Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pawn Shops, Pickers, Storage Lockers and TV Auctions ... you've got to be kidding!

 There's a popular show on cable television where folks walk in off the street, to pawn the most amazing things. From 18th century firearms to George Washington autographed signatures.  From rare instruments to rare automobiles, they seem to flock to this particular pawn shop. When I first watched the show, I enjoyed it.  A new concept in antiques trading. But after a few episodes, it began to wear a bit thin.  Haven't some of these people heard of any of the major auction houses, where the real experts are, and where world wide exposure is offered, with access to the biggest collectors and museums in the world?

Any pawn shop I've ever been in seems to have an abundace of cheap goods with a heavy leaning toward cameras, cheap guitars and questionable jewelery. If I had an eighteenth century firearm, or a signature of George Washington, a pawn shop would be the last place I'd take it.  Are we to believe that nobody understands that.

And what about the never ending supply of friendly 'experts' who so willingly drop by to freely give their opinion. In the real antiques world, knowledge isn't cheap and it surely isn't free. Try taking a painting which needs to be authenticated to a recognized expert.  As likely as not, they'll charge you, at least, $300.00 for their opinion ... regardless of what it is!   Of course, I recognize it's just an entertainment show and they've got to keep digging up things for people to bring in, but I get annoyed when, week after week, people keep showing up with things that ought to be going somewhere else.  Too phony for me.

And don't get me started on people who uncover fortunes that have been left in storage lockers by people who couldn't come up with the rent.  I mean, ask yourself ... If you had several thousands of dollars worth of antiques or whatever, in a storage locker, and you couldn't come up with a couple of hundred dollars for the back rent ... would you walk away?  And what was several thousand dollars worth of antiques doing in a storage locker in the first place!  The concept of that show is pretty far down on the food chain as far as I'm concerned.

Another popular show involves pickers, bottom feeding in the antiques pool.  They constantly discover absolute treasure troves of their type of merchandise each week, but only seem to buy one or two items from each find.  Why wouldn't they go mad and buy as much as they could carry ... then come back for more.  Sorry guys ... not buyin' it.

I notice, too, that after the pickers have purchased an item, they reveal what it's really worth and how much 'profit' they've made.  I also notice that they never show the pickers actually selling the item, and making this so-called 'profit'.  Those of us who earn our living in the antiques trade learned years ago that the road to poverty is paved with the mythical 'profits' that we all seem to see when we buy something, but never quite seem to realize it when we actually get around to selling it.  I think a little more transparency is called for here.

It seems the television people have hit a new vein. (or a new low) in programing.  People must be fascinated to watch other people, either buying junk, pawning rare antiques for peanuts, or crawling through filthy storage lockers looking for treasure. I notice too, an uptick in knock-offs of these shows.  More people picking through junk, more folks pawning things and lately, a ridiculous auction program which is about as far from reality as it gets.

And speaking of television auctions, did you ever wonder how the camera man at a televised auction can miraculously capture each individual person as they bid, or hold up their bidding number. The bidding moves so fast, that the camera man wouldn't have time to re-focus, let alone move the camera from one side of the room to the other. That always puzzled me until one day, I became involved, and learned how they do it.
A few years ago, I attended a provincial auction in England and It just happened that this particular sale was being televised for a popular British antiques show at the time.  The premise was, that the (TV) antiques expert would preview the sale with the auctioneer, then both would discuss (with the TV audience)  what certain items would fetch.  Then later, after the sale, the expert would again discuss the items, what they sold for, then show how clever he was.  Well, at least, that was the idea.

I happened to be wearing a red baseball cap that day with the letters USA emblazoned on the front in large white letters. Not a particularly smart thing to do in Europe, but that's another story.  As I moved around the preview, I was fascinated to watch the expert being filmed while discussing an American art deco cocktail shaker.  I watched and listened as he explained (to the camera) that if there were any American buyers at the sale, they would snap that up and there should be some spirited bidding on it.

Later, in the sale, when it came up, it didn't even draw a bid.  They couldn't give it away.  I thought nothing of it and the auction moved on.  (Although I did wonder how their expert was going to explain that!).  As it happened, I was located fairly close to the podium and noticed that the camera man, positioned behind the podium, seemed to point his camera at me several times throughout the sale.  I bought a variety of items, mostly furniture, but I certainly didn't buy the deco cocktail shaker.

Imagine my surprise, when I actually saw the show on the BBC a few weeks later, and there I was, with my prominent USA cap, bidding vigoroursly on the cocktail shaker and looking as if I bought it!  They had cobbled together a variety of different shots and totally fabricated the event to match their expert's opinions, Goes to show ... don't believe everything you see on television.

About a year later, I saw a rerun of the same episode while I was In Florida and believe it or not, they had re-edited it again.  I still bought the cocktail shaker, but this time, they had me bidding on all sorts of things that in fact, I didn't do.  I'm not complaining, mind you.  At least I did have a shot at stardom ... although I'm still waiting for Hollywood to call.

Pickers, Pawn Shops, Storage Lockers ... No thanks, I'll stick with the Roadshow.

In my next blog I'll talk about real auctions, with some tips on how to avoid getting burned, an inside look from a dealer's point of view, and a couple of amusing anecdotes from some of my own auction experiences. Oh, and it goes without saying, that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

Dave Young ... Black Buggy Antiques


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Early Ironware - Art from the Blacksmith

Back in the early nineteenth century, while England was starting the industrial revolution, Americans were still producing things the way they always had, mainly from skilled craftsmen and artisans.  In Colonial times, the blacksmith was an important member of any community and in fact, a town or village needed a blacksmith before it could develop and grow.  Today, we think of a blacksmith as the man who shod horses.  Well, they did that, too, but their skills went way beyond that.

The blacksmith made tools, latches and locks, hasps and hinges, fireplace and cooking utensils, lamps and lighting devices, in fact, anything you can think of that would be forged and hammered out of iron.  He repaired farm tools, wagons, carts and carriages.  In fact, a Colonial village or town without a blacksmith had a serious problem.

Eric Sloane's book 'A Museum of Early American Tools' is a
great place to learn about them .
Because of the lasting quality of iron, many implements created in Colonial times have survived until today and perhaps while not as aesthetically attractive as other collectible antiques, there is nevertheless a large number of collectors for this early Americana.  Be it in the category of tools, fireplace or kitchen collectibles, someone is bound to collect it.  It's a category of antiques collecting where true early Americana can still be found and still quite reasonable in price

For the most part, knowledgeable dealers and collectors are able to identify it and date it within a time frame, but because most hand wrought iron is never marked or dated, the task of accurately dating it is impossible.  But there are two ways we can determine the approximate time frame in which an item was created.  One, is from the design of the object.  While common utilitarian objects are the most difficult to date, items that incorporate design features can give us a clue.  As style and fashion changed over time, many of the blacksmith's designs changed too.  Take for example, the pair of andirons shown here. 

 Pair of Handmade Eighteenth Century Andirons
The design is distinctive because of the 'Posset Cup' holders.  We know that the posset drink was used in England as a medicinal aid, from medieval times until about the end of the eighteenth century, when it went out of use.  We can therefore reasonably assume that these hand wrought andirons date from, say, 1750 to 1800. perhaps earlier, and that they were probably English or, made in America by an English blacksmith.  We discovered them here in Pennsylvania, so more likely than not, they were made here.

Another method of dating an implement, is knowing the time frame that a specific tool or device was used before being superseded by a newer or better design.  Good books, museum and auction catalogs become a necessity and the serious dealer and collector accumulates a good library over the years.

Today, many antiques are being reproduced.  The market is flooded with them.  Honest dealers and collectors have learned to recognise and avoid them.  Usually, reproductions are of the most popular forms of antiques and with ironware, the reproductions we've seen are limited to the castings of decorative items which can be created cheaply and in huge quantities.  We don't foresee the antique reproduction manufacturers employing craftsmen to spend hours in recreating a single item, to duplicate an early blacksmith's handiwork.

We recently sold this eighteenth century Pennsylvania
'Rams Horn' hinge.  It still showed marks from
the blacksmith's hammer.
But of course, there are still skilled artisans today who produce replica wrought iron artifacts.  We attended an open air Crafts Fair last summer and were fascinated to watch a blacksmith working at a forge and creating wonderful iron pieces.  Of course, his prices were quite similar to that of similar antique items, so we'd hardly consider them 'repros' in the usual sense of the term.  His recreations rivaled anything we've ever seen, and represented the very finest works of a contemporary craftsman.  But being antiques lovers,we'd still prefer the thrill of holding an object that was handmade two hundred years ago and reflecting on the history of the period and the man who made it.

So if you're interested in early Americana, and you're willing to learn about it, you'll find that you can still unearth fabulous items created by Colonial and early nineteenth century blacksmiths for far less than you might have to spend on other antique items from the same period.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Redware Pottery - a Pennsylvania Tradition

Simple redware items  -  Once found in every home
Redware pottery is admired and collected by different folks for different reasons.  Some, the country antiques collectors and decorators, love the simple forms and earth colors of the early utilitarian pieces.  Jugs, pots, jars, plates, bowls, etc., once used as everyday items in every home, fit in wonderfully with the country and primitive furnishings that are so popular today. 

These items are still easily found, particularly here in Eastern Pennsylvania where so much of it originated, and still at reasonably affordable prices.  Here, we're looking at a price range of say, $50. to $150.

The more sophisticated collector, whose tastes run to the antique decorated redware such as plates and bowls with slipware applied designs or sgraffito decoration, has a much harder task to locate these items and will need a much larger budget to tap into when they do find them.  Rarity has its price and the price range here can start at several hundred dollars for the simplest piece and run into the low thousands for a fine example.

A  Pennsylvania slipware charger - circa 1820

Then we get to the third level.  That is,  the highly decorated plates and chargers that were produced by known potters and created specifically as display pieces.  Some of these eighteenth century creations can cost in excess of $50,000.00 and the only place you're likely to find them is in a museum.  For all practical purposes, we're most unlikely to ever find such a treasure.

A rare sgraffito plate by David Spinner  (1758 - 1811)

But wait ... there's another category that's extremely popular with collectors.  That is, the fine redware pottery that is being produced today and which, for the most part, is highly decorated with slipware or sgraffito designs.  The most desirable being those items designed with the ever popular Pennsylvania Dutch motifs of distilfink birds, hearts and tulips, etc.

There are many potters and studios producing these wares and while they're certainly not restricted to Eastern Pennsylvania, some of the more talented and famous ones do come from this area.  Our favorite is Lester Breininger of Robesonia, PA.  (perhaps, because his home and studio is only a few miles from our house and we've visited several times).  Lester is a 9th. generation Pennsylvania German who began his pottery in 1965.  He's been featured in numerous local and national magazines and has works in the Winterthur, the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Lester in his shop
Every year, in August, Lester holds what he calls a 'porch sale' at his house and studio.  Collectors come from all over the east coast to view and purchase his latest creations.  We look forward to the event each year and have managed to build up a nice collection of his decorated pottery. 

His pieces do show up at local auctions here in Pennsylvania, and because of his growing national fame, his works often appear on the secondary market all over the country.   We frequently have a few of his fine pieces for sale on our website.  

A beautiful sgraffito decorated bowl
by Lester Breininger
So, the contemporary potters like Lester Breininger  have filled a void.  For those of us who love the highly decorated Pennsylvania redware, in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, but could never begin to afford to build up collection of antique pieces, we can still collect it and enjoy it.    

If you would like to learn more about redware pottery, get a copy of Kevin McConnell's informative book entitled 'Redware - America's Folk Art Pottery'.  It's inexpensive and readily available on the internet.                                     

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Antiques from the Amish Farm - getting down and dirty

An Early Amish Milking Stool - Straight from the Barn
Country Antiques are reputed to be the most popular area of collecting in the entire antiques trade. That may or may not be true but it certainly seems to be, when one pays attention to all the antiques trade magazines, popular home decorating magazines and the huge amount of antique shops and malls which seem to cater to that area of the market.

Spending much of our time at auctions, estate sales, and the like, my wife and I have watched this phenomenom grow over the past thirty or so years. What was once considered to be just plain junk, is nowadays treated with a reverence once only bestowed on 'formal' antiques.  But be that as it may, we cannot dispute the fact that it has happened and will undoubtedly continue in the future.

Which brings us to the subject of our blog .... Antiques from the Amish Farm, and why you sometimes have to get down and dirty, to find 'em.

We live in the midst of a Pennsylvania farming community, which I'll admit, certainly helps if you're going to look for these items. New York City ... not so much. Yet it's surprising just how many of our antiques, which originated on one of our local farms, will work their way up the food chain to major urban areas.

Some of the items we've acquired locally, we've sold over the internet and shipped off to upscale dealers in New York and New England. One can only imagine what they do with them, but it's a fair guess that the local Amish farmer who sold it to us at a barn sale, would keel over if he knew where his old milking stool wound up. (One of our primitive items appeared recently in a dealer's ad in a prestigeous national antiques magazine).

Most of our surrounding farms and farmers are Amish and they may live a spartan life but they sure have a keen business sense and can be hard bargainers. Nevertheless, we still manage to obtain things like stools, wooden buckets, and primitive old hand made tools. The Amish must surely think the English (non Amish) are odd, to actually collect these old things, but they do seem aware of the market and are keenly aware of the values. Some of them have even become dealers, themselves. (but not on the internet!)

Starting in the early Spring, we keep our eyes open for roadside signs announcing farm and barn sales. We've poked around several Amish farms way off the beaten track and have found a few treasures in the process. Last Spring we spent a couple of hours at an Amish sale and we were just about the only non-Amish folks there. Bit of a language problem, because they tend to not speak English when among themselves. But despite the handicap, we still managed to obtain a few farmantiques that have since found their way to homes throughout the Country.

Parked Buggies at an all- day outdoor Auction
We attend a huge all-day, outdoor Amish auction each Summer. Usually 5 or 6 auctions going on at once. Most of the attendees are Amish families, out for the day. It's a sight like no other. They sell everything from quilts and baked goods to old farm tools and equipment. Tons and tons of it.  They bring it in by the wagon load.  Most of it is junk, but a keen eye can always spot the wheat amongst the chaff.

And starting at the end of February, several Amish communities hold what they call a 'Mud Sale'   An all day affair with livestock auctions, farm equipment and some antiques. If you can stand the cold (and the mud) they're an occasion not to miss. The youngsters play Amish games and there are contests among the young men. Quite a festive occasion. Again, country antiques from the farm can be found scattered among the many offerings and the dedicated dealer will be there, searching.

We've always pondered the attraction that some city folks have for the primitive things that originate in the country. But let's hope they continue to do so, for as long as there is a demand, the country dealers like us, will continue to endure the hardships, sometimes necessary, to provide them ... while at the same time, enjoying (almost) every minute of it!

Amish Parking Lot at an Outdoor Sale
 It goes without saying, that the opinions expressed on this blog are our own.  If you would like to comment or discuss any matter relating to the antiques business or collecting, we'd be happy to hear from you.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Country Antique Treasures - getting harder to find?

We're fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country ...  rural Southeast Pennsylvania, with it's many Amish and Mennonite communities and the countless descendants of the early German settlers who first inhabited the area.  It's not surprising then, that many items reflecting this rich heritage are still to be found.  

Anything Amish is always popular
When scouring the local country auctions, farm and estate sales, even outdoor markets, we still manage to find many rarities which would be totally unseen in other parts of the country.  The Pennsylvania Dutch (actually German) brought their culture here and so did the Amish and Mennonites and their unique artistic touches are clearly visible on many antiques and artifacts if you know how to recognize them.  From the methods of construction of simple furniture, the elaborate designs on quilts and the hearts and tulip designs incorporated into wrought iron work and wooden ware, often point to the early settlers who brought them to our shores. The Amish, too, have had a profound influence on the popularity of simple and sometimes primitive objects.  Their homemade quilts, tools and toys are most desirable and with the Amish population ever increasing, at least the future availability of these and similar items seem assured.
 Items like this cranberry scoop are getting hard to find

But despite being able to find these treasures, and putting the Amish items aside, we know that the supply is diminishing.  Proof is in the steadily increasing prices across the board. Several of the local auction houses hold major cataloged sales of typical Pennsylvania antiques several times each year and the prices realized are truly remarkable.  Since some of the sales are now conducted simultaneously on the Internet, it's interesting to see how many items are sold to buyers around the country rather than in the sales room.  This surely reflects the growing interest in Americana and in Pennsylvania antiques in particular.  From our own Internet sales, we find that most of our sales of Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish antiques go to California and Texas with New York City a close third.

So what are the prospects for the neophyte collector who is unwilling or unable to compete at the top level

Think of the Americana antiques field as a huge pyramid  ...  with the paint decorated chests, the primitive portraits and truly rare items, all at the top or tip of the pyramid with the less rare items filling in the middle and the common items at the base.  As the items at the top become truly unobtainable, by going into major collections and museums, they disappear from the market.  Everything else on the pyramid moves up and the items on the bottom start to rise in value.  Things that are common today won't be, in the not too distant future.  They will increase in value and move up the pyramid,  to be replaced on the pyramid by things that today aren't even considered collectible.

Tin kitchen items are very collectible.  Still modestly priced
and still easily found
Having been in the business for almost forty years we've seen many categories of antiques rise from flea market status to important entries in auction catalogs today.  In our library of reference books we still have many old price guides from the 1970's and 1980's.  It breaks our hearts to think of what's passed through our hands over the years, but there you are ... If we knew then, what we know now ... The thing is, at some time,  if you want to get on the merry-go-round, now might be that time.


This is our first blog and we intend to do many more in the future.  We'll discus specific fields of collecting Country Antiques and good inside tips on how to learn about them and to acquire them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

To Restore or Not Restore - that is the question.

Over the course of our career we've been asked many, many times, 'Has this piece been restored or had repairs?'  It's a question that every antiques dealer is familiar with and one which comes up frequently.  Often we pose the same question ourselves, when considering a piece for purchase or, a decision we have to make after we've acquired an item that's either damaged or in rough condition.

There's no hard and fast rules but there are general guidelines.  At least, we've established some for ourselves.  First, though, let's point out that primitives and country antiques are not quite like formal antiques.  There's a bit of leeway here, so different guidelines are applied.

An old wooden nail keg that's been given a
a new lease on life

So, let's briefly discuss formal antiques, where more stringent guidlines do come into play.  Here, the decision to restore is more likely to be based on value and rarity of the item in question.  We all know that damaged, broken or poorly repaired items are less desireable and lose significant value.  We've all seen examples of that on the 'Antiques Road Show'.  Even professionaly, well restored items will lose value on many categories of antiques.  China, for example, and fine antique furniture will be far less desireable once repaired.  Period furniture, especially, will lose value from being refinished or having replaced parts.

Of course, there are exceptions, too.  If an item is extremely rare and was discovered in very poor condition, then repairs to insure its preservation are acceptable.  Paintings are another exception to the rules.  If an otherwise valuable canvas is in poor condition, say with holes and some paint loss, its value can be enhanced by top quality restoration.  A repaired or restored antique clock is going to be worth more than it would be if the movement were broken or the clock had missing parts.  So it's a complicated matter and one that causes much controversy among dealers and collectors.

Now let's take a look at the country antiques field and see how this controversy applies there.  Many items in the country collectibles field are bought by folks who want to decorate with them.  Their attitude towards restoration will be quite different from that of the serious collector.  In fact, if the item isn't spruced up a bit, the decorator buyer will pass it up.  After all, who wants to put some ratty old thing in their living room when they might find something far more attractive which has been 'done up'.  The collector, on the other hand, may be horrified at the thought of a dealer having painted, varnished or polished the brass, on that special item he or she collects.  So what is a dealer to do?

Back to our guidelines which I spoke of before.  We'll look at an item we've purchased for resale and ask ourselves who the ultimate buyer is likely to be.  Let's say it's a wooden wash tub, that's been in the rafters of a barn for the past sixty years.  Perhaps it's covered with pidgeon droppings and sixty years worth of dirt and grime.  Since there's little likelyhood of there being many serious collectors of old wash tubs, we'll make the assumption that the buyer is going to be someone with a country decorating scheme, who will perhaps use it as a log holder next to a fireplace or something similar.  So we'll clean it up and do whatever we think is necessary to make it as attractive as possible,  In other words, we'll restore it.

Just a few days ago, we did just that to an old wooden nail keg,  Not many collectors of those, I'll wager, and trust me, nobody would have wanted it the way it looked when we found it.  But a couple of hours of TLC has turned it into a most attractive piece.  It's now quite useable as an umbrella stand, a holder for a walking stick collection, or perhaps a primitive wooden container for a dried flower arrangement.  But let's say we acquire a very rare butter mold or a small, early grain painted cabinet.  We know that the value of the item probably precludes a sale as a decorative item.  It would most likely be a collector who would be interested and we know what they look for.  Our rule then would be  -  a light cleaning perhaps, but no repairs or restoration.  In fact, if the item was in need of major repair, we wouldn't have acquired it in the first place.

Of course, there's always gray areas.  We recently found an antique child's sleigh.  A delightful item but in rather rough condition.  Are there sleigh collectors out there? ... Perhaps, but this item will have wider appeal to the decorator market.  We see it filled with colorful wrapped packages at Christmas time, indoors, beside a decorated tree.  Nice. ...  So we've decided to restore it.  Some might not agree with that decision, but if it isn't restored we may never be able to sell it.

This will be a good project for the Spring
So keep asking the dealers the question ... 'Has it had any repairs or restoration?' ... but don't fault the dealer if he says 'yes'.  Question him further.  He may have just salvaged a small piece of history, that without his help, might not have survived for another hundred years or so.

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We welcome comments on our blogs and are happy to answer any questions you may have on this or any other matters relating to antiques.