Preview The Book
The Right Stuff
Collectors on Collecting

by Victoria Memminger
photography by Carl Reader

Do you watch the Antiques Road Show? Do you drive into the country on weekends, looking for small towns, hoping to find a dusty shop with untold treasures? Do you have the toys you grew up with? When you see a hand-lettered sign that says “YARD SALE,” are you the first person there? If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be a collector or a budding collector.

Do you know where to find out about what you want to collect? Can you tell if something is what is purports to be? Do you know the best places to get the best guidance? If you answered “no” to these questions, read on.

Our experts have been in the business for years. They know what they are talking about. Their insights and advice should prove to be both helpful and useful.

Noel Barrett, who has been to more cities with the Antiques Road Show than any of its other experts, started collecting toys thirty-five years ago in his home town of Alexandria, Virginia. He moved to Bucks County in the early 1980s and had a shop in his house in Carversville, Pennsylvania, but in 1986 he began devoting more and more time to his auction business, which today occupies him full time.

Q. Why do people collect? Is it because it’s fashionable? Because magazines tell them to?

A. Let me say right up front that I am convinced there is a “collecting” gene and some people have it, some don’t. I am always amazed at what people collect. I think some times you just stumble into it—you know, someone gives you something or leaves you something, you decide you like it, and pretty soon you’re a collector.

Q. Where is the best place to find information on your interest—libraries? Bookstores? The internet?

A. There are thousands of books out there. Schiffer Publishing alone offers an enormous number of books on just about everything you can think of. Usually you can find these books at large antique shows, and you could probably locate them on the internet. There’s also the Maine Antiques Digest—it’s one of the best. You can get the address on the internet, I’m sure.

Q. If you find books on your specialty, are they updated regularly to accommodate price changes?

A. Most professionals disparage price guides because they are often wrong. They do help define a field, though. For instance, they will show you two ashtrays and you can see that ashtray A is a lot more expensive than ashtray B, so it gives you an idea of what’s pricey and what isn’t. Once you get into it, you will know more than the books and more than some dealers.

Q. Would you advise a beginning collector to display his collection as a decorative element in his house, or to keep it in special cases?

A. If you don’t have it out where you can enjoy it, what’s the point? Of course, some people may think their collections are a little weird, so they keep them in the basement or the attic, and then there are spouses who don’t share the enthusiasm for the collection and don’t want it taking up space in the living room. It really depends on your situation. You know where people who collect posters keep them? Under beds, so they can lie flat.

Q. Why don’t they frame them?

A. That could run into a lot of money, and some people have so many they would run out of walls to hang them on. But it does seem sort of a waste to keep them under beds.

Q. What do you think about collecting as an investment?

A. People who collect for investment purposes are foolish. In the first place, they don’t buy with any passion for the objects, so they have a two-to-three year attention span and when they go to sell, they lose money. There are a lot of reasons to collect—gives you something to do on weekends, decorates your house—but making money is not one of them. Someone once said the greatest invention of man was compound interest, and in the case of collections as an investment, that’s right. Generally you’ll do better with compound interest. You may get lucky, but it’s not a good idea to count on it. The great thing though about collecting is that it the only hobby that isn’t a waste of money—if you buy carefully you may even make money and you will have had a lot of fun along the way.

Q. What mistakes do beginning collectors often make?

A. You learn from your mistakes. A friend of mine bought a cast iron toy said to be in perfect condition. It wasn’t. So he started examining it and he made a list of everything that was wrong—he kept that list with him for years so he could check out other things he bought. You’ve got to buy from people who know the stuff—at least until you know the field. Flea market purchases don’t really offer that—the seller may know what he’s got and he may not. You’re better off going to big shows, because the vendors know what they’ve got.

Q. How can a beginning collector be sure he’s not paying too much?

A. It’s very hard to know if you’re paying too much—if you see something you love, don’t be afraid of paying too much.

Q. How would you rate these venues for beginners—antique shops, large shows, auctions, flea markets, the internet?

A. Shop owners and vendors at large shows generally know what they are talking about and know their specialty. Auctions are a very good learning experience, because collectors will share information with you. You really need to look at everything you are interested in—say you check out 10 pieces you like, one comes up that you didn’t check, you bid on it and get it and discover it’s flawed. Some people are afraid they’ll pay too much at auctions, but that’s not true—dealers go to auctions and they are certainly not going to pay more than anything is worth. You’ve got to be very knowledgeable to buy on the internet, though EBay will show you up-to-date prices. You also need to know a lot before buying from a flea market—remember, the bargains go early and all the good stuff is gone by the middle of the day.

Q. What do you, personally, collect now?

A. Lots of stuff, but not necessarily in large numbers. I like kaleidoscopes now, and salesmen’s samples, and old group pictures—you know, baseball teams and ballet classes and class pictures. Oh, yes, and stuff from diners. I have a lot of that.

Dan Margo, who owns the Peter Wallace Antiques shops in Lambertville, New Jersey, got interested in collecting when he helped a friend in graduate school assemble a post-card collection. Prior to coming to this area, he had antique shops in New York City and Chicago. He has been in the New Hope/Lambertville area for more than 20 years and is now president of the Lambertville Antique Dealers Association.

Q. Do people ask you for advice in choosing the right accessory?

A. Yes—they tell me what they have in their houses and I try to find out where they are going. What style of furniture do they have? What look are they trying to achieve? I always try to recommend something that will tie everything together. So many people have no idea of the look they want.

Q. Do accessories appreciate in value?

A. Depends on what it is. The biggest appreciation is in lighting—chandeliers, lamps, wall sconces. My guess is that when people buy a house, they don’t like what the former owners had or, if it’s a new house, what the builder installed. Lighting must be a very personal thing—there’s a big demand for antique lighting.

Q. What are the most common mistakes novice buyers make?

A. Well, believe it or not, some don’t know the difference between an antique shop and a furniture store that sells reproductions. Someone came in here and wanted something to go with her “antique” sofa that she had bought at the Bombay Company. Now, the Bombay Company’s a good store, but they do not sell antiques. If you’re not sure whether it’s an antique store, ask one of the salespeople. A common mistake for new collectors is buying a reproduction instead of the real thing and then wondering why they can’t sell it.

Q. Is it worth holding on to something after its fashionable period has passed?

A. Again, it depends on the item. Beanie Babies are probably not going to make a comeback—Hummels are pretty much out of favor now, too. A collectible can be anything—an antique has to be 100 years old. If an antique has any value, it’s worth holding on to, whether or not it’s currently fashionable.

Q. Do your customers seem influenced by decorating magazines?

A. Yes, and from my point of view it’s easier to deal with people who come in and show me a picture and say “I want to re-create that room.” At least you have an idea of where they are going. Taking a picture of what you’re aiming for is often very helpful, both to the customer and the shop owner.

Q. As the president of the Lambertville Antique Dealers Association, do you see advantages for both dealers and buyers?

A. Sure. There are 100 members of our group and our by-laws include professional standards, so if you buy from one of us, you know you are dealing with a responsible owner. For the dealers, it means less advertising costs, since we advertise as a group.

Q. What do you, personally, collect now?

A. Antique oil portraits. I’ve been doing it for about 20 years. My house is a converted barn and the walls are absolutely covered. They’re not for sale—I like to live with them.

David Rago, the owner of David Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., has been a regular expert on the Antiques Road Show since its inception eight years ago. His career in antiques started in 1972 when he worked at the Lambertville Antiques Flea Market, and he has also worked in New York City. His specialty is 20th Century American furniture and pottery.

Q. What’s the first step for people who become interested in collecting 20th Century American furniture? Are there books they can buy, websites of interest, special shows?

A. There’s so much information available these days. There are a number of specialty shows—the February show in Asheville, North Carolina, at the Grove Park Inn, is the biggest and the best for people interested in 20th Century furniture. There are maybe 20 such shows across the country. Aside from that, there are hundreds of books and an equal number of websites—ours is ragoarts.com. The book I always recommend is The Arts and Crafts Movement in America,” which accompanied the germinal Princeton University show in 1974.

Q. What would you advise people to start with? Major pieces, such as beds and sofas and dressers, or small pieces such as occasional tables or lamps or chairs?

A. I always tell people to take their time and read and look at as much as possible before buying anything. After you’ve done that, pick a piece you’ll use the most—maybe a good Morris chair. Get used to that, settle in, then take it from there—no need to rush. It’s also important not to focus mainly on name-brand stuff, or even original finish. Good design is more important, I think, than a good name—though they often are united.

Q. What is the difference between post-war furniture and contemporary furniture? Can you give me some dates?

A. Literally, anything post-war would include styles up to the modern, but when we use the term, we are referring to mid-century material from about 1945 to 1970. Sixties stuff can be pop or psychedelic, 70s and 80s can be post-modern or Memphis—the 90s would be contemporary.

Q. Should the new collector pick one period or can, say, mission, deco, and postwar furniture be mixed successfully in a house?

A. I like to mix them. I’ve often referred to mission furniture as the team player of the decorative arts. I think a good eye and mind can effectively blend them. Nakashima, for example, seems to go perfectly with a first-rate Gustav Stickley piece. Hardwood floors, white walls, and lots of light are the right mood for most of this stuff.

Q. How can beginning collectors know if they are paying a fair price—would an appraiser help?

A. There is so much price information available—people can go on line and search specialty auction catalogues, they can price pieces at shows and in galleries across the country. I’m usually dubious of appraisers, at least with formal credentials. Like a mail-order reverend, you can pay for a certificate and formalize your expertise. Buyers can search the same sources as appraisers, so why bother to use one?

Q. Is 20th Century American furniture a good investment?

A. I don’t like to sell the investment side of this material, though it’s proven to be exactly that. If you’re looking to invest, buy real estate. If you’re looking for great things to improve the quality of your lives, to add comfort and beauty to your home, you’re on the right track. A dear friend said to me once “Buy with your heart but keep an eye cocked to the future.” Best advice I ever got.

Q. What are some common mistakes beginners make?

A. They buy too fast. They overpay because of lack of information. They buy a lesser condition than they think they’re getting. They buy a cheaper piece because they’re afraid of overpaying.

Q. What type of restoration is acceptable?

A. It varies from piece to piece, period to period. Oddly enough, mid-century material is fine if nicely refurbished. The older stuff, mission oak, loses at least half its value if it’s refinished—the finishes were integral to the pieces, fumed into the wood directly. Missing hardware, loss of height from being cut down, added paint—these are all serious problems.

Q. What do you collect for yourself?

A. I can’t afford to collect what I sell, or at least what I’d really want. I prefer to have things I love, made by people I know and whose work I respect. Photos by Annie Liebowitz, paintings by Bob Beck, graphics and ceramics by David Diaz. These objects remind me of them and of their talent.

Herbert Sandor’s interest in antiques is hardly surprising—he is the third generation of his family to have been in the antiques business. His parents came to Lambertville, NJ from Amsterdam in 1944 and established the shop that he and his brother Richard took over in the 1950s. At that time, there were still Sandors selling antiques in London and Amsterdam. He is a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York City and studied European design in Paris. Although he has been out of the business for 10 years, he retains a keen interest in antiques and in collecting.

Q. Do you think buying antiques as an investment is a good idea right now, or not so good?

A. The last 50 years have shown that antiques hold their value—it’s similar to real estate. So I would say yes, it’s a good idea provided you know what you are doing. If you have knowledge of periods and styles, if you have learned about paintings, you can do very well.

Q. What period, what style would you say are most likely to increase in value?

A. Eighteenth Century American furniture and early 19th. You have to learn about it, of course. For instance, there is Chippendale, which was made between 1760 and 1767, and then there is the Chippendale “style,” which could have been made 100 years later. That’s not to say that the Chippendale “style” chair, which may have been made during the Victorian era, won’t eventually appreciate—it will. But it’s not the same thing as an original. Furniture made by a craftsman will, sooner or later, become valuable, but it may take a while. Craftsman-made items should not be confused with furniture you buy in a furniture store—that becomes used furniture.

Q. If you are going to collect antiques as an investment, should you live with them or put them in a room with a velvet rope across the door?

A. Always live with the furniture. I had an uncle in Amsterdam who had the most wonderful pieces, incredible carpets, rare books, exquisite porcelains. He always said to his family, you can sit in the chairs, walk on the carpets, and read the books—but stay away from the porcelain. It’s too fragile. Think about it, he was right. The other things couldn’t break.

Q. How can you become knowledgeable about buying antiques?

A. There are a lot of books out there, but don’t buy price guides. They’re worthless because they make generalizations. The Maine Antiques Digest is a good source and so is The Newtown Bee. Magazines like Antiques offer good articles.

Q. What are the most frequent mistakes novice buyers make?

A. Not going to reputable dealers—find out who’s who and then visit several and compare pieces and prices. Whatever you buy, it must have some style, some grace—make sure it isn’t too big. And if the dealer describes it as “one-of-a-kind,” run, don’t walk to the nearest exit.

Q. What are you collecting now?

A. My wife and I collect paintings and fine glassware and 18th century brass candlesticks.

 

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