Sunday, November 25, 2012

Collecting Mistakes. Part 1


First let me say, you should always collect what you truly enjoy and like, after all, you have to live with it every day.

Conversely, I don't think that buying what you like or love is always the best advice if you ever want to pass it on as a family heirloom or sell it some day as an investment. Let's be real here, not everyone has the same refined good taste you may or may not have. Eventually you might have to part with your six hundred assorted antique flat irons and find your family says "Thanks but I'll just take one or two" or worse you need some cash quickly. Try to get liquid with the three hundred fifty seven Beanie Babies you over paid for at the peak of the market. Be prepared to cry or rip their heads off with your teeth when you find out most of them are only good for dog toys when sold 4 for 1.00.

You hear it all the time on segments of TV morning news or collector shows, magazines etc. "Buy what you love". But what if you like manhole covers, balls of old yarn, boring clear common Mason jars, red pencils, or rail road spikes?

If the only criteria for your collection is "I WUV it"! and you aren't concerned with value, investment potential, resale, or desirability then yes, buy what you love. That's what it all about...(Sorta)

If you have the love for the item, the drive and commitment to build a quality collection, and most importantly, buy smart, you can also end up with a nice little nest egg when done properly without filling your house with hard to sell trash.

I can't tell you how many times I've received calls over the years from collectors ready to part with their accumulations. Always exciting but equally disappointing sometimes.

I went to a house in Citrus County in the mid 1990's. She lived a few blocks away from a large flea market which she attended regularly buying items. Over three decades she managed to build a collection that filled her modest home.

"I have a house full of stuff I need to get rid of" she told me over the phone.

Normally, when I enter a house it's natural for me to look at the objects for sale along with the stuff that isn't for sale. I will immediately spot the things that I'm interested in, taking mental notes and formulating offers in my head. If you're an antique dealer, you know what I'm talking about. You're initially drawn to the items you want to buy spotting the "gems" straight away.

Upon arrival at her house, I was shock at the immense volume crammed in it. Every wall had cabinets or home made shelves built on them. One wall had floor to ceiling shelves filled with nothing but reproduction cobalt blue glass with a few old pieces mixed in. There were, dolls, cracked crocks, clock parts, reproduction advertising trays, plastic toys from the 1980's, canning jars with no lids, faded prints, cheap fishing poles, lamp bases with no shades..It was sensory over load. Too much to take in at one time.

In this house packed with stuff, there was nothing, just nothing jumping out at me. The closer I looked at her stuff, the more I realized most of it was junk. A lot of it damaged. Some of it still had faded tags. ".25 cents, $2.00." Chipped glass, reproduction carnival glass from the 1970s, clocks with replaced quartz movements, common platinum rimmed plates from the 50's, partial sets of dishes, naked Barbie dolls, stacks of sheet music... Depressing and coated in dust. I just wanted to leave... It looked like the tail end of a yard sale on a Sunday with all the leftovers. Clearly the woman put a lot of time, cash and years of effort gathering this stuff. Thousands of pieces, but none of what I saw had resale value with out apologizing for it, even at flea market prices. I saw WORK! Lots of work with minimal returns for the amount of time involved cleaning and selling it.

From talking with her I found out she tried to stick with a 5 dollar maximum spending limit. It's a shame, but unless the house was already picked over by another dealer, there was little value in her "collection". She wanted to sell all of it as a lot of course.

"Make me an offer an take it all"! She said.

Being cordial I found a few things that I made an offer on hoping she would refuse. I told her the collection was too big for me to handle and referred a local guy. I really didn't want any part of it.
On the other side of that coin, I've gone into houses and even mobile homes and found collections that got my heart literally pounding in disbelief...Sometimes the contents were worth more than the homes they were kept in.

One of the best calls I've ever been on was in a double wide trailer in a low income area. The lady said she had some things "I would like"... She wasn't kidding.

The outside of her run down mobile home was a hidden partially by two very large arborvitae bushes. It needed paint and landscape work to clear the overgrown bushes I had to duck under just to get to the half covered sidewalk scattered with rusty lawn mower parts and barrels, and plastic flower pots tipped on their side.

I knocked on the door and could hear the shuffling of what sounded like slippers on a sandy linoleum floor come to a halt.

"Yes?" replied a small voice behind the thin aluminum trailer home door .

"Hi, it's Bill. You called me about some items you had for sale."

The door slowly opened and there stood a frail lady, maybe in her late seventies, pale and slightly hunched over, wearing layers of clothing in the middle of the Summer with long grey hair tied back. She squinted as if to look at my shoes, smiled and said,

"Come in"

Inside was a dingy yellow time capsule. A faded haze of dust, aged vinyl, and tobacco colored film indicative of neglected old trailers. Everything looked to be what it was originally sold with in the late 1960s including the brown wood panelling  and tan curtains with tea pot motif sagging in the window.

First thing I noticed was a, completely out of place, large mahogany drop front secretary with a shell carving on the drop front lid. Over that hung a well done Impressionist style painting of a beach scene flanked by bronze French torchieres. "Wow" I thought.

She was leading me to the front of the trailer where the "good stuff" was kept. I was so preoccupied with the incredible stuff on the walls as I followed, I almost plowed into her from behind as she shuffled along.

At the end of the hallway there was a sheet that covered a doorway. When she pulled back the dirty sheet to the side, the light from the large bay window that dominated the wall illuminated the room revealing no less than 10 assorted reverse painted and leaded glass lamps. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was like I was entering Oz...

"This can't be....Really? In HERE?" I thought to myself.

One of the lamps had a peacock reverse painted on the inside, she had the palm tree Handel lamp I recognized immediately with the correct base. I was stunned. There was silver overlay vases on footed trays, a table with 5 or 6 mesh hand bags from the 1920s. These are the calls we all dream about as dealers. Years of fresh, untouched merchandise, hidden away by in a run down home for sale by the original owner or family. I was keeping cool with my "Meh... yeah this stuff is ok I guess...I've seen better though" attitude.

While on the inside I was really thinking "HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT! YESSSSS!!" I wanted to run out in the parking lot and do back flips. The more I looked the more excited I got. Period furniture, high end art glass, Steuben, Loetz, Belleek tea service, sterling silver trinkets, Handel lamps, Tiffany silver, jewelry and paintings. Angled in the corner, was the very best French vitrine (scenic painted curio cabinet) I've ever seen. Big wide, bombe, ormolu mounts, FILLED with fairy lamps, miniature bronzes, carved ivory, painted plaques and jewelry, big allegorical scenic shell cameos in fitted cases, the kind of quality I've only seen in magazines and auction catalogs at the time. The lamps were all on knock out period furniture or French painted tables.

I realized I wasn't saying very much to her in my state of awe as she sat there, grinning at me, in the only chair that wasn't covered with stuff. I looked at the table next her "Mahogany?" I blurted out as I inspected it closer.

"That's a Spider leg table" she said pointing at it with a thin, white, bent finger.

"What kind of price are you looking for on that? I asked.

"Six fifty" She immediately replied.

I like it when a seller knows exactly what they want for their stuff.  Negotiating a price is not as romantic and fun as these reality shows make it seem. It's a daunting and sometimes stressful task. A part of the business that's expected though not always necessary.  You can easily insult someone if you cut the price too low on their objects of affection. If I did counter offer it was usually followed with an explanation.

The tabled was nice, but the most I've ever seen them priced was around 300.

"How about the palm tree lamp?"

"$2500" she said.

"What did you want for the curio cabinet?" I inquired

"I'll take five thousand"

...Five grand.."ugh" That's when a sinking feeling began in me. The prices were spot on retail and some much more. The lady was sharp and she knew what she was doing. I began to think she had no real intention of letting anything go at prices where I could make something on them. These were show and shop prices so now I was more interested in the story behind the glory. How she acquired all this stuff and why she hadn't sold it off to raise her standards of living just a little.

It was already apparent the women collected the best she could afford and had an eye for quality. Turns out the meat of the collection was inherited. Her mother at one time bought and sold antiques. That's the best way to learn. See it. Live with it. She followed in her mother's foot steps and continued adding to it over the years. She even asked ME if I had items to sell. I also found out I wasn't the only dealer that had been there. There were many over the course of years and they left with little to nothing.

In the end, I did manage to buy a few small pieces. One was the Belleek Nautilus shell on coral, a Tiffany sterling punch ladle, a large Imari bowl on a stand and other choice perfume bottles. I kept in contact with her for many years buying a piece here and there. She didn’t like selling it, but loved to show it off.

If it's not yet obvious to you what I am getting at between the two calls, that same desire and passion you feel about your collecting should be just as exciting to the dealers and buyers you're showing it to when you go to sell it. Excitement. Passion. Interest. They should want to own it and not feel like they are taking on a ton of work to show a decent profit. There are many buyers for this level of quality. At the risk of getting too lengthy here, I'll go over some ways to build a good collection in a part 2 soon to follow.

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