30 Jun Antique Hunting & Hoarding

On Saturday, Jill and I went to yard sales with our friend Scott. Scott is the uber antiques lover and collects vintage Christmas ornaments and decorations. Every time we go out with him — usually to Pennsylvania — he finds something rare and wonderful. The appeal of antique hunting is just that, the hunt. It is a quintessential American pastimes because it underscores our can-do, anythng-goes spirit: who more than Americans can see treasure in trash? And who generates more trash than Americans? Let’s not forget that Antiques Roadshow is the most popular program on PBS.

Some of the most gratifying moments of Roadshow are when somebody has found something very valuable that he/she has retrieved from a Dumpster. Or bought at a yard sale for a dollar. What can any of us buy for one dollar any more? Antique hunting is like prospecting — panning for gold or digging a mine. You get dirty, you waste a lot of time, and, more often than not, you come home only with muddy shoes or a sunburn. But if you get lucky . . . .

It may be a sign of our waning Empire that, in this country, shopping — whether for old stuff or new — is recreation. My ex-wife used to love spending a full day in shopping malls. We once drove to a mega-mall for a weekend of shopping and stayed in the Red Roof Inn next door. I can’t do that any more but I will happily spend a day on the road, driving from yard sale to yard sale. Our friend Scott likes to drive north along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River and pass through the many picturesque river towns. On this trip, we came upon a community flea market at a riverside high school. It was our first stop.

It is surprising what people think others will buy. I often see piles of old VHS tapes stacked on sellers’ tables. Cassette tapes too. Battered shoes. Broken vacuum cleaners. CB radios. Rusted chains. Boxes of baby clothes. And a lot of new crap from China. But, every once in a while, I come across somebody who has cleaned out an oldster’s basement or attic. At this flea market, Jill and I were pleased to find some fifty-year-old brass lamp parts and some old tools. I found some old toys too. Scott found a feather tree for one dollar. He was ecstatic.

A feather tree is a 70-100 year-old table-top, artificial Christmas tree designed to display ornaments. Its branches are decorated with feathers dyed to look like spindly pine boughs. It doesn’t look like much but it is rare and, when found in an antiques shop, costs $300+. So there we were, at nine in the morning, and Scott had already scored the find of the day. But, of course, one find just makes you hungry for the next. And here’s where the trouble begins. If you know the market for an item, you may be inclined to pick it up — even if you don’t want it — just to re-sell it. I collect old toys, for instance, and pick them up whenever I find them cheap. But, then, you have to ask yourself, How much am I going to stockpile for resale? Do I collect any and every good deal I  find?

When I watch Antiques Roadshow, I often shake my head in dismay when I hear the appraisers (antiques dealers)  award an item some outlandish value. It’s easy for the dealers to claim a high price when they have a stable of prospective buyers in the highest end of the market (i.e., New York, San Francisco, etc.). But the average Joes and Janes don’t have those connections and they don’t have high-profile auction houses to sell from. Jill and I have tried to sell antiques at our annual yard sale and have discovered that nobody — at a yard sale — wants to pay market value for anything. Why should they?

Which leaves you to sell in an antiques consignment store or on eBay. Antiques stores are closing like speakeasies after the end of Prohibition. It’s not just hard times. It seems that the antique boom has waned. And the demographics are changing. Generations X and Y are buying stuff from the 1950s and 1960s, which aren’t exactly antiques. As for online selling: the good thing about eBay is that it has leveled the market internationally so that nobody can claim something is rare and valuable when in fact it is not. The bad thing is that eBay has glutted the market. Think that little lobby card (advertising the 1959 blockbuster Ben Hur) you found at last week’s yard sale is a treaure? Check out eBay and, guess what, there are fifty of them just like it — listed for $3.99 each.

Scott told us of a friend who has become a hoarder of old stuff. It’s a scary story of how a collection overtakes one’s life. The man in question is has no place to sit in his house because of the piled-high junk and now pays  more on rental space for his treasures than he pays in mortgage for himself. It starts when you keep picking up “bargains” with the thought that you are going to resell them. Notable examples of hoarding include the Collyer brothers in Manhattan, who both died in 1947 buried under mounds of old books, newspapers, and other junk they had amassed for twenty-five years. 130 tons of junk. It fell atop one brother, then the next, trapping both until they died of starvation. The most recent example occurred just a month ago in Chicago, where an elderly couple was rescued from their junk-filled apartment.

Saturday, we came upon an antiques warehouse that was clearly a hoarder’s stash. There was barely room enough to edge yourself down the aisles of junk, which was heaped in piles that, at one time, had been more or less orderly. The good thing was that owner was selling it off, or trying to. There was so much to pick through, we just gave up on the yard sales. We didn’t have time enough to do it justice, though, and promised to come back. As we drove off, Scott observed that the key to sane collecting is that for every item you bring into the house, something else has to leave the house. It’s a yin and yang thing. Jill and I decided that it’s time to sell off our many extras and bargains we have been accumulating in our too-big house. If all else fails, Scott says, just take your treasures to an auctioneer, dump the load for any price, and don’t look back.