Monthly Archives: September 2010

Find it, Fix it, Sell It – Your Done

25 September 2010

The antiques business always seemed exceptionally busy.  That was my perception anyway.  I had a schedule that never quit.  The good part was that I could control the pace well enough to keep the activity level bearable.  It helped to find tools to make my time more productive.  Quickly, some of those tools were a computer and printer,  price guides and catalogs,  reference books, a vehicle with good gas mileage and a basement suitable for stuffing like a Christmas goose.

Antiquing is part carefully laid strategy and part getting stuck with a bewildering array of things you may not be able to (a) identify (b) restore or (c) get rid of.  Clearly defined areas of interest go a long way toward establishing a productive business model.  Life is easier when you can confidently separate your eenie’s from your meenies and your mineys from your mo’s.  It is inevitable in the trade that you will often buy a group of items to get a hold of just one gem.  Naturally the gems go to the head of the class. They are either sold in very short order or they  are stored in a place and manner such that they will be rediscovered within your life time.  Think inventory control.

Reach into those musty auction boxes and you will find things that are either worn or broken.  Have a garbage can handy.  Identify each item to establish if it is worth the time and materials to restore.  Be careful with genuinely old items, especially furniture, which gains value from patina. Classic example: wooden benches.  Almost any old wooden bench with six peeling layers of paint and worn edges where the bare wood shows through can be sold in an antiques mall or flea market.  Price it low and move it fast. If you can tighten up wobbly legs that’s probably as much restoration as you will need to do.

Most furniture that is post 1930 is not precious museum quality stuff.  Restore it enough to make it attractive in the shop.  Your primary tool here is Old English furniture polish and a rag.  A badly crazed shellac fish can be re-amalgamated with a careful aplication of denatured alcohol.  Throw on a wax finish and you are good to go.  It does great on old oak desks that get surplussed out of old schools and goverment buildings.

Find some handy instructions on the technique and practice on an old piece of waterfall furniture.  Your first effort will not be spectacular but for the right price it will still sell for more than the five bucks you gave for at it a garage sale.  A handy source of materials, tools and general supplies is Thomasnet.com. You probably won’t need a fork lift or titanium sheet but they can guide you to companies with almost anything you need in finishes, solvents, tools, etc.  Their listings under varnishes give 220 results.  There is a ton of information much of which is on a larger scale than you need but keep in mind that even a small shop now a days has requirements for workplace safety and sound environmental practices.

Modern collectibles often do not fall into the patina equals value zeitgeist.  Barbies and Star Wars action figures are best presented as new, even better if they are still in the original box or packaging. Certain niches lend themselves to a lot of tinkering and repair such as model railroading.  Trains have a lot of small parts and electric motors.  there is a marketplace devoted to model trains old and new.  Those Lionel and Marx trains-in-a-basket that surface in estate sales are like a goldmine. If you have the skills to put a deader into running condition or even just reattach all the wheels floating loose in the bottom of the box then your time can indeed become money.

The best part of antiquing is the discovery of buried treasure.  Arghh! We be pirates here.  So look lively and keep a weather eye out for more booty. Once you’ve found it, identified it, and fixed it up it’s time to either keep it as your own or get rid of it.  Either way a little bit more of the world gets sorted out and maybe a little jingle goes into your pocket as well as your step.

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Antiques Between the Pages and Beyond

21 September 2010

When the going gets tough the tough go to the library or the book store.  This has been my motto since childhood.  I was the kid who at the back of the school bus who was called variously Four Eyes, Professor or Book Worm.  I did not like the former.  The second one was acceptable but the latter was a point of pride.  I am an unapologetic reader and lover of books.  This part of my personality directed a portion of my antiques business.

People often say “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.  However, for me business is personal.  My personality and interests drive me in any business I am involved in.  I love wood and have been a professional woodcarver, I am currently a cabinetmaker.  I worked as a courier for a medical laboratory for 20 years mostly because I love being on the road day after day.  The best part of being a paralegal which I hated because I couldn’t set my moral convictions aside was the opportunity to spend time in law libraries.

The digital age seems to threaten the printing press and bindery.  It may be that paper itself will become a forgotten artifact.   Maybe, I still haven’t seen the paperless office that used to be a sort of techie mantra.  A cashless society won’t surprise me but paper will hang around a little longer.  It is undeniable that print publishing is going to go through more than it’s fair share of changes.  But then it always has.

Format Follows Function

A glossy high quality specialty magazine or coffee table book has little resemblance to a parchment or papyrus manuscript of antiquity.  At bottom they perform the same function.   The sound that emerges from our mouths becomes a part of the past in the instant of being spoken.  it becomes Intangible but still virtual.  It’s preservation occurs not by speaking but by hearing.  Communicating with the written word developed because it froze the virtual and made it actual, able to be understood consistently by all who beheld it.  Well, that’s the theory.  Wars have been fought, fair ladies have been won,  divorces have begun, both evil and good men have risen and fallen,  fortunes won and lost all because of a few words on a document or in a book.  For a prime example read Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman telegram.

Publication has gone from simple scraps of paper to leather bound volumes to slick color covers in perfect bindings.  The various ways of bringing together a collection of pages has served every ages technologies and material resources.  The rate of distribution took a quantum leap courtesy of Mr. Gutenberg.  Lithography brought us into the graphics age.  Offset printing and photography just blew out all the stops.  It’s been a long road to get to the point where ink is not something that can spill and make a mess on your desk.  Ink is just another electronic idea.  Comic books or quantum mechanics, all have spun from analog to digital expression.

This Place in Time

Our chronological vantage point is advantageous to observers of history.  I appreciate the new technologies but still get a warm feeling when I hold a fat volume with calf binding.  Marbled endpapers are high art as are good quality engravings.  Once upon a time people appreciated the craftsmanship in good bindings.  I am not an expert in antiquarian books but I delighted in buying and selling them.  Books also fit my model of niche marketing.  Specialty subjects proved surprisingly profitable. I lucked into a couple of books on slide rules by Isaac Asimov.  They have great collectible value and if you find them in a boxed assortment at a flea market you are sure to get them for next to nothing.  Operations manuals for vintage aircraft have a lively trade amongst people who can afford to pay premium prices.

Of course everyone knows about the high value of first editions.  As a result you usual find them at inflated prices.  The only one I found memorable was in a box lot of children’s books I almost gave away.  It was a first edit ion Dr. Seuss, Cat In The Hat.  It went on eBay for $400.00.  Condition is vital in well known titles but I found that to be less true of books with an esoteric subject matter.  In some cases the content is as collectible as the paper and ink.  Historical data is a commodity unto itself.

Art and books have a long standing relation.  Pre-twentieth century books often have wonderful maps and engravings that are more valuable when separated from the book.  Because of this we have the practice of book-breaking.  Destroying a great old book just to get the prints out to sell individually is a terrible practice.

Books have always been my friends.  They are good company and are always well behaved.  The libraries I have known and the booksellers I have haunted are another subject which I will cover the next time I sit down to share my digitized thoughts with you.

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Vintage Postcards Transport The Viewer To Another Time

17 September 2010

Here is your trivia word for the day: Deltiology, the study and collection of postcards .  Not that it is trivial to the millions of post card collectors all over the world.  Haunt enough auctions buying up odd box lots and you are sure to end up with a collection of old postcards.  Do not take them lightly.  When they arrived on the scene in the 1860’s they were a rather utilitarian item.  They provided a cheap means of communicating a short, informal, message.  Think, the Twitter of the letter writing era.  Later on they became a virtual art and photography publishing medium.  Post cards became collectible in short order and the variety of images gave them an appeal to people with a wide variety of interests.

My favorite postcards have always been the transportation scenes, especially aircraft, ships and trains.  The amount of available material for collecting is unbelievable.  The early real photo postcards form an illustrated history that often includes events or vehicles not well recorded in books.

Cards featuring aviation related subjects may have photos of aviation pioneers or rare experimental aircraft that have become lost to history.

Back when eBay was in full swing in time to a vigorous economy they were a good source of regular sales in the $10.00 to $20.00 range with occasional “oh wow!” surprise bidding wars.  One of the beauties of postcards is that you often get duplications in lots purchased.  On those occasions I kept one copy for my personal collection and sold the other.  It can be a hobby that pays for itself.

Trains are another universal favorite.  They suited early photographers because they were good still subjects.  Quite a few early cards featured train wrecks.

Later on when cameras got better at stopping motion trains were often captured moving through dramatic scenery.   The railroad companies found postcards to be a handy advertising medium.  As a result a lot of railroad history is preserved for both scholars and railfans.

The hunt for old postcards is fun because so many people saved the cards informally. You find them in desk drawers and pigeonholes, in shoe boxes and coffee cans. They appear to have been the number one bookmark of all time.  They often come as part of a stack of paper items perhaps meant to be scrapbook material. You can find some good old advertising items, trade cards, tobacco cards, or small engravings.

It seems like printed cards of all types become handy items to trade.  Barter and baseball cards is practically a rite of passage for American children.  The value of post cards varies widely, naturally, the older the better. Condition counts a lot. It’s not unusual to have messages written on the front of early cards as the postal regulations reserved the back of the card for addresses only.  Tears and bends are what really downgrade a card.

When I started selling collectibles postcards came on to my radar screen along with vintage photographs.  They go hand-in-hand.  So much history was preserved at the same time that it was made accessible to the public.  We take that aspect for granted in the internet age.  At the time postcards were invented America was a largely rural society.  Radio was largely theoretical and the modern marvel of the day in personal transportation was the bicycle; another worthy topic for a post card collection.  You have the advantage to explore a century and more of our world unfolding before you in a handy format that is very user friendly.  Hitch a ride on history and be transported.

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Where is eBay Going?

8 September 2010

I was an eBay seller near the beginning.  I saw it go from a kind of curiosity that fed the popular press with stories of unusual and bizarre items for sale to a a wide open and profitable collectibles marketplace.  Some strange articles offered for sale included a U.S. Navy F/A-18A Hornet jet fighter, a man’s kidney, and Britney Spears’ chewed gum (note the past tense).  At it’s peak a seller could make something like a living wage.  I used it in conjunction with several stands in antique malls and occasional consulting jobs for antiques dealers who were anxious to get a piece of the ebay pie.  Today I can’t help but wonder what has happened to the pie.

The simple answer is, to borrow a political catch-phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  The same economy that has wreaked havoc with everything from blue chip stokes to hog futures has brought us an eBay that seems to be winding down.  In the last two weeks I have sold only one thing and the buyer has not answered his email or paid what he owes.  So the item will wait until such time as the funds arrive.

In conversations with other users I have heard a generally critical tone aimed at eBay itself.  I don’t think that eBay has endeared itself to sellers over the years.  rising fees and more restrictive rules have chased some people away.  Personally I was irked way back when they added the Buy It Now feature.  The auction fever aspect of eBay was part of what  gave me unexpected chunks of cash.  I had no idea what that JFK campaign poster I sold back in 1997 was worth.  I paid two bucks and there seemed llike plenty of gravy left over.  There were JFK poster reprints all over the auction site but none like mine.  By the second day the poster was up to $50.  It top out at $200.  That kind of thing was not unusual but it hasn’t happened to me in a long while.

Once upon a time I used a simple formula to estimate my sales total for the week.  It was simply 10 times the number of auctions listed.  If I listed 30 items I would sell $300.  No science was involved, no analytics or deep thought.  It was what I observed when I first started.  It held for about four years, better around the Christmas season.  There were big dips when Clinton jumped on Microsoft with both feet,  The dotcom “bubble” burst, and when a beautiful morning in September was ruined as airplanes crashed into the heart of America.

Lately eBay seems to be making some efforts to improve the situation with such things as free listing periods.  I guess they have figured out that they  are not a store with their own inventory.  It is the many individual sellers who bring the goods to market.  Furthermore it is the people who know antiques and collectibles that bring the unique and desirable items that make this market exciting.  One more electronic gizmo starting at 99 cents with an overcharge on shipping is not thrilling.  Even if it’s a bargain it is a dead common bargain.  The thrill is in finding something that you don’t see every day or that you can’t by within a days driving distance of home.

Let’s face it there is a lot less loose change in the average American’s pocket in the present day.   Inevitably eBay will scale down.  It looks like it already has.  The company I work for has become leaner and probably yours has too.  Let’s hope our favorite auction site leans itself down to a vigorous marketplace with exciting merchandise that will continue to be worth our time. and effort.

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Flying High With Aviation Collectibles

2 September 2010

Human powered flight encompasses a large area of collecting interest.  Aviation is equal parts technology and romance.  It occupies a small slice of the span of human history but is a defining element of the modern world.  Airplanes fascinated me as a kid who spent many hours in libraries.  I poured over all the books that showed airplanes and explained how they worked.  The magazine racks held Model Airplane News magazine.  I was one of those kids who hung on the airport fence and watched the planes take off.  After high school I got distracted by popular culture but came back to my earlier interests as I got settled into a steady job and home ownership.  I put the necessary time and money into getting a private pilot’s license which was one of the highlights of my life.  Virtually every aspect of Flying, it’s history and continuing development, civilian, military or commercial is part of an ongoing love affair..

The kind of feeling I grew up with for aviation is what makes a collector tick.  A lot of people have that feeling for automobiles, trains, dogs, horses, stamps, coins, you name it.  I have the same thing for sailboats, hence my other blog: Seaward Adventures.  As a dealer in collectible items, buying and selling to make a profit was the main consideration.  Aviation was one of the few areas I collected for myself.  My pride and joy was an assembly of aviator’s wing badges.

When I first started selling collectibles I naturally gravitated toward items that interested me personally.  My interests payed off surprisingly well.  I had stumbled onto the formula that became my business model.  Artifacts that relate to an activity engaged in by well educated people with a passion for the activity and a healthy income to support the activity equals profitability.  Lets face it you don’t see any poor people climbing into a Cessna 172 to go for a hundred dollar hamburger.

The aviation demographic was grown by WWII and the postwar economic growth that allowed many Americans to pursue their personal dreams. My customers were frequently people with good stories to tell.  I always enjoy some good hangar talk which is why my favorite podcast is Uncontrolled Airspace.  Jack, Jeb, Dave and the various other contributors to the podcast are entertaining and educational in a way that makes a pilot feel connected with the flying community.

Some interesting items I have handled in my business or personal collection are:  Pilot’s operating handbooks for various vintage aircraft, early variations on the E6B flight computer, parts for Jacob’s radial engines,  early pilot’s goggles and way too many other items to remember.  I divested myself of all those collections.  I still dabble.  I have a few items on eBay right now.   A recently acquired WWII item was the subject of a previous Adventures in antiquing post.  You may view it at http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=220663480133.

I find that people have fond memories of the aircraft they flew once upon a time.  The old sales literature with full color photos of prosperous young folks traveling cross country on business and pleasure have been good sellers.  I three examples on eBay right now.  See the Vintage Beech Sierra Sales Brochure 1973.

Sales have slowed down a bit because eBay is not a happening place lately.  Aviation itself is feeling the effects of the economic downturn.  Certainly some people will slow down their collecting as they tighten their budget.  Ultimately what sustains the market is passion.  Pin your business model on that

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