Collecting

Wabi Sabi American Style

19 August 2015

Some people collect for the sake of collecting, most have a purpose beyond mere acquisitiveness. We collect because we connect with material things through memory, knowledge, inspiration and as many motivations as there are emotions in the human psyche. While some people maintain a degree of privacy, stuffing their collected items away where nobody sees them, others like to share. They fit their acquisitions into a decorating scheme or display a collection in a way that is artistically appealing, perhaps making a personal statement.  Antiques are sometimes valued for their utility as in a type of tool that is no longer made. Hand drills work well if you live off the grid. We also hold on to these things to appreciate them and show them off in a visually appealing manner. Aesthetics is simply this, how good does a thing look and how does it make you feel? It brings to mind Billy Crystal doing his Fernando Lamas imitation, “You look mahvalous. The most important thing is to look good.”

Looking good is an art.  It starts at the point of original design and continues as an object acquires the unique signature created by the usage of time. In short: dirt is beautiful. So are dings and scrapes and oil and wax. A nicer way to express it would be “environmental effects.” Well, that’s a little cold and analytical. Lets be more earthy. Let’s get comfortable in our own skins. It is a basic rule in antique restoration that you don’t want to strip an original finish or slather wood putty into the dents and dings. Old dirt and damage are the prime ingredients for a lovely patina. Antiques wear their history on the surface. Western sensibilities tend to like new items that look just like the day they were made. We do this with vintage automobiles and aircraft.  I think it works just fine in those areas. There is even a safety factor in preserving functionality in moving vehicles. You don’t want your 1920’s Curtiss biplane sputtering to a halt at odd moments. If you are going to drive your model T on occasion the brakes should work at least as well as they did in the old days.

I went through a period of fascination with Zen Buddhism back in the seventies. It wore off, but a little something stuck in the form of the Japanese attitude towards the simple beauty of utilitarian forms, ordinary objects made with care and superior craftsmanship.  Wabi Sabi is the reason the Japanese automobile industry kicked our butts back in the seventies. Some antiques come from an opposite visual perspective. The European renaissance gave us  a richness of decoration that was sometimes blindingly ornate. The level of workmanship was extraordinary but opulence is hard for most of us to relate to.

The Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early twentieth century gave us mission furniture and similar styles. Gustav Stickley pioneered an approach to furniture design that became an enduring American style. The same lines and honest display of joinery echoes the construction of Japanese shoji screens and temple architecture. The influence continued in the architectural work of Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. The blending of furniture and architecture was an inevitable outgrowth of the design elements that grew in the American heartland.

What was once a new thing aged in a dignified manner. American decorative arts survived to form the core of what I experienced in the antique trade. As a dealer on the lower rungs of that particular business ladder I had little contact with Chippendale and Sheraton, et al.  It was entertaining to hang out at auction and watch the New York or L.A. connected dealers throw money at each other.  The antiques I had a shot at moving through the mire of commerce were the common furnishings of my grandparents and great grandparents world: kitchen tables that showed the wear of rolling pins, knives, and elbows. Their patina was enhanced by spilled milk, smeared lard and the blood of both farm and game animals. It was all stoutly built of oak and ash, pine and maple. Mahogany, bird’s eye maple and crotch grain black walnut was reserved for the parlor or perhaps the bedroom. Those finer furnishings were better cared for but still took their own punishment. Look at the legs of old chairs and tables to see the traces of myriad collisions with toy trucks and the careless feet of children. Shellac finishes oxidized into a noticeably reptilian patterns. water glasses quickly left rings and spilled alcohol was like a dissolving tide.  The introduction of nitrocellulose lacquer made the household environment more durable and family friendly.

Metals and plastics not only brought forth new often “streamlined” styles they changed the nature of the way we regarded wear and tear. We were initially repulsed by rust, flaky chrome plating and sun faded plastics and chipped enamel. The postwar era ushered in the throwaway economy. Disposable material was a virtue to be worshiped by the culture of modern convenience. A decade later environmentalism criticized the attitude and threw roadblocks in the way that were ultimately hurdled by the acolytes of recycling. America stopped blithely disposing and engorging landfills with cultural detritus. It created a whole new gray market operating out of a vast network of garages manned by individual entrepreneurs. The antique marketers took notice.

Somewhere along the way while some of us were still trying to hawk the furnishings of our great grandparents a shift in time took place. The definition of antique went from 100 years old to 50, sometimes 25. Items of cultural significance that become overnight sensations become objects of nostalgia almost as fast.

The new ethos on the block was shabby chic which evolved into the art and craft of “re-purposing.” The market is driven as never before by domestic decorating. You can  see it on reality television as the public is regaled by tales of home makeovers and wandering duos of dealers pestering random hoarders for not only genuine historical artifacts but rusty gates, aging light fixtures and worn out leather jackets from pilots and motorcycle bums to bell bottom jeans that belonged to hippie girls who might have been at Woodstock.

The descendants of the industrial revolution will never stop making new and ever shinier things. It is their mission to attract the eye with things that are smooth or shiny or have a rough masculine feel or a soft feminine silkiness. We are intoxicated by the smell of a new car. What you remember most of all is the ragged old blanket that your first born hauled everywhere. your favorite coffee cup and the movie that makes you cry when you watch it every year at Christmas. The essence of utility built into every truly useful object is manifested in nostalgia and value lies at the intersection of purpose and beauty. The greatest creations of man are no more than this and that is all that they need to be.

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Pickers Know How To Buy So They Can Sell

9 February 2011

Pickers are resourceful people with a strong native intelligence and a wealth of experience.  You can learn a lot from them and from trying some picking yourself.  The business of antiquing is all about buying and selling.  Being a collector is mostly about buying with maybe some beneficial horsetrading and occasional selling thrown in.  The following information may be valuable as many a collector who starts out selling duplicate items gets bit by the dealer bug.  Scratch a collector and you will find a merchant underneath.

Shy People Lose Out

One of the main lessons I have learned in this business is, don’t be shy.  That was tough for me.  I grew up kind of shy and introverted.  I didn’t come out of my shell fully until I went back to college at age forty.   I noticed that all the kids in class didn’t want to speak up.  I’d been kicked around enough by life that I didn’t care so much if I opened my mouth and what I said wasn’t immediately applauded.  You have to be ready to walk up to total strangers and talk about what you are interested in.  Look at what people have.  If you want it, make an offer.  Buy something you don’t want as much, at a price you can afford, and it may break the ice.

It works at a flea market too.  When you buy multiple items you can ask for a bigger discount for the whole group and thereby get the item you are most interested in for a good price.  The extra items in the group can be good low priced quick sale merchandise for your shop.  As a dealer you need cash flow and deals that attract repeat customers.  This is a clear win-win. It’s like buying box lots at auction.  Every box of junk has one item that you are sure of.  When you get it home and start rooting around some treasure may come to light that pays for all the boxes and the hot dog and soda that got you through yet another long night of earsplitting auctioneering.

On The Road Again And Again

Travel broadens the mind and deepens the pockets.  Be ready to get out and about in search of new buying venues.  When you are driving anywhere be looking for out of the way shops and flea markets.  When I was a kid my parents called them junk shops.  I loved them.  Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The trashier the place looks the better may be your chances of low prices.  Sometimes a shop is intentionally junky.  I knew some people who stocked there antique mall spaces on this basis.  It appeals to a certain type of buyer and those dealers did quite well.   Take the back roads and state routes when you travel.  The highways are called limited access for a reason.

Develop a regular circuit of flea markets, swap meets and antique malls with a good turn around in merchandise.  I used to get up at five on a Sunday morning. I hit the local flea market in my home town and pestered people as they were unloading their vehicles.  I would then head east and hit three more by noon going out about twenty-five miles.  Once a month I would change up and head west.  There were fewer flea markets in that direction.  Always head for the target rich environments.

That was in the populous Northeast.  Where I live now it costs too much to get anywhere with a sizable population.  The price of fuel is a big chunk of overhead these days. Strategize according to past performance and what you have observed of current trends so that you aren’t going where buying opportunities are lacking.

Move On!

Time is money.  Don’t waste it by haggling with people who aren’t willing to part with their precious memories.  If you can’t break the ice with a smaller sale then move on to plow some looser soil.  Everybody behind a table at a flea market should be ready to come down to a price where you can afford to buy an item for resale.  If they don’t, remember those dealers and don’t hand over your valuable time to them again.  Develop a good visual scan so that you can move through a flea market and spot interesting items quickly.  There can be an awful lot of small items on a table and you will certainly miss some good things.  You can help the process if you have a partner who knows your want list.  My girl friend used to see stuff that totally escaped me because everybody has a different point of view.  Fresh eyes can be a valuable asset.  It is tempting to look in detail at every box in a crowded stand, but the clock is ticking.

Good flea market dealers will have boxes in orderly rows with not too much in each box.  All the books in one area, household in another, and so on.  There may be a separate table for the “special” items which will probably have the higher prices.  I knew a couple who cleaned out houses and worked this formula like a clockwork machine every Sunday at the local flea market.  I loved these guys.  They were all about the quick turnover.  They had a barn full of stuff all the time and what didn’t get sold got trashed.  It was easy to cruise through their stuff just walking the rows of boxes scanning for good stuff.  Then I’d visit the special table and usually pick up some nice smalls at a price that left room for me.  They got to know what I was looking for and soon I was being treated to items on reserve in the back of the car.  If they had aviation items or old slide rules, they were set aside for me to have first choice.  Every Sunday ten minutes of my time netted me salable material.

Tell Them What You Want

Let people know what you are looking to buy.  Some dealers put ads in the newspaper saying what they are buying.  People respond to the idea of getting immediate cash for their old junk.  If you are knocking on doors have a flyer that lists clearly the kind of items you are willing to pay cold hard cash for.  Hang a copy on every free bulletin board you see.  I used to have a list of wants printed on the back of my business cards for Timestream Antiques.  When you are buying from a dealer at a flea market let the person know that you are interested in buying more of the same and also other items.  Cultivate relationships with the people on your circuit.

Speaking up is easier than you think.  Come out of your shell.  Spend a little gas money (yeah! I know that’s getting harder).  Move on when the pickings are slim. Let everybody know what you want, what you really, really want!  When you get it be ready to go back for more.

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Restore China and Glass: DIY or Leave It To The Experts?

18 December 2010

Watch the dealers in an auction room full of antique china and glass.  Their fingers are everywhere.  They fondle and stroke plates and cups, goblets and glasses.  They are especially concerned with the edges where chips so often occur.  the broad surfaces of plates may yield their secret flaws when held up to the light.  Nowhere else in the antique world do you see such a constant search for perfection.You won’t see it in furniture collector’s and dealers.  They celebrate wear and tear.  The lowliest patch of grime and grit is elevated to the lofty status of “patina.”   Most areas of collecting carry on this ethic to some degree.  But glass is meant to sparkle.  You wouldn’t eat off of dirty plates so why collect it and put it on display.  We like to have it whole and blemish free.

Life happens and unless it is locked away for all time our precious bits of china may fall victim to breakage.   China and crystal are often family heirlooms soaked in memories and not easily discarded.  Repairing these items can be a difficult task ending in a thing of beauty degraded to a faded dream.  Before repairing these items take the time to think through your process. Assess your skills realistictly and use the right adhesives.

white glues don’t do much for smooth nonporous surfaces.  I have found that cyanoacrylate or “super glues” are overrated for this type of job.  I like epoxy because it give one the time to bring pieces together and reposition them more precisely if necessary.  always try to arrange a system of clamps to provide a bit of pressure to the mating surfaces.  With epoxy it need not be excessive pressure as long as good alignment of the objects with no gaps can be achieved.  Squeeze-out or smudges can be cleaned up with denatured alcohol.

If the do-it-yourself approach takes you out of your comfort zone or if you wish  to preserve as much of an object’s value as possible then consider handing it over to a china repair expert.  In homemade repairs one often sees that parts were glued together well but small chips were not recovered.  The result is something like a break in dark colored areas where the lighter ceramic shows through.  Experts use special ceramic fillers and dyes to patch cracks and create seamless repairs that are almost impossible to see.  Glass and crystal repair is even harder to perform satisfactorily by yourself.  In a professional repair shop, chips in crystal are ground and polished for a completely invisible repair.  They take advantage of non-yellowing epoxy formulations to glue broken pieces of glass together.  Some even provide materials or repair kits so that if you still want the satisfaction of making a repair at home it can be done with superior materials as well as expert guidance.

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History Lives in Auction Houses

30 November 2010

Auction houses display historic artifacts from the momumental to the mundane.  Spending time at auction is like being in a class room where everyone has come to participate.  You can learn much and often enjoy the simple emotion of amazement.  So many times I have seen things at auction that I dimly recall reading about.  Seeing a tangible object associated with an important person or event stirs the memory, engages the imagination and brings history to life.

I am not alone in the auction as history point of view.  Rosemary McKittrick writes about auctions at her website, Live Auction Talk.  She has been writing about art and antiques for over 20 years.  Her site archives over 800 articles covering a broad array of categories.   The depth of her experience and keen eye for the story behind the story shows clearly in her articles.  Typically they focus on a particular item that has come up for auction with a description of the historical personality who owned it.  Her research is very good and filled with educational nuggets of information.

Rosemary looks at auctions all over the world to find the story behind historic objects as they come up for sale at auction.    As she says:

“It could be Harry Houdini, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth or William Randolph Hearst. I tell their stories through the handcuffs they’ve owned, books they’ve written, songs they’ve sung, planes they’ve flown, empires they’ve built and homeruns they’ve hit—all of which sold on the block.”

Her story on Baron Von Richthofen (The Red Baron) includes interesting details surrounding his untimely demise.  I’m a pilot and dedicated aviation history buff and had forgotten this story.  It’s nice to have it back in my memory bank.  One of his silver beakers commemorating a victory in aerial combat sold at auction for $28.000.

These articles contain some great research on auction prices realized.  Don’t pass up this kind of resource.  Rosemary gets it in one when she says, “When the bidding stops and the hammer falls, the value of an item is set. The buyer, not the seller, sets the price. This simple distinction cuts through all the chitchat about what art, antiques and collectibles are really worth.”

Go to Live Auction Talk and sign up for her free weekly subscription.  It includes an article on the 8 essentials of collections.  It will tell you exactly what needs to be at the forefront of your thinking every time you enter an auction house.  It’s brilliant stuff and lots of fun.

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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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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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