The road less traveled

ChchchchChanges (With apologies to David Bowie)

 

In 1973, a man named Hillel Kristal (Hilly) opened a bar in the less than desirable Bowery section of New York City. At the time, Hilly was pretty much on his last financial leg. His artist and writer friends were listening to a lot of country, blue grass and blues music. Many bars had a country night, it was a popular genre on the jukebox. Kristal decided to open a club specializing in these genres to capitalize on the popularity of them. Kristal christened his fledgling club CBGB in honor of country, blue grass and blues. Maybe some of you were along for the ride when I mentioned Hilly or the Bowery. Some of you are probably scratching your heads and wondering just how far around the bend I’ve gone if I’m writing about a club in the Bowery on an auction blog. Stay with me, good reader, it will all come together, I promise.

There were a few issues with Hilly’s grand plans to operate a world famous country, blue grass and blues club in the Bowery. Chiefly among these issues was, people didn’t want to go to the Bowery on purpose. Pre gentrification, the Bowery was dirty, nasty and dangerous. It wasn’t the sort of place where you’d spy patrons in cowboy boots and ten gallon hats bellying up to the bar as the strains of George Jones played woefully in the background. It was more of the sort of place where if one ended up there by accident, one sought the nearest and most convenient way out. Hilly couldn’t book country, blue grass or blues acts. They all apparently had a healthier sense of self preservation than all of that. We’ll just assume for the sake of argument that 8 seconds on a mechanical bull were infinitely safer than a trip to the Bowery on any given Saturday evening. Bear in mind here that Kristal had sunk his last dime in to CBGB. The club was floundering; it had no musical acts to speak of and no prospects of booking any in the foreseeable future. If Kristal had cut his losses and folded up shop, I wouldn’t be sitting here on a Tuesday morning coffee in hand, dog on lap regaling you with the tale of Hilly Kristal and his little club in what was mostly Satan’s bellybutton back in the 70’s. You can assume that he did not fold up shop. From his own words “My first year was an exercise is persistence and trail in patience.”

What Kristal did was find a new way to bring musicians and people to his club. As I mentioned, there were few people who were willing to venture to the Bowery for any reason back then. One group of people was the exception that that rule. They’d go anywhere, they weren’t afraid. They walked through Bedford Sty alone (sorry, Billy Joel); they were the punks. Most of them lived near or in the Bowery anyway, it was cheap and not at all where most people wanted to live. Landlords didn’t really care if one spray painted the walls or played the stereo at 3 AM. It was the perfect place for people with not much use for the rules of society to congregate and congregate they did. After much local pressure, one can assume from punk bands and Hilly’s landlord alike, Kristal began booking punk acts. We’ll assume the landlord was supportive because, well, landlords tend to like regular rent payments. So, what began as a country, blue grass and blues club soon began hosting a type of music so far removed from those genres one would need a high powered microscope to spot any similarities.

In short order, up and coming bands by names you’ll no doubt recall began playing the club. It was the launching ground for The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads,Patti Smith Group the list goes on and on. From the early 80’s until the closure of CBGB in 2005, a who’s who of punk rock graced the stage. People who otherwise would have never set foot in the Bowery came in droves. By the early 80’s punk had far reaching appeal. Kristal had struck gold. He was, in his own way, one of the godfathers of the punk movement. He had spawned a vastly successful club which is still known the world over for being the birth place of punk rock. I myself own a well worn CBGB t-shirt. The imaging is iconic, everybody knows the logo. That was Hilly’s legacy.

Still wondering what this has to do with the auction business? I’m about to tell you. When our business began, we were a great deal like Hilly. We wanted to create a unique experience for our bidders. Up until this point, most auctions were conducted live. The auctions occurred in a variety of settings from conference rooms at hotel chains to the consignor’s home. People came and sat around waiting to bid on the items they wanted. When we began, we found it extremely difficult to keep the buyers in their seats for the entirety of the auction. We had kicked around the idea of using online methods to host an auction. Lee was never shy about embracing technology and I was comfortable enough with the thought to give it at least one try. When we first began discussing the idea, online auctions were a bone of contention for old school auctioneers. Many of them hated the idea of losing the face to face interaction with the crowd. Others were deeply distrustful of technology. We were, and still are, younger than most auctioneers.

After a few live auctions that sort of fell a bit flat, we weighed the pros and cons of moving to an online only style auction. In some ways, an online auction contains more work per item than a traditional. Each item must be photographed from various angles. Each item must be described well and thoroughly. The formatting must be consistent throughout so as not to appear disjointed. People often say there’s less heavy lifting associated with an online auction. I’ve found this to be true only a small percentage of the time. It is true we no longer have a runner holding up heavy items for the crowd to see, we now photograph the items thoroughly which also requires some heavy lifting from time to time. We no longer have to move an item several times over prior to sale. We still have to contend with various types of weather conditions which play a role in how the preview and pick up are attended. The saving grace here is that we’ve found a pick up can be rescheduled more easily than a live auction.

Our biggest fear in conducting an online auction was where the bidders would come from. Many bidders were used to the traditional way of bidding. We feared that they would not adapt to the new methods. We had one saving grace on our side. Most people were familiar enough with EBay to grasp the concept of online bidding. We were still feeling things out in terms of online auctions when a potential consignor reached out to us. He needed the contents of a well appointed home liquidated and since the home was on the market and it was the dead of winter, he didn’t want a traditional auction.

It was at this point where we sort of looked at each other and said “let’s do this.” We had been tinkering with an online auction platform for a short time prior to this meeting, so we did what we normally do, we went all in. We spent hours photographing, cataloging and researching items. We spent many more hours uploading pictures and building out our first online auction. We lost sleep, lots and lots of sleep. I think Lee handled that last bit better than I did. I hibernate in the winter; I think I’m part groundhog. This was totally different than the way we had been handling our auctions in the past. It was nerve racking at times, it was downright infuriating. But, it was fun. We got to spend more time actually seeing the items we were selling. We got to invest more time in research. We really got to get a feel for the items and what how we were going to market them. That’s not to say that we didn’t have any worries. We once thought that an entire batch of photos was lost while uploading. Luckily, they weren’t. They were saved externally in case of such an event, but hours of lost work are never a happy thing. When that auction finally went live, we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had passed the first several hurdles. Our largest hurdle was still right in front of us, where would we find bidders? We found them online. Our reasoning was if we were using the internet to present the auction, we should also be using it to market the auction. This we did. We used Facebook, Craigslist and several other online marketplaces to reach potential bidders. We also created and mailed out post cards. The post cards helped dramatically. They went out exclusively to furniture and decorative items stores. They did drive bidders to our auctions, but most of the winning bidders at that time were individuals. That auction did very well. So well, in fact, that it made us reevaluate how we did our auctions.

 

Much like Mr. Kristal in the story I told you, we saw that we needed to change how we did things. We knew that the tides were changing in terms of how auctions were conducted. Our own live auctions were indicative of this. People didn’t stay for the entirety of the auction; they just didn’t have the time. They would bid on what they came for and then settle up their bill and go about their day. Some stayed until the end, but this doesn’t always translate in to more bids on items. Some stayed home altogether. When you’re planning an auction in an area known for its love of sports, you really have to consult a game day calendar just about any time of the year. Nobody is attending if The Steelers or Pirates or Penguins are playing. This is especially true if it is playoff season. If you plan your auction on the same day and time as another auction, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. If it’s a gorgeous day, people are out doing outdoor activities. If it’s snowing or raining heavily, the crowds dwindle. Even if the auction is indoors, people don’t want to brave the elements. And who can blame them really? If I’m buying an antique piece, I don’t want to take it outside in the rain and risk ruining it either. By holding an auction online, we eliminate many of these variables. Very few people bid on game day, but that’s OK, there are other days. We never end an auction on game day if we can avoid it. The weather is generally fine in the privacy of one’s own home, so bids will come regardless of weather conditions. With these new fangled apps people use for everything, bidding is simple. It can be done on your cell phone even if you’re in Tulsa on business. It’s great.

We did our trials in patience and many exercises in perseverance while making the transition from live to online auctions. We know exactly what Hilly Kristal was talking about there. We also know exactly how he felt when he took his goal of a country, blue grass and blues club and morphed it into something else. We did that too. When I look at Hilly’s story and the monumental contribution he made to music history, I find parallels. I’m not egocentric enough to say that we are shaping the future of the auction industry here in Beaver Falls, but we are doing exactly what Kristal did back in those lean years of the 1970’s. We are continuing on our journey in the same spirit as Hilly and those like him. We are trying to open new doors and maybe forge a new path of our own. That path has changed course a few times, it will no doubt change course a few more. That is the nature of life. If you’re still asking, “Why write about Hilly Kristal?” I’ll give you two reasons, one I like to find things which on the surface don’t appear to be connected and point out how they are. It’s in my nature. Maybe I’m just fitting my own narrative by talking about a person I admire. That’s possible too. And two, on that first online auction I mentioned, I spent the entirety of the cataloging, describing and researching blazing through the entire catalog of The Ramones.

 

Posted in Blog

Descriptions in Auctions

“I want life in every word to the extent that it’s absurd.” B. Gibbard

We’ve all been around the block enough in the realm of online auctions to know what a description is. I mean, it is what it is. It tells the bidder what, in fact, they are bidding on. That’s the basic idea for an auction description, give the bidder a clue. But, I’ve always felt that descriptions should go beyond just telling a bidder what something is. It’s fairly clear from the picture that an item is a chair or a table or a piece of artwork. Our eyes can tell us that much without having to rely on any extra words.

I try to entice bidders by giving extra information about a piece. You’re all intelligent enough to know a chair from a sewing cabinet. I don’t try to presume to insult your intelligence by telling you what you already know, that item is a chair. Yes, it’s a chair, we can all see that. What is it about the chair that makes it special? What about it makes it something a buyer may want in their home? That’s why research and descriptions are so important to us.

Sometimes, we have very little to go on. The piece may not have any distinguishing markers to indicate where it originated or who the original maker was. Sometimes, we rely heavily on our old friend Google and his sometimes a bit slower on the uptake cousin, Bing. We try our best to become mini archeologists while we dig for facts about a piece. Sometimes, we can’t really pass tidbits off as facts because they come from places like Pinterest or Etsy or EBay. None of these sites are validated for accuracy, so we say that research indicates this piece is consistent with….. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist when I use the term “consistent with” or the term “research indicates.” But, at times, that’s all we’ve got to go on.

Occasionally, we’ll get anecdotal information from the consignor. Many times, when a person is downsizing or handling the liquidation of an estate, they have fond memories of varying pieces. They often love to tell us stories about remembering this piece when it was new. We feel that in order to help honor their memories, we should include these anecdotes in our descriptions. As I said in an earlier piece, we don’t feel that our responsibility is to just sell your stuff. We feel that we should be preserving those memories if just for a bit longer. Maybe the end buyer will pass the story on when people admire the piece in their home. Maybe they won’t, such is the nature of the beast.

Normally, I write the descriptions myself. It is my creative outlet. There’s that and this blog and that’s all I really have to channel my creative side, so I run with it. Sometimes, I need to stop myself because a description is running the length of “War and Peace” and I need to remind myself that there is no Pulitzer Prize category for auction descriptions. There are reasons we do this. We never wanted to do things by the cookie cutter method. We don’t want bland and boring. If you’re looking at a piece and you need some convincing that it is for you, you probably take to the descriptions to find out more about it. Maybe you want to know if the lighting made the fabric darker or lighter, I usually tell you in the descriptions. Maybe you see a piece and you think it may make a good project but you aren’t quite sure what to do with it, I try to give some suggestions via the description. I love Pinterest, but I can’t quite pull of what some of those talented people can. (I made chalk paint once, it clotted). I also lack the time to do every project on my list. So, I pass on what I’ve seen.

The most important reason, to us anyway, that we try to be comprehensive in descriptions is that we want to bring life to a piece. I want to breathe life in to every word I use to describe a piece because these pieces all represent someone’s life. They tell a story about the past owners. In as big a way as possible, we want to bring those stories and those little historical tidbits we’ve dug up to life for you. We will never write fiction as a description. That is deceptive and unethical. But, we will present facts and anecdotes. If a consignor tells us something about a piece we’ll include it. It gives the piece life. It shows that the piece was loved and valued by someone maybe long ago, maybe last week, but It was treasured. We once had a consignor tell us a darling story about a porcelain lined basin. Apparently, as a child, she had a pet duck. That basin had been used as the duck’s bathtub for quite a long time. It was a cute story. Did it add to the value of the piece? No. It wasn’t Daffy Duck or Donald Duck who bathed in that basin. But the story brought the piece to life. It wasn’t just a basin; it was a bathtub for a much loved family pet.

Good antique pieces outlive us. We’ve always felt that the stories behind the pieces should continue on long after the original owners or even the fifth owners are no longer with us. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a fan of descriptive writing. Not so descriptive that it takes three chapters and 18 footnotes to tell the reader that that grass is green, mind you. I call that Tolkien syndrome. Just descriptive enough that you know the color of the grass and your mind can conjure up images of the field and perhaps a faint scent of fresh grass.

When we tell people what it is we do for a living, they immediately think that we spend all of our time moving furniture and other heavy objects around all day. Or that we do what the folks on Storage Wars do. I’ll say that some days, it sure feels like we’ve moved every piece of furniture on the Eastern Seaboard at least once. But, that’s just part of what we do. To do this and do it well, you have to be part carnival barker, part archeologist, part picker, part historian and part wordsmith. Those parts make up the whole. To do it badly, you just have to show up. We’ve never been the phone it in types so we have no idea how that works.

The quote I referenced above is what inspired this entry to begin with. I was listening to music not too long ago and I heard a song I had forgotten written by Ben Gibbard. The song was about a man writing and shooting movie script reminiscent of an old Clark Gable film. The song is called “Clark Gable” for those who are wondering, it’s by Postal Service. The line resonated with me. I want life in every word used in a description. Sometimes, it does go to the point of absurdity and I have to scale back a bit. Even though my old philosophy professor (I called him Pompus McStuffedshirt) used to tell us that sometimes a chair is just a chair, it really isn’t. When you just call it a chair, you’re selling yourself short.

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The Auction Apocalypse

No, dear reader, the end is not near. Today, we thought we would discuss changing trends in the auction business and the nature of antiques and collectibles in general. Any of you who have been around auctions, flea markets and antique shops for any amount of time know that tastes and merchandise change quite often. What was desirable just a few years ago is no longer sought after. Some items can still fetch money on the secondary market while some become relegated to the half off bin at your local thrift shop. Avon perfume and cologne bottles spring to mind. They used to command decent sums; however, recently they’ve become very difficult to sell. Fine Victorian era furniture is another example. Though the outcome for these pieces is less dire, they still don’t fetch what they once did. Tastes in types and shades of wood fluctuate and that gorgeous oak sideboard or maple table just isn’t what today’s buyers want. This leads, many times, to perfectly good, very beautiful pieces being thrown away. Now, keep in mind, they aren’t making any more solid wood Victorian era pieces. Hand carving is a dying art. In a few short decades you may not be able to find the gorgeous hand carved pieces that are considered old hat today. That is sad more than anything. We’re looking at a future where modular Ikea type furniture will quickly become commonplace at auctions.

Something else that is starting to creep its way into auctions is all of the cheap products we so often see coming in from China. If you’ve ever strolled through any large retailer, you’ve no doubt found tons of “As Seen on TV” items gracing or should we say darkening the shelves. These items aren’t made to last, they’re barely made to function. They end up being purchased heavily usually around the holiday season and given as gifts. The receiver normally regifts the thing, maybe uses it once or twice or they just put it in a closet and forget they own it. Now, fast forward several years. The owner of the array of “As Seen on TV” stuff is downsizing. They have a closet full of cheap Chinese merchandise and they want rid of all of it. Since they’ve contacted an auctioneer, they clearly don’t wish to hold yard sales. These items may be brand new in the box, but on the secondary market, they are worth yard sale prices at best. At the very least, the makers of this stuff don’t make any claims that the items will appreciate in value. They don’t even really make any claims about the item lasting a few months.

I know we talk a great deal about mass production and what it does to resale value. That’s because it’s a very important point to discuss. Mass production kills resale value. Those Duck Dynasty bobble heads you paid $29.95 each for are not going to appreciate in value; there are millions of those little creepy bearded guys out there. That Chia pet you got at last year’s White Elephant party, yeah, they still make those. Pillow Pets, the Flowbee, the Perfect Pancake, the list is endless. So many of these items were produced, they are plentiful. There were probably enough of all of these items and more made to give everyone in the US one each. An item simply can’t appreciate in value when there are millions just like it floating around. An item especially can’t appreciate in value when millions have already been made and they’re still churning out more.

It isn’t just “As Seen on TV” merchandise, however. Items from HSN and QVC have started making their way to auction houses as well. Again, these items are produced in massive quantities and normally cost quite a bit more when purchased through home shopping television. Don’t get us wrong, we know that QVC does carry exclusive items from desirable designers (Dooney and Burke, Michael Kors, Bob Mackie etc..), but these items also don’t appreciate in value. They are higher quality than the No Boundaries brand at Wal-Mart but they don’t have a high resale value. Most of the items you can order from the comfort of your living room chair are not going to make you wealthy later on.

While we’re on the subject of Wal-Mart, nearly every item you buy at your local Wally World will not appreciate in value. Cheap, mass production in China has flooded the US resale market with scores of these items. Most times, even recovering the original cost of the item is a tall order. Even if the item is brand new and in the original box, a buyer could simply go to their local Wal-Mart and buy a brand new one off the shelf. Not only do many of these items not have any real lasting power (cheaply made, not made to last, inferior components), they simply do not have much in terms of value on the secondary market. Even pricier appliances like Keurig coffee makers typically don’t sell for much at auction. There are exceptions vintage Kitchen Aid and Sunbeam stand mixers still do very well. Modern ones tend to hold their own in terms of sales as well. They won’t fetch retail prices at auction, but they do tend to be desirable and sometimes sought after. There’s a reason for that, quality. We have a contemporary Kitchen Aid mixer that we use regularly. It was worth the initial investment as it has outperformed every other hand or stand mixer either one of us has ever owned. We can’t say that for other brands.

In this day and age with the availability of cheap clothing being pumped out by Chinese factories, even relatively expensive clothing items don’t sell well at auction. A vintage Chanel dress or suit will normally do well as will vintage Halston or any other Haute Couture designer of old. A modern designer such as Stella McCartney probably will not. When you’re talking about mid range or low range clothing, auctioneers are lucky to sell every item as one lot for pennies. Those expensive Love Pink items from Victoria’s Secret can be found in just about any thrift shop and at many yard sales. Under Armor is pretty much the same. It doesn’t really matter if the items still have the tags attached of if they were never worn, they simply don’t sell well at auction. While we’re on the subject of fashion, why do you think it is that a vintage Chanel dress is still, pardon the pun, hanging around? Sing along, you know the words; vintage Chanel was not made in China. It may have been made in London, Paris, New York or Milan, but not in China. The pride of handcrafting a fine garment is sadly long gone. Insane profits have taken the forefront while quality craftsmanship has been pushed to the back burner.

The last bit we’ll touch on here is anything you buy through an MLM company. You may not know the phrase MLM, but you know the heavy hitters in that game. Party Lite, Mary Kay, Avon, Thirty One, Origami Owl, Home Interiors, I could go on and on. Basically the stuff you buy in your friend’s living room because you got invited to this party and you really should buy something. Just about every one of these and the hundreds of other companies just like them have produced some sort of collectible or another. They produce just as many of these items as, say, Franklin Mint. There are millions of Avon perfume bottles out there, most of them still filled, many of them still in their boxes. Most of the modern MLM merchandise is made in, you guessed it, China. We are literally being buried under piles of cheap Chinese merchandise as I type this.

In the next few years, these items will start to make their way in to auctions. It’s very difficult to stem the tide of the influx of cheap Chinese items coming our way. This influx makes us concerned. We know that the resale value of such things is minimal. This is why we don’t generally do new merchandise auctions. There is so much pressure to buy these items wholesale from China. We also know that due to poor quality, most bidders won’t be pleased with mass produced things. Most importantly, these items lack character and charm. They literally look just like the neighbor’s things because they are just like the neighbor’s things. Don’t misunderstand us here; it’s clear from my writing that we do not like mass produced items. That is true. We both feel they have little character or “soul” of their own. If you like Ikea and Home Interiors, that is your prerogative and we wouldn’t presume to tell you that you are wrong. We’re talking in general terms of resale.

What can you as a bidder do to help make sure your local auction house isn’t flooded with Chia Pets and other mass produced flotsam and jetsam? The simple answer is don’t consign it. The longer answer is insisting on a higher quality of merchandise. We don’t judge you when you buy a singing fish plaque; we enjoy a good gag gift as well as the next guys. Both of us have our own style. We both like things the other doesn’t. We’ve never split the difference and settled for bland. You should never settle for bland. If you’re in the market for a coffee table or a couch, keep looking until you find the piece you’ve envisioned. Check your labels. Buy Made in the USA instead of Made in China. Maybe put that last bug in the ears of your friends and relatives too. Simply don’t buy mass produced Chinese made products. If there is less of it out there, less of it will make its way to auction in the future.

Finally, and we say this often, don’t be angry with your auctioneer when he truthfully tells you that your Avon perfume bottles, Jim Beam decanters and Home Interior candle holders will bring a pittance at auction. He’s telling you these things because they are true and because experience has taught him that these things are not desirable at the moment. He isn’t being lazy, he isn’t being greedy; he is being honest. The more money you make, the happier you are right? Your auctioneer wants your auction to do well. We all work on a commission basis. If you do well, we do well too.

Posted in Uncategorized

American Roadside

One of the many things Lee and I enjoy doing is traveling. We love getting in the car and just heading out for somewhere with only the vaguest idea of where we’re going and why. Sometimes, we’ll plan out at least part of a trip in advance and let the rest sort of happen as an adventure. That’s what happened one spring day nearly two years ago. It was early April and Easter weekend was approaching when Lee and I decided to take a road trip to Detroit. I don’t remember what originally planted the seed in our minds to head off to Detroit in the first place, but Lee had found a place he really wanted to see while we were there, so we planned our trip around it. That place was Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum; a cool, offbeat, quirky museum of vintage games, automatons and other amusements. I was hooked when Lee mentioned old fortune teller machines and carnival posters. We planned our trip, packed our bags and packed Lily’s dog treats and off we went. Yes, Lily came along for the ride. It was her first long distance road trip. We arrived in Detroit in the evening and planned to head to Marvin’s in the morning.

While there, we stayed at an urban farm in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. Our host was gracious, kind and very informative. We watched goats being milked and chickens greeted us when we woke up. Not what one expects from Detroit, but we loved it. We got to Marvin’s which is right outside of Detroit in Ferndale, MI about a half hour before they opened. It was cold in Michigan that day, very cold. The staff saw us waiting outside and opened early so we didn’t have to wait outside n the cold. Now, keep in mind, we had Lily in tow. We weren’t sure how that would sit with the staff at Marvin’s, but they were great about it. When they found out we had driven four hours to see the museum and that we’d come from Beaver Falls just to spend part of our day at Marvin’s, they graciously allowed us to bring her in with us. We’re not sure how Lily enjoyed the place, but we loved it! So many games, so much to see, so much to do! We were like kids in a candy store. Everywhere you look, there’s something cooler than the last thing you saw.

Many of Marvin’s mechanical wonders are the last of their kind. They have been lovingly preserved and maintained by a man who clearly loved the weird side of life. The place was a blast. It was the kind of place my roadside attraction loving heart skipped a beat for. Did I mention they had just about every old fortune teller machine ever made? They did. I have a fortune from each one. I’m a sucker for fortune teller machines. Lee put a token in every automaton that was operating. Lily didn’t seem to mind the time we spent oohing and ahhing over everything we saw. Our only regret was not meeting Marvin. He wasn’t in when we visited. After we left Marvin’s, we visited a local market. Each vendor we spoke to there asked us what had brought us to Detroit from Beaver Falls on Easter weekend. We told them Marvin’s. Every vendor had a story about the man. That dude was LOVED in the Detroit metro area. They said that Marvin was an animal lover and would have allowed Lily to stay and play with us all day long had he been in. Everyone had only great things to say about Marvin and his museum. We wrapped up our trip on Easter Sunday and headed back to Beaver Falls never having met Marvin. But, we did swear we’d return one day. This morning, we found out that Marvin had passed away. We are both saddened by his passing. His museum is still in operation, thankfully, it doesn’t appear that it is closing any time soon. It would be a shame to lose Marvin’s; it brings joy to so many people. That’s what Marvin designed it to do. We both hope his legacy continues.

We’ve been to many offbeat and quirky museums during our travels. Marvin’s is the first one where the original owner was still alive when we visited. All of the others were founded either decades or centuries before we visited. On our journeys, we’ve seen the famous Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, House on the Rock in Wisconsin and Circus World Museum also in Wisconsin. We visited two different museums of Voodoo in New Orleans. We’ve been to numerous art and history museums as well. Me personally, I love the roadside attractions. Where else can you see the world’s largest carousel or the largest collection of original circus trains? Where will you find medical anomalies and an extensive collection of 19th century tools? Where else can you actually play old pinball machines and watch old automatons in action? My camera is filled with pictures of amazing things I thought I’d never in my lifetime see. When we visited House on the Rock, it had been on my wish list for over a decade. One of my favorite books is set, in part, at the famous landmark to just about all things weird in Spring Green, WI. Lee indulged me with a trip there after we visited Arty upon his graduation from basic training. I think I stood like a child staring at Alex Jordan’s collection of the wild and weird. The carousel is by far one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I wonder if Marvin ever went there. It houses many of the things he loved to collect.

Our journeys to the strange places that make America so darn interesting have been many. We’ve seen some amazing sights and we’ve loved every minute of it. We’ve been like two very large children at play in some of the weirdest collections in the country. I’ve learned on these trips that when Lee says “The next place is a surprise,” I should just enjoy the ride and await something amazing. We’ve learned so much and seen things we will probably never see again. We’ve had a wonderful time on our journeys. Marvin’s was one of our first trips specifically to visit an attraction. We have nothing but fond memories. We hope that Marvin’s passing does not signal the end of a place that so many have loved. Moreover, we hope that Marvin is at peace. We hope his family and those who love him in Detroit are comforted by the amount of sheer joy he brought to people from all over the world.

Rest in Peace, Marvin.

Posted in Blog

So, What do You Like?

We’re often asked what it is that we like. What makes us excited when we see it, what sets our little history loving hearts aflutter? Both of us will be answering this question in our respective blog posts. It’s not possible to discuss just one particular thing that makes me excited when I see it. Often, my headspace in a flea market or estate sale or thrift shop resembles Sid in Ice Age chasing an acorn. There are things I will make a beeline for if they are available.

I’ll start off by saying, I love music I’ve had a grand love affair going with music since I was a small child. I wanted to be Stevie Nicks when I grew up. Unfortunately, I can only really play the radio. Though I am not musically inclined, I do appreciate fine musical instruments. The one instrument that makes me the most excited is the guitar. My excitement is more an aesthetic thing than a musicianship thing. I love the look of a vintage Gibson Les Paul. The Sunburst is my favorite pattern. I just know that one day; I will open a random guitar case and find a Martin. I will then shriek like a little girl and just stand stunned at the beauty of a fine hand crafted instrument. One day, I hope to tour the Martin factory. Hey, I can’t be Stevie Nicks, just let me believe I can one day hold a Martin. There is something to be said about a hand crafted in America guitar. There is a certain attitude that comes along with playing American music on a hand crafted American guitar. Nothing can compare, even as far as the girl who can’t play a note is concerned.

For years, I have appreciated music memorabilia. I once spent a solid hour staring intently at Joey Ramone’s Chuck Taylors at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. A Joey Ramone bobblehead has graced my desk for ages. In terms of guilty pleasures, I guess you can say punk rock is mine. Not really, though, I’m not guilty about loving a style of music. And I do love punk rock. Specifically The Ramones and The Replacements. I would love to own a First Act Paul Westerberg edition guitar one day. Henry Rollins will always have a special place in my little book loving heart. He turned me on to Albert Camus and other notable writers. Music and books, music and books, these are a few of my favorite things. I still want to be Stevie Nicks though. Well maybe more of a Stevie Nicks/Joan Jett mashup.

Eclectic is probably the best way to describe the things I love collecting. I hope to one day own and old side show gaffe. I love the art and artistry of old traveling carnivals and side shows. Quack medical devices are of great fascination to me. The things I would collect if I were independently wealthy include old side show cabinet cards, Victorian memento mori, the aforementioned guitars and musical memorabilia of the punk rock era. I’d have a room for quack medical devices and old snake oil displays. I suppose it’s best that I am not independently wealthy because I’d need rooms upon rooms to house such collections. I say often that I am weird. You see, eccentric is reserved for the wealthy, so I’m saving up for eccentric. My collection at the moment consists of several old medical “cures” that would probably kill you, a preserved pig I’ve christened Hamilton and my favorite weird thing, a copy of the “Home and Farm Companion” that Lee gave me when we first started dating. It lists old home remedies alongside veterinary care and a planting guide. Surprisingly (or not), the cure for most things back then was either arsenic or mercury. Both will cure almost any ailment including breathing. There’s also a handy guide to preparing a body for burial presumably after the arsenic cured the pulse.

What lead a girl who loves all things oddity and punk to become part of a two person auction team? To quote John Lennon “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” There is plenty of room in the auction business for the weird and eccentric. In fact, I know of a few auction companies who make most of their living selling the weird and eccentric to the weird and eccentric. It’s a good business if you can break in to it. It is my dream to one day be able to host an oddities and other eccentric artifacts auction. I do love art and history and old architecture, don’t get me wrong. But, I love the zany and creative as well. There is much to be said about the outside the box thinkers, the no box at all thinkers, the square pegs who never seem to fit in to the round holes, the rebels and freaks. They’re almost never boring, that’s for sure. They have also normally been the ones to shape the future. Think about it, people laughed at all sorts of visionaries through time. As far back in history as I can remember, the weird ones were laughed at and then recognized for their works.

Even in the auction world, there are so many different types of auctions and auctioneers. Auctions run the gamut from livestock to fine art and just anything else you can imagine. We know an auctioneer who does most of his business in chicken manure. Yes, you read that correctly. There’s enough room in this business for the quirky and the serious. When we kicked around the initial idea of starting our own auction business, I made it very clear that my sense of humor had to come along for the ride. I was familiar with two types of auctions at the time. These were the very casual style farm auction where one buys livestock, feed and equipment and the very serious type of auction where one buys a Dali or a rare Tiffany. I didn’t really feel that there was much middle ground, I stand corrected.

Our first few auctions showed me that there was, in fact, room for the quirky. It was during one of these first auctions that another of my favorite things emerged. That thing is glassware. Specifically, I became very interested in Fry Glass. Those of you native to the area know that Fry was produced in Rochester, PA. Fry made everything from art glass to an ovenware line which was made for everyday use. Though I’m still not a huge fan of clear glassware, I adore Fry colored glass, foval and ovenware. I now own several pieces which are housed either in the shop or at our home. My collection has crowded out the one cabinet we have at the shop for such things. Next came Beaver Falls Flint Cooperative glass. It is very hard to find locally despite being made in the same city where our auction house stands. Lee gifted me a piece one year while he was traveling on business. The piece arrived at just about the same time that I was beginning to miss him terribly. It is done in a pattern called Amberina. Through time, some of our consignors and a few of our friends have gifted me various piece of glassware. They come from just about every manufacturer who was prevalent in the earlier parts of the 20th century. My collection now includes pieces by Fenton, Viking, LE Smith, Fry, Consolidated and Jeanette. I’ve had the opportunity to purchase Phoenix glass twice. Both times, I held out for a lower price and lost. My favorites remain Fenton and Fry. I know, not very rebellious but hey, Iggy Pop plays golf from time to time. There is much left for me to learn about glassware. Specifically in the realm of art glass which is a passion of mine. I adore hand blown pieces and hope to find a John Ditchfiled one day. Through my own collecting, I’ve met several wonderful members of the local Fry Glass club whom I value as friends and associates. They have imparted upon me some of the wealth of knowledge they possess and for that I am grateful. One lovely middle-aged lady goes on annual digs around the former Fry Glass grounds in Rochester. She told me once that the property owners don’t particularly like it, but there aren’t any signs and she’s got a shovel and what can they really do about it. How very punk of you dear lady.

I mention our cabinet quite a bit. When we bought it, we had every intention of turning it in to a cabinet of curiosities. We still do. The original plan as for me to create small tags similar to the ones you see in museums for each piece. We will do that one day once my glassware collection moves to its permanent place in our home. For the time being, the collection is housed in and on the cabinet. It shares space with my “weird stuff” and the final item I collect aside from books. That item is witches. I love anything and everything witches or witch related. It doesn’t have to be antique or vintage honestly. Vintage and antique Halloween items are among my favorites, however, I’ve often found them to be cost prohibitive. I’m fine with reproduction Halloween and witch items. Sometimes a good repop is all that is available. Normally, when we’re out thrift shopping or perusing estate sales, I bring home anything I can find that is witch related. My dear friend collects black cat related items. We’re two peas in the same weird pod really. That pod probably has whiskers and a witch’s hat on it to be honest. Each year, these pieces become incorporated in to our Halloween decorations at the shop. I think I was the first person in the entire business district to put up a Halloween tree. That tree still gets odd looks even today. That’s alright though, the kids love it. We’re probably one of the few businesses who hand out candy in full costume each year; again, the kids love it. The sort of funky, quirky, weird people who stop by on occasion seem to love that I can discuss their favorite movie or band or book with them as well. Not many people who spend their day surrounded by antiques can talk about The Misfits or Rocky Horror Picture Show or the works of Neal Gaiman with any level of comfort on the subject matter. I once had a younger man tell me that I was the first “antiques lady to call Glen Danzig a whiny little girl.” Maybe I am, but I sure did. We had a lovely discussion about John Waters movies, old B films and the music of The Misfits. All that was missing was tea really. Those are the days I live for. When someone walks through our doors expecting a little old lady possibly with her glasses around her neck on a tasteful chain and they get the not old lady with the Social Distortion T-shirt who can talk to them about the strange and quirky or the serious and antique all while turning on the pinball machine in the back for the cadre of little boys who take great delight in playing it while their mom shops (Hi boys! Hope you’re all doing well), then they realize they are someplace different. We never wanted to be so stuffy and serious that we forgot to have fun. That’s why we let the kids actually play the pinball machine. It’s why we’ve been known to plug in a guitar and let someone play it. It’s why I’ve been known to let another little boy act as our sales associate from time to time, it gives him something constructive to do with his time and he’s learning valuable skills.

My message in this long ramble that has weaved its way from punk rock, guitars and fine glassware to end up on little boys playing pinball is, don’t forget who you are. This world seems almost designed to suck the unique out of each of us. Don’t let it. Turn your music up to 11, still strive to be Stevie Nicks, wear your favorite rock t-shirt, let the kids play, play with them, dress up on Halloween and be who you are meant to be. Sometimes that road takes you down some pretty dark alleys, just look for the light and you’ll be fine. It’s not a train, I promise you that. Take the road less traveled when you can. It turned out OK for Robert Frost. Don’t be afraid to be you, don’t hide it. The old hippies used to say let your freak flag fly. I like that, it fits.

Posted in Blog

Let’s Talk Provenance

If you’ve ever browsed EBay or Craigslist, you’ve no doubt read a listing or two that made you wonder a bit. You know the listings we’re talking about “This item is a rare piece” “This piece belonged to a notable person” “This piece is haunted/possessed” “This vase is Ming Dynasty.” These claims are almost always heavily exaggerated if not outright lies. People want to make their items seem more interesting. They want to sell them for as much as possible. Who can blame them really? Well, we can. Provenance is a very serious word in the auction business. If you make a claim as to an item’s ownership, lineage or origin and you can’t back that claim up with solid proof; you can face serious legal issues.

Technically, even on EBay or Craigslist, if you are making a claim that an item is rare, very old or was once owned by a famous person, you are legally bound to prove it. In the auction world, that means that we often ask for corroborating evidence before we describe an item as rare, notable, of ancient origin and/or possessed. Now, we’ll admit, we haven’t run in to too many possessed items (our current count stands at zero). We have, however, been told many times that a piece is Ming Dynasty or a Warhol or once was owned by Hitler (!?!?!). These claims are hardly ever communicated to our bidders as they can’t be proved. We don’t mean to sound skeptical when grand claims come our way, but it is our reputation and possibly our licensure on the line should we mislead our bidders.

As a bidder, we’re sure you want to bid with confidence. You don’t want to second guess your auctioneer when he says that a piece is something. You simply want to bid and hopefully bring home a new treasure. We don’t blame you. We want that same level of honesty when we shop. Imagine what you would think if that Ming Dynasty vase had a sticky spot on the bottom where the “Made in China” or “Pier One” sticker once was. Imagine your anger if your new Warhol turned out to be a Jim Noname original. We know how we would feel. Where provenance is concerned you can’t be too careful.

I brought up a once owned by Hitler claim earlier. That stemmed mostly from an experience I had personally. I am neither a fan nor a collector of Nazi memorabilia. Once, I was at a flea market when I noticed a man selling a vast display case full of Nazi memorabilia. It seemed to me that a collection of that magnitude would be housed in a museum rather than for sale in the parking lot of a small flea market, so I asked the gentleman to show me a piece. He was pretty evasive about the whole affair which set off alarm bell #2. I pushed the issue not because I wanted the piece but because I felt the man was misleading the public. Lo and behold, the “Priceless” piece of history had a prominent “Made in China” sticker affixed to its back. Now, you don’t need to be a historian to know that China wasn’t supplying the SS with their finery during World War II. When a claim such as the one above is made, a prospective buyer should insist on provenance. You are within your rights to ask to see documentation which backs up the claims.

What constitutes backing corroboration? We’re glad you asked. If an item is stated to have belonged to famous person, you may start by asking to see a photo of the person with the item. Failing that, the item should have been authenticated by a reputable authentication service. They will provide a COA (Certificate of Authenticity). When the claim is that of age or rarity, take a good long look at the item. A magnifying glass, jeweler’s loupe and a UV light are invaluable tools. Examine the piece carefully. Does it show signs of age consistent with what you’d expect? Does it look remarkably good for supposedly being centuries old? What does a Google search turn up? Sometimes, a quick Google search is your best weapon. If you’re being offered a Ming vase, there will be ways to identify it as such. If the piece is something that you feel would be in a museum if authentic, dig deeper. You don’t need to become an archeologist to get to the bottom of whether an item has good provenance or not. If the piece is purported to be a Stradivarius violin, for example, we can tell you with certainty it is not. Those are all accounted for. You won’t find the Mona Lisa at a thrift store. The real one is also accounted for. We’ve been asked a few times to authenticate a copy of famed painting Blue Boy. We can say with 100% certainty that any painting, print or lithograph of Blue Boy is not authentic. The real one is in a museum in California. Lee saw it, he’s positive it’s real. It’s also 10 feet tall which means that unless your living room is in the Taj Mahal, it won’t fit.

When it comes to claims that a certain piece was produced by a notable artist, begin researching the work of that artist. It is possible to find pieces by notable artists at thrift stores or in attics. It is not probable that you will but it has happened. One thing you should ask yourself is, is this piece consistent with other works by that artist? Picasso is known for a specific style of artistry, he is not known for an impressionist version of dogs playing poker. Similarly, Warhol is known for pop art. He did not do Thomas Kinkaide style quaint cottages. On the subject of Kinkaide, he isn’t known for nudes. If the subject matter seems, well, suspect; dig deeper. Next, ask yourself if the medium is consistent with what the artist in question is known for. Sculptors have been known to paint, painters to sculpt, such is the nature of art and creativity. However, if your purported Warhol appears to be a paint by numbers circa 1974, chances are it is not really a Warhol. Many artists preferred a particular type of paint. Some worked in oils, some water colors, some acrylics. If you are looking at a water color from an artist known for oils, take a closer look. Ask for backing documentation. Accept nothing less than an in print, verifiable COA from a reputable source. Check the source. When you’re talking about art which may be worth 10’s of thousands of dollars if not more, you can’t be too careful. There is also the signature. While it is true that some artists did not sign each and every piece they produced, if the piece is being offered as a Kinkaide or Dali or Warhol and it is unsigned, demand proof. If it reads simply “Kinkaide” chances are it is a fake. China is producing “signed” high end art very quickly these days. It is often difficult to spot the fakes. Obviously if you come across 5 “original” Van Gogh Starry Night paintings, there’s something amiss. A COA is not bulletproof. There are good copies and fake COAs floating around. We’ve heard that some less than reputable companies will authenticate anything for the right price, so be very cautious. If something seems wrong, walk away from the deal. Remember the old cliché, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

I’ll touch briefly on the possessed/haunted claim. It’s just silly. There is no certificate of actual haunting or possession that we are aware of. We shy away from making such claims as one can neither prove no disprove such things. I mean, I suppose we could bring the afflicted item home and see if anything weird happens. But, we’re sort of afraid Lily may start speaking Latin and we aren’t versed in the language. In short, there is not provenance for such claims. It’s probably a stunt to drive up interest in an otherwise mediocre piece.

Ultimately, what you choose to purchase is up to you. When you choose to purchase at auction, always insist on a preview if the item is being stated to be something of high value. Don’t accept just the word of anybody that the piece is authentic. It is certainly not possible for a person to be an expert in everything. We miss things from time to time. What we don’t do is claim something is something it is not. Any reputable auctioneer will allow for preview. A simple phone call or email to arrange for such is not out of the question. Especially when you are considering spending a considerable sum on an item, you expect to see it or hold it and we respect that. It’s your money and we don’t want you to part with it without confidence. For our part, we promise to never claim a painting of dogs playing poker was done by Thomas Kinkaide. We won’t try to sell you Hitler’s mustache comb or Marilyn’s shampoo for that matter. We will never sell you a possessed doll. Well, not to the best of our knowledge anyway.

Posted in Blog