Monthly Archives: May 2010

WWII, the Home Front Tells a New Story

26 May 2010

I got into the antiques and collectibles business to do more than just sell stuff.  I’m not even a very good salesman.  I like the cash to flow but I’m also very interested in the things I sell.  If nothing deeper mattered and I was a good closer I would sell insurance.  There’s more money in it.  The historian in me analyzes my trade goods as artifacts.  Sometimes I get a priceless glimpse into the past.

Last Saturday I bought a book at a local antique shop and put it on eBay.  Click here to see. While scanning the photographic pages I detected a distinct slant to the presentation.  It’s a WWII era photographic booklet, We Keep e’m Flying.  It shows life for the men and women at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. The 44 pages are replete with black and white images of the camp and it’s happy, smiling personnel.  Besides showing training scenes with guns and airplanes there is a heavy emphasis on recreational activities  and social life. You would hardly know there was a war going on.

I’ve handled a number of the yearbooks published for various military aviation training bases.  They tell a story of a generation of Americans who took loyalty to their country seriously.  The patriotism is openly expressed.  The subtext is often more telling.  In case you doubt that society has changed since the 1940’s look at  books, magazines and films the government published for consumption on the home front.  Some call it propaganda some call it public relations but that flavor is present as a matter of intent.

Equality blossoms in the war effort.

We all know about Rosie the Riveter.  She began as wartime propaganda and letter became a feminist folk hero.  In this book there are a surprising number of women shown  working along side of men, handling mechanics duties and training in the same ways.  One wonders if the emphasis was overstated compared to the reality.  The summer camp flavor of the piece stands out in contrast to the realities of life in a combat zone.

I recently sold a yearbook for a pilot training base in Kansas.  The ranks of photos of eager young cadets showed only Caucasian faces except for one training squadron that was all black.  We Keep ’em Flying presents a parade of fresh white faces except for the photo of the base laundry.  Here young black women wield irons as they press uniforms.  A solitary black male sweeps the floor.  It seems a sad note in the cheery picture.  It probably went unnoticed in 1945.  Now it leaps out and grabs our attention.

I do not mean to be too critical of the people of the time, context matters.  After all, out of the same crucible of war and societal upheaval came the Tuskegee Airmen.  No reasonable person questions the value of their contribution or denies their sacrifice.  Valor has no color or gender.

We all live in the context of our times.  What we do today may be judged differently tomorrow.  More than ever our lives are recorded for the future to see.  When our children look at us smiling back in artificial images will they only see the movie and not get the message?

The contrast shows behind the scenes

A collector is motivated by appreciation of  his acquisitions to value them for meaning as well as worth.  As dealers we tend to think of the bottom line.  The artifacts we engage with contribute to our worldview as we examine their place in our culture.  To paraphrase a  navy recruiting slogan: It’s more than a job, it’s a  classroom.

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Garage Sale Blues

22 May 2010

Garage sales are an unsure way of getting good merchandise for resale.  I score a certain amount of treasure but lately it’s been hit and miss, mostly miss. The fuel costs will eat you alive.  When I find that I can’t stand looking at another stack of baby clothes or box of used lawnmower parts I head for a more centralized collection of quality junk.  A flea market would be great.  Once upon a time I had a Sunday routine that included about a dozen markets in central Pennsylvania.  I had three regular stops and rotated the others from Sunday to Sunday.

Port Angeles, Washington has no flea markets or swap meets.  There are a few shops and several antique malls.  That is where I went today after coming down with a case of Garage Sale Blues that just made me want to cry.

I needed a quick fix of preselected merch absent the worn household items or new kitsch that wasn’t worth regifting come this Christmas.  I stopped in at a small shop on First Street called The Mousetrap.  There I found a few items worth chancing on the rocky world of eBay.  On a rack holding various books were several aviation related titles, right up my alley.  There is no market in old approach plate manuals unless they belonged to Lindbergh himself. The gem is a WWII era book from the Memphis Tennessee Naval Air Technical training Center. It has lots of nice pictures and should excite some interest.

There were some almost worth it items I wasn’t ready to part with cash for.  I picked out several nice old postcards.  You’d be surprised, good historical interest and plenty of nostalgia value.  The shopkeeper threw them in for free.  Fifteen bucks lighter I felt more like I was back in the old game.  Now I have to see that they get posted for Sunday prime time 6:00 pm.  Then we’ll see how effective an antidote they are for the blues.

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You Are What you Collect

20 May 2010

The first time I had a collection was when I was about eight years old.  My mother worked part time in a department store.  Every payday she would bring home a ceramic dog.  each one had a chain around it’s neck that had  metal plate stating the breed.  I still have them.  Later on my plastic models of ships and airplanes formed a large collection displayed in my bedroom. I put a lot of myself into those but they disappeared over the years.

I have always been a voracious reader and collector of books.  They are not just a momentary exercise in symbolic recognition.  If I like a book I want to keep it.  I like having plenty of reference works at hand.  Some books are kept as a result of an appreciation of an attractive, well crafted, binding.  I have always felt at home in libraries and it seems completely natural to make one a part of the home.

Because of dramatic changes in my life I no longer possess some of my collections.  I used to have a selection of hand thrown pottery.  Ceramic birds that decorated an antique fireplace surround.  There was also about a hundred bookmarks old and new.  I am fascinated by navigation and collected maps and plotting tools.  Anything old and related to aviation caught my eye.  My coolest collection ever was an assembly of pilot’s wings.  They came from airlines, aircraft manufacturers, pilot’s organizations, the military and some old radio show premiums.  The whole lot were kept displayed on a ball cap that had wings on each side.  It was given to me as a gift from a friend when I got my pilot’s license in 1984. I sold the whole hat to a dealer in militaria at a time when I was jobless and the family needed food.

I don’t have huge regrets about the loss.  I don’t make idols of these things. That would be blasphemous.  Besides I learned one thing sitting at hundreds of auctions: If you don’t get the winning bid today there will be another chance eventually. Very few things are so unique that another won’t come around again sometime.

In their time all these things meant something special to me and I had a lot of fun hunting them down.  I still prowl around always on the lookout for a pair of wings, a rare book, or a beautifully drawn and lithographed map.  As I look on this listing I see some of my personal history, my interests, and a glimpse into who I am.

What do you like to collect?  What does it mean to you and what does it tell other people?  Gather your goodies and thrill in the hunt.  You can’t “take them with you”  but you can enjoy them while you are here.

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Niche Markets and the Value of Emotion

16 May 2010

There are thousands of niche markets in the field of antiques and collectible and they are easy to miss. You have to be open to the trends. When I started selling the castoff relics of fading eras it was because, let’s face it, being a paralegal was both boring and highly stressful. I don’t know how something could be both things at once, but it’s true. Sorry if you are a paralegal and loving, it more power to ya! The biggest surprise at the start was the power of nostalgia in creating niche markets.

Old stuff is not infused with some mystical aura that grows on it as time passes while waiting unseen in the dark recesses of forgotten memory. That’s mold your thinking off. I’m thinking of another kind of green. Minty green as in paper. One of the keys to understanding value is the emotion we attach to the past and the artifacts that are a part of experience. We like to stay linked to childhood or to the prosperous times in our lives.

Priceless memories.

One of the biggest collectible categories is toys. Who doesn’t remember their favorite teddy bear, doll, toy soldier, cap gun, or model airplane? We loved these things. They were sent from Santa, our parents, weird uncle Bob, or our favorite Grandma. Sixty-five years ago America’s industrial might produced the tools for a world at war to subdue history’s worst tyrants and then went right back to making Lionel trains and inventing Barbie.

1950’s kid oriented TV shows on local stations might seem like the most forgettable bit of history ever experienced by mortal children. However, I have never failed to sell an old photo, button, toy premium or whatever of Sally Starr or Chief Halftown. In case you don’t know them they had shows on a Philadelphia television station and are remembered today by people all over the country. Most of the items I sold about these two were purchased by people in states other than Pennsylvania.

One of the most reliable markets I had back in the beginning of eBay’s rise to prominence was the slide rule. It’s not hard to find a person now a days who has no clue what they are or how they were used. The calculator followed by the personal computer made them obsolete in a short period of time. Generations of engineers built airplanes, skyscrapers, bridges and highways. Scientists split the atom, discovered DNA and invented the microwave oven. These men and women who passed through the analog age via the digital revolution frequently did the same thing with their formerly valuable calculating tool. They stuck it in a drawer.

Not all archeology is done in desert sands or steaming jungles. Sifting through the layers of a person’s life at an estate sale can unearth much that is mundane. It takes a combination of experience and intuition to discover a good niche market. They are often made up of quite ordinary things. Was your teddy bear bear ordinary to you? What is the value of emotion? Connect with peoples pasts and you may find the way to their hearts.

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Sales on eBay trend upward For Now

13 May 2010

As an early adopter of eBay I experienced the heyday of online auction fever.  It was an economic frontier, wild and lawless.  in time there were more rules and restrictions, some good, some oppressive.  Having taken a break from the collectibles business for several years my re-entry has been a little bit turbulent.  The inconsistency of eBay sales trends is  disconcerting.  I can hardly believe I could make a living on eBay at one time.

Living in a smaller more remote community than I used to is enough of a challenge.  The volatile economic and political landscape has a larger impact on my personal little corner of capitalism.  I remember well the big hits my business took over the years.  From the time I started sales were on a steadily rising slope.  There were seasonal peaks and valleys.  Aside from those, stock market fluctuations had a strong effect.  The customer demographic in my niche areas coincided with upper middle class educated people with a tidy supply of discretionary funds. Over all the trends were logical and easy to track.   in 2000 we had the dot com bubble popping rather loudly all over this land.  Sales tanked for a while then started a slow ramp up following the stock markets performance.

By midsummer of 2001 I felt that all the losses had been pretty well regained.  I was very hopeful for the future, very focused on inventory acquisition and exploring new niches.  One bright September morning I was standing in line to get a number at Conestoga Auction Company in Manheim, Pennsylvania.  People around me were speaking in hushed tones, telling an unlikely story about airplanes crashing into buildings.  I got my number then went to my car and turned on the radio.  The unlikely story was playing out in real time.  Surrealistically, the blue sky and crisp air of a Pennsylvania September morning which had put me in such a good mood contrasted strongly with the destruction being wreaked a hundred miles away in a city I have visited often.  The impact of September 11 affected so many things including bringing eBay sales to a crashing halt.  I don’t remember selling any of the 70 or so prime collectibles I had listed just the day before.

The recovery was a slow climb from a very low place.  A year later I was starting to feel confident again and was on a roll.  I was lucking into some very good buys.  The star purchases of the year were my $800 slide rule I got on a seven dollar tray lot and a ships half model I paid $200 for and sold for $1500 on eBay.  Then life changed and I set the antique and collectible high life aside for awhile.  I did a couple months run on eBay last summer and had some decent sales although the cost of gasoline ate into my profits along with eBay’s usual fees.  I set things aside again.

I am taking another run at eBay in a small way because I feel that if I’m going to spout off about in a blog I should also have some skin in the game.  I’m also defraying some of the expense of starting up my new media empire.   Hopefully my selection of advertisers will take up the baton and provide an income stream soon.

I find eBay to be fairly healthy right now.  I am starting slowly putting up about three to five items per week.  Most of it has sold and I had some very nice items including an aircraft loadmaster slide rule that went for $82.00 and as well as the $177 silk fly line that I blogged about in earlier posts.  This represents a small sampling in comparison to what I used to do with an average of 50 auctions a week.  By some standards even that was small time although my stuff is all genuinely vintage collectible.  I can’t get this in a container load from the far east.  I have to run the fence rows in search of my quarry.  Which is what makes it so damn sporting and so much fun.

The thing that encourages me most right now is the number of watchers and bidders I have been getting lately.  right now I have a n item up with 5 bids on it and 11 watchers.  That is the spirit of competition.  Ebay’s own fascination with it’s “stores” and “Buy it Now” robbed the site of it’s spontaneity and kind of missed the point of auctioning off unique or hard to get merchandise.  It would be nice to see things stay this way for a while.  That was the model that built eBay and will always be it’s heart and soul as long as they aspire to be something different that provides the thrill of the hunt for buyers and sellers alike..

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5 Characteristics of Valuable Collectibles

6 May 2010

We all ooh and awe when a collectible item fetches a record price. Sometimes we mutter under our breath when a much desired collectible is financially out of reach.  In a market based on nonessential spending free market economics reign supreme.  Its strictly about who has the goods and who wants to acquire them.   In business law the combination of the “willing buyer and a willing seller” makes commerce possible and delights the hearts of capitalists everywhere.  But what forces bring your favorite collectible to the magic price point which brings it into our possession.  Conversely, how do we account for stratospheric prices that give us pause when the gavel falls at auction.

Value is a complex concept, read Robert Pirsigs Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance.  I will identify five factors that give value to the things that reach out and grab us at the flea market.

1.   Rarity is the most important factor in determining the value  of  collectible artifacts.  The classic example is the inverted Jenny air mail postage stamp of 1918 in which the Curtiss biplane depicted on the design was printed upside down    Only one pane of 100 stamps was ever found. This interesting little error fetched $2.7 million one fine October day in 2205.  Now 1918 was quite a long time ago in our minds but not as postage stamps go.   many things far older can not hope to rouse this kind of interest simply because there are many examples still in existance.

2.   Some would count age as the defining factor in determining value but for the reasons stated above I hold it to be secondary.  Age comes closer to rarity in importance as we move back along the time line of history.  Truly ancient items have historical value that translates to monetary value.  That valuation must often be supported by proof of age.  Beware, Age is one of the easiest things to fake.  Oh! Did I mentioned that there are shady characters in the antiques and collectible trade?  I am truly dismayed.

3.   Historicity plays a role often in relationship to the possessor of an artifact.  The events that surround an item will give it significance.  A Civil War era musket will have greater value if it is known to have been the property of a particular soldier.  Where the musket has been and even who owned it in subsequent years may lend further value.  In this category provenance takes on primary importance.

4.  Occasionally an item may gain particular value due to it’s utility.  Antique tools in the hands of a skilled craftsman can be valuable aids in reconstructing the past or in building things using nearly lost arts.  Many woodworkers love to use old saws and handplanes thinking them superior to modern technology.  Personally I wouldn’t give up my old Stanley planes.  It’s hard to find really good chisels.  Even their decorative value is so much greater than their modern counterparts.  When have you seen anyone hang a biscuit joiner or cordless drill/driver on their den wall?

5.  One factor remains as especially important right at the point of purchase of a collectible item.  The condition of an item is going to support every other aspect of value.   To be utilized it must be strong and not corroded.  Maker’s marks will be sharper and easier to discern on clean surfaces that haven’t been worn away.  In some cases rarity may not be a matter of finding an example of the artifact one desires so much as finding one intact and in good condition.

Naturally these areas are subject to compromise for many collectors.  Our natural acquisitiveness can drive our pocket books.  Ultimately this question of value which we express in dollars is answered by our definition of quality.

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How Cooperative Are You?

2 May 2010

The antiques business is filled with characters. It seems to appeal to people with eclectic tastes and individualistic temperaments. I have met very few boring dealers or serious collectors.  Not many people start up in this business early in life.  Most of us come to it after having gone through earlier job or career cycles.  Retirees are common in the trade.  There are a lot of part-timers supplementing their primary income.  Auctioneers are a whole subspecies of their own.

At one time I was in two different antique mall cooperatives. The personalities involved were interesting and sometimes challenging. A co-op is a weird assembly, a sort of  team effort but with the understanding that every man is in it for himself. At both places there was a requirement to work at the establishment for two days each month. I found the experience was good research into buyers habits and desires yet some dealers chose to pay other coop members to stand-in for them.

One co-op was in a large, drafty, former milking barn. Winter days found us huddled around the woodstove giving the place the ambienceof an old country store. The social interaction was great and we really got to know each other.  I heard stories of people from many walks of life.  I knew a guy who was an aide de camp to a general in WWII.  He was still in the army during the Bay of pigs incident in Cuba.  There were people who experienced the great depression.  We could learn a thing or two from those folks now.

In the other mall we had good heat and a tight insulated building.  we also had some old timers who knew there way around the business pretty well.  There was a husband and wife who were retired and sold antiques both to supplement income and as a way to stay active and engaged in the community.  He had been a music teacher at the local high school and she was a former District Justice.  They were both well read and didn’t lack culture.  He was a distinguished gentleman who seemed to be constantly in search of the “perfect Manhattan.”  They knew everybody and their kin for miles around and were a better guide to local history than any book was.  In his younger days he ran with some fellows who learned the trade by going “on the knock.”  Their guide to finding antiques was to look for old houses with lace curtains.  Nine times out of ten there would be an old woman living there and it could be well worth the trouble to stop and inquire if she had any old furniture she wanted to get rid of or a garage or attic needing to be cleaned out.

Most of the old guys I knew who had that kind of chutzpah had a barn stuffed to the rafters with good old stuff to sell.  While most dealers put a lot of effort into presenting a neat display of there wares in the particular booth they rented.  Some of these guys created a studied disorder that created an impression of clutter to draw buyers into the idea of finding special treasure amongst the obvious junk.  Some people seem to like something more if they “discovered” it.  The most successful dealer I knew operated this way.  Just keep things messy enough to make people feel that they are in terra incognita and hang up a 10% off sign and the world will beat a path to your door.  It always seemed to work with the tourists from New York.  and we loved New Yorkers.  But that’s another story.

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