm table, especially out here on the West coast. Fortunately for them, a local dealer – a serious collector of Shaker furniture – had just downsized to a smaller home and brought her Shaker dining (actually, meeting house) table to her shop, along with a Shaker bench and Shaker painted cupboard. Now I’m not going tell you actual prices (time to use your imagination and think in terms of numbers with four digits and no decimal point), but the table in particular was priced at $X. I later learned that a local dealer had seen it first and was quoted a price of 0.9X (i.e. a 10% discount), and was giving it some serious thought at the time my son and daughter-in-law encountered it. But when they walked into her shop she quoted them 0.75X. My advice at that point was simple: Buy it (which they did)! Shaker dining tables may be made from trees, but they don’t grow on them! Needless to say, the dealer who’d first seen the table and was still deciding whether or not to spring for it was a tad upset to learn it had sold and what my son and his wife paid for it. There was, though, little cause to be upset since, quite frankly, he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being offered the table at anything approaching a twenty five percent discount. You see, this was one of those little old ladies who didn’t need the income, didn’t need to pay any rent (she owned the building), and who believed that a table she’d spent the last twenty five or so years feeding her family on needed to go to a “good home”. There are things other than $$$ that enter into some people’s preferences.
While on the subject of this particular dealer type it’s probably worth laying out a few more of the prominent types since it pays to know who or what you’re mind wrestling with. Dealer types, naturally enough, cover the full gamut of the personalities of our species, but a few warrant special notice. The first is the expert in all that he or she rules, which easily crosses the line into arrogance. This is the person who, if you show the slightest uncertainty as to what you’re looking at (or trying to sell them) will immediately school you in all they know. More often than not they know a lot and it doesn’t hurt to listen, but this type is often coupled with the characteristic of sometimes being wrong yet unable to acknowledge a mistake. Of course, that characteristic is hardly a unique one, so if compelled to deal with this type its best to just sit back, relax and listen since once they state an opinion, all the contrary evidence in the world will not change their mind. Besides, you might learn something in the process, so to be fair this is not the type of dealer you should avoid. Indeed, if they are expert in what they say they are, they have an incentive to protect their reputation no less than does a picker have an incentive to protect his reputation for bargain pricing. I know of any number of dealers who if they say something is 100% right, or if they tell you all its flaws, I don’t bother to examine the piece further – I know that I now know everything there is to know about whatever it is I’m looking at.
More aggravating is when the characteristics of this type are mixed with a second — those who will claim that they and only they have the good stuff. If you pay close attention, you’ll soon learn that when they discuss something being sold by another dealer, it’s “mediocre and not something you should be interested in.” If they’re selling a hooked rug, it’s “a scintillating expression of folk art elegance that transcends the usual limits of the genre” whereas a comparable (or even identical) rug offered by a competitor is, at best, “a mediocre piece, but not anything for a serious collector.” Of course, as soon as that competitor’s rug comes into their possession, it magically acquires all the characteristics of the crème de la crème of that category and you should consider yourself blessed to even touch it. Dealers of this type also seem unable to resist denigrating not only the quality of merchandise of other dealers, but also their competitors’ taste, knowledge and genetic makeup. The simplest approach here if you must deal with this type is to simply let them talk and don’t waste your time contradicting them. It will only give you heartburn.
There are, admittedly, people who prefer buying from such dealers, especially if their shops are at the upper levels of the antiques food chain, because they delight in telling their friends “I got that at ____”, which they take to mean that they now own something of unquestioned value. In fact, a discernible share of people constitute what we call “price buyers” and I don’t necessarily mean people who are looking for a bargain. Rather, I mean those who, perhaps uncertain of their own knowledge, take price as their measure of value. Many moons ago I bought a mid-19th century walnut corner cupboard for what was then a bargain, in part because it needed refinishing. Thus, once brought up to snuff and hoping to sell it quickly, I was able to price it under $1,000 at a time when comparable cupboards were selling for $2,000 and up. Well, it didn’t sell. It sat in our shop space for months, and after listening to me complain for the umpteenth time, my wife explained why: “People don’t think it’s any good because its too cheap – add a ‘1’ to the price tag.” I had no other explanation for the undisturbed dust it was collecting, so I did as suggested and of course it sold the next week! This, though, is a rather mild example compared to the case in which a quite reputable Southern California dealer in Americana offered at basically wholesale an early and highly desirable pair of 18th century American pastel portraits to a local and deep-pocketed collector. After hemming and hawing over the course of a few weeks, the collector ultimately passed for unstated reasons. The portraits were then sold to one of the more exclusive (read: “expensive”) East coast dealers, and wouldn’t you know it: On a business trip back East, that local collector bought the pastels. Now I don’t know what he paid, but you can be certain the price was two or three times what they had been offered to him initially. But here was a collector who lacked confidence in his ability to judge things and thus took price as a measure of quality and who also needed to be told that the portraits were what he was told they were by someone whose ‘certificate of authority’ lay in the expensive ads he ran in glossy trade journals.
Now you might object that I’m drawing too strong a conclusion on the basis of but a handful of experiences. OK then, let me give you an example of a different sort – an experiment I and several other dealers replicated. On a whim, while sitting around shooting the breeze behind the counter of an antique cooperative, one of the dealers decided to test my hypothesis about people using price as their measure of value (as opposed to relying on their own knowledge). He took a modestly priced item – something around $100 — removed the sticker, and attached a new one that read “free”. Then, after setting it out prominently, we all sat back to keep a veiled eye on the customers walking past it. I didn’t count how many people picked the item up, looked somewhat incredulously at the “price”, put the piece back down and walked away. But I can tell you that there was more than one – more than a half dozen as I recall. We never questioned anyone as to why they didn’t pocket the free item – sure wish we had but the odds are that everyone assumed that since it was free, it was also worthless. The irresistible impulse of the academic in me leaves me wondering what would have happened if, instead of $0, we’d priced that piece simply at a ridiculously low number, say $5. And I wonder if people’s responses would differ depending on what kind of shop they were in. Anyone interested in writing up a research grant proposal to the federal government’s National Science Foundation? They spend your tax dollars on goofier research than this.
Returning to dealer types, there is yet another that is perhaps the most dangerous of all — someone who pretends to know nothing. Rather than speaking with an air of arrogant authority, they’ll instead act as if they’re picking your brain while theirs is empty. Be prepared here to be asked a bevy of questions: ‘What do you think this is?’, ’How old is it?’, ‘Do you think it’s American?’, ‘Is the wood maple or pine?’ and so on and so forth. This strategy has two intended effects. First, it builds your ego so that you begin to think you know more than you actually do. And second, it leads you to think that if you do buy something, you’ve just snookered the dealer. But don’t be fooled for a minute! As I’ve said countless times already, selling antiques is at best a financially marginal if not wholly irrational enterprise. So if a dealer has a shop that’s survived the vicissitudes of the market for any length of time, he or she knows something. It’s simply not possible to maintain a shop while encumbered by a level of ignorance about antiques that parallels the bidders on television programs such as Storage Wars. It’s far safer to assume that the dealer has forgotten more than you’ll ever learn. Despite this advice, I’ll admit that of all the dealer types, this is the one that I’m most subject to succumbing to. I dare say that more than once – heck, a lot more than once – I’ve bought something only to learn that a dealer’s feigned ignorance hid some defect I should have detected were I not so intent on taking advantage of someone who seemed to be inadvertently giving me a bargain.
There are of course other dealer types but you’ll have to learn on your own who and what they are. The point here is that visiting antique shops in the hunt for treasures is not the same as shopping at Walmart or Macy’s. Much like when buying a car, assessing who you’re dealing with is as much a part of the business as is deciding what to buy and what it is that you think you’re buying. If you do this long enough you’ll find dealers you feel comfortable with for reasons that are too imprecise and ephemeral to describe in words, and others who you’d simply prefer to avoid. But as it is with those who run estate sales, it pays to get on friendly terms with as many as you can regardless of type and to let them know what you like and what you’re searching for. This brings me to identify one last type who may or may not have an open shop or whose “shop” is the back of their truck or van – the picker. I discussed this type earlier in the context of Mario and Jerry, but even aside from them, pickers warrant a more general discussion. To repeat myself, a picker is a dealer who has little to no interest in the retail end of the business. Their customers are strictly other dealers. And pickers do precisely what the label suggests – they hunt and pick antiques. You can find them at garage sales, estate sales, thrift shops, antique shops and flea markets – any place where an antique or collectible might be found. Pickers have also been known to go door to door, asking if people have anything old they’d like to sell. And what pickers have in their heads in addition to a wide range of knowledge is a list of what other dealers are looking for. So when a picker finds something, his next stop (which may entail nothing more than driving a few miles down the road) is a dealer to whom he’s going to try to sell his latest find.
It pays, then, to get to know who the pickers are and to let them know who you are and what you like. It also pays to buy what they offer you even if the price might seem a tad high at times – you never know what they’ll find next, and when they do you want them to bring it to you. Here’s a few examples: Many years ago, shortly after we’d moved to Texas, we got a call from a friend up in Pittsburgh who cleanly fell into the picker category. Antiques were merely a sidelight, but absent an otherwise reliable income, it was imperative that he quickly sell whatever he found. In any event, soon after our move he called: “I have a Victorian chest I think you might like.” Most people’s instinct at this point is to ask for a thorough description before agreeing to buy it. There are, after all, superb Victorian chests and those that don’t even warrant being used to store used paint cans. But asking for such a description can be dangerous with a picker, especially with one living hand to mouth. Too many questions and they might decide it’s time to find someone else to sell things to – you’ve become a pain in the ass. Also, too many questions might be taken as an insult, as an indication that you don’t trust them. If you’ve dealt with them before and have some confidence that they wouldn’t have contacted you unless they think they’re offering you a bargain, your next question should simply be “How much?” In this case the answer was $300. At the time, the value of a chest labeled ‘Victorian’ could vary between $3,000 and $30, but this was a person I wanted to have call me the next time he found something good, as well as the time after that and the time after that. So I said simply “the check will be in the mail first thing tomorrow.” I wasn’t sure, however, when I’d have a chance to get back up to Pittsburgh to pick the chest up, so I asked if he could send me a picture whenever it was convenient. As promised a pre-digital age Polaroid arrived in the mail a week later, but what I was looking at was a diminutive walnut 18th century Pennsylvania Chippendale chest with quarter columns and OG feet. Some cretin, though, had slapped some mid-19th century hardware on it, which is why I was told it was Victorian. Hardware aside, I knew what I had to do –- fly to Pittsburgh, rent a van and bring the chest back down with me while hitting a few shops on the way in search of inventory for our shop. Otherwise, there was a good chance my friendly picker would turn around, innocently sell the chest for $500 and mail me the money, telling me in all sincerity that he’d done me a big favor and saved me time and effort while earning me a profit.
More recently I got a phone call from a dealer/picker who sets up regularly at several of the flea markets in the area. His specialty, though, is 19th and 20th century art, book manuscripts and historical documents. But he knows more than that and when you’re hunting one thing, more often than not you’ll uncover other goodies. And in this case what he’d uncovered was a nicely painted early 19th century Down-East (Maine) document box. There was no reason, of course, why he couldn’t simply put the box out on his table the next time he set up at a market, but we’d had dealings with each other before, he knows what I like, and he knows I won’t quibble when offered something good at a reasonable price. So immediately after acquiring the box, his next move was to give me a call and arrange to meet at the market a few days hence. The important thing here now is that the public never saw the box. When I linked up with him in the morning he took me to the back of his van and handed me a bag with the box still in it. One look led to the inevitable “how much?” followed shortly thereafter by “sold!” Now I have to tell you that the price agreed upon wasn’t trivial. He knew what the box was, he knew it was a good piece, and he knew its approximate value. But he still made it a modest bargain. But even if it wasn’t, I’d have bought it as long as his price didn’t threaten me with a loss in the event I chose to sell it. I bought it not only because it was a good example of Down-East paint decoration, but also because I want him to call and bring me the next piece of Americana he finds (which in fact he did a few months later).
Fig 3-12: Down East Document Box
Make no mistake about any of this … pickers are a great source of antiques at bargain prices not because they aren’t in the business of making money. They’re not brain damaged, and you know that the above mentioned dealer made money selling me that box. But they can sell cheap or at least leave room for the next person in line to make money because they buy cheap and, absent an open shop, they can look for a quick return on their money without having to cover a shop’s overhead. Pickers, though, often share another characteristic; namely, while a share of their pleasure necessarily derives from the profits they earn, another share comes from simply discovering things. They are in a way a 20th century version of our hunter/gatherer ancestors except that in lieu of stalking saber tooth tigers and wooly mammoths, they’re on the lookout for pillar and scroll clocks, Tiffany vases, Currier & Ives prints, 18th century candlesticks and folk art portraits. They derive utility not merely from the profits they earn, but also from being able to say “I owned that” or “He got that from me.” The pleasure here is in the discovery, and they prefer to quickly sell what they find so they can venture forth to hunt and gather again as soon as possible. So whether you’re a collector or a dealer, if you encounter a picker, buy him a beer. And while most pickers are, in fact, ‘hims’, if he’s a she, then perhaps a gift certificate to a local candy store will substitute for a Sam Adams or Michelob.
Let me now end this chapter with the coup-de-grace when it comes to convincing you that shopping the shops can be both productive and profitable. Take a look at the 33 star flag Figure 3-13. Thirty three stars corresponds roughly to the years 1859 to 1861, from the admission of Oregon to that of Kansas. Given its age and the short period for which it was the official flag, a legitimate flag of this period would be highly valued by collectors – especially one, as in this case, with an uncommon configuration of the stars. But it the one shown here old? Well, frankly, the antique shop dealer selling it at the time my cousin from New Hampshire found it didn’t think so: While there was obvious wear and three sides were finished off with hand sewing, the canvass edge with the brass eyelets was machine sewn. There is, though, a logical explanation for the machine sewing – the canvas and eyelets are a replacement. Believing that to be the case and priced at under $400, my cousin took the gamble – a gamble that paid off handsomely when the flag sold for over $3,000 on eBay. Now here’s the kicker: I and countless other dealers had walked past that flag for over two years in that shop, not taking note of it after the dealer who had it announced “I don’t think its legit … look at that machine sewing.” So the lesson here is not only that it can pay to shop the shops, but also it pays to use your own judgment and instincts.
Fig. 3-13: Thirty Three Star Flag, 1859-61