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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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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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