Yearly Archives: 2010

Time is Money – in a Bottle

12 April 2010

I’ve done a lot of talking about value in this blog.  The influence of auction prices is a starting point for appraisals of antiques and collectibles the world over.  There are several regularly published price guides.  Some people swear by them others swear… well they use them as a starting point.  I can imagine that a lot of the standard price guides have gone a bit stale.  The economic woes we are all suffering have surely taken a toll on prices realized at auction.

Incredibly there is still some ground breaking action in the markets.  A recent article in Antique Trader magazine headlined the setting of a new world record for a bottle at $100,620.  I have to admit, I’m rather impressed.  Of course this is a genuinely old item with an interesting historical provenance.  This bottle is known as the “Firecraker Flask.”  Blown in blue glass by the Kensington Glass Works, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. sometime between 1820 and 1840 it’s color blue is particularly rare.

The bottle commemorates the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both of whom passed away on the 4th of July 1826.  The bottle was formerly in the collections of  William Pollard and Warren C. Lane, Jr.

The former record was  set by American Bottle Auctions of Sacramento, Calif., which involved the sale of a Bryant’s cone-shaped Bitters electronic cigarette for non smokers bottle.
That one realized a price of $68,750 in 1999.  That’s a pretty amazing jump considering that there is no government stimulus cash for clinking bottles program.

When records such as this are broken we take notice.  It sends folks scurrying to their basements with unrealistic expectations.  Still it’s nice to know that somebody out there is ready to spend some serious cash on nonessential items.  The antique and collectibles trade is rife with events like this.  Boom and bust are doled out in approximately equal proportions.  Remember the ripples that went through the economy after the World Trade Towers were brought down?  Social upheaval has a chilling effect on an industry that is based on buyers disposable income.

The long term outlook for the economy still seems uncertain.  The wise player in this game will ride the rallys and plan for the downturns.  Call it market surfing.  Keep your eye on the waves and don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.

Knowledge is Power

Keep yourself up to date. You won’t find out what you need to know on CNN or FOX. Listen to the buzz around your local antique mall and flea markets. get the latest price guides at some place like Amazon. Read the regional antique trade newspapers. It’s war out there and good intelligence is priceless.

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Hammer and Tongs, Allies and Enemies

4 April 2010

Auctions are great places for people watching. There is usually an eclectic mix of personalities and most everyone there has an agenda. The crowd divides into two basic camps: dealers and non dealers. The two groups are not in open conflict but there are tensions.

I started going to auctions a long time before entering the antiques trade. I remember that dealers were kind of looked on as greedy and not operating completely above board. When my status changed from collector to dealer, my attitude changed. I still recognized a kernel of truth in my former way of thinking. Dealers dominate the room.

As a new dealer I was roundly ignored by my colleagues. After a time I became known in the trade and found that there was indeed a sort of brotherhood of dealers. In the auction house environment this was manifested in informal agreements.

This became apparent one day when a fellow antiques dealer standing beside me at a preview opened a line of questioning I had not yet run into. he must have noticed that my examination of items had certain themes or areas of interest. We got to talking about the merchandise and he casually offered that he would not bid on the items I was clearly interested in. Implicit in this was an assurance that I would likewise refrain from bidding on items he was concentrating on. Okay, I could see the advantage.

This sometimes goes according to genre. The furniture dealers will stay away from the glass who stay away from the old books who stay away from the old advertising, etc. This is okay as along as nobody is in collusion to drive up prices.

Casual deals are made all the time. It doesn’t give you exclusive control of bidding but it does cut down on a little bit of competition. keep in mind if you are interested in a cut glass vase and somebody else wants it too, then it’s just a matter of who has the most money and motivation. This is why it is so important for a dealer to know his market.

I was always a electronic cigarette drops niche marketer antway. Why buy something that is outside your area of expertise? Focus on your own auction and stay on the money trail.

One of the most interesting and entertaining characters in the auction room is the person who buys out of emotion or sheer desire to have that one thing that is sure to blind him like a brand new silver dollar reflecting the noon day sun. Such a person is liable to get hijacked by shills. I know, shills are illegal and immoral. They are associated in some way to the auctioneer 9paid to perform, keeps teir brother-in-law off the street) and deliberately drive up the bidding. It’s extremely hard to exposed their misdeeds. Your best defense is to bid wisely and deliberately.

On the other hand, it’s very entertaining to sit and watch a good honest bidding war run around the room. It happens because there is a truly rare and precious item on the block, personalities are colliding or two people are just turning to ashes in the heat of the moment.

You see it coming when the bidding gets above what the average Joe sees things go above pocket money level. There is usually a murmur at the hundred dollar level. The dealers generally have some snse of the market in higher end shops. They aren’t excited yet. if the bidding continues at a steady pace with no hesitation the room will go very quiet. Everyone gets caught up in the moment and heads start to swivel looking to identify the combatants. The tension builds until the auctioneer has finally called, “sold!” Applause often follows with perhaps some chuckling by those who have inside knowledge.

I’ve seen this happen many times for various reasons. A common one is the result of family members having a show down. “Grandma said I could have her sewing box when she was gone.” If you didn’t get get your due from the will then the estate sale is your second bite of the apple.

Find a good auction house to attend regularly. There’s no cover charge and on a good day it’s better than TV.

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You’re Only as Antique as You Feel

30 March 2010

We draw a certain meaning from any work we do. One can’t be in the antique business and not think about time and aging.  You constantly handle artifacts from simpler eras.  Many dealers are old-timers who have been in the game a long time and know how much it has changed.  The insight I have drawn from antiquing is a change in the pace of life.  Thank you, industrial revolution!

Collecting antiques and displaying them in our homes is a recognition that we value history.  Estate sales  are glimpses into the past as lived by ordinary people with sometimes extraordinary bits of residue from historic moments.

I once knew a dealer who bought an old bottle at an estate sale in the Pennsylvania coal regions.  He was intrigued by the french inscription etched in the glass and the thick black liquid sealed inside with a crystal stopper.  It turned out to be oil drained from the engine of the Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget  airport.  When Lindbergh landed, the mob that greeted him began to take bits and pieces of the plane as souvenirs. Police had to guard it through the night.

Today’s advertising can be overwhelming, even annoying.  You will find any antique mall  and many shops to be chock full of old advertising treated as high art.  The multitudinous tins and bottles of kitchen and other household products are equally celebrated for their rarity and quaintness.  Back in the sixties we rebellious types bemoaned our materialistic throwaway society.  No archeology site is complete without it’s midden.  We celebrate junk by viewing it in a new light.

The average antique shop is not a palace of treasured items built by the best craftsman of times past.  genuine Chippendale is apt to already be in a museum or some stinking rich guys mansion.  Instead we have the horse collar from the days of slow transportation,  The typewriter from the days of slow communication, soda fountain stools from the days before fast food.  When my father was a boy no aircraft flew past the speed of sound. When my Grandfather was a boy there were no airplanes.  He plowed with a horse  and when he grew up he took a slow boat to Europe to fight in The Great War.

Maybe the slower pace of the past meant less luxury and harder work.  Although the reports I see on the news are indicating that Americans spend more time at work and of course the two wage earner family is becoming a necessity in this economy.  We are definitely on the go  and have adapted to a hurried lifestyle.

This became apparent to me a couple of years ago when I found myself in a situation where I was required to use an old rotary dial phone.  They were the only thing available in my world until about 1968.  I placed my finger in the hole corresponding to the first number and rotated the dial.  Then I let it return to the starting position.  This continued for all eight digits in the telephone number.  Half way through this process it occurred to me that the whole thing was very annoying.  Why should I be annoyed at a stupid old phone?

It wasn’t the effort of dialing that put me off.  My fingers were not weak.  I didn’t lack faith that the call would go through.  It was simply having to wait for the dial to return to the starting position before dialing the next number.  It was robbing me of precious seconds.  So, how pathetic am I?  I wonder if my Grandson will look back on the cell phone and think, ” how quaint?  Imagine pushing all those buttons.  Where did they find the time?”

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Playing it cool

27 March 2010

An auction preview can be a noisy social affair.  Let the party go on around you.  The best approach to auction buying is to play it cool.  You are there to score valuable treasure.  The value you place on a given item is important information.  Success can depend on not telegraphing it all over the room.

The typical auction house will have all merchandise visible, usually on various tables or in display cases.  Close inspection is normally possible.   Examine everything with an eye to putting an upper limit on what you are willing to pay for a given object.  If in the process you come across something you just have to have, in superb condition and rarer than air on the moon, DO NOT REACT!  Words like “wow”, “oh my God” and the like are verboten.   Just put the item down like it was simply another worn out old thing and move along.  Maybe even go and gush over something gaudy and tasteless that you wouldn’t take on a bet.  Chances are someone else will have spotted the treasure.  Let the other pirates find their own “X” marking the spot.

Having spotted your quarry it is time to examine the lay of the land.  Sitting at the back of the room is good strategic positioning. It’s like holding the high ground.  Remember to use subtle bidding signals.  You are hiding in plain sight but you get busted when the runners bring your purchase to you.  Too late, the auctioneer has already shouted the magic word -“SOLD!”

During the bidding I like to bid in rapid succession.  Let somebody else take the first bid.  Immediately get in on the bidding as soon as it takes off in earnest.  Keep in mind that you may be bidding against several competitors.  As soon as the auctioneer has taken a bid, flash your signal.  This is where the pace can really pick up unless the auctioneer deliberately slows things down.  This seldom happens.  As the bid price goes up heads will start to swivel all around the room. Everybody wants to know who mister confident is.  Many people will jump to the conclusion that a determined buyer is in the room. There is, it’s you.

While previewing tray lots at an auction house I spotted one with a jumble of drafting tools and a couple of okay but not spectacular slide rules There was also a very interesting non-descript black instrument case about eighteen inches long.  I could just about swear that thing was giving off visible vibrations.  I asked a runner to see the tray.  I casually looked over various items, deliberately not making a bee line for the case.  There were other dealers right next to me examing things and I tried to appear dismissive towards what I was looking at.

It was easy to estimate the worth of the individual tools and instruments getting a running total in my mind.  I had discovered in the past that slide rules were a good niche market and readily salable on eBay.  The tray, thus far, was worth an easy $30.00 total so I didn’t want spend more than $10.00 at most.  When I got to the instrument case the situation became more interesting. It was a plain paper covered case typical for old drafting tools, slide rules, navigation instruments, etc.  It opened at the ends and withdrew a wooden slide rule with shellacked paper scales.  This baby was old and it was in very good condition.  It’s not easy to come up with a value on something like that unless you’ve seen it on sale before.  What I was sure of was that it was desirable to the tune of several hundred bucks.  I was a little strapped and had about $50.00 on me if I was willing to fore-go lunch.

Buzzing on high frequency, I took my seat and waited for the auction to begin.  I didn’t sit in back for this one.  Instead I sat where I could watch the tray to see if it attracted a lot of attention.  It didn’t.  The runner had placed it back on the table which was nicely crowded that day with a pretty normal assortment of oldish things.  Nice enough but dead common.  The star items that everyone in the room were certain to fight over were on the next table and in display cases around the room. I only saw one other person examine the tray.  He didn’t check out the instrument case but instead took a seat two rows in front of me and slightly to one side.

When the tray finally reached the block the auctioneer briefly described the contents. Just like the other guy he never took the slide rule out of it’s case.  Had he done so I know other dealers in the room who would have taken notice.  Wooden instruments with paper scales equal collector money in anyone’s antique shop.  The bidding was offered at twenty dollars with no takers.  It went all the way down to fifty cents before someone took the bid. I countered at a dollar and then the gentleman in front of me took up the bid running it up fifty cents and then a dollar per bid.  I signaled my bid as soon as I could with subtle nods of my head.  The other guy could tell by the auctioneers gaze that his competition was somewhere behind him.  He kept trying to turn his head just enough to spot me but his counter bidding slowed quickly as he lost heart for the game. the whole thing took less time that it takes to tell this story.  I walked away with my treasure trove for seven dollars.

I really expected to have a tougher time of it than that.  I didn’t even stay for the whole auction.  I was too keyed up and besides I could afford lunch.  Giving the slide rule a close examination at home I found it to be in beautiful condition with markings dating it to 1899, manufactured in Philadelphia.   It was a perfect eBay item.  The loose tools on the tray went for about $40.00.  The slide rule netted $800.00.  Not a bad score and the entire episode was a thrill for me from beginning to end.

I’m not saying that you run into those special moments everyday.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t want something that tasty to go stale.  Just remember that you can pick up some hot merchandise by playing it cool.

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The Call

24 March 2010

The first time you go to an auction you will find it strange to listen to the auctioneer’s call.  Every auctioneer has a personal style.  Some are easy to follow while others might as well be speaking Urdu or ancient Egyptian.  Why don’t they just speak normally?  Hey! What fun would that be?

The auctioneers call is steeped in tradition.  The rapid pace has a very practical purpose: to move the goods.  Time is money.  The sooner a final bid is reached the sooner a new item can be put on the block.  In general it seems that the pace is slower at the high class houses where serious art and antiques are headed for the homes of the mega-rich.  The rest of us need to develop an ear for the bid levels that  are within reach.

Usually you must register for a number to be able to place bids.  The number may be on a paper card or a paddle.  The idea is simply to raise the number to place a bid.  In practice the veteran bidder will not make such an obvious display.  Use a subtle motion.  If you can block the view of the paddle from the rest of the room, even better.  In most cases you can make your first couple of bids in an obvious manner.  After that use a signal.  Nod your head. tug on your ear, rub your nose. 

This may seem strange but the auctioneer will know what you are doing and he will go along with it.  His goal is to realize a high sale price .  Secret bidding helps to build suspense and appeals to the buyers competitive nature.  In a room full of dealers and collectors there are frequently some very intense feelings.  when you are familiar with the personalities involved a good auction can be way better than TV. 

When an item first comes up for bid the auctioneer will give his starting bid, repeating it until someone responds.  If nobody places a bid the auctioneer will name a lower bid.  The opening bids may go ridiculously low.  When someone finally takes the bait the bids will rise, usually to somewhere above the starting price.  Why does this happen?  Because everyone loves a bargain.  Take your kids along and show them the free market in action.

As a bidder the game can be played with a bit of strategy.  I prefer a little psychological warfare, harmless warfare of course!  But the game actually begins before bidding starts.  Hold that thought for next time when we talk about the art and practice of being Mr. Cool.

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The Fall of the Gavel

18 March 2010

The Red Barn Auction house had atmosphere.  If certain government agencies had been present it would have rated a high level smog alert.  On a summer evening the humidity could have made a skeleton sweat.  But it had charm.  The rapid pace of the auctioneer’s song kept expectations at a fever pitch.  Located in the backwoods of Berks County Pennsylvania this antiques treasure trove didn’t attract big city high rollers.  The crowd consisted of working people: farmers, foundry workers, Amish families and a sprinkling of old school dealers who had learned their trade going “on the knock” and mining rural haunts like this one.

Genuine antiques are the hidden artifacts of daily living.  They are the furniture of a family’s life passed from hand to hand by thrifty people not given to frequenting the finest shops.  The chain of ownership of these items often leaves the entailment of inheritance via estate auctions.  This is where we dealers and collectors benefit through good fortune, a good eye, and knowledge of how the game is played.

I love a good auction.  They are filled with tension and mystery.  A really good auction will provide a payoff that means more than mere money.  To be successful it is necessary to observe the environment and use it to your best advantage.  There are a number of effective approaches.  Most of the time it’s best to be low key

You can tell a lot about the nature of the merchandise at an auction by the tone of the establishment.  Some are sophisticated and high brow, others are a bit rustic.  If the auctioneer is wearing a tie and there is an actual catalog with a glossy cover than you need to be ready to shell out some serious cash.  Fine art and high end furniture from America’s well known master craftsmen is a neighborhood that most bidders can’t afford to play in.  It is instructional to sit in on some of these auctions and observe what passes for good taste among the wealthy.  It can help you at a later date to identify an unexpected gem among an otherwise lackluster assembly of personal artifacts.

It’s All About The Early Bird!

Always arrive early to take advantage of the preview period. This is the time to spot your quarry and reconnoiter the surrounding terrain. Dig in boxes, riffle through books, inspect glass for chips.  Remember that condition is key in realizing full value.  look for damage, don’t worry about dirt.  Most things can be cleaned.  Take along some hand sanitizer.  It’s surprising how filthy your fingers get after handling auction merchandise.

Set a value in your mind for everything you look at.  It may not match the so called book value but hat is not the point.  A lot of things are not in the books. Your experience becomes the book and the real point is to set an upper bidding limit.  Without this you can be seduced by the excitement of the moment as the auctioneer’s rapid barely decipherable call rings in your ears.  Keep in mind that he is there to make a buck and excited, competitive bidders can get way out of control.  This is combat and keeping a cool head is as important as keeping your powder dry.

Allowing yourself adequate prep time will pay dividends by placing your bidding on a rational footing.  It also can give you the confidence in the midst of a bidding war to take the psychological high ground over your often unseen opponents in the room.  But, that’s for another time when we discuss the bidding game.

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Thrill of the Hunt

15 March 2010

Antiquing is a gentle sort of blood sport. There are two breeds of hunter in this game, the auction assaulter and the flea market crawler. Auction houses and estate sales are competitive environments.  Flea markets are more like stalking game through tall grass. Each has it’s own approach and each can have a singular thrill.
     The fall of the gavel, the surreptitious signaling of bidders, the smell of old leather and furniture, the flashing of bankrolls are all part of a visit to an auction house. This is where antique dealers and serious collectors come to play. It’s a world where value is a measurement with spiritual dimensions. Amongst the box lots of miscellaneous leavings of peoples lives and the well cataloged treasures of rare and expensive antiques the real prize is the mystery item that has yet to reveal it’s value. There are hidden gems undervalued by the common herd but detectable by dealers and collectors who hold arcane knowledge of Ambien 5mg both the extraordinary and mundane artifacts of history. To be part of this club of seekers after the hidden prey of the auction house is to know the thrill of the hunt.
     Flea markets, Swap meets and garage sales are all about being the early bird. The good deals go fast and there is a lot of territory to cover. You have to develop a fast scan. be prepared to dig around in boxes and bins.  Flea markets are layered like archaeological sites. Don’t be shy.  Find a treasure and get ready to bargain for it.
     I tend to spend less for individual items at flea markets than at auctions. Auctioneers are usually more experienced at setting values. They are able to research their inventory and have some expectation of the final bid price. And you are competing with other highly motivated hunter-gatherers.  In future postings I will go into more details about these two basic hunting preserves and talk about some strategies for bringing back your quarry.

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The Art and Practice of Time Travel

15 March 2010

Welcome to your voyage of discovery to the old world.  Antiquing is time travel simplified.  No need to involve physicists or secret government laboratories. Whether you are a dealer or a collector there is a lot to learn.  Fortunately it can be taken in individual bites.
This pursuit is not just about dusty relics from the distant past. Antiques are sometimes defined as all items over 100 years old. Of course that brings a whole new range of objects into view every year.  The antiques and newer collectible markets have merged solidly over the past several decades.  Many people are more fascinated by 1950’s era chrome legged kitchen tables than colonial ladderback chairs or Chippendale pie crust tables
It boils down to nostalgia and passion.  What stimulates your imagination, piques your curiosity or speaks to your soul?  Does an old rag doll give you a case of the warm and fuzzies?  Does a brass sextant in it’s fitted wooden box bring an image to mind of the ocean’s broad horizon and the tropical sun above?  Antiquing is one part learned history and two parts visceral excitation.  Mix and stir well.
Return to Adventures in Antiquing as we serve up stories, opinion and just enough education to be useful.  Consider us to be partners in time travel. To begin, we ask what is antiqueing all about?  It’s about the thrill of the hunt!  Keep your eyes open and don’t be squeamish about crawling through the underbrush.

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