Friday, October 28, 2011

If it is older than you are that is a start

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, biographies, collecting, antiques

I thought I was getting a book strictly about flea markets, but wound up with a biography of a mystery antique dealer and a comprehensive survey of antique dealing and collecting in the U.S., from flea markets to auctions to eBay to comics to Antiques Roadshow. Whew! Great stuff!!

The book is Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America by Maureen Stanton. Her mentor throughout her journey into the multifarious world of antiques is a man she calls Curt Avery, whose name tops a list of 37 pseudonyms used in the book. Antiques dealers are typically secretive. As I have noted at stamp and coin auctions, if you know a dealer wants something, that is a good clue that it is more valuable than things the dealers are ignoring, so most dealers try to operate without public recognition. At an estate auction I once picked up a crate of great petrified wood "rough" at a good price because the main dealer who had been buying all the pet-wood had to go to the restroom. (In the Lapidary world, "rough" means a gemstone material that has not been cut yet, though a piece may have a corner sawn off to see what quality lies within.) As Ms Stanton tells it, Avery is willing to suffer greatly to avoid bathroom breaks at crucial points in an auction!

He is willing to suffer even more just due to his nomadic lifestyle, getting to every venue early, dashing among the tables and booths to "pick" items he might turn around and sell the same day, unloading and setting up, reloading with what didn't sell, and camping out to avoid motel costs. He resists the temptation to deal more through eBay, though he uses it. He points out one portly friend and whispers "Body by eBay". His lifestyle keeps him trim.

Every antique collector and dealer has a narrow range of specialization. There is simply too wide a variety for someone to become an expert in everything. That is why, for example, Antiques Roadshow has about eighty expert appraisers on hand, each with one or a few specialties. Avery's special love is colonial-era wooden items such as blanket chests. But like many, he has become quite an expert in an eclectic range of items, such as perfume bottles or old fabrics.

The key to profiting in the antiques trade is knowledge. You have to know how to determine that an item is genuine, when it was made (at least approximately), and not only where it was made but where it has been since. A nondescript bowl could gain a lot of value if it is provable that Napoleon once owned it. You get an eye for things, and learn to look for the little clues that the wear on an old item is from use, not from someone dragging it through the sand to simulate natural wear.

Each chapter of the book records a journey, to an auction, to a multi-dealer show, to a museum so as to determine a key object's characteristics, or to pick the brain of one's chosen mentor. The tales are fascinating. They helped me realize just how ignorant I am. The only antiques I know to be true are those that were handed down to me directly. And if I were to try to sell, for example, my great-great grandfather's spectacles, I'd have to convince a buyer of their genuineness, because anything can be faked. It just depends how much time and money someone is willing to spend to make a knock-off, which depends on the ultimate profit from fooling a buyer. And the antiques collecting world has such frequent fads and trends that, at any one time, most of the genuine stuff may be un-sellable at any price. At the shows and auctions the dealers are looking for the freshest stuff, that which has most recently made its way out of the clutches of the original family members who've been handing it down for a generation or few.

Whew! It makes a fellow's head spin. The key take-away message is, if you want something old, do your research, then do more research. I have to tell the story of one old object. I was not looking for an antique, but for a binocular microscope. I found a good one on eBay that had no bids because it was old, and messaged the owner about his reserve amount. I bid above the $200 reserve, was the only bidder, and got it for $200 plus $10 shipping. When it came, its optics were in poor shape. I dismantled it and cleaned everything (there was mold on the lenses and prisms). Then, it worked great. When I messaged the seller later to tell him how well it worked, he replied, "You mean you are going to use it? It is a museum piece! 100 years old!!" Yes, and I still use it. I know optics, and it has very fine optics, much better than most modern microscopes.

Whether you plan to "use" an antique or display it, knowledge is everything. Having a willing mentor such as Curt Avery, whoever he really is, is extremely valuable.

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