Posts Tagged collector

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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Do The Winter Doldrums Take The Wind From Your Sales?

1 January 2011

By now the ball has dropped and you’ve wished everyone a Happy New Year.  The Christmas decorations are put away and eBay looks like a Ghost town.  A virtual gust of desert wind blows tumbleweeds through the dusty circuit boards of their many servers.  Soon even that breeze may die completely as the Winter doldrums set in.  Every business has it’s cycles.  Typically this time of year features the slowest sales of the year coupled with the fewest buying opportunities for new antique inventory items.  Outdoor flea markets are closed, no one is having garage sails and many auction houses close down for a week or two while they do inventory and take a vacation.

The doldrums need not be unproductive.  It’s all in how you use the time.  There is a ton of things a dealer can do to make use of the time.  Start with taking inventory.  It’s not just a dry exercise in counting stuff.  You can take the opportunity to rearrange and categorize items fro easier access.  I used to find things I had forgotten I had.  You may also identify the dog items that should be cleared out to make space for more proven merchandise.  Have a clearance sale and get rid of these turkeys. Your profits won’t soar but you just need to have some cash flow right now.

Catch up on your accounting.  It will soon be time to file your taxes anyway and it’s easier if you lay the groundwork ahead of time.  As you look at your sales records try to identify the profit makers and include them in your marketing plans.

If you sell on eBay set up a little photo shoot area to take pictures or scan the items You are looking to auction off soon.  Stock up on packing materials.  Christmas can yield a lot of peanuts and bubble wrap if you let friends and relatives know that you would be happy to take them off their hands.  Update your software now while you can spare the time to work through the set up that often accompanies new programs.

If you have a space at an antique mall strip it out and put in as much new merchandise as you can.  It’s also a good time to revisit picking sources you haven’t seen for a long time.  Keep in mind that just like you a lot of dealers are discounted the stuff that doesn’t work for them.  Some of that stuff may be niche market items that can be had cheap and moved on to your established repeat buyers.

Of course if you are a collector and not busying yourself with all these business concerns, get out there and go shopping.  It’s a great time to bargain!

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Book Collecting Warms a Sailor’s Soul

2 November 2010

Old books are a lifesaver on the stormy seas of circumstance. This is especially true as the autumn mornings descend icily on sailors that are landlocked for the coming season.  It is time to seek comfort in book-lined anchorages where time is suspended like a boat in a gale hanging on the crest of a wave.  Somewhere beyond the multitude of whitecaps is a blue sky and a kinder wind.

There are various kinds of book collector.  The antiquarians are seeking the oldest and rarest volumes.  Speed readers tend to get through a volume and then pass it on to someone else.  I like to savor a book and will reread some if they are particularly useful, meaningful or well written.  Selling books is interesting because you can get an insight into a person by what they choose to read.

A niche market grows from niche interests.  If you are a stamp collector you will like selling stamps.  If you are a sports fan, sports memorabilia, autographs or trading cards are will suit you.  I am a sailor.  You can get an idea of the depth of my interest by looking at my other blog: Seaward Adventures.  Although I have always followed a broad array of interests sailing is the one that never wanes in my worldview.  Back in 1985 I spent a year of my spare time and a lot of money getting my private pilot’s license.  I have an interest in aviation that goes back to my childhood. My passions have been expensive ones and in deciding between boats and airplanes the winner has always been sailboats.

Books are at the foundation of all my interests and so it is with sailing.  They teach, entertain and encourage like loyal friends.  Thus, I have always been a collector of books on my favorite subject.  Life sent me in directions which have caused me to leave behind a large library of precious friends but I am making an effort to recover them.  In the world collecting few things are as ubiquitous as books.  The opportunity to find new treasures or replace old ones is everywhere.  There are used bookstores in every city.  Antique malls always have a loose selection of old books and often some very good dealers in printed matter.  Flea markets and estate sales teem with boxes of books to be had at dirt cheap prices.

There are many classic stories of the sea, from Moby Dick to Mutiny on the Bounty. Everybody knows these from school but the wider body of work is immense.  Fiction is just a part of the whole.  There is a vast array of real life accounts of voyages short and long.  There are instructional books on sailing, navigation, boat-building, seamanship,  pirates and more things naval than I care to contemplate.

Certain classics have been in print for many years.  Ashley Book of Knots is a big heavy book.  It is formatted in an encyclopedic style showing every conceivable way to use rope From the practical to the irrelevant.  If you are into marlinespike seamanship it’s an essential text.  When I settled into life in Washington state it was the first book in my new library.

Maritime history in our country has had no stronger preservationist than Howard I. Chapelle (1901–1975).  He roamed the country documenting and measuring traditional working craft that were disappearing from the waterways.  His books are part history and part studies in naval architecture.  I have been rummaging through these volumes since electronic cigarette brands I was a high school student hiding out in the library.  The Search for Speed Under Sail, The History of the American Sailing Navy, Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction, and American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction are essentials of which I am still missing two.  As money allows it will be easy enough to pick them up on ABE books.  Fortunately they had a long print run.

L. Francis Herreshoff (1890-1972) is one America’s premiere yacht designers.  He published several of my favorite books, The Common Sense of Yacht Design, Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol, The Writings of L. Francis Herreshoff, Sensible Cruising Designs and An L. Francis Herreshoff Reader. The Compleat Cruiser: The Art, Practice, and Enjoyment of Boating is one of the most engaging and informative books on cruising under sail ever written.  Some would find the book to be very outdated but if you are paying attention you will learn more than you expected about anchoring, boat designs and simple navigation tricks. Such tricks might save your bacon when the GPS goes unexpectedly silent.  I will never understand why the same people who will deny the existence of a holy God will put blind faith in battery powered electronics in a salt water environment.

For the kind of entertainment that can only be had in the pages of fiction I have always preferred C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. These 11 novels tracing the career of a British naval officer during the great age of fighting sail ring with authenticity as well as drama.  I have read the whole series at least five times.  I also like to have a shelf full of Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho novels.  More ripping yarns from a British pen.  Many people like the more modern equivalent in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian but I have never quite warmed up to the characters.

A favorite part of the nautical book genre is books that review various sailboat designs or feature the work of a particular designer.  They are usually illustrated with photos and plans.  Prime examples are Good Boats, More Good Boats and Still More Good Boats by Roger C. Taylor.  It’s a little like motorheads who can tell you the make and year of any car you see on the road and can give you an opinion on it’s performance.  In my head is a catalog of boat designs built up over more than 40 years of absorbing everything I could about sailing vessels.  Wooden boats take precedence but I don’t discriminate against other materials. The best boat I have owned so far was fiberglass.

The best of vintage nautical books have either great engravings or maps bound in.  One of my other collecting passions has always been maps.  This goes hand in glove.  The art of navigation begets the art of topography.  I cannot see a detailed chart, old or new, without concluding that it springs from an artistic sensibility as well an applied science.  I give all the credit to God for creating both the canvas, the paint and the brush.

Nothing makes me feel more secure and at home than to be snuggled up among my books.  A chill is coming and the soul must have some fuel.  Literature can be a beacon to a sailor, even on dry land, as snow falls softly amid the ranks of sleeping hulls in the Wintry boatyard.

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Sell Your Antiques Before They Grow Roots

18 October 2010

An antiques dealer spends as much time searching for stuff to sell as they do actually selling.  The skill is in acquiring desirable merchandise.  Some merchandise is immediately salable.  Some of it needs a little work. Well, maybe a lot of work.  For twenty five bucks you get a walnut buffet at the local low rent auction house.  The six 1/4 inch holes drilled randomly on the front of an otherwise attractive example of reproduction Sheraton furniture seriously detracts from it’s value.  You’d be surprised what you can do with some shellac sticks and a melting iron.  A little work can lead to the satisfaction of a sale.

Some items are beyond help.   They take root in your stand at the antiques mall and defy all efforts to shift them.  When I first started in business I was very impressed at the auction prices brought by blanket chests.  I managed to find three nice ones.  One of them was shellacked the others were grain painted.  Both were old with good original finish and patina.  They were not exceptional, especially in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country but they were genuine items in acceptable condition.  I had three and sold two.  The third one which was the one I personally liked the best became a fixture in my stand for three years.  I eventually marked it down 50% and it still didn’t sell.  The chest became a gift to my mother who was the only one other than myself who seemed to love it.

Fads Fade

Our buying choices often come from the desire to have the latest hottest item.  When Martha Stewart talked about her Fiesta Ware on television the value of the stuff went through the roof.  Before that it was considered dead common and dealers didn’t give it much of a look.  Some people bought it up as parts of box lots and stuffed it away in barns or garages.  When I got into my first antique mall I was probably the only one who didn’t have a shelf full of the brightly covered stuff.  I never did see much of it get sold.  The trend had already peaked and I suspect much of the inventory is back in the barns.

Timing is everything.  It takes a listening ear and good instincts tempered by experience, which takes time, which is everything.  See the circle here?  There are no college degrees in antique marketing, that I know of.  As time goes on you learn that a good solid niche market with customers who are interested in long term collecting is worth far more than a ride on the popularity roller coaster.  Just ask the sellers of Beanie Babies who missed the window of opportunity on that one.

A Costly Business

Capitalism 101: A price that is more than the traffic will bear is bound to put the brake on sales.  Do I really need to belabor this one?  Sell it for more than you paid for it but slightly less than what the other guy is charging.  Competition is good for the soul.

What trips your personal trigger

Probably your interest in some particular thing is at the root of your going into this business.   For me it was furniture.  As a life-long woodworker and student of the history of design I felt that restoring quality antique furniture would be an interesting way to make a living.  That was where I started in antiques.  It was hard to drum up work in the beginning and as I was spending a lot of time at auctions anyway I accumulated a pile of stuff that was interesting to me and looked like a fair bit of inventory for an antique mall stand with eBay on the side.  before long I was selling on eBay with the mall and furniture restoration on the side.

The greatest discovery I made was that the business was an outlet for my own interests flavored by my own tastes.  Some of my interests were aviation, sailing, militaria, books, prints and engravings, tools and scientific instruments.  Before starting the business I was barely aware of some of the sub categories like Victorian trade cards or Tobacco cards.  These subjects called out to me as I encountered them in shops, flea markets and estate sales.  I bought a little at first and found they sold well.  So I took the cue and bought a lot.  If that sounds like it isn’t rocket science it’s because it’s not.

At the same time I was looking at what others in the market where selling and trying to emulate their success.  Sometimes this worked out but at other times it didn’t.  Usually it didn’t work when I was trying to sell purely on the “copying success” formula with things that I didn’t give a rat’s hind end about.  I tried selling glass but I had no love for it and hated cleaning it and worrying over breakage.  It made little sense for me to bother with it.  My girl friend loved the stuff and she took over that end of the business in my antique mall stands.  She did much better with it and enjoyed the profits.

I guess there is a type of dealer who can simply play the antiques game in a coldly analytical fashion like playing the stock market in tune to a clever algorithm.  That’s not me and it’s not most of the dealers I’ve known.  As you ramble about in search of movable goods if you don’t have a passion for an item don’t waste your time on it.  Love the things you sell as much as the things you collect for yourself.  Send them away to good loving homes long before the roots begin to grow.

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You’re Not Getting Older, You’re Getting Collectable

10 October 2010

Aging creates value in a wide array of commodities.  Sometimes it’s an organic process like in wine, cheese or lasagna on the second day.  Everything has a special value when it’s brand new.  It will never again be as clean and bright, smell so good or make the same crystal clear sounds. Once the original luster of an object begins to fade depreciation sets in at a terrifying pace.    A magic age, defined at one time as 100 years, is reached and the depreciation stops and value can rise once again even though there has been no physical improvement in an object.

The 100 year mark is not as hard and fast a rule as it used to be.  I think this changed when collecting became accessible to the masses with the growth of the middle class.  When I was a kid we repainted or stripped and stained old furniture all the time.  Now we preserve the patina and grumble at anyone who would dare fill a scratch.  Antiques have been manufactured for quite a long time with the judicious application of chains, bricks and even the occasional shotgun.  The secret of the “distressed look” con was let out of the bag when furniture makers by the score started turning the stuff out direct from the shop to the showroom.

The patina distress/factor has always seemed to me to be disingenuous except in cases were an object has genuine historical significance or practical utility.  I can’t relate very well to Chippendale furniture that is better suited to a museum setting than my dining room.  However, I can feel connected to an object that wears it’s age well because it has proven it’s usefulness and is within it’s own field hard to improve own with modern substitutions.

I see this happen in the area of antique tools.  Because I have been a woodcarver and cabinetmaker by trade woodworking tools are best known to me.  I currently work in a modern production facility.  We have some excellent tools powered by all the electrical power we care to use in a day’s time.   They are for the most part very precise and I carry a digital caliper that reads to three decimal places.  But some jobs simply don’t need that kind of hair splitting accuracy.  Chisels and block planes still make their appearance and handle some jobs quickly and with no setup time needed.

I don’t wish to disparage any particular manufacturer of tools.  A lot of the old marques are log since dead anyway.  I have two block planes from the same manufacturer and one is significantly better than the other.  You guessed it the 70 year old model fits my hand like well packed snowball and the blade holds it’s edge longer and resharpens better than the newer one.  The newer model is also made in a foreign land although it bears the name of an old line American corporation.  I guess I could go on a rant over that but i won’t.

My time in antiques reinforced the idea that a tools value is in it’s performance, not it’s name.  A respect for good materials similarly lends itself to the character of quality.  In chisels especially steel is the determining factor of usefulness.  For a while stainless steel was everywhere.  Lot’s of claims were made about edges that would stay sharp for a very long time.  Of course nothing stays new forever and resharpening the stuff is tedious and best done with special (i.e. expensive) equipment.  Give me some good high carbon steel which holds it’s edge well and sharpens like a razor.  I treat my tools with great care so rust is not an issue.

Tools that will work when the power goes out still have their place.  I have a great old miter saw that is sort a monster.  I call it my “cordless radial armstrong” saw.  I don’t actually use it much but occasionally it has it’s uses and can perform in some very remote places.

The most ancient tool I have is an old gimlet.  This item is as simple and uncomplicated a method for making a hole in wood as you can get.  It is a classic antique item.  It shows the wear of many years of use and a wooden handle that has real patina.  The kind of patina that comes from perspiration, skin oil and some quantity of good old dirt.  The gimlet has been buffed and polished over a long period of time to a luster that is genuine and true.  It exemplifies the very best aspects of an historical artifact.  This small work-a-day tool says only what can be read for certain from it’s visual appearance. No lies emanate from it and it always get’s the job done when the workman is willing.

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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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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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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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