20 Mar Chapter 2: Estate Sales
Regardless of whether you’re a dealer, collector, retail buyer or all three from time to time, there’s one thing everyone needs to understand about the buying and selling of antiques: It’s a marginal business. How many antiques shops do you find, for example, in those large suburban indoor shopping malls? The answer, most likely, is none. Clearly it’s more profitable to sell candles, candy, CDs and chocolate chip cookies than it is to sell legitimate (as opposed to reproduction) antique decorative accents or antique furniture of any sort. Except for the handful of dealers selling to the likes of Long Island junk bond dealers or Hollywood moguls, antique shops are rarely located in high or even modest-rent districts, and most dealers are either financially hanging by their fingernails or engaged in the business as only a part time activity. Yes, I know – one need only peruse the prices realized at some New York auction to appreciate how much money is out there. Heck, you don’t even need to do more than see the classic car sales reported on TV to wonder who the hell has that much money to spend on something you don’t dare drive to the grocery store? It might seem, then, that antiques dealers should be rolling in cash. But consider this example: Some thirty years ago the west end of Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California, was home to several antique shops, a pawn shop, tattoo parlor, at least one porno shop along with a variety of bars with painted windows. The area was sinking economically, so a move was made by the powers that be to resurrect the area and its array of art deco buildings. Stores like Gap, Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, Crate & Barrel, Apple and J. Crew were induced to move in along with a bevy of restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The resurrection was a success. Even a branch of Tiffany’s displaced a small seedy movie theater. The antique shops, though, are gone. What survived are the pawn and porno shops, the tattoo parlor (there’s now more than one) and the bars. The porno shop had to branch out a bit and begin selling a broader line of erotic lingerie to the millennials now frequenting the area, but how does an antique shop adapt? Answer: It moves to where the rents are cheaper. Seems that not only do candles and chocolate chip cookies sell better than antiques, but so do sex toys and a butterfly tattoo on the butt.
Actually, I should backtrack a bit here – I DO know of one indoor shopping mall with an antique shop. But it’s a mall that’s lost its big chain department store and has taken to leasing space to, among other things, an exercise studio. Now when a mall does that you know it’s in big trouble and is renting space at bargain basement prices as its developer tries to hang on and pay off whatever debt is hanging over its head. But even with this one exception in mind, I’m certain the story of Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard has been repeated countless times across the country, giving rise to the long-standing joke: “How do you end up with a million dollars in the antiques business? Answer: Start with two million.” Somewhat more accurately we can say that the best way to become a high end dealer is marry someone very rich. If you doubt my characterization of the marginal nature of antiques as a business, take a drive along New York’s route 20 that parallels the NY State Thruway between Albany and Buffalo. You’ll pass dozens if not hundreds of small antique shops along your 250 or so mile journey, but only a few will be located in a town or village center. And most of those will be co-ops wherein it’s only the owner of the building renting out spaces who’s likely making anything from the business. More often than not the shops you see will be the back building of someone’s residence – a converted garage or barn. In other words, on property for which rent and labor cost are zero. The economics (or absence thereof) of the antique business explains in part why my wife and I worked at keeping our passion from becoming “too professional”. It was to be a diversion and nothing else, and something to occupy only the spare time we enjoyed together. Now as you’ll soon learn, it did from time to time become something more than that, but there was a conscious effort at keeping things under control lest we find ourselves trying to pay the mortgage and electric bill with a non-existent income.
Returning, then, to our initial dabbling in the business, when contemplating whether to commit to a sizeable space in Mario and Jerry’s back building, we had to consider where precisely we’d get the merchandise to make it worthwhile. We could, of course, continue to rely on restoring and refinishing things we pulled from other shops, but frankly we were looking for something that was somewhat less labor intensive (and less toxic). I’d only a few years earlier graduated from college and it wasn’t so I could spend my spare time burning my hands with paint stripper or wearing my fingertips raw sanding and polishing the finish on some chest of drawers or yet another Hoosier cupboard. Doing that once or twice can be rewarding, but it was never my intention to make repairing veneer or broken table legs or digging paint out of cracks all-consuming of my weekends. That left us to look more closely at the five fundamental sources of antiques, each of which had advantages and disadvantages: estate and garage sales, picking other shops, flea markets, auctions and buying directly out of homes after advertising in the paper that you buy antiques. Let’s take these one at a time, and keep in mind I’ll be mixing experiences with and without the internet, and separated by upwards of 40 years and 3,000 miles.
First up is the ubiquitous estate or garage sale, but before I get too deep into the possibilities and some personal experiences, consider the impact of the internet, which has been nothing less than that of a 8.1 earthquake (in California we have special ways of measuring things). I’m old enough to remember the days when all we had were ads in newspapers — papers that charged by the line so that people would try to pack as much “information” into as little space as possible, resulting in something that might read thus:
Estate sale: 2 br sts, 5 pc k st, 6 dr crs, ant lmps & rc plyr, ant qlts, stir slvr, rgs & much more.
If you’re of the pre-internet generation, you know what this ad says: “Two bedroom sets, a five piece kitchen set, six dining room chairs, antique lamps and record player, antique quilts, sterling silver, rugs [your guess is as good as mine as to what kind] and much more” Simple huh? Of course, even if you’ve trained yourself to decipher this code, how can you possibly guess at the quality of the items being offered wherein “much more” can mean a Tiffany lamp or a collection of pots, pans, and a pile of oil-soaked rags in the garage. The internet, fortunately, has taken a good share of the mystery out of things. Now we get pictures! In fact, I don’t even look at an estate sale ad today unless it has pictures because I know that anything beyond a simple list is most likely puff and exaggeration. To see what I mean, here’s some typical puff from a single week of listings: “Antiques and collectibles beyond your wildest dreams, there are not enough photos for this sale,” “Gorgeous High End Sale! Furniture, China, Jewelry, Art, Designer Vintage Clothing, and MUCH MUCH MORE!”, “This house has it all,” or “Ladies And Gentleman We Are Proud To Announce The Sale Of An Historic Estate That Was Once Owned And Built By The Iconic Film Actor _____.” Wow, how can you not find an ultimate treasure at any one of these sales? Well, absent pictures, that jewelry has a good chance of being little more than a box of mismatched earrings, the antiques are most likely some scratched up 1930s end tables or grandma’s sewing machine, and the art something bought twenty years ago at K-Mart. And as for that “iconic film actor” – the odds are he was in a couple of grade-B flicks and spent most of his life waiting on tables (next time you watch a movie made in the ‘30s starring the likes of Barbara Stanwick or George Raft or Claudette Colbert, look at the names that follow after the word “with”: There’s a good chance you won’t recognize a single name for the simple reason that the vast majority of those who sought a career in Hollywood never achieved the status of “star” and never made a viable living in the business).
Over time you will, of course, learn how to read those internet estate sales listings. For example, “… Hoarder Bonanza” most likely means a sale loaded with tons of junk since any true hoarder throws NOTHING away, no matter how worthless. Or “Massive Vintage/Antique Sale” suggests that someone has closed out their booth in some antique mall and they’re unloading the stuff they couldn’t even give away at their going-out-of-business sale. Then there’s “Packed 50 Year Accumulation …” Think about that for a minute. Subtract 50 from 2018 and you get 1968, so what’s being sold most likely qualifies, at best, as used furniture, K-mart glass and dinnerware, etc. How about “Vintage Collectibles Sale”? Odds are what you’ll find there are worthless salt and pepper shakers, Hummel figurines for which there is no longer any market, toys and games no collector wants but that you also can’t play with because their missing a share of their pieces. And then there’s the “Downsizing Sale”. What that means is the family is keeping anything of value but they need to make some room in their closets along with unloading that dining room set the Salvation Army is reluctant to pick up.
To see one way in which the internet with pictures has impacted things, take a look at Figure 2-1a, which is taken from an internet estate sale ad held close to where I live. Now I suppose there are some for whom a paper shredder or an old game of Scrabble is an attraction worth standing in line for. But that’s not what caught my eye. It was something that wasn’t even advertised in the sale’s description. Do you see it? Take another look. Yup, that’s right – it’s the framed print in the upper left corner. Now I can’t tell from this photo whether that’s a reproduction or an original (although the brown toning to the paper hints at it being a 19th century original), but I know a Currier and Ives print when I see one. Was it in good condition; was it worth buying; were there other such prints at the sale? It wasn’t possible for me to answer any of these questions, but since the sale was only a few miles from my house, I decided to take a look. And lo and behold, I found the eleven small folio Currier’s shown in Figure 2-1b, several of which are highly sought after (specifically: “Racing on the Mississippi,” “American Railroad Scene: Snowbound,” “Prairie Fires of the Great West” and “Home in the Wilderness”). Absent that one picture in the sale’s internet listing and I’d never have given that sale a second thought.
Fig. 2-1a: An Estate Sale Ad Photo
Fig. 2-1b: The Currier & Ives Lithos Unadvertised
There’s little doubt that the internet with pictures has impacted things in other profound ways. First, estate sales – or things labeled as such — seem to have proliferated like pimples on a teenager. I used to think that such a sale meant grandma or grandpa died and the kids want the house cleaned out so they can put it on the market and divide up the loot. Now, either grandparents are dying like flies or the concept of an estate sale has morphed into something else. Actually, its not the estate sale that’s morphed, it’s the garage and yard sale — those sales that more often than not consist of baby clothes, children’s toys, “sets” of three chairs, a collection of odd kitchen glassware, a cheap particle board bookcase and some rusty tools too heavy to discard in a trash bin. But if you’re going to advertise your sale with something more than posters on a telephone pole, why not also give it a seemingly more exalted and exotic label?
OK, I’m not one to quibble about the excesses of advertising since no one, not even estate sales managers, can match the lies, deceptions and exaggerations of politicians running for office. But the internet has had a secondary impact that actually benefits those in the hunt for antiques. Remember when a baseball player had to hit .325 to command the big bucks whereas today a batting average of .255 yields a multi-million dollar multi-year contract and a feeding frenzy when the player hits the free agency market before it’s discovered he’s on steroids or beats his wife? Remember also when an actress, to be labeled a star, had to do more than show their semi-naked butt or DuPont enhanced boobs at some Hollywood gala or be a bit player in some TV production that will soon be cancelled? Such are the consequences, I guess, of expanded baseball leagues, the proliferation of TV channels and a world overly endowed with publicity agents. Well, right now, as I type these words, I count 17 “estate sales” opening their doors on Thursday in the Los Angeles area, 35 more on Friday and another 23 on Saturday (and I’m ignoring San Diego and Santa Barbara). That means that by Saturday, there can be sixty or more sales within forty miles of me. What’s happened of course is that running estate sales has become one of this state’s few growth industries with everybody and their aunt in the business. Indeed, if one counts the hired help, they’ve probably had an appreciable impact on California’s unemployment rate. But this is all to the good if you lust for antiques. It means that the concept of the professional estate sale manager has, like the notion of a baseball, television or movie star, become somewhat diluted. And that in turn means that there will be some mispriced and misidentified goodies out there – things, perhaps, that are priced too high, but also something that’s a steal. It’s simply up to you to peruse the pictures and charge ahead.
Let me give you a quick and easy example. I recently attended a sale because it was both close to home and had in one of its pictures something that hinted at being a 19th C sampler. So off I headed, getting there hours before the sale began so as to be close to the front of the line. Unfortunately, the sampler was a basket case – the background linen had rips and holes, and some of the silk threads had deteriorated and wholly disappeared. However, those running the sale knew little to nothing about samplers and thus, seeing the date 1836, assumed that anything that old had to be worth hundreds (and in California, a date of 1836 nearly qualifies as prehistoric). They were of course decidedly wrong. But they were also wrong about something else. Sitting in a corner of the garage was an 18th century bannister back chair that retained its full height with a nicely turned and worn front stretcher, a great early painted surface and a rush seat made out of real rush as opposed to the contemporary paper substitute. Not a major find for sure, but a legitimate antique that to the uninformed looked like just an old unmatched semi-useless chair destined for the curb on trash pick-up day. I’m also sure that whoever I gave my $10 to at the check out line thought I was either crazy or desperate to own a chair.
Fig. 2-2: My $10 Bannister Back Chair
A nearly identical event occurred a few months later at a sale run by yet another recently minted self-proclaimed “professional” estate sale manager. The highlight of that sale for me was a mid 19th century child’s rocking horse. Unfortunately, despite having been ‘restored’ with a new saddle and leather accessories, it was a highlight for the sale manager as well and thus priced far above retail: “No I can’t lower the price … I had it appraised at $1,500 so it’s already a bargain at $1,000.” OK, so forget about that. But wait, what’s in that trunk next to the bed? Digging through I found four quilts, all unpriced. Not great quilts mind you, but decent 1930’s examples nevertheless. Taking them to the check-out counter, the sale manager looked at them with seeming disdain and told me: $8. Eight dollars each? No … eight dollars for all four. Who needs a restored rocking horse after that to make one’s day?
Logically enough, estate sale operators use the internet to advertise what they think they can sell. But what they think they can sell is generally colored by what they themselves like or have a well-developed clientele for (and they can’t take pictures of everything). And if their interests or clientele don’t match your tastes, then that treasure you’re after might not be pictured in their ads. So you can never be certain what you’ll find when they open the doors and what lies around the corner in the next bedroom. Regardless of the internet technologies that have come into play, the thrill of the hunt is still there. In addition to the eleven Currier & Ives lithos noted earlier, there is for instance the sale in which the internet offered a picture of three or four early quilts. Not seemingly great quilts, but nevertheless eminently sellable ones if in good condition. So once again I lined up early and when the doors opened I made my way directly to my quarry and scooped them up. But as I wandered around the house it became evident that everything else there didn’t even qualify for the label ‘vintage’. Or at least that’s what I thought until I went into the last bedroom, for there, lined up on a dresser, were the five hand blown 18th or early 19th century Stiegel-type glass enameled flasks pictured in Figure 2-3. Neither I nor the person running the sale had any idea what they were doing in that estate since even more than the quilts, they were totally out of place. But there they were, priced at $60 for all five. Even if they were later European imports, I’ll leave it up to you to poke around the internet to see how much of a bargain that was.
Fig. 2-3: The Unexpected Stiegel Flask Find
However, in charging ahead into the estate sale melee you need to understand that in terms of the hunt for treasure we’re talking about one of the most competitive aspects of the business. It’s survival of the fittest. Antiques dealers can’t simply go to some catalogue, pick up the phone and say “I’ll take two mid 19th century corner cupboards, a tiger maple federal wash stand and a set of six painted Pennsylvania chairs. Oh, and could you throw in a couple of boxes of good primitives along with some Chinese export bowls and decorated Pennsylvania stoneware?” The only way to get desirable pieces for resale or add to a collection is to get to them before the next person does (or at auction, to pay more for them than anyone else is willing to pay). So it’s a Darwinian estate sale world out there even though dealers spend a good part of their lives smiling and trying to be nice to each other. In truth, everyone standing in line waiting for a sale to begin wouldn’t mind in the least if everyone else suffered a debilitating (but not necessarily fatal … dealers aren’t that mean) heart attack so they can shop the sale alone. More than once I heard someone turn to the person in back of them in line and say, kiddingly, “as soon as I get in, you fall down pretending to have a stroke and block the doorway”. I say ‘kiddingly’ since, as anyone familiar with estate sales knows, this tactic wouldn’t work — everyone would simply step over (or on) the prostrate body. I read somewhere that when, as a social science experiment, a person repeatedly feigned a heart attack on the platform of the New York City subway, it took on average only fourteen seconds before someone came to their aid. I dare say that at an estate sale, that poor soul would have to survive on their own until everyone finished checking out the prices and finished grabbing everything they wanted.
To see now the full impact of the internet, when I look thru the listings on an average week, I’m lucky if out of the 50 or 60 listed sales I find one or two with any promise. I’m sure the same is true for people looking for books, for those focused on dolls, for those in the hunt for classic auto parts, and so on. In other words, choose an estate sale at random and, regardless of what rings your bell, your chance of finding anything of interest is on the order of one in thirty. That’s a dismal 3%. Now imagine having to operate blind or merely on the basis of some cryptic abbreviated ad in a newspaper. Who in their right mind is going to get up at some wee hour of the morning so they can spend several hours standing in line for a sale in which the odds of finding anything that isn’t already being offered at the local Salvation Army store is three percent? Answer: No one, not even demented antique dealers. But now add pictures, often taken to make things look better than they are, and add long verbose descriptions of the wonders to behold at a sale. Even if you discount the fluff, you now have a far better idea of what awaits you at each and every sale. But not only do you have a better idea of where to go and what the odds are of striking gold, but everyone else in the estate sale hunt has a better idea as well. What this means, of course, is that if a sale looks especially promising, you best decide how early in the morning you’ll be getting up so that you’re as close to the head of the line as possible when the sale opens. In other words, the internet has made that estate sale hunt a truly competitive and sometimes downright exhausting part of the business.
Perhaps I’m overstating things, but let’s be fair — dealers generally go through hell in contending with estate sales. Suppose a sale begins at 9:00 AM. That means that by 8:30 there will be anywhere between 10 to 100 people in line. That’s a pretty big range and it’s impossible to guess whether 10 or 100 will better approximate the number of people who show up early. It all depends on the weather, whose on vacation, what other sales are being held that day, distance from people’s homes, the presumed contents of the sale and the reputation of whoever is running the sale for high or low prices. That’s too many parameters to form a reliable estimate, so if a sale is likely to have something you want, you can’t just plan on getting there a half hour before it begins and assume you’ll have a shot at it. If you’re risk averse (and especially if you’re a dealer in need of new merchandise), you’ll have to wake up at, say, four in the morning, stumble around in the dark getting dressed while trying not to wake anyone lest they tell you you’re nuts, drink a cup of coffee and make certain you have your money or checkbook before hitting the road. And if you’re an old dealer, don’t forget your teeth.
Suppose you get to the sale in time to be near the front of the line – say 6:00 AM. That means you have to sit or stand around for three hours with absolutely nothing to do. Those are hours that truly drag, but consider this possibility: You’ve gotten there at 6:00 AM and, wonder of wonders, your #1! Fantastic, right? But now imagine a situation in which no one else shows up until 7:00AM or 7:30AM. Most likely two thoughts will occupy you until then: “I could have slept longer” and “do I have the right address or even the right day?” And there is one other problem here that most people don’t like to talk about, but reality is reality: Suppose you have to pee? Dealers are actually a pretty civilized group when it comes to organizing themselves before a sale. More often than not the first person there will start a list, or if not, people will keep track of who is first, who is second, and so on. So the odds are, once you’ve shown up and marked your place, you’ll be able to make a dash to the nearest McDonald’s, Starbucks or gas station. But then again, if there’s something in the sale that you are absolutely lusting for, do you really want to take the chance your spot will be held? Good question, and I’ll leave the answer up to you. Let me just say that lists have been known to disappear and people have claimed to have gotten there with a friend or two where that friend was, in fact, nowhere to be found until minutes before the sale began. There’s one person in particular I have in mind here with whom I’ve crossed swords on occasion on an item or two. But since she largely sells cutesy mid-century things on Etsy (at astronomical prices), there’s minimal competition between us. However, more than once one of her friends has arrived early enough to be near the head of the line, and when I ask “where’s _____?” I’ll be told something to the effect of “she might make it here, but she had to get her kids to school.” Sure enough, minutes before the sale opens, she’ll show up and take a place in line next to her friend despite the fact that she’d never been there to mark a place on her own. So now what do you do – make a ruckus or let it slide?
In any event, to give the problem of bodily functions a specific context imagine this: You deal in and/or collect early American country; the preview pictures of the sale posted on the internet show a sale loaded with quilts, painted cupboards, Windsor chairs, early pewter, pantry boxes and so on; the doors open at 9:00AM and its currently 8:15AM; the nearest gas station is 10 minutes away (but parking may be a problem when you return); and you have to pee! Now what?
Ok, changing the subject a bit, I know that the character of estate sales, especially their competitiveness, varies from one region of the country to another. Or at least it did when I compare my experiences between the East and West coasts. That comparison, though, has a gap of more than thirty years between them (as well as the interjection of the internet), so perhaps like fast food chains, things are the same everywhere now. But I recall a sale held some fifteen years ago in Pasadena. For whatever reason, the sale had been moved to an otherwise empty and aging strip mall store front (appropriate for antiques I suppose) which I discovered by accident when it was first being set up and before the widows had been papered over. So with unblocked windows I was able to case it out thoroughly and determine that it had some “good stuff”: Tramp art, a 19th century rocking horse, a painted blanket chest, and so on. After roughly mapping out the location of things, I decided the sale was best attacked with military precision. Making certain that my wife and a friend would join us a few hours before the sale began, my son and I camped out early in our van in the mall’s parking lot. All plans were set: I’d head down the center aisle and grab the price tag off the rocking horse and blanket chest; my son would race to the back of the room and grab all the tramp art, my wife would … and so on and so forth. My son and I got there around 1:00AM, and as expected, we were alone (see, I told you antiques could become an obsession). Keeping our fingers crossed that the police wouldn’t stop by to see if we were casing the place for a robbery, things remained thus until our first “competitor” appeared around 4:30AM. I can tell you now that she and I subsequently became friends and I even occasionally consign things to her shop. But back then we’d never met and when she saw us claiming the numbers #1 and #2, she said with a scowl “You’re from back East, aren’t you!” That wasn’t a question, but simply recognition of what she deemed a difference between East and West coast dealers at the time (she herself was originally from upstate New York).
Of course, even this California experience was before the internet took over the task of advertising estate sales. It may be my imagination or age, but it seems that California despite it being at the vanguard of every nut case idea and left-wing social cause, has, with the internet, caught up to the rest of the country in terms of the competitiveness of sales. Prior to the internet the hunt for treasure at estate and garage sales was a truly hit or miss proposition, and one had little incentive to travel far when pursuing a newspaper ad or signs on a lamp post since even sticking to the LA metro area could leave you with a sixty mile drive on congested freeways. The internet with its pictures changed everything, and showing up an hour or so before a sale begins is no longer likely to get you a good place in line. Indeed, if there’s a wide ranging promise of “good stuff”, don’t be surprised if your appearance an hour before the doors open only nets you the thirtieth or thirtyt-fifth spot. I should also add here that there’s now a new kid on the block – the Chinese. China now has lots of money and a burgeoning middle class with a growing interest and passion for Chinese antiques (seems that moral relativism and “progressive thinking” hasn’t yet undermined China’s appreciation of its formidable history). Well, as it turns out, a lot of those antiques are here – shipped East before China, with the treaty ports imposed on it by an array of foreign powers, didn’t have much say in the matter. So now, at least on the West Coast, if an estate sale promises even a few good early Chinese items, you can expect some competition for positions in line in the wee hours of the morning (but not necessarily, thank god, competition for Americana).
Keep in mind, now, that my wife and I were (and remain) interested exclusively in American antiques and that the market for Americana differs significantly between East and West coasts. Not only is the supply of Americana considerably greater back East and even the Midwest than in California, so is demand. To be sure, there is a market here for what we like, but for a multitude of reasons (about which I can only speculate) it’s far more spotty than elsewhere. People might have the impression that the California market must be strong for anything and everything. After all, don’t we have all those over-paid Hollywood drugged up Botox-injected movie or TV personalities with money they don’t know how to spend? Well, there may be a few of that type who appreciate Americana, but most likely they’re caught up trying to make their 30,000 square foot Bel Air and Beverly Hills abodes look either like 17th century French or Italian villas or neon-lit multidimensional plastic and chrome expressions of whatever styles are hot at the moment. Just because you make fifty gazillion dollars doesn’t mean you have taste – more often than you might guess it means the opposite – and if you want to sell them, say, an 18th century American Chippendale chest, your best bet is to paint it green, hang brass off the corners and tell them that King Louie-the-something’s cat slept in one of the drawers. Either that or paint it white and announce that it was once part of the movie set of some flic starring Gene Kelley or Bing Crosby. Not sure if it was P.T. Barnum or H.L. Menkin who said “no one ever lost a dime under-estimating the taste of the American public,” but if that’s true, it applies doubly so in California. Thus, our competitor that night (or early morning actually) quite naturally and correctly assumed that only someone from back East would be crazy enough to show up earlier than her for an estate sale focusing on Americana. Be that as it may, that was neither the first nor the last time I camped out early for a sale. There may not be a great many competitors here for what makes the heart rate rise, but does one really want to take the chance?
Actually, if you gain enough experience in one geographic area as we have, you pretty much get to know the people who are on the same hunt as you. One of the things that proved for a time to be especially profitable was quilts – 19th century and early 20th century quilts, quilts in mint condition and quilts in poor condition, well-made quilts and poorly made ones. If you got them at the “right” price, you could make a buck – and they’re easy to ship (you sure as heck don’t have to worry about Post Office personnel kick-dropping the box across the room into a bin). But I wasn’t the only one who figured that out, and in particular there’s a couple who, in this respect at least, were relentless competitors. If a sale promised quilts, they were sure to get in line for an 8:00AM sale no later than 5:00AM. Now to make things worse, they’re nice folks – personable, friendly, not overly aggressive (except when I comes to picking off the good stuff at a sale) and nice to chat with while waiting around for a sale to begin. But still, relentless. So if a sale advertised quilts – heck, if it advertised anything early American — I knew it was going to be a very short night of sleep, with fingers crossed they weren’t getting up and hitting the road before me (or better yet, that they were out of town and not attending any sales at all that weekend).
It didn’t take long for all of us to come to the realization that such a situation wasn’t an equilibrium, or that if it was, it was an unhealthy one with no one getting much sleep. We both saw things escalating into something akin to a Cold War arms race wherein if I thought they’d arrive at 5AM, I’d best arrive at 4:45 AM, at which point they’d want to arrive at 4:30AM, and I’d then be forced to get there by 4:15AM, and so on. Recognizing that we could all live a longer more relaxed life if we pooled efforts, we have, after knocking heads at several sales in succession, decided that if a sale is of interest to both of us, it’s best to collude by buying everything together and afterwards decide how to sell what we jointly own. This has all worked out pretty well. They live at the far edge of the LA metropolitan area, so I often have the advantage of being able to get in line for a sale earlier than is practical for them. But their location puts them in a good position to establish a position in line for sales in the direction of San Diego. They also have their areas of expertise — they “know their bears”, stuffed bears and Steif animals in particular – so with them in tow, I’ve been the beneficiary of some fantastic joint buys despite my ignorance of the subject. True peace of mind prevails, moreover, if there are two promising sales being held simultaneously. We no longer have to suffer hours of anguish wondering if we’re at the better sale: I can cover one while they cover the other. Collusion in the market is not limited to banks and airlines, or to oil, insurance and drug companies.
It can also pay to have someone young, energetic and utterly ruthless on your side, and here I’ll take note again of my son. As sometimes happens, I was afforded the opportunity to preview a sale but without the opportunity to buy all that I wanted. Once again this was a sale loaded with precisely what I sought – decorated stoneware, period American furniture, and so on. And at the very back of the house were two tables full of Bennington stoneware, including some rare flint enamel pieces. So here was the plan: Tom, my partner at the time in this venture, would move directly to the dining room to lay claim to a set of six Queen Anne chairs, after which he’d check out the Hepplewhite slipper chair in the living room; I’d head to the right to try to scoop up the decorated crocks and jugs along with a painted bride’s box. And my son, with a large banana box in hand, would race directly to the back of the house and try to pick off as much of the better Bennington pieces as possible. When we reconnected after tackling our assigned objectives, I saw that my son had in fact captured ALL of the Bennington – every single piece. He was in his 20s and had no shame, so no one was going to try to pass him on his way to the back of the house without being body-checked into a wall. And having been assigned the task of scooping up as much of the Bennington as possible, what better way to proceed than with a single sweep of the right hand and then the left until it all fell into his box pressed against the front of the tables. His calculation was simple: even if a piece or two got chipped, he’d get it all! And I think, in fact, that he did get it all before I even picked up a crock. And he got it without chipping a single piece. Ahh, the fearlessness of youth!
All this goes to emphasize that the absence of a partner at a sale, young or old, can be a supreme disadvantage. This fact was underscored at a sale I’d attended on my own that promised two quite different potential goodies. At one extreme was that pile of vintage quilts highlighted on the sale’s internet site; at the other extreme was a picture of one of the best carved walrus tusk cribbage boards I’d ever seen. The quilts were admittedly common 1930s patterns (Grandma’s Flower Garden, Drunkard’s Path and Dresden Plate) but the internet picture was good enough to reveal uncommonly good quilting. Thus, given how they were likely to be priced at this particular sale, they were, in effect, a sure thing. The cribbage board, on the other hand, was nearly in a class by itself. If one scans the internet, you can find carved walrus tusk cribbage boards selling for as little as $300, but as much as $4,000. And the one in question clearly fell into the upper half of that price range. The uncertainty here, though, was two-fold: It could be a reproduction or, even if legit, it could be priced at or near retail. So now comes the psychological anguish. I’d arrived at the sale early enough to be #2 in line, but since #1 was there for the jewelry I knew I’d have a clear shot at either the quilts or the cribbage board. Indeed, since I also knew the approximate location of both the tusk and the quilts, the door was open to me heading first to the tusk, making a command decision on it, and then darting to the back bedroom to the quilts. The problem with that plan, though, is that a command decision on an ostensible walrus tusk can lead to disaster — reproductions abound. It would take more than an instantaneous glance to determine if the cribbage board was legit. Now that might be a chance I’d normally be willing to take, but I’d overheard a conversation between #10 and #11 in line with the word “quilts” in it. So I had to assume that a detour to the cribbage board, however brief, entailed abandoning any hope of buying the quilts. So what to do: The sure thing of the quilts versus the outside chance of a real score on the carved tusk? If there’s a time you curse your partner for having to fly up north with his wife to visit a mother-in-law, it’s then. Well, in this case risk aversion took hold and I headed directly to the quilts. Yes, they were as good as I’d hoped they’d be, and priced where there was room for profit. Then, returning to the front of the house with all five quilts in hand I encountered #10 who snarled at me with the comment “you’re taking all of them?” Clearly, a detour to the cribbage board would have been akin to kissing the quilts goodbye. My sense of satisfaction, though, was short-lived. Making my way to the jewelry cases, I saw the cribbage board in someone’s hands … someone who I knew wouldn’t give it a second thought if it were a reproduction. Alas, he didn’t and as he told the sales clerk he wanted it I saw the price tag – $225. The cribbage board had in fact been a terriffic steal. Heck, it was more than a steal and there was clearly more profit to be made off it than if I had sold the quilts to someone with a brain malfunction. C’est la vie.
Aside from deciding how to proceed once a sale starts and the advantages of having partners, among the ways to “play” the “estate sale game”, perhaps the most important thing is to get to know those who run them. Here Rule #1 is: Smooze with them, tell them you like their hair (most are women) or their shoes or whatever. If you can, show them pictures of your grandkids (if you don’t have any grandkids, make them up; clip some pictures of cute kids out of a magazine and put them in your wallet). And whatever you do, don’t criticize how they’re running the sale. The idea here is that some estate sale professionals will have an unadvertised presale to which only people (generally, dealers) on their mailing list are invited, and if you succeed in becoming one of the ‘anointed few’ you’ll have a chance to look things over and buy without a mad crowd around you. That’s when you can really pick off the goodies! So be friendly … be very friendly.
Other less scrupulous operations will do whatever they can without a presale to make certain their friends are somehow at the head of the line going in. Even if there isn’t a pre-sale, being nice to those who run sales might lead them to tell you where that “special thing” is so you’re not running around like a crazed mouse in a maze looking for it when the sale begins. At the very least, being on good terms with estate sales personnel makes an otherwise hectic event a more pleasant experience. To illustrate, I recall the sale I’d camped out early for because it was selling a collection of American miniature portraits on ivory. And although I was #1 in line there was no guarantee I’d have the chance to buy them — if I turned in the wrong direction when the doors opened, I’d get bubkas. It certainly paid to learn beforehand, then, that I needed to turn right and head to the back room since whoever was #2 in line was there for precisely the same thing. And then there was the sale with several vintage African American quilts pictured in the sale ad. In this instance as soon as I walked through the front door the woman running the sale, who I knew rather well from previous sales, said “they’re in the far bedroom.” Trust me, at $50 a quilt, it was well worth whatever minimal effort it took to be on good terms with her.
To further underscore the costs of not knowing what direction to turn once inside a home, at yet another sale, I was probably 3rd or 4th in line, with no one in front of me in search of what I wanted. My motive then for nevertheless being as close to the head of the line as possible was the internet picture showing just about the nicest, cleanest 1810 red, white and blue overshot coverlet you’ll ever find. However, as it turned out that coverlet was a costly ‘distraction’. Remember that couple I told you about in the hunt for the same things I hunted? Well, this was before we came to our collusive arrangement, and I therefore took some satisfaction knowing they were probably a dozen or so people behind me in line. In theory, then, I had clear sailing to the goodies. They were, no doubt, a bit disconsolate waiting in line, knowing they could kiss the coverlet good-bye. So when the doors opened and seeing that I’d stopped at the coverlet, they proceeded on ahead to the back room. Its only after checking out and scooping up the coverlet that I came to nearly never wanting to see another one again: In that back room, wholly unadvertised, was a pile of twenty or more 19th century quilts all priced at $45 each and all in quite good condition. Damn, that hurt! But I did get my “revenge”. At another sale they were in front of me in line, and sure enough they raced immediately upstairs and captured a half dozen or so quilts and a coverlet or two. But their mad dash only led them to bypass the dining room and a pair of early 17th century Low Country pewter candlesticks and several large 18th century pewter chargers.
But back now once again to the incentives to be nice to those running estate sales. Given the variety of people running sales today, there are those who, akin to some prison guard or Soviet apparatchik, are difficult to like – those who think their sale is a personal empire that, like Judge Hudy on television, gives them the right to demean anyone and everyone without provocation. There’s one such person who comes to mind who loves posting derogatory stories of customers on the announcements of her upcoming sales. Now I don’t doubt that anyone with some experience running sales can generate a long list of peculiar experiences, weird or annoying people, and the shady if not downright crooked shenanigans some customers try to get away with. But among the variety of people running estate sales, there are bound to be those who are difficult to be friends with or whose personality rubs you the wrong way. My advice nevertheless is to bury your ego and learn to live with the misanthropes and the wound-too-tight types in the business. It was after all at her sales that I found a $300 flint enamel Bennington book flask for $20 and a pair of 18th century $400 pewter candlesticks for $30 as well as three saltglaze cobalt decorated stoneware jugs for under $200.
Or, for another example where it pays to not cut off your nose to spite your face, I became utterly frustrated at several sales in succession run by someone whose sales I vowed never to attend again. Seems that regardless of the size of the house in which a sale is being held she only lets in ten people at a time. The “last straw” came when, after lining up for a sale in a 7,000+ square foot Hollywood mansion that could easily accommodate the squads of several football teams, I found myself #15 or so in line and having to stand there watching someone walk out with the shorebird decoys I’d specifically gone there to buy. OK, my fault for not getting there earlier. But still frustrating. Well, it pays to learn to be tolerant of how some people run a sale. A year or so later she became aware of my focus on Americana and began calling me to preview things, in part admittedly to get a free appraisal. But she obviously knows how to play the game and from time to time she’d set something aside for me before anyone else got to see it. Here, in fact, I was afforded the opportunity to buy an especially uncommon sampler – one from Philadelphia dated 1833 that, among other things, presented an image of Independence Hall (Figure 2-4).
Fig. 2-4: My Philadelphia Sampler
Speaking of frustrations, another potential source is to stand in line for hours waiting for a sale to begin because there’s one or two specific items pictured in the estate sale internet ad, only to learn once in the sale that those items are nowhere to be found. Now here’s what you’ll be told 99.9% of the time if you ask what happened to those items: “Oh, the family decided to keep them.” And 99.9% of the time that will be a bald-faced lie! More than likely pictures were taken when the sale was first being set up, and in the interim friends of whoever is running the sale were let in to buy what they wanted. There was, for example, the sale I drove to San Diego for because it advertised a complete set of 6 roadside Burma Shave signs – the ones posted alongside highways and country roads beginning in the 1930s. But once in the sale, I was told the family had absconded with them the day before. As if to certify that fact, whoever was running the sale gave the appearance of being annoyed by the family since, if it’s not there to sell, you can’t earn a commission selling it. Nevertheless, being the cynic that I am, I wasn’t all that shocked to find the signs at the Sunday flea market the next day, and the dealer who had them quite forthrightly told me there had been a presale for the estate sale manager’s ‘favorites’. Rest assured, as annoyed as I might have been for having been lied to, I committed myself to becoming one of those favorites in the future.
Fig. 2-5: A Complete Set of Burma Shave Signs
Such examples also lead to another bit of advice: If you have expertise in some area, don’t hide it from those running sales. That’s not to say you should arrogantly act as if you know all there is to know about everything. But most sales managers know their limitations and if you’re someone with a known specialty, there’s a chance you’ll be called in to advise on things and offer an informal appraisal. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to buy anything then, but at least you’ll know where things are, you’ll know if there’s anything you want, and you’ll know prices. And when it does come down to actually buying things, you might even get a small discount at check out. As a matter of fact, recall the dealer I told you about who immediately identified me as from back East when she showed up super early at an estate sale only to find my son and I occupying spots #1 and #2? Well, I have to pat myself on the back for not gloating then and for offering her a cup of coffee. Years later she became one of the multitude running sales in the area. Indeed, since this became her and her husband’s full time job, she has a sale just about every weekend. More than once, now, I’ve been called in to assess things and if something grabs my fancy and hasn’t yet been listed and photographed for the internet, there’s a chance it ended up in my car weeks before the sale opened to the public. There were, for instance, the two separate sales that had tall case clocks she knew would be difficult to sell at a California sale. Few people out here would have any appreciation for the name Joshua Wilder (1786-1860, Hingham Mass.) or for a walnut Eastern Pennsylvania tall clock with a wonderful hand carved broken arch pediment bonnet. So in one case I was asked to broker the sale while in the other the clock now resides in my bedroom.
One more story about this dealer/estate sale manager that underscores what a strange world it is out there. She called me one day to say “you best come here before I advertise this sale … there’s a collection of coffee mills you won’t believe.” To be honest, late 19th century coffee mills aren’t high on the list of things I pursue, but what the heck … she wouldn’t call me if there wasn’t something interesting for me to look at. And indeed, interesting wasn’t the word – bizarre might be better. The then deceased owner of the mills had, apparently, fallen of the table of sanity and over the course of several years bought every mill of every description he could get his hands on at auction, on eBay, at flea markets and god knows where else. If you ask me how many coffee mills my friend had laid out on the backyard tables while prepping her sale, with more boxes still being unpacked, I’d reply “how many peanuts are in the jar?” Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred … ? And with the owner having gone absolutely bonkers before moving on to coffee mill heaven, there were often ten or twenty of the same model and parts to make a dozen more. Now don’t get all snooty on me and ask why the hell I was interested in coffee mills since, after all, they can be found in nearly any flea market. But coffee mills, like apple peelers, were manufactured by countless companies in a myriad of designs, some common and some rare. And if anything was made with enough variation of style, you can be certain there are collectors out there in search of the rarities — and some of those rarities were to be found at this sale at prices one tenth of what a collector would pay for them.If you think for a moment I might be exaggerating, Figure 2-6 illustrates some of the mills I found at that sale.
Fig. 2-6: Coffee Mills from One Estate Sale
Insofar as letting your interests and expertise be well known, there’s the case of the woman setting up for a Bel Air estate sale packed with early Americana that she knew she was ill-equipped to evaluate and price. The Americana in this instance was from the estate of a long deceased LA dealer and included such things as a cherry New England serpentine front ca 1800 Hepplewhite sideboard, a ca 1790 slant lid desk, several ca 1800 chests of drawers, an assortment of sets of chairs including a painted arrowback set from Maine with one pictured in Dean Fales’ book on painted furniture, a three part ca 1800 Hepplewhite cherry dining table, an assortment of period candlestands, silhouettes, mirrors and portraits including one by Ammi Phillips, a ca 1820 North Shore card table with satinwood inlay, and several New England pembroke tables. If you want your mouth to water a bit, Figures 2-7a through 2-7d are but a few of the pictures I took during the set-up for that sale. In any event, unsure what to do, she called one of the better local auction houses, but they were less than enthusiastic about taking things in on consignment since their target market didn’t include collectors of Americana. They gave her my name as someone who could help with pricing, which ultimately from my perspective turned out to be one of the better referrals I’ve ever had. I told the estate sale manager what my rule on pricing would be this, keeping imn mind that it was California we were dealing with here: Think of the lowest reasonable number and divide by two … all with the understanding that if things didn’t sell the first two days of the sale, my number would be divided by 2 yet again when things were sold with a 50% discount of the sale’s 2nd day. The sale might have been in one of LA’s posh neighborhoods (Rupert Murdock’s vineyard was across the street — yes, a vineyard in the middle of LA!) but the Americana market wasn’t going to be any stronger there than anywhere else in the area. And I was right! With the exception of a few of the smaller items, most everything American was still hanging around on the second day. It was then that I could make some purchases of my own. I had to pass on the sideboard even though it was now absurdly priced at $1300, as well as on the dining table at $600 and the North Shire Massachusetts card table at $400 (all three pieces ultimately sold but only after I worked the sale for a few hours myself, acting at times it seemed like I was a used car salesman, though all in good conscience). They wouldn’t look good on my roof, which was the only place I had room for them. But I couldn’t resist the 1790 desk (in Figure 2-7a), one of the two cherry chests, the Ammi Phillips portrait of a lady and signed Belknap portrait of a young man (both in Figure 2-7c), a Spanish foot Chippendale side chair (in Figure 2-7b) and a variety of other sundry smaller items (including the sale’s Massachusetts sampler, Figure 2-7d). Now the fact is I probably would have had a shot at those things even if I weren’t involved formally with the sale and if the sale manager had never even heard of my name. But, after having spent several unhurried days checking everything out, the ability to buy some things of superb quality (nothing in that sale was the least bit compromised in any way though the Phillips portrait did have some restoration) certainly underscored the value of having a reputation for collecting Americana.
Fig. 2-7a: Bel Air Estate Sale Setup
Fig. 2-7b: Bel Air Estate Sale Setup
Fig. 2-7c: Bel Air Estate Sale Setup
Fig. 2-7d: Bel Air Estate Sale Setup
I should note that while those running sales are unlikely to know everything about everything, unless you’re one of those rare polymaths that mimic the likes of Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, you don’t know everything about everything either. Coffee mills are but one case in point in my case along with the Bel Air estate sale. However, without lying, don’t advertise your ignorance. While in line for one sale, I was asked ‘do you buy toys?’ Frankly, I’m not a collector – wish I was, but it’s too late to start now; and when I was younger, too poor to start then. But who buys and sells antiques and forgoes an opportunity to buy into what remains as one of the hottest collector markets in existence? Not me and I sure as heck wasn’t going to say “no, I know nothing about toys.” The query came from a dealer running a sale in a few weeks for someone whose hobby had been collecting and just plain hoarding antique and vintage toys. Now I’ll warn you that mindlessly scooping up toys at an estate sale is foolhardy and costly. There often is little time to carefully examine whatever you’ve tossed into your bag or box, and it’s too easy to buy a toy that has serious issues. A toy that’s been repainted or had parts replaced is worth a small fraction of one without issues. Condition is also supremely important. It’s a rare antique or vintage toy that hasn’t been played with and suffered the indignities of use – apologies for which collectors will discount heavily if the toy isn’t a true rarity. One also needs to keep in mind what a child is likely to do when first handed a toy in its box: namely, rip the box open as if its were a piece of raw meat thrown before a hungry lion. Hence, an additional premium is paid for toys accompanied by their original boxes (although few collectors expect a toy made around say 1910 will have a box that hasn’t wholly disintegrated; but for a toy made after 1950 to be labeled ‘premium’, it best have its original packaging). In any event, with the date marked on my calendar, I messed up in my directions and arrived at the sale a half hour late. But wonder upon wonders, the small set of people invited to the presale were interested only in the Made in Japan toys from the 40s, 50s and 60s as well as later ones from Korea. Now don’t be a snob here: toys of this vintage, especially the early Japanese tin windup or battery operated ones, are a collectible category all their own. The Japanese appear to have decided that a good warm-up to sinking Detroit was to design and manufacture something small first. The problem for me, though, is that such toys have a huge range in value. While some can fetch upwards of $500 or more, the overwhelming majority of similar vintage wouldn’t bring more than $20 or $25 on eBay. So unless you’re knowledgeable in the area – which I wasn’t – you might not know the relative value of any specific piece. The wonder upon wonders in this case, though, was that a collection of early German Lehman’s and some turn of the century hook and ladder cast iron toys were still available. Maybe that was because these earlier toys were priced in the neighborhood of $200 or so each while the later tin windups all fell in the $20 to $50 range.
Now the truth of the matter is that I didn’t know the precise value of these earlier toys any more than I had precise knowledge of their post-WW II Made in Japan counterparts. I hadn’t bought or sold toys in any consistent way in decades. But I knew this: You can’t lose money paying $200 for a Lehman in good condition, and all you really had to worry about with a cast iron American hook and ladder was making certain it wasn’t a reproduction. So I made a pile and, feeling confident in the potential profit of what I’d already set aside for purchase, added an early French windup priced at $600 or $700. I had no idea as to its value, but you might say I had a feeling. I’d never seen it before even in pictures and the fact that I was being given a twenty percent discount off the sticker price of everything because of the size of my pile made the gamble seem worth taking. Sometimes you just have to walk the plank, close your eyes, and jump! In this instance things worked out great. Not only did the Lehmans sell for twice what I’d paid for them, but that French toy was indeed a rarity. I couldn’t find a comparable example anywhere on the internet and thus was not totally surprised when it ultimately sold to a collector for $5,000. That, of course, allowed me to keep the three early fireman’s toys and to earn me some points at home since my wife’s father had been a fireman.
Fig. 2-8: A Part of My Toy Haul
This isn’t to say that walking to the end of the plank and jumping by buying things you know little to nothing about simply because “you have a feeling” is a good strategy. For example, I know nothing about Asian (read: Chinese and Japanese) antiques, except that they’ve been making reproductions before George Washington was a gleam in his father’s eye. So not only are there a lot of Asian reproductions because there’s always been a lot of Asians, but they’re also damned good at copying the past, which is to say that unless you know what you’re doing, you’ll most likely lose any gambles. I also long ago made the decision to learn as little as possible about dolls – composition dolls, character dolls, French and German bisque dolls, and so on. The competition was simply too fierce here (and women can have sharp elbows). Indeed, a list of things I know little to nothing about would be endless; but there is at least one saving grace from ignorance: You’ll never sit around regretting the bargains you missed. In this case at least, ignorance is bliss. But in the case of the toys, although I was uncertain as to precise values, I knew enough to know the age of things and was afforded the luxury of having the time to assess condition. The plank that I eagerly walked out on, then, was dangerous but didn’t threaten with being fatal.
One final bit of advice now about dealing with those who run estate sales. Estate sale managers can be sorted into two amorphous categories: Those who operate under the philosophy of “my job is to get rid of it all ASAP”, in which case their prices will be wholly reasonable if not downright cheap; and those who price things as if they were operating a high end retail outlet. Both types, of course, prefer to sell as much as possible, if not everything. And if the objective is to empty the house, then the only way to compensate for high initial prices is to lower those number dramatically on the last day of the sale. So it pays to learn which category an estate sale manager falls into. If they have a reputation for astronomical prices – say $75 for a cement garden rabbit of the sort one is likely to find at a discount store for $15 (a real example here) — why stand in line for two or three hours on the first day waiting for the sale to begin? Go to another sale or stay home and plan on swooping down for the bargains a day or two later. On the other hand, if a sale manager is known for reasonable or low prices, and perhaps even is willing to bargain on the first day of a sale, then best be prepared to set your alarm clock for an early wake-up and a very long morning.
There are times when you might stumble onto this strategy by sheer accident. Let me repeat that I know little to nothing about dolls, and so I paid scant attention to an estate sale ad featuring the little darlings. I doubtlessly came to the word “dolls” and simply moved on to the next ad. As it turned out, on the day of the sale (it was a one day sale) I was doing absolutely nothing when I got a call around noon from a friend telling me there was an sale up the street from her selling 19th and early 20th century dolls and that they were now discounting things heavily. Well, the sale was a mere two miles from my house and it was either that or pull weeds, so what the heck. I got there an hour before the sale ended, and what I encountered was two long tables literally piled high with legitimately early French and German bisque dolls, all beautifully dressed and in immaculate condition. By then there were few if any buyers so I had a chance to chat with the staff as I poked around. They knew me from previous sales and knew my interest was Americana and definitely not dolls, so there was no embarrassment when I asked “How did you price things?” I made no pretense that I was doing anything but trying, in my ignorance, to determine if the dolls were a bargain. Their answer was that they’d looked up whatever ones they could find on eBay, see what they sold for, and priced theirs at 75% of the numbers they found. Well frankly when you don’t know what you’re doing, a 25% discount on realized auction prices isn’t good enough. And it’s apparently not good enough even for dealers who might know something about dolls since apparently few had sold. So with a wink I was told that, since the sale was about to end, I could expect something better than even a 50% discount. Now it doesn’t require a pocket calculator to multiply 0.50 times 0.75 to conclude that you’re being offered some high quality bisque dolls at roughly one third of realized eBay auction prices. And as uninformed as I am, I did recognize names such as Simon & Halbig, Armand Marseille, Handwerck and Kathe Kruse. Lets just say that showing up at that sale shortly before it ended turned out to be somewhat profitable. The only uncertainty I was ultimately left with was not knowing how much money I’d left on the table by not buying them all.
Regardless of whose running a sale, though, one of the attractions of estate sales is that one never knows how things will turn out both in terms of what you find or what you can sell things for. There was, for instance, a sale down by San Diego, about 140 miles from home. The pictures posted on the internet held some promise, but there was one picture in particular that caught my eye – a chair piled high with six or seven 1840 or so Jacquard coverlets. It was impossible to ascertain condition or prices from the picture but clearly this was a sale I HAD to attend. After all, if they have a bunch of early to mid 19th century coverlets, who knows what else might be there – estate sale managers can’t photograph everything, and often enough they photograph the wrong things from my perspective. The sale, though, started at 8:00AM, and with 140 miles and god knows how many million cars between me and it, there was little chance I could get there before 6:30 or 7:00AM – I do need to sleep sometimes. Well, who needs sleep? Leaving the house at 4:30 I got there two hours later only to meet a crowd and learn that I was number 35 or so in line. The coverlets seemed out of reach since if they were reasonably priced, I assumed they’d be scooped up by the time I got to the front door. But I was already there and the drive home would be in rush hour traffic (and between LA and San Diego, rush hour traffic is spelled “parking lot”), so I hung in, only to be told around 7:45 that things were going to be even worse than I imagined: It was a small house and they were only letting in twenty people at a time. Wishing I was back in bed, I nevertheless waited my turn and finally made it in twenty or so minutes after the sale began. Remember I told you that the market for Americana was thin on the West coast? Well, guess what? Those coverlets were still there. And not only were they still there, they were undisturbed – the 34 people in front of me had raced right past them and never even looked at a price. I got them all (as well as a closet full of quilts that had also remained un-photographed and undisturbed). So again, you just never know.
This experience and the one with the dolls suggest that there is an alternative to approaching estate sales as a competition for an Olympic medal. I have a friend, Dick Lewis, who only occasionally shows up early to a sale. Without concerning himself as to whether he’s number 5 or 105 in line, he prefers to go late in the morning or early afternoon or even the next day. Sometimes he’ll allocate all of a Saturday to driving from one sale to the next, which means he can be near the head of the line for at most the first sale he visits. Nevertheless, he’s had remarkable success. First, he has a great eye and can spot things most people miss – the Rookwood bookends that everyone had ignored at $25 but were worth twenty times that number, the Pierpont lamp people had assumed was a repro but was in fact an original, the jar of marbles no one paid any attention to until he spotted some 19th century sulphides mixed in with the common cat’s eyes. Take an early 19th century coin silver serving fork and dump it into the middle of a table full of late 19th century silver plate. Now, without telling him it’s there, have him walk past the table at a fast pace. Trust me, he’ll spot the fork, scoop it up, and move on. I know – I’ve seen it happen. But that’s not the only reason he does well. He also understands that those hired to run a sale can’t earn a cent off a piece unless it sells. They work on a percentage of the total sales and although something might have a market value of $1,000, it’s worthless to them until it’s marked sold. At the same time, those commissioning a sale – especially heirs to an estate – often have a strong incentive to empty the house. They can’t get the six or seven-digit big bucks out of grandma’s home until it’s empty. Add to this the fact that they as well as those running a sale know that unless something sells in the first few hours when there’s a feeding frenzy among those who’ve been standing in line for hours (and need to pee), selling anything thereafter is a hit or miss proposition. Most likely what’s still available after a few hours was passed over because it was over-priced, wasn’t what it was advertised to be or falls into a category labeled by dealers as “unsellable”. The only way to guarantee, then, that something sells eventually is to lower the price or even to accept any offer.
This isn’t to say that Dick wouldn’t do as I did with the coverlets. Indeed, after spotting a rare early 19th century tooled leather Virginia key basket in the photos of a sale a two or three hour drive from his house, he too headed off in the wee hours to be near or at the front of the line when the doors opened. There are, after all, times when something truly exceptional presents itself and it’s foolish to leave things to chance (and yes, he got the basket, which the rat fink has decided to keep in his collection and won’t sell to me). Still, there’s the example of an estate sale manager who collects the contents of several estates (along with consignments) and has a monthly warehouse sale. On the first day (usually Friday), everything is full price. On the second day everything that remains is marked down 25% or even 40%, and on Sunday morning the discount moves generally to 60%. The sale runs to 2PM and beginning around noon on Sunday the discount sometimes climbs to 80% with the goal of emptying the warehouse. My good fortune here concerned a mechanical store-front seated cobbler – an electrical automaton from the 1940s wherein the cobbler would move its arms as if to take a nail from its mouth, lower it to a shoe and then have the other hand drop down as though it were hammering the nail into the heel. When the sale began this rather fanciful store display was priced at $900, but with a damaged hand and hammer, it was surely more than I was willing to pay. And apparently more than anyone else thought it was worth. I knew I could restore the hands (again, the wonders of epoxy wood filler) but for me a more reasonable price was something in the vicinity of $450. So I returned on Saturday hoping it was still there and that I could talk them up from a 25% discount to 50%. It was there but sorry, no go, they held firm at 25%. Fortunately the warehouse wasn’t far from home, so Sunday morning after my usual trip to the flea market I figured that if it was still there maybe I can do even better than 50% (OK, I’ll admit it, greed had taken hold). Sure enough, when I arrived around 11:30AM, it remained unsold, but when probing the possibility of a discount greater than 50% I was told (with a wink) to hold on. I know when to take a hint, so I hung around, making certain the cobbler was never out of reach. And at precisely noon, it was announced “everything now is 80% off”. So perseverance and patience paid off, and it was mine for $180 and a nice profit subsequently.
This experience was repeated some time later at yet another of these warehouse sales. In this instance, though my interest focused on a late 19th century wood and composition jointed mannequin of a young boy. This time, though, the mannequin was priced at $2,200, which for me meant that even at a 60% discount, it was way too rich for my blood. The max I was willing to go was $500, but that meant I was asking for an 80% discount and discounts that high aren’t guaranteed at any sale. On the other hand, I was certain that the $2,200 price tag meant that the mannequin was too rich for everyone else and so I was confident it would remain unsold as the later hours of the sale approached. Once again, it pays to keep in mind that what’s being offered is of no value whatsoever to an estate sale manager until it’s sold, so when the discount stood at 60% my offer of $500 was accepted.
There’s another lesson to be learned from such examples in addition to being prepared to hold off on a purchase until later in a sale: Just because you’ve raced thru the house like a maniac and succeeded in getting the things you came for, don’t stop shopping – give everything another go-around. Remember that sale with the miniatures on ivory? Some additional poking uncovered several large English pewter chargers along with a 24 tube redware candle mold. There was also that three gallon cobalt decorated stoneware jug that I’d initially ignored because it had been drilled out at the base to make a lamp. Apparently everyone else passed on it for the same reason, but a half hour into the sale and the rush largely over I took a closer look and discovered that the jug was made by the highly sought after Pennsylvania potter John Bell. Hole or no hole, the jug had a value far above its sticker price. And remember that sale where I got sidetracked by the overshot coverlet and missed the pile of 19th century quilts? Well, while my competitors-soon-to-be-collaborators carefully examined each quilt, separating the good from the not-so-good, I found three double sided and one single sided 18th and early 19th century Dutch cookie boards along with a pair of swan’s neck ice skates in original paint.
Fig. 2-9: Four Early Springerle (Cookie) Boards, prob. Dutch
As a late last minute estate sale find, cookie boards and ice skates pale in comparison to the fire bucket shown in Figure 2-10. I’d probably spent a half hour at the sale in question, hopping from room to room, making my pile of goodies. It was only until I was getting ready to check out that I looked up and saw the fire bucket high on a shelf nearly out of view. Seems that everyone else at the sale had also overlooked this piece, but one look told me immediately that it was indeed something special. And special it was. I didn’t know then who “U Swain” was, but a little poking around the internet after I got home told me I had Uriah Swain’s bucket. Swain was a Nantucket sea captain who was notable for being the first captain to sail a merchant frigate (the Mars) around the Horn and across the Pacific to open Nantucket to the China trade. That last minute glace up, then, yielded a piece of Americana that was indeed of museum quality.
Fig. 2-10: Uriah Swain’s (now my) Fire Bucket
Other late finds at other sales that had somehow been overlooked in the initial frenzy include a couple of great quilts still hidden in a cupboard no one had bothered to open, some early stick-spatter peafoul pieces, a small 2-wheel Landers & Frary coffee mill in its original paint, two early Victorian-era felt penny rugs or table runners, a collection of blue spongeware pitchers squirreled away in a closet, Hudson River oil paintings of various descriptions, a $200 dog collar (yes … people collect those too) that was given so little thought it hadn’t even been priced, a fabulous early 20th century 3’ x 5’ hand hooked rug that was hidden under a dining room table and god knows what else this enfeebled memory cannot recall. But in one of the strangest cases, there was the sale in which I quickly found a quilt priced too high at $300. That was an easy thing to pass on, but I returned the next day hoping for some discounts and what I found was that three more quilts had mysteriously appeared, all priced seemingly more reasonably. And with four quilts now in tow on the second (and last) day of the sale I was in a far better position to bargain than if I had only the one somewhat over-priced example.
Now I’ll admit that pursuing this “wait until later” strategy has its pitfalls and from time to time has backfired, especially when greed took hold. As they say about the stock market, “bulls make money and bears make money, but pigs rarely do.” I’m thinking here of a mahogany ball and claw foot slat lid desk I encountered at one sale. The family’s story was that the desk had been made by one of New York’s better known cabinet craftsmen in the 1790s and had been handed down within the family from one generation to the next. Usually, of course, such verbal provenances aren’t worth the air it takes to say them and often belong in the category of ‘family fantasies’. I recall, for instance, a portrait I encountered at a sale in which the family identified the individual as the descendant of someone who arrived in Massachusetts on a ship named the Speedwell along with the Pilgrims who made their voyage on the Mayflower. A minor technical difficulty here, though, is that the Speedwell, while originally intended to accompany the Mayflower, turned out to be wholly un-seaworthy and had to return to England, with most of its passengers making the voyage some time later on other ships. A ship of the same name did sail to Virginia in 1635, but the family was adamant that its roots traced back to Massachusetts. Thus, while one could believe that the family’s genealogy would lead to some early 17th century settler who made his way from Massachusetts to Connecticut, such inconsistencies in verbal histories bring into question the entire history in much the same way as inconsistent evidence undermines a prosecutor’s arguments in a criminal trial.
In any event, back to the desk which in this case was accompanied at the sale by things that made the family’s story viable (a grandfather clock, a card table and a small watercolor of the same period given as a gift to William Livingston of Declaration of Independence fame). Hence, if the story could be verified in some way, the desk could easily fetch upwards of $10,000 in the right market. Priced at $2,750, I virtually tore the desk apart fruitlessly looking either for the maker’s label or some indication that it had had an early label – even some glue residue would have satisfied me (methods of construction can sometimes validate a provenance but in this case there were no such clues). Without that label the family’s verbal provenance became meaningless the minute anyone moved that desk out of its current home. The desk was a masterly crafted piece and hardly overpriced at $2,750. But it was also ‘oversized’ – in excess of 40” wide — and “big” in slant lid desks is “bad” since when they’re wider than 37 or so inches their aesthetics resemble those of a battleship. So instead I left an offer I knew was low (as I recall, $1,200) and took the gamble that the market for battleships with an admittedly weak provenance was low or nonexistent that weekend. And that, as it turned out, was a mistake. I still don’t know who made the desk, but it did sell the second day of the sale. I also don’t know what it sold for, but dollars to doughnuts it was in the vicinity of $1,375 – the usual 50% discount. In other words, I most likely lost the desk for $150. Assuming that I wanted it (which I did), the offer I should have left was $1,400 or even $1,500 – enough to beat out the discount. I’ll never know whether such an offer would have ultimately required that I find a way to transport the desk home in my lowly SUV, but I do know I’d have had a considerably greater chance of getting it if I hadn’t gotten too greedy.
Well, live and learn. In any event, estate sales are also great places to find bargains with things that seem, on the surface, to be worthless. I’m thinking here of the wreck of a banjo clock propped against a wall on the floor I once encountered priced at $25 (Figure 2-11). Now if you don’t know what your looking at, $25 might seem a goofy price to pay for an irreparable clock. First, 50% of the paint from the dial was missing, as was the throat glass and the bottom door with their eglomise paintings. The door and glass covering the dial were there, but not attached because there were no hinges. Sounds like a total basket case, right? Well, not quite. I’m no clock expert, but I know enough to recognize a Simon Willard T-bar clock movement. I also know that as soon as Willard patented his movement in 1802, people began ignoring his patent to produce clocks that only experts can differentiate from a legitimate Simon Willard timepiece. Still, it doesn’t take much effort to learn that even a contemporary reproduced Willard movement sells for $150 and up … and this basket case also had its pendulum and weight. There was simply no way it wasn’t worth ten times that $25 price tag.
Fig. 2-11: My Banjo Clock Wreck
It also pays to keep in mind that estate sales are not the best venue for people to sell something that’s even legitimately priced in the thousands. For the most part, only dealers go to estate sales with a wad of cash in their pockets, so regardless of how desirable something might be, the potential market shrinks quickly as zeros are added to a price. Even if what’s being sold is worth every penny of the asking price, the typical retail buyer has to think a day or two before writing a four-digit check. So recall that heavily carved oak dining room set I mentioned earlier that Mario and Jerry sold for upwards of $12,000? Well, as I recall it was bought for a mere $2,500 or so on the SECOND day of the sale. In fact, bargains are most likely to appear late in a sale when it comes to furniture. First, insofar as selling retail is concerned, price is only one of the things that people take into consideration. Even if something is priced approximately at what a person expects to pay for that kitchen table or desk for the den, it might not be of a size that fits some designated space at home; or its color might not match the home’s décor. And as far as dealers are concerned, furniture more often than not stands low on the order of priorities unless it’s something truly special. Except perhaps for dealers operating at the upper end of the market, if given a choice between a chest of drawers priced so there’s a potential profit of, say, $1,000 versus a box of butter molds with a potential profit of $500, there’s a better than even chance the molds will be scooped up first. Furniture takes space in a shop and it can’t be carried out of a sale as easily as a box of molds. There’s even the element of the self-fulfilling prophesy operating here: If every dealer makes the assumption I’ve just made about the wisdom of holding off on the purchase of big items until the seller is willing to bargain, then everyone will focus on “the smalls” and postpone considering larger pieces, furniture in particular, until later – if at all.
I was somewhat painfully reminded of this fact awhile back when I encountered two pieces of furniture that interested me: A federal card table with reeded legs and satinwood veneer to the face along with a cherry two part late 18th century linen press. As priced, the potential profit on each was about the same, but I decided to hold off buying either piece, figuring there was a good chance I could negotiate an even better deal the next day. And indeed, when I returned the linen press was still there and I bought it for half what was on the ticket. But the card table was gone. I knew I was taking a chance walking away from both the first day, but I also knew the risk was far greater with the card table. The linen press could only be moved in sections and required a pick-up to haul away. The card table, on the other hand, could be carried out by one person, taken away in almost any car, and would fit in far more places in a person’s home than the press. The card table, in other words, was only one step removed from that box of butter molds in terms of likelihood of surviving the first few hours of a sale.
It’s all a crap shoot, then, and mapping out your strategies for how to venture onto the estate sale trail entails a complex set of calculations that sometimes fail since the above mentioned desk and card table aren’t the only instances in which I outsmarted myself. Its not just caveat emptor but also ‘you choose your strategy and takes your chances.’ However, regardless of what strategy you follow, there is one feature of estate sales that cannot be repeated enough times; namely, those who run them cannot know everything about everything. Estates don’t consist solely of fine antiques or designer clothes. The content of any one sale can range from pots and pans to 18th century cookware, from Ikea furniture to period highboys, from braided mats to oriental rugs, from TJ Max sweaters to Versace gowns and insofar as the art hanging on the walls is concerned, from the works of 17th or 18th century masters to Wall Mart prints and little Johnny’s last kindergarten exercise. Those who professionally run sales have to be generalists, which means that most aren’t specialists in anything except what perhaps they themselves collect or in those everyday ubiquitous things they encounter in nearly every sale. If you’re like me and the blood runs hot and the heart beats fast when encountering a collection of Americana, your ideal world is to have that sale run by someone expert in or enamored of costume jewelry, books, English pottery, French and Italian antiques or Victorian era glassware – anything but Americana – since then there’s a good chance there will be mistakes in your favor.
Years past – about the time we were settling into Mario and Jerry’s shop – we became friends with two dealers who did in fact specialize in jewelry and Victorian era glassware. From time to time they’d be asked to run an estate sale when such sales were precisely that, and it was then that I made certain to be early to rise and as close to the front of the line as possible. Jewelry, high end glass and porcelain vases would be priced on the money. If the wholesale price of a ring or bracelet was $500, you could bet it would be priced within twenty dollars of that number. A dealer could still make a profit but only if your expertise (and clientele) matched theirs. On the other hand, when it came to Americana and furniture in particular, which was what we were looking for to fill our rented shop space, prices were utterly random. Most likely there would be some tremendous bargains as well as pieces priced so high they’d never sell. But even those over-priced items were an opportunity since all one had to do was hang around until the sale ended to make your offers. I might add here that this is another reason to be congenial with those who run sales: If you can become friends with them while establishing a reputation for being knowledgeable in a category that interests you but not them, then you’re likely to meet with greater success when bargaining and using the argument that they’re asking too much for something and that your seemingly low-ball offer is more realistic and fair.
A discussion of estate sales can’t be complete now without mention of their cousin, the yard sale, and here I have to admonish “Never judge a book by its cover”. Garage and yards sales are, of course, a ubiquitous American tradition. I even think that part of Thomas Jefferson’s estate was sold off at a yard sale in order to pay his considerable debts (boy, don’t you wish you were there for that one!). More often than not, though, the offerings consist of baby clothes, infant strollers, used blankets and old pots and pans. Spending a Saturday morning driving to and fro in pursuit of the handwritten signs on lamp posts and telephone poles can be exhausting (and a lesson that penmanship is no longer on the curriculum of our schools). But every so often there’s THE FIND that threatens to disrupt one’s commitment to sleeping late on Saturday. Frankly, I’ve pretty much giving up on the yard sale quest — its just too damned frustrating and time consuming, especially when contending with Los Angeles traffic. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets. I currently own a hand painted American drum that dates to the War of 1812 (Figure 2-12). It’s a rare piece, and despite having paid handsomely for it, I’m delighted to own it. But now to make you writhe in agony, I can tell you I bought it from a friend who found it at a yard sale in California for $50, which is almost as good as the stories you hear on Antiques Roadshow. You might ask how I felt giving someone a rate of return on their investment that even Mexican drug lords, Putin’s kleptomaniac cronies in Russia, and Long Island junk bond dealers dream about? Well, there are two answers. First, just because someone finds a $20 bill on the sidewalk doesn’t mean they have to sell it to you for a buck. What someone paid for something should have little bearing on what you should expect or be willing to pay for it. One of the things that drives an antiques dealer nuts is the comment “but you only paid ___ for it” as if that were all the justification needed for being allowed to demand a goofy low price. Say that to a dealer and he or she has a right to refuse to sell it to you at any price! But there is a second reason why I didn’t begrudge my friend an extravagant return on his investment: Even if I had been in the neighborhood of the sale where he found it, I’d almost certainly not have stopped to discover the drum on my own. If I turned the corner and drove out of my way for every garage and yard sale sign I encounter on any given weekend, I’d never get anywhere. But my friend’s luck merely underscores one of the compelling features of the antique disease: One never knows what one will find and where. So the hunt goes on and for those of us infected with the disease we know the search is eternal.
Fig. 2-12: My “$50” Drum
One more bit of advice now. One of the inherent dangers of an estate sale is buying something damaged or something that’s not what it initially appeared to be. I already told you this in the context of scooping up vintage or antique toys. There’s that quilt, for instance, that you might grab too quickly to add to your pile of treasures, only to learn when you get home that it has a dead center hole in it. Or perhaps your regret is the pair of pewter candlesticks that turned out to be reproductions, or the framed Currier and Ives lithograph that when examined closely turned out to be a page from a 20th century calendar, or the duck decoy that you later realize has been repainted several times. Or maybe your mistake is the Staffordshire plate that, upon close inspection, displays a difficult to see hairline or chip, or the 19th century painting that suffers from extensive restoration. The problem is that in the initial frenzy of a sale when everyone is grabbing whatever they can before someone else does, there’s ample opportunity for error. And mistakes are unavoidable. All you can do is hope to minimize their occurrence. Once again, it pays here to be on friendly terms with whoever is running the sale, since then you are more likely to be able to carefully examine your potential purchases when you check out, or even return an item for a refund. But even if that option is closed to you (which, more often than not, it is), don’t let the fear of making a mistake freeze you and render you unable to compete with those who might be after what you’re pursuing. Here price is a critical variable. Suppose, for instance, you encounter a 19th century bird decorated jug that, if perfect, might be worth upwards of $500, but that’s priced at $100. There’s a chance the jug has a tight difficult to see hairline that would make it anything but a steal (hint: knock the jug with your knuckle – a cracked jug will give a ‘muted ring’ that sounds as if it has a echo whereas an uncracked jug or crock will give a sharper ring) and whether you want to take the chance or not depends on your pocketbook and aversion to risk. Or suppose you’ve found an otherwise expensive dinnerware set with upwards of 40 or 50 pieces to it priced at $150. Unless that’s the only thing you came to the sale for, you almost certainly don’t want to begin examining each and every piece for flaws. You have no choice but to buy or not buy a “lottery ticket” then. And far be it for me to say whether or not it’s worth the gamble. All you can do here is try to train yourself to see flaws quickly in whatever categories of things that interest you and to understand that mistakes are simply part of the game.
People, quite naturally, have different tolerances for risk. Mine, admittedly, is higher than it perhaps should be. Wishful thinking and the failure to apply due diligence sometimes take command. There’s the damaged early 19th century oil painting I paid $250 for but had to eventually sell for $100 and the quilt I liked for $300 but no one else seemed to think it was worth more than half what I paid for it. There are those things that have been bought because I liked them, but failed to consider how they’d be sold or whether, in fact, anyone would appreciate them to the same degree I did. Remember that estate sale set up in a storefront that my son and I spent a good part of a night camped out in front of? Well, we got the Victorian era rocking horse, but what I didn’t tell you was that it was an especially large horse – almost the size of a real pony wherein a child had to be picked up and put on it. What I hadn’t considered at the time was that it didn’t fit neatly in a home as a decorative accessory. Oh, perhaps it would fit if you were a Morgan, a Carnegie or a Rockefeller or if you lived in one of those Beverly Hills mansions. But it was problematical for everyone else. Nevertheless, we thought it was fantastic, especially since we’d never seen anything like it. Had to be one rich kid living in one big house to own such a toy. As it turned out, of course, we apparently liked it more than anyone else, and it spent upwards of three years being pulled in and out of my friend’s shop as a sidewalk display before it sold. And even then it sold for less than what it cost us.
Here’s another example: In the frenzy of another sale I grabbed an early, possibly even 18th century, piggin (essentially a staved bucket with one of its staves longer than all the others so as to serve as a handle). Now I’ve sold piggins before on eBay and my imperfect memory told me that they generally realized a price around $150 or even $200. The one at this sale was priced at $100, so there seemed to be room for profit. But I said “seemed” because, as its picture in Figure 2-13 shows, it was an overly large example. And here “big” need not be “good” – what after all do you do with it except to make it an expensive wastebasket? Nevertheless I bought it and only when I got it home did I bother to take some measurements and come to the realization that it could be shipped USPS only with an oversized box – a box that hit what our postal service calls its ‘balloon rate’. In other words, I had to plan on a shipping cost in excess of $40. Now think about this for a minute. EBay charges either 9% or 10% as its commission on any sales (including on the posted shipping cost), while Paypal charges 3%. So on any sale, you could easily be paying eBay 13% of the sale price plus shipping charge (lets call that X + 40). Since the buyer presumably will pay the $40, the break even value of X is determined thus: Your eBay and Paypal fees will be 0.13(X + 40), in which case you’ll net X – 0.13(X+40). But you paid $100, so your break even point is found by solving for X in the equation 100 = X – 0.13(X + 40), which in this case works out to be $120 and change. Thus, to simply break even by selling the piggin on eBay, you need to find a buyer willing to pay at least $160 for it ($120 + 40) along with another potential buyer who will push the eventual winner’s bid up to $160. In other words, unless you’re looking for a tax loss, you need two people willing to pay 50 percent more than what you are paying for it. I won’t tell you what happened to my piggin.
Fig. 2-13: My Oversized Piggin
Here’s one more example of where an initial buying frenzy can lead to regret. Figure 2-14a shows what appears to be a rather nice late 19th century applique quilt. Not wildly colorful, but the grape and vine border does move it up a notch in terms of desirability. First, though, let me tell you a little about the sale where I found it. Although the price tags on most things were the usual stick-ons, on larger pieces, including quilts, they were literal tags. Thus, when you found something you wanted to buy all you need do is rip the tag off and proceed with your shopping without having your arms full of stuff. And that’s what I did with the quilt. But there’s one other rule at this sale – once you tear the tag off, you’re committed to buying the piece. Yes, it’s perhaps possible to negotiate yourself out of such a commitment once or even twice, but repeat offenders will soon find themselves unwelcome at future sales. Nevertheless, with a price tag of $99 off came the tag as I quickly moved to another room hunting other bargains. It was only after I passed thru the checkout and paid for my purchases that I saw what I didn’t want to see. Take a close look at Figure 2-14b. See those little white spots. Do you know what they are? They’re holes in the fabric! The fabric is an early patterned calico wherein some of the early dyes – notably the reds and browns – used ferrous sulfide (or even sometimes more damaging chemicals) to generate the requisite color. And do you know what iron does? It rusts. And do you know what iron does when it rusts on a fabric? It eats the fabric. However, in my haste to secure as many bargains as possible at the sale, I failed to apply due diligence, which in this case would have required but an additional 10 to 15 seconds of inspection.
Fig. 2-14a: 1870s Applique Quilt
Fig. 2-14b: The Consequences of Ferrous Sulfide in Early Dyes
But now the question is: Would I have bought the quilt even if I had been aware of its problems? That’s a toughie. I’m not sure. Yes, it has good age, it isn’t stained, and the color is good (especially if you’re thinking of decorating, say, a sun room with lots of wicker furniture and plants). But it’s also non-restorable. It is what it is, forevermore. Frankly, back when I bought the quilt, prices hadn’t tanks as much as they have now so yes, I probably still would have bought it. That’s the risk taker in me, and over the long haul all I can say is that my acceptance of risk has on average served me well. The level of risk you’re willing to assume is up to you.