Posts Tagged history

On The Road With American Pickers

19 January 2011

I have a new source of antiquing entertainment to fill up the spare time I don’t have.  Television is pretty much the wasteland that Newton Minnow tagged it.  There are a few notable oasis one of which is American Pickers starring Mike Wolfe and Frank fritz.  As a rule, reality TV bears no resemblance to normal life.  In each episode of this History Channel show Mike and Frank go on the road in search of real junk which proves their is life and history on the planet Earth.

In case you aren’t acquainted with the term, a “picker” in the antiques trade scours the countryside looking for old stuff to buy cheap and sell quick.  They often go from door to door or solicit more effectively by focusing on property that have the distinctive look of a junk yard.  A picker can sometimes buy the contents of an attic, basement or garage or even get the contents for free by offering to clean it out and dispose of the “junk.”  Among the discards of peoples lives are surprising treasures that have gone under-appreciated for many years.

The game is played most effectively by pickers who develop relationships both with good sources of junk and antiques dealers who are always hungry for good  inventory.  A good antiques dealer will know pickers who are well acquainted with the types of items the dealer is most interested in selling.  It’s symbiosis with a capitalist bent.  It works a treat.

Back in Pennsylvania we had a regular stream of pickers stopping in at Meadowview Antiques with a backseat or pickup bed filled with the latest finds wrestled from local households.  These guys were usually a bit colorful, some were a bit  light on formal education others had the sound of academe flowing from their lips. They all knew their business and were quick to figure out yours.  These pickers knew the market and could bargain well.  Any item they offered made them a profit and left enough meat on the bone to be a useful offering in your shop.

Some of the dealers I knew were old-timers who  came out of the pickers tradition having gone on the knock since they were young fellows.  One of them was still in the habit of looking for lace curtains in the windows of old houses.  It was a good indication that the occupant was an older woman who was likely to have some junk she needed to have cleaned out of the basement.

We also had a lot of dealers who based their inventory on “housecleaning.”  They ran adds in the shopping newspapers offering to clean out garages and even entire houses accepting the junk contents as payment or sometimes purchasing the contents of an estate.  They would shop the best stuff around to antique dealers and take the rest to a Sunday flea market and sell it dirt cheap for some quick cash.  After all the landfill does not pay you to bring garbage in.

Sometimes they missed good items.  I scored an old John F. Kennedy election poster from some house cleaners at the Sinking Spring flea market for $2.00.  it wasn’t my regular field of interest but I thought I could take a chance.  I researched it on eBay and found a ton of reproduction election posters but none had the same graphics as mine.  I put it on for a $10.00 starting bid and watched folks run it up to $2oo.oo by the end of the week.  Ahh! the good old days.

American Pickers gives me that nostalgic feeling for the antiquing game like nothing else does lately.  Mike and frank are the kind of guys you want to hang out with.  They love to travel the American back roads in search of opportunity.  Sometimes they are pursuing leads provided by the lovely Danielle who holds down the fort at Antique Archeology, their shop in LeClaire, Iowa.  If you watch the show for a while  you learn that Frank is addicted to old oil cans and Mike is turned on by old bikes and motorcycles.  Each one has special areas of interest they have cultivated fully.  Together they possess a range of knowledge that makes them an incredible team.  They often need to make purchasing decisions on the spot and they are able to be mutually supportive in a highly effective way.  They are also smart enough to search out an expert appraiser when it looks like they are getting out of their depth.

Some of their best and most entertaining picking is done when they are “freestyling.”   A house surrounded by junk cars and dilipidated storage sheds is meat and drink to these road warriors and they have no compunctions about introducing themselves to perfect strangers and beginning an instant relationship.

The people they meet are nothing if not interesting.  Unlike so much of reality TV the participants have not answered a casting call, talent contest, personality quiz or been focus grouped to make sure they matched the viewing demographics.  Most of the people are not beautiful or buff.  They don’t have to be because they are just like me and you.  They live genuine lives and are more worried about putting food on the table than being voted off the island.  Junk with precious memories attached is real,  the American people are real and Mike and Frank bring them to your television or computer screen.  Watch them on The History Channel Mondays 9/8 Central or catch the entire first season on Netflix.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to get in a van and go buy some junk.  Sit back and enjoy the thrill of the – hunt picker style.

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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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WWII, the Home Front Tells a New Story

26 May 2010

I got into the antiques and collectibles business to do more than just sell stuff.  I’m not even a very good salesman.  I like the cash to flow but I’m also very interested in the things I sell.  If nothing deeper mattered and I was a good closer I would sell insurance.  There’s more money in it.  The historian in me analyzes my trade goods as artifacts.  Sometimes I get a priceless glimpse into the past.

Last Saturday I bought a book at a local antique shop and put it on eBay.  Click here to see. While scanning the photographic pages I detected a distinct slant to the presentation.  It’s a WWII era photographic booklet, We Keep e’m Flying.  It shows life for the men and women at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. The 44 pages are replete with black and white images of the camp and it’s happy, smiling personnel.  Besides showing training scenes with guns and airplanes there is a heavy emphasis on recreational activities  and social life. You would hardly know there was a war going on.

I’ve handled a number of the yearbooks published for various military aviation training bases.  They tell a story of a generation of Americans who took loyalty to their country seriously.  The patriotism is openly expressed.  The subtext is often more telling.  In case you doubt that society has changed since the 1940’s look at  books, magazines and films the government published for consumption on the home front.  Some call it propaganda some call it public relations but that flavor is present as a matter of intent.

Equality blossoms in the war effort.

We all know about Rosie the Riveter.  She began as wartime propaganda and letter became a feminist folk hero.  In this book there are a surprising number of women shown  working along side of men, handling mechanics duties and training in the same ways.  One wonders if the emphasis was overstated compared to the reality.  The summer camp flavor of the piece stands out in contrast to the realities of life in a combat zone.

I recently sold a yearbook for a pilot training base in Kansas.  The ranks of photos of eager young cadets showed only Caucasian faces except for one training squadron that was all black.  We Keep ’em Flying presents a parade of fresh white faces except for the photo of the base laundry.  Here young black women wield irons as they press uniforms.  A solitary black male sweeps the floor.  It seems a sad note in the cheery picture.  It probably went unnoticed in 1945.  Now it leaps out and grabs our attention.

I do not mean to be too critical of the people of the time, context matters.  After all, out of the same crucible of war and societal upheaval came the Tuskegee Airmen.  No reasonable person questions the value of their contribution or denies their sacrifice.  Valor has no color or gender.

We all live in the context of our times.  What we do today may be judged differently tomorrow.  More than ever our lives are recorded for the future to see.  When our children look at us smiling back in artificial images will they only see the movie and not get the message?

The contrast shows behind the scenes

A collector is motivated by appreciation of  his acquisitions to value them for meaning as well as worth.  As dealers we tend to think of the bottom line.  The artifacts we engage with contribute to our worldview as we examine their place in our culture.  To paraphrase a  navy recruiting slogan: It’s more than a job, it’s a  classroom.

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