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
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.
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.
Why do people collect? Is it because it’s fashionable? Because magazines tell
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
is the best place to find information on your interest—libraries? Bookstores?
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
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.
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.
don’t they frame them?
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
Q. What do
you think about collecting as an investment?
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.
mistakes do beginning collectors often make?
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?
very hard to know if you’re paying too much—if you see something you love,
don’t be afraid of paying too much.
would you rate these venues for beginners—antique shops, large shows,
auctions, flea markets, the internet?
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
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
Do people ask you for advice in choosing the right accessory?
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.
accessories appreciate in value?
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
are the most common mistakes novice buyers make?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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,
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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?
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.
are some common mistakes beginners make?
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.
type of restoration is acceptable?
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?
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.
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.
Do you think buying antiques as an investment is a good idea right now, or not
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.
period, what style would you say are most likely to increase in value?
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?
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?
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.
are the most frequent mistakes novice buyers make?
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.
are you collecting now?
wife and I collect paintings and fine glassware and 18th century brass