Dec 31, 2013

New Legislation Homing in on Internet Sales

In the opening scene of the 1980 Robert Altman-Robin Williams film “Popeye,” my favorite “sailor man” is seen docking his rowboat in the town of Sweethaven, where he will meet his sidekicks from the 1950s cartoon series: Olive Oyl, Wimpy and, of course, Bluto. At the wharf, Popeye is greeted by the Tax Man, who promptly charges Popeye a 17-cent “new in town” tax, a 45-cent “rowboat under the wharf” tax and a $1 “leaving your junk lying around on the wharf” tax. When Popeye questions the taxes, the Tax Man says, “Is that a question? There’s a nickel question tax.” A crowd of kids gathers to watch what’s going on, and the Tax Man promptly takes off after the kids to collect a nickel each “curiosity tax.”

Popeye’s reaction to all the taxes?

In his own words, “I’ze disgustipated.”

Disgustipated is what I am regarding the debate over taxing Internet sales. This debate has smoldered for years, and it comes before the Senate this week in the form of the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA). The bill will likely pass in the Senate but meet more resistance in the House. By the time this column goes to press, the Act may be a “done deal.” Read More

Dec 29, 2013

Relative Pricing: Market Dictates Worth

You’re a rational person. As a rational person, if I tell you that you’re about to be tricked then you will be on guard, and less likely to be fooled.

Or so you think. Prepare yourself to be tricked while taking the following pop quiz:

1. Is the average temperature in San Francisco higher or lower than 558 degrees Fahrenheit?

2. Without looking it up, what is the average temperature in San Francisco? (Your best guess will do.)

3. How many Top 10 records did The Beatles release: More than 100,025 or less than 100,025?

4. Give your estimate of the number of Top 10 Beatles records.

Of course, the temperature of San Francisco is nowhere near 558 degrees; you know that, and I know that. But the point of the exercise was to plant a high anchor number in your head regarding the temperature of San Fran in order to influence your “best guess” as to the actual average temperature. Psychologist George Quattrone used the above questions to demonstrate the concept of “anchoring.” In his studies, participants who were given a high anchor number consistently came up with a higher temperature than those who were given a low anchor number. It made no difference how ludicrous the anchor number was. Read More

Dec 28, 2013

Vexing Estate Executor Issues: Finding Value in a Collection

Previously published on

We are a society of collectors. From bottle caps to art to old newspapers, our collections fill the closets and dens of estates everywhere. Not all of these collections are valuable, but they do have one thing in common: they confuse the dickens out of estate executors.

The confusion stems from the mandate on estate inventory forms which requires executors to “list collections separately.” Sometimes the instruction comes with a value minimum, sometimes not. I regularly get calls from clients who want to know “what sort of items make up a collection.” Should I consider all the art on the walls to be a collection, or are they just a bunch of single artworks? How about the tools in the tool box; are they a collection? Videos and records? Books?

Then the follow-up questions: How many items are in a collection? How do I value a collection? Do I add up every single item or take them as a whole?

These baseball cards, part of a collection of 30,000-plus vintage and modern cards from 1937 to present, recently sold for $8,600 on eBay. Read More

Connect with Millennials to Bring a New Buzz to Your Biz

Last fall the antiques world was set a buzz by multiple sightings of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift shopping for antiques. For a brief moment, dealers held out hope that the young star’s interest in antiques would spawn a renaissance in antiques buying among her contemporaries.

We’re still waiting for that to happen.

Those darned Millennials. As a group (b. 1981-mid ’90s), they just don’t seem to have the same shopping standards that the rest of us do. The two older demographic cohorts, Boomers and Gen X, tend to value similar types of consumer goods (but for different reasons). Gen X grew up in the McMansions that their Boomer parents bought to house their accumulated possessions. For Gen X, there was always room to have friends over to enjoy the latest video games, movies, music and eating gourmet snacks while sitting on comfortable, stylish furniture. Gen X (as a group) still favors purchases that will help them socialize. When they buy, they buy with the group in mind (Factoring for X: An Empirical Study of Generation X’s Materialistic Attributes, Nora M. Martin University of South Carolina, Diane Prince Clayton State University). Read More

Dec 27, 2013

Hofner Violin Bass’ Long and Winding Road into Rock ’n’ Roll History

Previously published on

It’s no secret that celebrity endorsements increase a product’s sales. It doesn’t seem to make any difference whether the endorsement is paid or unpaid. Oprah endorsed the Clarisonic skincare device on her show, and sales rose from 1.7 million in 2005 to more than 40 million in 2008. Mark Zuckerberg mentioned the iGrill on his Facebook page, and two hours later the iGrill website crashed due to an overwhelming number of visitors.

Paul McCartney played a Hofner 500/1 bass on the Ed Sullivan Show in front of 73 million people, and the Hofner violin bass became a rock-and-roll icon.

The 1959-1960 Hofner model sports 22 frets, separated chrome pickups, rectangular control-panel cover and pearloid pick guard.

Despite the fact that Hofner produced only 250 of the 500/1 bass guitars in the seven years prior to the Beatles’ Sullivan appearance, Hofner was soon forced to increase production of the violin-shaped guitar just to keep up with new orders. Thomas M. Jordan, current sales director for Hofner, says that the Hofner violin bass has “been manufactured in large quantities almost unchanged for more than 50 years and is always attracting new aficionados.” Read More

Antique Dealers: Don’t Give Up on eMail Marketing

Just to watch her reaction, I asked my mail carrier to break the law.

“Jane” I said, “I’m going to put a trash can right here next to my mailbox. Would you mind just throwing the junk mail into the trash can and putting the important stuff into my mailbox?”

“I certainly will not!” she replied (she wasn’t being a very good sport about this). “It’s against the law for me to do that. I have to deliver your mail to an approved box! Besides, how do I know what mail is important to you and what isn’t? I can’t make decisions about your mail!”

Darn. I was really hoping I could get her to do that for me, like my email provider does. They decide for me what’s important and what isn’t. They search my mail for clues about its desirability: Clues like the mail’s origin, and whether it contains subject-line words like “Special Offer,” “Hello,” “Free,” “RE:,” “FW:,” text in ALL CAPS or exclamation points! They can even tell whether or not I’m opening mail from certain senders. Read More

Dec 26, 2013

Five Appraisal Options for First-Time Estate Executors

My friend Stan showed me the inventory that he’d just completed for his uncle’s estate. He was proud of his thoroughness; he claimed to have spent more than 150 hours compiling the inventory and acquiring valuations for the estate’s personal property. I complemented him on his meticulous work. As he drove away I grinned and shook my head, knowing that he could have had the entire inventory and valuation done in fewer than 20 hours on that particular estate, (including typing the report!).

Stan made the mistake that many first-time estate executors make: too much detail in the inventory report. He made the job harder than it needed to be. If Stan was employed fulltime rather than being retired, I’m sure he could not have devoted as much time to this inventory.

An important part of the estate’s settlement documents, the inventory of tangible personal property is the most time-consuming to prepare. The value of most estate assets (stocks, bonds, bank accounts, insurance policies, etc.) can be determined by simply looking at the latest statement. The value of personal property, though, has to be researched, and that can be time consuming. Read More

Smells Sell

Sometimes the antiques business stinks. Not the buying and selling part, but rather the smells that can accumulate in a store filled with used merchandise. Few things are more off-putting than to walk into a store and inhale the mildewy stew of odors that can be created by rooms full of used goods.

Have you ever walked into someone’s home and noticed residual odors from cooking, tobacco, poor cleaning or general dampness? The homeowner living with those odors seems to be oblivious of them. Shopkeepers, too, become immune to the odors in their stores. The odors of an antique store seem to come with the territory, like the sweet smell of lacquer in a refinishing shop or the greasy oil and gasoline mix of an auto repair garage.

On one of my recent antiquing forays I discovered a Goodwill Industries store and stopped in to have a look around. Had I walked into the store blindfolded, I would have known that I was in a Goodwill store. I have never been in a GW store that didn’t smell stale and musty. Read More

Dec 25, 2013

Jukeboxes and Collecting Make Beautiful Music Together

Previously published on

It commands attention: this icon of the 1950s is outfitted with sparkling chrome, flashy fins, gleaming bumpers, taillights and a dashboard-style console that’s surrounded by a glass windshield. A 1958 Chrysler Imperial? Nope. A 1958 Seeburg Silver Age jukebox.

The 1950s were the peak of America’s love affair with both automobiles and jukeboxes. Eisenhower pushed for an interstate highway system (“defense highways”) to be built, and drive-ins, motels and sleek aluminum-shelled diners began to pop up all over the landscape. Each business housed one or more jukebox, with designs heavily influenced by the autos coming out of Detroit. Like cars, the jukeboxes of the 1950s were sleek and streamlined.

Nothing says “fifties” quite like a jukebox. Back then, they were found everywhere people gathered: restaurants, bars, community centers, malt shops, military PX’s, even Laundromats. For a little pocket change, any gathering could be turned into a dance party. As long as patrons continued to pump the ‘box full of coins, it would play all night, commercial-free and with greater musical variety than could be heard on a radio. Young baby boomers would beg their parents for quarters for the jukebox in the same way that boomer’s children would beg for quarters for the video arcades in the 1980s and 1990s. Read More

How to Buy an Existing Antiques Business

For Sale: “Great little antique shop … packed floor to rafters with inventory of all types … new owner won’t have to buy inventory for two years … make more money if new owner will keep longer hours and sell on the Internet. Priced at $349,000; Inventory value $299,000 (40% of retail).”

What a great deal – for the seller! For potential buyers, this business could be an opportunity for financial ruin.

Such “business opportunities” are commonplace. Recently I spent about two hours browsing business-for-sale websites, looking at antiques stores for sale. Having been both a store owner and business broker in previous careers, I continue to be curious about how various businesses are selling. I browsed several dozen antique stores for sale across the U.S. (There were more than 100 offered for sale; I just got tired of browsing.) All the listings were bright and cheery and seemed full of promise for new owners.

Some of these shops will sell for the right price to the right buyer and everyone will live happily ever after. Read More

Dec 24, 2013

Refinish Your Antique Furniture? It’s a Question of Value

That crisp new $20 bill in your wallet is more valuable than the worn $20 you got as change from the convenience mart.

Don’t believe me? Next time you make a purchase, take note of which bill you are inclined to give to the clerk. Chances are you will use the worn $20 and keep the newer bill for yourself.

It seems that no one likes dirty money. There is an “ick” factor associated with it; no one likes to handle someone else’s germ-laden bills. Fresh, crisp new bills are perceived as being more desirable than old, worn bills. Consumers are more willing to spend worn money, spend it faster and are more inclined to gamble with worn money. Consumers prefer to keep new bills for themselves but are willing to spend them to impress their friends.

Such are the conclusions reached in a study by Theodore Noseworthy of the University of Guelph and Fabrizio Di Muro of the University of Winnipeg. These conclusions are published in their paper titled “Money Isn’t Everything, but It Helps If It Doesn’t Look Used: How the Physical Appearance of Money Influences Spending.” Read More

Training Antiques Sales Associates to Succeed

I get a big kick out of my fellow auctioneers. Some of them (especially the newbies) think that auctioneers are such great salesmen. Wherever auctioneers gather, you will see a few of them assembled telling “war stories” and comparing notes about what they and others have sold. At some point in the conversation, someone will proclaim “(insert name here) was a great salesman! He could sell anything!”

Give me a break. How hard is it, really, to stand in front of a crowd, call bids and declare an item sold to the highest bidder, regardless of the price? Such sales are pre-ordained. In a no-reserve auction, every auctioneer is a great salesman. In an auction with reserves, successful selling depends on many factors outside of the control of the auctioneer: the item, the reserve amount, the size of the crowd and the number of items to be auctioned. In an estate with 600 lots to be sold, an auctioneer will sell a lot roughly every 20 seconds. There’s not much time for a big sales pitch. The “art” to auctioneering is what happens before the auction: the marketing, set-up and flow. Read More

Dec 23, 2013

Investing in a Steinway: Is It Worth the Price?

The investment value of Steinway pianos has long been touted by piano dealers. In their sales training, Steinway teaches an acronym based on their name that must be learned by all candidates: “S” stands for sound; “T” for touch, “E” for enduring beauty, “I” for investment, and so on. New salespersons must memorize all the S.T.E.I.N.W.A.Y. touch points in order for their training to be complete.

The “investment” touch point promotes Steinway’s historically high resale value. New Steinways are expensive, and that makes the market for used Steinways very good. In 2003, Reuters reported: “A 10-year-old Steinway in good condition usually sells for about 75 percent of the current retail price, which goes up about 4 percent each year.” Consequently, there is a big demand for used Steinway pianos. Leo Spellman, senior director of communications for Steinway & Sons says “The biggest competition for a new Steinway piano is an old Steinway piano.”

But does Steinway actually live up to its reputation as a good investment and, if so, under what circumstances? If you own a Steinway piano, how can you determine its present value? Read More

Amazon Opening its Traffic to Antiques Dealers

When I was a kid in the 1950s, monster movies were all the rage. There were dozens of monsters on the big screen; King Kong, Mothra and Rodan were a few of my favorites. Of course, the undisputed leader in the monster movie category was Godzilla. To date, there have been more than two dozen Godzilla movies, more than twice as many as the next-highest contender: King Kong. Godzilla was alternately a good guy or a bad guy, either destroying cities or protecting them from other monsters.

Today, Google is the Godzilla of the online world. They are so big that for 15 months the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating them as a trade monopoly. But Google’s days are numbered as the World Wide Web Monster. These days, Google-zilla is shaking in its lizard suit.

Google is losing significant revenue to the toughest competitor it has ever had. No, it’s not Facebook; it’s not Microsoft, eBay or Apple. It’s Amazon. Read More

Dec 22, 2013

Putting Together an Executor’s Estate Settlement Team is no Game

In odd moments, I occasionally daydream about creating a board game titled “Estate Settlement.” Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; it should be called a “bored game” instead. But let me assure you, settling an estate can have all the intrigue of “Masterpiece Theatre” and all the surprises and disappointments of “American Pickers.”

In my imaginary game, a player moves around the board by a roll of the dice, with the goal of getting an estate settled. When a player lands on a space, he draws a card from either the Character deck or the Event deck. The Character deck introduces “influencers” who can either help or hinder the player. It could include heroes, villains, comic sidekicks, grumpy bureaucrats, or others. The Event deck would present challenges or rewards that can introduce setbacks or successes, like finding a genuine Picasso in the attic or learning that an heir is challenging the will.

I’ve never followed through with this game idea for two reasons: One, I don’t think anyone would buy it and, two, I’ve spent plenty of time playing the game in real life, both professionally and personally. Read More

What's Your Auction - Live Auction Bidding Strategy?

With Valentine’s Day upon us, I’m sure all you romantics are diligently surfing eBay for that perfect and rare gift for your sweetheart. Of course, the fun in surfing eBay isn’t just found in bidding. Winning is even more fun, provided that you don’t pay too much. Therein lies the danger in auction bidding: You can always win if you must. All you have to do is outbid the competition. But, winning doesn’t always mean paying a higher price. Outbidding the competition is as much about strategy as it is about price.

That being the case, what’s your auction bidding strategy? At live auctions, are you a “stealth” bidder, who bids with a wink, a nod or a surreptitious wave? Or do you bid aggressively, hoping to scare off the competition? What’s your online bidding style? Are you a sniper or a squatter? Do you bid online using the same style of bidding that you use at a live auction? Read More

Dec 21, 2013

Wayne Henderson’s Hand-Made Guitars are the Perfect Collectible

Henderson guitars are certainly not the most expensive hand-made acoustic guitars. At about $5,000 (plus or minus) when new, their price pales in comparison to some other small-luthier-built guitars. They are not even the most well-known; but Eric Clapton owns one, and so does Tommy Emmanuel, Peter Rowan and Grammy winner Gillian Welch. Doc Watson played his often. Used Hendersons have sold privately for as much as $100,000 and sell regularly at auction in the $20,000-plus range. There is a 10-year waiting list to get one from the manufacturer. If orders for the guitars keep coming in at the current rate, and Wayne Henderson lives long enough to fill them, he may just live forever.

Henderson guitars may be the perfect collectible: they are high-quality, rare and in demand. They can sell for three to 10 times their initial cost as soon as they leave Wayne’s shop. He could sell his guitars for more, but Wayne says that more money wouldn’t improve his life any. Indeed, he seems to have found fulfillment building his guitars and playing bluegrass music. Read More

Don’t Let Sales Get Thrown Under the Bus

American popular culture loves a catchphrase. Always has. In the 1890s, businessmen were anxious to “get down to brass tacks,” and a well-heeled customer who was satisfied with his purchases was “as happy as a clam.” In the 1990s, if a customer discovered that a dealer’s claims were all smoke and mirrors, then the deal “went down the tubes,” and it was “hasta la vista, baby.”

Dealers thrown under the bus

The latest popular catchphrase — “thrown under the bus” — was originally used by sports writers. Referring to the team bus, an athlete was either in favor (on the bus) or out of favor (under the bus). The recent economic environment has made the phrase a favorite of politicians and financial writers. Washington Post writer David Segal called the expression “the cliché of the 2008 (Presidential) campaign.”

“Thrown under the bus” has come to mean the sacrifice of a person who doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed. For example, consider the way customers sometimes treat antiques dealers (or other retailers): Read More

Dec 20, 2013

Harry Rinker's Antiques and Toys up for Auction

Harry Rinker's antiques and toys up for auction (via Repost Video News)

All great collections eventually get sold. Fortunately, Harry is still around to oversee the sale of his collectibles - this isn't an estate auction.

Harry has been very vocal over the years about what's collectible and what's not. It will be interesting to see how the items he has collected "play out" at an auction. One thing's for sure: we'll all be watching, even if we're not bidding.

The Top 5 Liquidation Mistakes Made by Untrained Estate Executors

To the uninitiated, being chosen as executor of an estate would seem to be an honor; it’s an indication that the decedent trusted you to wrap up their affairs. At first glance, the job appears to be easy enough: liquidate all the assets, pay all the liabilities (including taxes) and distribute the remainder to the heirs.

Thoughts of distinction quickly disappear, though, when an executor begins to inventory the estate’s tangible personal property. Room by room, the executor sorts through a lifetime accumulation of “stuff” in the closets, rooms, sheds, garage, basement, attic and storage units. Trunks, boxes and tool chests must be opened to see what’s in them. Categories of personal property must be valued and collections appraised. Personal property values are added to the value of the estate and taxed accordingly (at the county, state and/or federal levels). Compared to other estate assets (like homes and stocks), it’s an enormous amount of work for a very small return on investment. Read More

Sell More with Better Merchandise Tags

Sitting in his cell awaiting trial for treason, Van Meegeren considered his options. The year was 1945, and the war was over. Meegeren had been arrested in his Dutch homeland for being a Nazi collaborator. His crime, according to Dutch authorities, was trading a painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer to the Nazi commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering. Collaborating with the enemy was a capital offense. If convicted, Meegeren would hang.

At his trial, Meegeren offered a novel defense: that he had, in fact, painted the Vermeer himself. It was a forgery. In return for his forgery, he acquired from Goering six genuine paintings by Dutch masters. Meegeren had conned Goering. Meegeren asserted that he was, therefore, a national hero and not a Nazi collaborator.

To prove his defense, Meegeren painted another Vermeer before the court while under police guard. Compared to Vermeer, Meegeren’s technique was clumsy; but with the aid of a new product called Bakelite, Meegeren produced a satisfactory forgery. He was convicted of forgery and exonerated of the treason charge. He was sentenced to a year in jail. Read More

Dec 19, 2013

Early Slot Machines a Collecting Jackpot

No one should have that much fun in a mausoleum. But fun was the order of the day: the Elks were in town, holding their 1961 national convention in Miami Beach. Local Elks clubs opened their doors to out-of-state members and provided them with a variety of entertainment options. One such club was the politically well-connected Miami Elks Lodge #948; the club’s past Exalted Rulers included a State’s Attorney and a local Sheriff.

Conventions of any kind can get rowdy, and rumors of illegal slot machine gambling at the Elks Lodge reached Florida State Agents, who raided the lodge. They found nothing. The week following the raid a cemetery grounds man discovered four slot machines while inspecting a broken window in the mausoleum next to the Elks Lodge. The grounds man contacted the police; another raid was conducted and the machines were destroyed. No one knows—or won’t tell—how the slot machines came to be housed in the mausoleum. Read More

Negotiate, Don't Haggle

“You saved $36 today!” exclaimed the clerk at JC Penny’s. “Gee, that’s great!” I replied. “I spent $31 and saved $36! What a deal!”

These days, corporate retailers love to tell me how much I saved while shopping at their store: They tell me when I buy groceries, and when I buy hardware. I was even reminded of how much I “saved” the last time I got my car serviced. Sometimes, they even print the savings amount on my receipt so that I’ll be reminded of what great folks they are when I reconcile my checkbook.

The crux of the matter for me is that I don’t really care how much I saved; I care how much I spent.

Who believes anymore that retail prices actually reflect what the seller expects to get for his merchandise? It’s been known for decades that the asking price for homes and automobiles is fiction. For the past five years, retailers in almost every category have been training us that their asking price is fiction as well. Read More

Online Celebrity Fundraising Auctions: Here's the One that Started ItAll

What does a guitar from Carlos Santana, a boxing glove from Mohammed Ali and an audience with the Pope have in common? They were all sold at a celebrity charity auction.

Celebrity auctions have become the prime generator of “big bucks” for charities of all types. Consider recent auction results: for $255,000, you could have spent the day with President Clinton to benefit the Clinton Global Initiative. For $497,000, you might have owned the 1956 Fender Stratocaster that Eric Clapton used to write his hit “Layla,” which he contributed to benefit the Crossroads Center, a substance abuse rehabilitation facility in Antigua. And, for a mere $75,000, you could learn to play your Strat in a private guitar lesson with Paul Simon, to benefit the Children’s Health Fund. The cost for an audience with the Pope? A mere $39,500, and you didn’t even have to be Catholic. His Holiness donated his time on behalf of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. Read More

Dec 18, 2013

Keep Your Collection in Tune: Insuring Your Musical Instruments

They looked like a line of ants at a picnic. Having finished their gig and packed their instruments, the band steadily loaded their van. An unbroken stream of musicians and equipment flowed from inside the Washington, D.C., hotel to the parking lot. No one was quite sure when the theft occurred; it seemed as if the open van was never out of sight. But, at some point, the bass player’s 1958 Fender Precision Bass disappeared. Valued at more than $10,000 the instrument would not be easy to replace. The bass player was more than distraught: his insurance wouldn’t cover the loss, and he didn’t have the money for a new one.

Stories of instruments lost or damaged are commonplace among working musicians: a cello left in the trunk of a cab, a double bass destroyed by airport baggage handlers, a flood or fire that ravages an entire collection. For working musicians the loss of an instrument cannot be calculated entirely in dollars and cents. Musicians ardently seek instruments that will express “their sound,” and such instruments are tough to find and even tougher to replace. For collectors of rare instruments, money cannot compensate for the loss of a cultural icon (but it helps). Read More

The Drum Kits that Set the Beat for Swing Bands: Slingerland Radio Kings

Previously published on

One fact is clear regarding 7,000 years of drum history: whenever drums start beating, people start to move. Archaeologists have found alligator skin drums dating back to 5500 B.C. that they assume were used to create some sort of drumming-induced Shamanic trance (who’s going to argue with them?). In pre-radio military cultures, drums were used to send battlefield signals. In ethnic cultures, drums accompanied ceremonial and recreational dancing.

In ethnic cultures, drums and dancing were inseparable. In cultures that lacked sophisticated melodic instruments (e.g., African and South American) drum music became a complex mix of layered rhythms. In American culture, however, drums had a limited role before 1900. Drums were heard in orchestral and concert band music but rarely in popular dance music. Neither the formal dancing of high society nor the contra dances of the common folk required the use of a drummer. In contra dancing and square dancing the rhythm is provided by the foot-stomping and clogging of the dancers. Read More

Boost Sales by Sharing the Story Behind Your Business

As a “follicly challenged” gentleman, I take comfort in my collection of hats. Not for their collectible value mind you, but for their value in keeping my head warm and dry during the winter season.

Being so practical about my hats, I just had to smile when I read of the recent auction sale – for $14,160 – of the baseball cap worn by Neil Armstrong after the splashdown of Apollo 11. The cap’s buyer paid over 70,000 percent more for Armstrong’s cap than I have ever paid for one of mine (usually about $20).

Would Armstrong’s cap keep the sun out of my eyes any better than my tried-and-true “Key West, FL” cap? Probably not. What made the cap worth five figures to the buyer? Bragging rights.

The cap has zero intrinsic value: Would you wear a $14,000 cap to mow the lawn? No, the collector will display this cap prominently in his home as a testament to his own shrewdness. The buyer didn’t walk on the moon, but he owns Armstrong’s cap and will forever be associated with the name Neil Armstrong through the provenance of the cap. Read More

Dec 17, 2013

Online Video: Tap a Super Bowl Sized Audience for Pennies

Do you remember the 2011 Super Bowl ad about the antiques dealer? Neither do I. At nearly $3 million for a 30-second ad, you won’t see any small retailers advertising during the Super Bowl. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing an ad for an antiques store on television – ever.

The Super Bowl attracted about 111 million viewers last year. The $3-million-for-30-seconds price tag breaks down to less than 3 cents per viewer. Not bad for a cost-per-impression.

Now hold on to your seats: 111 million viewers a year is a drop in the bucket compared to how many viewers YouTube is pulling in every month. According to a recent study by comScore, 147 million viewers watched 14 billion videos on YouTube in the month of May 2011. Add in the other video hosting sites, and the total views for online video was almost 34 million last May. That’s like having a Super-Bowl-sized audience every day, and the Internet delivers that many viewers 24/7, all year. Even in prime time, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, and all the television networks combined don’t reach that viewership level. Read More

Dec 16, 2013

Bacon & Day Silver Bell: The King of American Tenor Banjos

The hard-driving banjo in bluegrass music is a familiar sound to most 21st-century Americans. But, before the stylings of Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and Ralph Stanley created the distinctive sound of bluegrass, banjo playing (and banjos) in America were quite different. From modest roots as a gourd-based instrument to today’s sleek wonder of acoustic engineering, banjos have always adapted to America’s changing musical tastes.

In the complex history of the banjo, no instrument stands taller than the Bacon & Day Silver Bell tenor banjo. The B&D Silver Bell is considered by many musicians to be the finest tenor banjo ever made. Silver Bells are valued for their good tone, powerful sound and superb craftsmanship. Although four-string tenor banjos have been displaced by five-string, bluegrass-style banjos (except in traditional Irish music), Silver Bell banjos are still a sought-after collectible among banjo enthusiasts. Bacon & Day Silver Bell tenor banjos command higher prices than tenor banjos by any other maker. Read More

Vintage Accordions Migrating from Attics to Auction Block

American soldiers left for the Second World War with the sounds of American popular music ringing in their ears. City boys were humming the big-band sounds of Goodman and Miller, Southerners were whistling Carter Family tunes and Westerners were tapping their boots to the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. When they returned from Europe, though, our G.I.s had a different musical sound bouncing around in their heads: the folk music of France, Germany and Italy, a sound dominated by accordions.

Accordions were not a new sound to Americans; they had been a regular part of American popular music since Vaudeville. Accordions were regularly used by travelling music groups as a substitute for piano, which was not always available at performing venues. Bob Wills had an accordion player in his band and for a while, so did Bill Monroe and the Carters. But accordion didn’t start to move to the forefront of American popular music until after World War Two. Radio stars like Frankie Yankovic (father of “Weird Al” Yankovic) and TV stars such as Myron Floren of “The Lawrence Welk Show” brought the accordion to new heights of popularity. Soon, school children all over America were lining up to take accordion lessons. In the early 1950s, accordion was arguably the most popular folk instrument in America. Read More

Absolute vs. Reserve Auctions: Is it Legal to Retract a Bid?

OK, auction buffs, its pop quiz time!

Here’s the scenario: You’re at an auction, and the lot being offered is a Conoco sign. There are four primary bidders. Bidder A drops out at $200; Bidder B drops out at $300, and Bidders C and D drive the bidding up to $600. Bidder C then bids $650, but gets a sharp elbow in the ribs from his wife. Bidder C then frantically waves his arms saying “I’m out, I withdraw my bid.” The auctioneer should:

A. Refuse to release Bidder C from his bid because a bid is legally binding.

B. Release Bidder C from his bid and pick up the bidding with the next higher bid, Bidder D’s bid for $600.

C. Start the bidding over from zero.

The correct answer is C: Start the bidding over from zero. The reason for this is found in the Uniform Commercial Code. Read More

Dec 15, 2013

Antique Reed Organs Valued for Beautifully Styled Cabinetry

For some, the ideal vacation is lying on a beach soaking up rays while enjoying a good book. For others, nothing beats wading into a mountain stream with a rod and reel. For members of the Reed Organ Society, the ideal vacation is touring reed organ displays at museums and universities from Nova Scotia to California. Vacationers can find dedicated reed organ displays in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Germany and a dozen other countries.

Enthusiasts of reed organs (a.k.a. pump organ, parlor organ, cabinet organ and—in Europe—harmonium) are passionate about their hobby. Often purchased for their beautiful Eastlake and Victorian styled cabinetry, collectors soon find that a reed organ offers more than just furniture. For many, restoring reed organs becomes a satisfying hobby. For others, the lovely sound of a reed organ prompts one to pursue music lessons (or at least visit museums for reed organ concerts). Others prefer to act in the role of a “picker,” learning enough about collectible reed organs to buy them cheaply and re-sell them to collectors and hobbyist-restorers. Read More

How Dealers Can Boost the Shop Local Movement

No matter what you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it holds the seed of a successful holiday sales season for antique dealers.

The Wall Street protestors have expressed frustration with taxpayer bailouts of “too big to fail” corporations who take public tax money and then raise banking fees, restrict access to loans, and then give their CEO’s big bonuses. Versions of Occupy Wall Street have spread across the United States plus 951 European cities and 82 countries around the world. The public is endorsing the message: institutions and individuals are moving their money to hometown banks. Hometown banks have seen out-of-the-ordinary surges in deposits in the past several months.

Not only are individual citizens fed up with the “too big to fail” mentality of the banking conglomerates, state governments are as well. Lawmakers in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Minnesota have all voted to move state funds into local banks and credit unions. Labor unions, small businesses and municipalities are also moving funds to local institutions. Read More

Dec 14, 2013

Protect Your Antiques Business with Smart Check Policies

The recent hubbub surrounding William Meloy’s using bad checks to scam antique stores caught me off guard. In these days of electronic check verification, Internet check processing, and point-of-sale terminals that support multiple payment options, I was surprised at how easily Meloy victimized the dealers.

For those who missed the story, the grandfatherly Meloy allegedly spent his summer defrauding antique stores in Wyoming, Missouri, North Dakota and Minnesota before he was finally arrested in Great Falls, Mont. Writing checks on a closed account, Meloy would make purchases in the neighborhood of $1,000 and then re-sell the goods for cash to other antique dealers.

As I read the news reports and listened to comments from the defrauded dealers, the refrain “He seemed like such a sweet guy” dominated the responses. Of course, building trust is key to a con-man’s operation. I’m reminded of the story of Frank Abagnale, the teenage con-man who, back in the 1960s cashed over $2.5 million worth of forged checks before he turned 21. How did he do this? Read More

Is That Gibson Les Paul Guitar Real or Fake?

Jimi Hendrix owned one; so did Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. The Gibson Les Paul guitar, in continuous production since 1952, is arguably one of the top electric guitars of the past 60 years. It has been favored by some of the premier guitar players in the rock, country, jazz and blues genres.

Because the Gibson Les Paul has been around for so long and is such an esteemed guitar, it is a highly-sought-after collectible. Rare Les Pauls have sold for close to half a million dollars at auction. Though such prices are uncommon, a vintage Les Paul regularly bring over five figures.

When prices get up into the stratosphere, con men come out of the woodwork. Les Paul knockoffs are now being made in China in a blatant attempt to deceive buyers. The Chinese “Les Paul” guitars try to match the instrument with visual precision, all the way down to Les Paul’s signature and “Made in the USA” stamped into the back of the headstock. Sometimes the sellers of a counterfeit Les Paul deliberately distress a new knockoff in order to sell it as a vintage guitar. Read More

Estate Inventory Instructions

There’s an old saying that goes “What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

Personal property is the “elephant” of an estate. It’s the responsibility that can take up most of your time, and it provides the estate with the least amount of money for the effort involved. But, dealing with the personal property cannot be avoided. The property must be inventoried, valued, distributed, or sold. Let’s start our analysis by looking at what property we have (inventory); then we will determine what it is worth (valuation).

When you go to the courthouse, the clerk will provide you with the form you will need to fill out for the inventory. The form will ask you to provide general categories and a value for each category you have listed. For example, you would list: “furniture, $1500; office equipment, $300, etc… You won’t have to list the items separately, such as “sofa, $100; chair, $5; typewriter, $25. I suggest that you do keep a list of the individual items, though. Although you won’t have to go into a lot of detail for the court, you will likely want a more detailed inventory for yourself. You’ll want this for two reasons: to track the sale of estate property, and to protect yourself against claims of heirs and/or creditors.

You don’t have to get real fancy with the inventory; pencil and paper will do. If you are so inclined, there are “home inventory” record books available at office supply stores, or you can purchase software online. There are also companies that specialize in taking home inventories.

You’ll need a helper. One person sorts and counts while the other writes. Start inside the house, and work your way from the top of the house to the bottom (or vice-versa). Go room to room with a consistent pattern so that you don’t miss anything: always clockwise or counter-clockwise around the room. Write down what’s on the walls as well, not just what’s on the floor. For “small goods”, write down identifiable groups of items such as “200 hardcover books, 100 paperback books, 42 knick-knacks, etc… On your list, put a star next to any item that you think may be valuable. If the knick-knacks are Hummels or Lladros, the vase is Heisey and the books are first editions, they are valuable items. When you are finished, follow the same procedure for the outbuildings: the garage, shed, workshop, or whatever. If there is a rented self-storage unit, vacation home, recreational vehicle or boat, they will need to be inventoried as well.

When you file the inventory at the courthouse, you’ll need to state a value for the personal property. For run-of-the-mill household items, the valuation lists on this website should help..

For the items that you have identified as being valuable, the valuation lists won’t work. There are several ways to determine the value of single items or collections. A good place to start is eBay ( To use eBay to help set your values, you will need to be a registered user. Registering for eBay is free; just follow the instructions when you get to the website. Once registered, type in the item you are researching, and eBay will search for the item. When the search results come up, click above the search results where it says “sold listings”. These are items that have actually sold, so the prices can be considered “market value”. Compare the details of the item you found on eBay with the details of the item you have. Use the closest match as your value.

If you are unable to find your item listed on eBay, it’s time to go to the library or bookstore. There you will find an assortment of price guides for every sort of antique or collectible. You will also find “blue books” for automobiles and equipment.

If you have lots of items and no time to research, then it’s time to call in an expert. In your local phone book you will find jewelers, antique dealers, auctioneers, appraisers, and other professionals who will tell you what the property is worth. What they will offer you is an opinion of value, not an appraisal. An appraisal is based on actual sales data, not an opinion. For probate valuation purposes, the value placed must be the fair market value at the time of the decedent’s death. This is the value you should ask your expert to provide.

In my home state of Virginia, individual items or collections that are valued over $500 must have an appraisal. Personal property appraisers are not licensed like real estate appraisers, but the content of their reports is regulated. For a personal property appraisal to be valid and accepted for tax purposes, it must be performed by a qualified expert and follow the federal guidelines of the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). Most real estate appraisers do not appraise personal property. You can find a personal property appraiser online by checking the websites of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America, the National Association of Auctioneers, or the American Society of Appraisers.

Estate Executors will find that the inventory and valuation of estate personal property is their most time-consuming task, but there are resources available to help.

Dec 13, 2013

Put Your Antiques Biz on Page 1 with Google Places

“I’ve never been lost,” said Daniel Boone; “But I was once perplexed for a few days.” It’s said that Boone was a master at staying found. Making his way through the wilderness with nothing more than an incomplete map, a compass, and his own sensibilities, he blazed a trail that thousands would follow from Virginia to Kentucky.

“Staying found” is a significant challenge for bricks-and-mortar Antique stores. New customers will stumble upon stores that are located on well-travelled thoroughfares. Dealers who pump money into traditional media advertising (newspapers, radio, yellow pages) may also attract new customers. But, high-traffic locations and traditional media advertising are very expensive, and many dealers simply can’t justify such high overhead. So, they hope that new customers will find them through word-of-mouth rather than a proactive promotional campaign.

Before you turn the page, let me tell you that this isn’t going to be another column about the virtues of inexpensive Internet advertising. You should already know that your business needs a website, and that the website has to have good content, targeted keywords, and be search-engine optimized. However, you can have all that and still be lost in the wilderness of Google or Bing search results. Read More

Evaluating an Antique American Upright Piano

Old pianos are everywhere: in homes, institutions, churches and schools. Many of them are junk, but a fair number of them are marvelous instruments from the “Golden Age of the Piano (1890-1919) and are worthy of preservation. Old pianos can be purchased cheaply (compared to new pianos), and if you know what to look for, you can find one of these “diamonds in the rough.”

It’s easy to make a mistake when purchasing a piano, though. A particular piano may look good—and even sound good—but hidden inside may be problems that are expensive to fix. Unlike fine violins, guitars and other acoustic stringed instruments, pianos do not improve with age. Rather, they deteriorate. Pianos are mechanical; they are musical machines. Machines have moving parts that wear out and break. Pianos have more than 220 strings that pull across the frame and plate at a tension of more than 200 lbs. each. That’s more than 20 tons of tension pulling across a piano! Imagine what that much pressure can do to wood over the decades. Piano soundboards, bridges, tuning pin blocks and cast iron plates can (and often do) crack. Cracks in a piano may be expensive or impossible to repair. Read More

Dec 12, 2013

10 Tips on How to Succeed as an Estate Executor

When Sharon called me, she sounded desperate. Her aunt had recently died and Sharon had been assigned to be her aunt’s estate executor. As a certified public accountant, Sharon was well equipped to deal with her aunt’s finances. However, when Sharon walked into her aunt’s house her initial confidence turned to despair; she had no idea how to evaluate or dispose of her aunt’s personal property.

Sharon’s fears are shared by non-professional estate executors everywhere. Walking into a decedent’s house for the first time, an executor has no idea what’s valuable, what’s junk, which relative is going to want what memorabilia, or how they’re going to get the house empty and prepared for sale. Personal property is the “800 pound gorilla” of an estate. Sorting through an estate’s personal property can be a stressful undertaking for someone new to the job. Dealing with personal property issues consumes most of an executor’s time and causes most of the aggravation.

When approached in an organized fashion and with the right mindset, estate liquidation can proceed smoothly and without stress. Let me offer 10 tips for staying sane and on track when it becomes your turn to supervise estate liquidation. Read More

Improve Your Customer’s Retail Shopping Experience

These two simple tips can give antiques retail store owners an edge in improving a customer's retail shopping experience.

Dealers, would you rather be the only antique store in your town, or one of many? I asked that question often in my recent visit to the Hillsville, Va., Labor Day Flea Market. A surprising number of dealers answered that they would rather be the only store in town; one dealer even boasted that he was the only antique store in his town, and that he enjoyed having the antiques trade “sewn up” in his community.

As the iconic character Mr. T often said in the movie and TV show “The A Team”: “I pity the poor fool.” If this dealer understood how competition stimulates his business, he’d be begging the town council to establish an antiques district on Main Street. If consumers don’t find an item they are looking for in one shop, they visit another (provided there’s another shop to visit). That’s why it’s called “shopping.”

Having competitors around creates a good shopping environment. Read More

Dec 11, 2013

Use Facebook to Build Trust Without Alienating Customers

Walking down Main Street in Mt. Airy, N.C., I feel like I’ve stepped into a 1960s sitcom. Mt. Airy, the boyhood home of Andy Griffith, was the inspiration for his television home town of Mayberry. As I stroll by Floyd’s Barber Shop, I peek inside and notice that all the chairs are full. Not the barber chairs, but the waiting chairs against the wall. Those seated are engaged in animated conversation, and a crowd has gathered to listen to the dialogue.

This is a common sight here in the Blue Ridge Mountains: Residents gathered in a local store to visit and gossip. Sociologists call such gathering spots a “Third Place.” A Third Place is a social venue which is separate from Home and Work that fosters broader communication between participants and builds a sense of belonging and community.

In his 1989 book “The Great Good Place,” author Ray Oldenburg asserts that a good Third Place is accessible, comfortable, nearby, involves regulars, and is open to both new and old friends.

Sounds like Facebook to me. Read More

Dec 10, 2013

eBay’s Fraud Protection Plan Boosts Your Sales

eBay fraud is in the news again. The headline reads: “Three eBay Fraud Rings Dismantled in Romania.” Romania must be a hotbed of Internet-scam artistry. Just a few years ago, a headline read: “Small Romanian Town Gets Rich Through eBay Scams.”

They must be fast learners in Romania. The first attempts at eBay fraud included selling a MiG fighter jet and a local Town Hall. I suppose the rings soon learned that there were only so many suckers for big-ticket inventory.

In the current scam, ads were posted on eBay and craigslist offering a variety of merchandise, ranging from cars to electronics. Internet users were defrauded of about $20 million. The busts were a coup for the Romanian National Police and the FBI, who made about 90 arrests in 117 raids on nine towns.

Now, forgive my obtuseness, but I can’t find anywhere in the article where it says that eBay scammed anybody. So, why does the headline declare “eBay Fraud”? The words “eBay” “eBay Fraud” and “eBay Scam” appear so often in the media that one would think that eBay is used only by con artists and the feeble minded. Read More

Dec 9, 2013

The Pain of Cutting Prices to Move Stale Inventory

I like having money to spend. I try not to spend it, but just having money and knowing that I could spend it if I wanted to feels good to me. I don’t think that I’m alone in feeling this way, either. Money affects people in physical ways and I recently stumbled onto proof that this is true.

In 2009, Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota conducted an experiment disguised as a “dexterity study.” In the study, she had one group of students count a stack of $100 bills while another group counted a similar-sized stack of blank pieces of paper. Then, both groups of students stuck their fingers into very hot water. The students who counted the real money reported feeling significantly less pain from the hot water than the students who didn’t handle the money.

The effect was so pronounced that Ms. Vohs tried the experiment in reverse: She asked some subjects to make of list of their monthly expenses and another group to write about the weather. The group who listed their bills felt more pain from the hot water than the group that wrote about the weather. Read More

Dec 8, 2013

Profit from Selling Estate Art

“Antiques dealers don’t know anything about art” explained the art gallery owner. “You have to be really careful buying art from an antiques dealer because you never know what you’re going to get”.

I didn’t argue with the woman because I knew from my own experience that what she said about antiques dealers and art is generally true. Some of my best art purchases have been from antiques dealers and auctioneers who didn’t know the value of what they had. So, I didn’t defend antiques dealers to the gallery owner.

In practice, antiques dealers who are knowledgeable and well inventoried in art generally represent their shops as art galleries that specialize in art and decorative antiques. Antiques and collectibles dealers, on the other hand, usually carry art as an afterthought. Often, the art on their walls was acquired in an estate buy-out rather than purchased as individual items. Most antiques dealers offer some type of art for sale, but many dealers shy away from art because they don’t know enough to profit from it. Read More

The Time is Right to Open an Antiques Shop

It’s my opinion that the antiques business is the only retail business worth pursuing at the moment.

Consider the problems faced by commodity consumer goods retailers: In the past decade,“Big Box” stores have put scores of Main Street retailers out of business.

Competition from online dealers has shaved commodity retail store margins so close that it can take months for a business to recover from a downturn in sales or an uptick in expenses. An army of consumers armed with smart phones can instantly compare prices on virtually every commodity offered for sale and then harangue a retailer for a matching price. When a consumer has secured the lowest price, he or she can then scan the product’s QR code for additional bargains and manufacturer’s coupons. In commodity retailing, margins are tight; there’s not much room for error.

Not so with antique retailers. Despite all the gloomy predictions for the antiques trade, this is the place to be. There will never be competition from “Big Box” retailers of antiques, because there will never be any. Read More

Your Antiques Inventory Prices: Value, Cost or Gut Feelings?

Have you ever seen the Edvard Munch painting “The Scream”? If Munch doesn’t ring a bell, recall the scene in the movie “Home Alone” in which Macaulay Culkin shaves for the first time, and then applies after-shave to his raw face: hands slapped over his ears, eyes as big as saucers, he emits a scream that can be heard a block away.

Such was my response to a Harvard Business Review article that recently arrived in my inbox. The article discussed book pricing relative to Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad, and traditional print books. The author’s position was to keep prices high for ebooks, because “charging what the market will bear creates value not just for companies but for consumers as well”.

I read that statement and screamed. Macaulay has nothing on me.

You see, value is not created by price. Value is a personal issue. Price is determined by the intersection of supply and demand. Value can have an impact on demand, so consequently has some impact on price, but it is a secondary determinate. Read More

Dec 7, 2013

Inventory Pricing Has Nothing To Do With ‘Fair Value’

I’m a sucker for a bookstore. I can’t seem to walk past one without going in, and I seldom go in without buying something.

This has been a lifelong affliction of mine. When I was a teenager, my mother once asked me, “Why do you buy more books when you haven’t read all the ones you’ve got?”

To which I replied, “What’s the point in having a library full of books that I’ve already read?”

Occasionally I read a book that’s a real game-changer for me; a book that rings so true it forever changes the way I think about a particular subject. I’ve recently read such a book, and I enthusiastically recommend it to my friends and colleagues in the antiques business. It’s titled, “Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)” by William Poundstone. This book should be required reading for anyone who intends to buy or sell anything. Read More

5 Ways to Finance Your Antiques Business Without a Bank Loan

Applying for a bank loan for your fledgling antiques business is a quick and easy process: you fill out the loan application, and the bank says “No!” It’s sad but it’s true. Bankers just don’t understand the antiques trade. Unlike most bankable retail businesses, the antiques trade has no published operating benchmarks, too many variables in valuing inventory and is overwhelmingly undercapitalized.

These days, even well-established antiques retailers and auction houses can be turned down for a loan. Since the banking crisis of 2008, the standards for small business loans have become so stringent that 70 percent of all small business loans are turned down. It’s no longer enough to have good credit and cash flow. In most cases, loan applicants must also have adequate collateral and show strong revenue growth and profitability for the past three years. How many antiques businesses do you know that have had strong revenue and profit growth in the past three years? Read More

What Antique Dealers Can Learn from Junk Mail – Part 2

In the last edition of Behind the Gavel, we discussed the criteria for developing a good display ad. This week, let’s apply the guidelines to our sample ad and see what we can come up with.

The most important part of a display ad is the headline. Headlines, whether online or in print, are written to grab the attention of “scanners.” Consumers read headlines first, then sub-headings. If the headline piques the readers’ interest, they will read your sub-heading. So, your headline must be strong enough to attract attention away from all the competing ads on the page.

The sub-heading is the second most important part of your ad. In fishing terms, the sub-heading is where you “set the hook” – if you don’t, the rest of your ad won’t be read. So, let’s first focus on how to write a good headline and sub-heading.

What will grab your reader’s attention? Read More

Dec 6, 2013

What Antique Dealers Can Learn from Junk Mail

I have a confession: I am a junk mail junkie. Unlike most sensible people (you, perhaps?) who throw junk mail into the trash, I read everything. Offers for credit cards and insurance, car dealership flyers, coupon mailers, newspaper ads, and long-form sales letters get read from beginning to end. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. My mother would be so ashamed.

It’s not that I have nothing to do and lots of time on my hands. My problem is that I am addicted to advertising. When I started my first business, I couldn’t afford to hire an agency to develop my ads. So, I let the newspaper write my display ads for me. Big mistake. Perhaps The Washington Post had a good ad department, but my hometown newspaper did not. The ads that my local paper created were awful, and I decided that I could do better myself.

That’s when I started analyzing other company’s advertising. After all, banks and car manufacturers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop and test each advertising piece. Read More

Dec 5, 2013

How to Get Google to Notice Your Product Descriptions

Earlier this year, Google revised its search-results ranking algorithm in a way that will help some online sellers and hurt others. Google constantly makes “corrective” adjustments to its algorithm, in an attempt to provide better search results for users and quash those webmasters who try to “game” the system in order to gain page position.

In Google’s sights this time were “content farms,” sites that publish low-quality or duplicate content that is intended to drive advertising revenue rather than provide valuable content to users.

An unintended consequence of the change was that many e-stores found their page ranks drop significantly. The largest drops were suffered by retailers who copied and pasted the product descriptions that were provided by their product manufacturers. Why? Because the re-used descriptions were duplicate content, and all duplicate content was downgraded by Google.

Online sellers whose page positions are lowered can suffer significant drops in revenue. Conversely, sellers whose positions substantially improve may see their cash flow turn into a cash flood. Read More

Dec 4, 2013

Why the U.S. Antiques Trade Needs a National Association

One of W. Edward Deming’s most-quoted aphorisms is “you can’t improve what you can’t measure.” We have become a society of measurers: how much weight we lost, how many miles we ran, how much money we made, how much we can bench press.

If we have a goal to improve a certain aspect of our life, we generally use our past performance as a baseline to measure our improvement: i.e., “last month I walked 4 miles in an hour, now I’m doing it in 45 minutes”.

As antiques dealers, the only baseline that we have to improve our business is our own past performance. What we don’t know is what our numbers “should” look like. We have no idea what other dealers in our specialty are doing: what their sales levels are, what their payroll costs them as a percentage of sales, what their gross margins are, or how often they turn over their inventory. Those are not the kind of questions that you can ask a competitor. Read More

Dec 3, 2013

Survey Says: Antique Shops Must Adopt More Strategies

I read with great interest Worthpoint’s 2011 Antiques & Collectibles Survey Results, released on Feb 14, 2011. Worthpoint is a leading provider of valuation and associated services for art, antiques and collectibles. The survey was taken from mid-January through early February 2011, and reflects the opinions of dealers and collectors who visited the Worthpoint website during that period.

As I reviewed their survey, my initial reaction was that its results must heavily favor Internet dealers; after all, it was an online survey. As it turns out, this initial assumption about the respondents to the Worthpoint survey was incorrect. Their survey sample was not dominated by Internet-only dealers, but included dealers who used a variety of channels for buying and selling, including the Internet, trade shows, estate sales, auctions, storefronts, and traditional media.

Reading the survey results, I recalled my experience last summer when I traveled to shows and antiques stores and interviewed dealers about “the state of the business”. I thought it might be enlightening to juxtapose my personal results (see Antique Trader’s Oct. 19, 2010, coverage of the Hillsville Market) with the results of the Worthpoint survey and attempt to assemble a balanced view of the buying and selling channels that are actually working for dealers. Read More

Dec 2, 2013

How to Set Traffic Flow in Antique Shops

By arranging your store’s fixtures in a fashion that directs traffic flow and keeps high-profit items in the most visible locations, you can keep customers in your store longer and increase sales.

Have you ever focused your attention on the way you walk? Do you stand straight with your shoulders back, or do you lean forward? Do you saunter or walk quickly? Have you noticed how the customers in your store walk? Most independent retailers give little thought to how their customers walk and move through their stores. These same retailers might be surprised to learn that there is a science dedicated to the study of how customers move within a retail store: it’s called “retail anthropology.”

Retail anthropology was developed by Paco Underhill, who runs a consulting company called Envirosell. Back in the 1970s, Paco began to videotape the way customers move within retail stores. His objective was to find ways to improve traffic flow and increase sales. Read More

Dec 1, 2013

Affordable Tips for Promoting Your Antiques Business

Among antiques dealers, hope springs eternal. Dealers look forward to a new year, hoping for profitable merchandise, good inventory turnover, and new customers. Some dealers will spend the year hoping; others will make a plan and work to make the plan a reality.

Central to gaining more customers and making more sales is building store traffic. Antiques dealers have the same challenges as other retailers: how to build awareness for their business and get more customers in the door. This month, I’ll share some promotions that retailers in other businesses have successfully used; perhaps a few of them will work for you, too. Here are my “11 Promotions for 2011”:

1. Create space for community/club events. This idea comes from a used book seller in Maryland, who has a room behind his store that he loans to community groups for their meetings. Toastmasters, the local bridge club, and (of course) local book clubs all gather at his shop on a regular basis. He provides coffee and cookies for each meeting and makes it a point to get to know each of the club members, who invariably become regular customers and spread the word about new items. Read More

Nov 16, 2013

Antique Shop Takes Ownership Culture To New Level, Sues Over Lamps It Doesn't Own

Antique Shop Takes Ownership Culture To New Level, Sues Over Lamps It Doesn't Own (via Techdirt)

When we talk about the differences between infringing on the copyright of content and concepts involving copying tangible goods, one of the examples we often use is the idea that if you bought a chair, and then decided you wanted a copy of that chair…

Nov 14, 2013

Can Your Antique Appraisals Land You in Court?

Antiques dealers have exposure from two sources: attorneys and the IRS.

It’s unlikely that a dealer will be sued over an appraisal unless the amount involved is substantial; there has to be enough money involved to pay a lawyer and have something left over. Risk for a dealer is directly proportional to the value of the item.

It’s well established that one of the root causes of the recent U.S. banking crisis was over-inflated and poorly researched property and housing appraisals. Poor appraisals that resulted in a financial crisis are not new: faulty appraisals were also at the root of the Savings and Loan failures of the 1980s and 1990s. In both crises, loans were made on the basis of appraised value. When a property’s appraised value was overstated and the loan went bad, there was not enough actual value in the property to collateralize the loan.

Poorly executed personal property appraisals can result in negative fallout as well. Read More

Inventory, Investment, and Perception

Baron von Rothschild, the 19th-century British banking magnate, had a succinct investment philosophy: “The time to buy is when there is blood in the streets, even if that blood is your own.” The Baron would know: He made a fortune in the panic that followed Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo.

Modern-day billionaires echo the Baron’s philosophy. Warren Buffett and other “contrarian” investors scoop up deeply discounted corporate assets whenever markets turn down. In Buffet’s own words: “You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.”

Of course, in a depressed market, cash is king. It’s likely that von Rothschild and Buffett had money to invest. Even teenage entrepreneurs know the adage “it takes money to make money.” Cash-strapped antique dealers are aware of the “good deals” to be had in the current market, but many don’t have the cash or the credit to pursue the available opportunities. How, then, can an antique dealer raise the cash to take advantage of current depressed prices? The Baron had the answer in 1815: Shed some blood. Read More

Hillsville Hosts Largest Flea Market East of the Mississippi

HILLSVILLE, Va., — Every Labor Day, the town of Hillsville, Va., (pop. 2,700) becomes a flea market. The town doesn’t have a flea market; it becomes a flea market — the Hillsville Flea Market and Gun Show. In one weekend, the population of the town grows to nearly 500,000 people, and it takes an effort by the entire town to accommodate the crowd.

Residential yards are turned into parking lots ($5 per day). Route 58 through the center of town is lined with food vendors for more than a mile on both sides of the street, and 400 acres of open space is rented by more than 700 antiques and collectible dealers, flea market sellers and gadget hawkers.

Vendors create a temporary city with row after row of RVs and tents set up behind the displays.

Sponsored by the Grover King VFW Post 1115, the show opened in 1967 and attracted 4,000 visitors. Today, dealers and shoppers come from Texas, Michigan, New York and Ohio; some have attended the show each year for decades. The event is a gathering place for both dealers and customers to visit, renew old ties, and scout for collectibles. Read More

Nov 13, 2013

Antique Dealers Can Master Web Marketing

Yesterday’s tools don’t work very well in modern applications. Take a rotary phone, for example: It can still make phone calls, but it won’t work outdoors, it won’t connect to the Internet, and it won’t take photos. A few of you are now saying, “I just want a telephone that makes phone calls.” I’d be willing to bet that it’s these same few who have said “Internet marketing doesn’t work.” It’s not that Internet marketing doesn’t work; it’s that they are taking a new tool (the Internet) and using it like it’s an old tool. It’s like owning an iPhone and using it like it’s a rotary phone. They’re not using the tool to its full advantage.

Much has been said lately about finding new customers and reaching a new generation of buyers. If you want to reach a new generation of buyers, you have to send your message to the place where new buyers are listening and approach them in the manner in which they prefer to be approached. Instead of searching for a silver bullet that will magically reach new customers on your terms, it’s important to study when and how your potential customers prefer to receive advertising messages. Read More

Elements Shifting Power from Antique Dealers

In October of 1991, the strongest storm in recorded history hit off the coast of Gloucester, Maine. Created by three storms combined into one, it was dubbed “the perfect storm,” and created almost apocalyptic conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm was recounted in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger and the Warner Brothers film of the same name starring George Clooney.

Another perfect storm has been brewing for some time now in the antiques business. The results of the storm, though not apocalyptic, will manifest a shift in power from the antiques dealer to the consumer, which will re-define the way business is transacted. The days of the unchallenged expertise of the dealer are over. The three elements driving the storm of change are the proliferation of social networking, mobile Internet devices, and product/pricing transparency.

The First Storm: Online Social Networking

The human desire to connect with other people has driven online social networking to triple-digit growth. As of April 2010, Facebook had over 400 million users, and adds hundreds of thousands of new users daily. Four hundred million Facebook users is about 30 percent more than the population of the entire United States. Read More

An Antique Shop Owner’s Exit Strategy Takes Time and Preparation

If the Grim Reaper had to earn a living like the rest of us, he’d probably become an auctioneer. He would trade his hood for a snappy-looking hat and his scythe for a gavel. He would preside over the demise of businesses, and as each asset passed the block his gavel would sound like thunder as he proclaimed “Sold!” in a voice that echoed with finality. The business owners would look on helplessly, stunned by the speed at which their life’s work evaporated.

Some businesses will be out of reach of the Reaper. According to a 2008 White House Advisors Survey, about 12 percent of all closely-held business owners have a written plan to sell their business intact and continue operations. Those business owners will cash out in style, selling at the right time to the right buyer for the right price. The remaining businesses will be sold piecemeal and shut down. Read More

What Antiques Dealers Can Learn from Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1993, Encyclopedia Britannica had the most profitable year in the company’s history. Two years later, the company was nearly bankrupt and was sold for below book value. What happened in those two years?

Most folks would say that Britannica was done in by Microsoft Encarta. In 1993, Microsoft purchased rights to the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, created an electronic version, changed the name to Encarta, and began bundling Encarta with new computers. Encarta could be purchased off-the-shelf for around $50. Britannica sold for around $1,200. Competition from Encarta killed Britannica.

Or, did it?

Did the fact that Encarta was faster, more accessible and cheaper kill Britannica or was something greater at work here? My contention is that there was something greater at work: a paradigm shift. By paradigm shift, I mean a complete change in thinking or belief system that allows the creation of a new condition previously thought impossible.

Britannica was approached by Microsoft in the late 1980s regarding the Encarta project, but Britannica declined to become involved. Read More

Nov 12, 2013

How the Antiques Business Can Capture Gen X

Today, the antique business has a new problem: old customers.

Boomers and their parents, who have been collecting antiques for decades, no longer have the room or the inclination to buy more antiques. Their Generation X successors do not seem to care for antiques.

“The trend is away from antiques,” says Red Whaley, owner of an antiques business in Forney, Texas, since 1968. “I think it skips a generation,” Whaley said in a recent Associated Press article. “You just do not want what your parents had.”

Attend any antique show in the US, and all you will see is a sea of silver hair and bald heads. This leaves antiques dealers in a quandary: their customer base is shrinking, sales are plummeting, and they are buried in inventory.

The shrinking customer base is just phase one of the problem. When millions of boomers start to downsize and the antiques they have been collecting for decades hit the resale market, prices will plunge as well.

There will be an overabundance of supply, and very little demand. Boomers that bought antiques as an investment are in for a rude awakening. In many cases, they will not recoup their original investment. Read More

Oct 28, 2013

Loar Mandolins: The Choice of Famous Fretters

On the afternoon of Nov. 13,1985, Della Monroe, wife of Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe, came home to find Bill’s cherished 1923 Lloyd Loar Gibson F5 mandolin and his back-up F5 lying in splinters on their fireplace hearth. Someone with a grudge against her husband had broken into their home and beat the mandolins with a fireplace poker, repeatedly stabbing and hammering at them. The vandal had also destroyed portraits of Bill and other artwork.

Bill was devastated. His primary F5 was legendary for its tone, and he had played it almost exclusively for decades. No one was ever arrested for the crime, but analysts and a few acquaintances theorized that it must have been a woman; most likely a spurned lover. A man, they said, would have grabbed the mandolins by their necks and smashed them against the fireplace.

The damaged mandolins were packed up and delivered to the new Gibson factory in Nashville, where they were examined by Gibson craftsman Charles Derrington. Accompanying the mandolins was a paper bag containing hundreds of slivers of wood from both instruments. Read More

Oct 1, 2013

America's First Antique Stores

Having lunch with friends from the U.K., we discussed our afternoon spent browsing through antique stores. “Why aren’t there more antiques in your antique stores?” questioned Nigel.

“There aren’t enough real antiques in America” chimed in his wife Susan, “except those that are imported from Europe, of course.”

“America has a thriving antiques business” I replied. “We were first colonized almost 400 years ago, you know.” I could tell they were not impressed. To those belonging to a culture whose roots reached back thousands of years, Americans are the new kids on the block. “Besides,” I added, “we’ve been manufacturing goods for the last three hundred years, not to mention importing a lot of Europe’s estate antiques.”

“Perhaps” said Nigel, “but dealing in antiques as a fulltime pursuit is rather new to America, isn’t it?”

Early estate inventories show very little in the way of household goods.
I had no idea, but the question piqued my curiosity, and set me to Googling for the answer the rest of the weekend. It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, and I felt obliged to eliminate my ignorance on the subject.

Of course, there have been estate auctions in America since Colonial days, but what Nigel wanted to know was how long our “modern” antiques trade has been around. You know: shops full of old merchandise culled from estates and sold at healthy mark-ups. To answer his question, I had to first determine exactly what was meant by the term “antique,” and then discover the set of social circumstances that could lead to the development of a market for antiques.

Definitions for the term “antique” abound. Most of us know that in the U.S. the official government definition of “antique” comes from the U.S. Customs Service, who considers an antique to be anything “over 100 years of age at the time of importation.” The importation requirement notwithstanding, this definition seems to have stuck, and antiques purists swear by it. Read More

Collectible Lawn Art

In American popular culture, the kitsch surrounding pink flamingo lawn ornaments appears universal. Mention such ornaments and visions of trailer parks in Baltimore come to mind; perhaps as a result of John Waters’ 1972 movie “Pink Flamingos,” with its subtitle: “An Exercise in Poor Taste”.

Until the 1970s, upscale suburban homes sometimes boasted lantern-carrying lawn jockeys, but these blackface ornaments lost favor and aren’t seen much anymore.

Flamingos and jockeys seem to have been replaced by garden gnomes and repurposed furniture. From city lots to country acreage, Americans love yard art. We make flowerbeds from antique beds and claw-foot bathtubs, birdbaths from old lamps and garden lights from tin cans.

Because yard art is so trendy, estate executors sometimes forget to have a good look around an estate’s yard or grounds as they inventory personal property. Focus is instead given to the contents of homes, where it is believed that the most valuable property is located.

But, that’s not always the case. Recently, a zinc and copper horse weathervane was found in a Massachusetts barn covered with hay. The hollow horse was full of hay debris, had no stand and was aerated by a few bullet holes. Nevertheless, the 1875 J. Howard & Company “Index” horse weathervane sold on eBay for $45,000. Other notable “yard art” finds include: Read More

Antique and Collectible Hand Tools

The big white canopy tent was erected overnight. It sat on the parking lot of a shopping mall, close to the highway. Attached was a vinyl banner that read “TOOL SALE.” Judging by the crowded parking lot, the sale was well underway. Inside the tent, there was row after row of tables, bins and floor displays. The aisles between the tables were almost too crowded to negotiate; the customers—all male—lingered at each table, handling the tools and eyeing them carefully.

Guys love tools. My father, a typewriter repairman by trade, seemed to always have his tools and a few typewriter carcasses spread across our dining room table, which served as his ad-hoc workbench. I loved to watch him work his magic. My older son, when he was just 2, preferred playing in my toolbox to playing with his toys. When my piano/antiques restoration business was in its prime, I owned every woodworking and specialty piano tool known to the trade.

Men come by their love of tools honestly. Harvard socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson states that men’s brains are “wired” for grasping spatial relationships and mathematics, which makes them natural mechanics and carpenters. I take great pleasure in watching the natural, ballet-like movements of a good bricklayer or house painter. Read More

Fender Guitars

Leo Fender became a rock ‘n’ roll icon quite by accident.

After a brief career as a bookkeeper, Leo opened a radio repair shop in Fullerton, Calif., in 1938, when he was just 29 years old. In 1938, the electronics industry in America was still in its infancy. The vacuum tubes that made amplification possible had been invented just 30 years before, and the First World War put radio into military use. The first radio broadcast licenses were issued in 1920. By 1933, two-thirds of American homes owned a radio and had the electricity to operate it. When he opened his shop, Leo Fender was on the cutting edge of the new electronics industry.

To supplement his income from repairing radios, Fender built, rented and sold public address systems to local music halls and musicians. A steady stream of musicians patronized Fender’s shop. The rudimentary amplifiers, microphones, speakers and guitar pickups of the day were always breaking down, and Leo was the “go-to” guy for getting them fixed.

According to Fender, a musician’s most common request was, “How can I make this louder?” To those of us who have grown up listening to “too-loud” amplified music, this may seem to be a strange request. Volume knobs have spoiled our generation. Can’t hear the T.V., radio or stereo? Grab the knob and turn it up. Too loud? Turn it down. But, it wasn’t too long ago that “turning up the volume” created more problems than it solved. Read More

Hard-to-Sell Estate Items

Previously published on

It’s fun to think of estates as being filled with hidden treasures, waiting to be discovered and cashed in for Big Bucks. Hardly a week goes by without a news report of a naive estate shopper finding a rare painting, tool, coin or other collectible. The hard truth is that estate personal property consists mostly of run-of-the-mill consumer goods, well-worn and sometimes musty smelling. Some estate personal property is just downright hard to dispose of: used medical equipment, old computers and accessories, solvents and paints, and obsessive collections. Executors, faced with disposing of these items (and justifying their decisions to the decedent’s family), are often hard-pressed to find solutions.

Let’s see if there aren’t some solutions to these estate disposal complications.


I always cringe whenever estate executors call me to set an inspection and say: “…and there’s a huge collection of…” Usually, these “huge collections” turn out to be a decedent’s “huge obsession” instead. The decedent collected for the sake of collecting, with no thought given to the rarity or quality of the individual items. For executors, such collections can be a headache.

For example: one executor told me that the estate had a “huge collection of antique radios and old magazines.” What did I find? Every room of the decedent’s house was stacked floor-to-ceiling with old radios and magazines. There were paths from the front door to the back door, the kitchen and the bathroom but no room at all to deviate from the path. Read More

The Auction that Launched the Antiques Trade

The antiques business began in July, 1886.

At least, that’s the claim made by author Jonathan Gash in his book “Paid and Loving Eyes” (Penguin, 1993). Gash is the creator of the Lovejoy character, a roguish antiques dealer whose escapades are recounted in more than two dozen novels and 71 BBC television shows.

I enjoyed watching the BBC series (what’s not to like about Ian McShane?), but there was little to be learned about antiques by doing so. That’s not the case with the books, however. Although the Lovejoy novels are works of fiction, Gash (real name John Grant) doesn’t stray far from the facts when he discusses antiques. He devotes a lot of detail—sometimes pages—to describing the antiques that are the catalysts for his stories. He also goes into great detail about how forgeries and fakes are made, and how common they are in the antiques trade. Want to know about 18th-century German snuff boxes? Lovejoy will tell you. Want to fake a Sheraton table or age a freshly painted watercolor? Lovejoy gives up those secrets. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Gash/Grant was an accomplished forger; he seems to know a little too much about how to fake antiques. (He was actually a physician and university professor).

So, when I read Gash’s claim that the antiques trade began in July of 1886, I paid attention. I’d never known anyone to try to pin a “start date” on the antiques business. I consulted my old friend Google to check the claim myself. Here’s Gash’s claim, from the above book: Read More

Books and More Books: Collection or Accumulation?

From the time I was a college student, I’ve been a collector of books. Well, not a collector exactly; more like an accumulator. Over the course of a lifetime, avid readers can accumulate a lot of books. In my house, books are like Kudzu; clean them out, get rid of them, and next year they’re back again.

Estate executors are often confounded by large accumulations of books. Hardcover books have always been the most expensive choice in buying books, so some executors panic when they see floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with hardcover books. They ask me which, if any, are valuable.

“How do I tell?” they ask. “If this is a first edition, isn’t it worth something? These books are really old; should I notify Antiques Roadshow?”

My answer is usually not to their liking: some may be valuable; most will not be; and the only way to tell is to take them down from the shelf, one-by-one, and inspect them. Read More

Brunswick Panatrope Radio With Phonograph

I bought my first MP3 player last week. I know it’s old technology. Apple introduced the iPod in 2001 and I’m just getting on-board. Call me a late adopter. I bought my first home computer in 1986 and my first cell phone in 2001. I still don’t have a smartphone. I did, however, finally cut my telephone land line.

I gained some perspective on my personal technology deficiencies while sorting through boxes of old family photographs. In one photo, my grandmother sat with my mother at her feet, listening to the radio on their 1929 Brunswick Panatrope Phonograph with Radio. In its day, the Panatrope was a state-of-the-art home entertainment system. It operated electrically, played all three available record formats, and had a radio (AM).

In 2013, when technology becomes bigger-better-faster with each passing year, I’m astonished by the obstacles that had to be overcome before that Panatrope could sit in my grandmother’s living room.

In the 1920s, most of America didn’t have electricity. There was electricity in big cities, but electrical power companies weren’t interested in investing in the generators and power lines that would electrify rural America. At that time, “rural America” was most of America’s geographical area. Because the rural population was shrinking, electrifying the countryside was too big an investment for power companies. Farmers, too, found that the expense of running power lines across their fields was prohibitive. So, electricity didn’t start to become available to rural America until 1935, when Roosevelt signed the act creating the Rural Electrification Administration. The act provided low-interest loans and other incentives to power companies to encourage them to invest in rural power transmission. My grandmother’s family in Hendersonville, N.C., (down the mountain from Asheville) got electricity earlier than most. So, the Panatrope was a viable purchase for her family. Read More

How to Sell the Family Piano

Today, Boomers having to settle their parents’ estates face an “elephant in the room” that isn’t so funny: the family piano. Many pianos are just downright hard to sell nowadays. They are heavy, difficult to move, expensive to repair and keep tuned and technologically backward. Acoustic pianos are rarely sought-after items for middle-class homes. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t see once-expensive pianos passed over by auction bidders.

So, for executors or siblings facing the task of getting rid of the family piano, assuming the heirs don’t want it, here’s my assessment of the piano situation—what sells, what doesn’t, where to sell, how to advertise, how to donate a piano, where to find a tuner and a mover, how to get an appraisal and other things you will need to know to get that piano out of the house. I’ll only be discussing acoustic pianos in this article. Read More

Liquidating Estate Tangible Personal Property

Pop quiz for executors: what estate settlement task will take up most of your time, cause you the most aggravation, and return the smallest amount of cash to the estate coffers? Answer: liquidating the tangible personal property.

Of course, anyone who has ever served as an estate executor already knows this. To the uninitiated, let me describe the process: imagine living in the same house for a long, long time. Then imagine having to pack up and move; you have to clean out the house, the garage, the shed, and the basement. It’s a lot of work. Then imagine having to group items according to type, clean, tag and price everything, and then sell it. This “moving” job just doubled (or tripled) in magnitude.

So, what is my advice for executors? You don’t have time for all that; hire a professional to liquidate the personal property. A good liquidation company is worth every penny you pay them. The trick is to find a good liquidation company. Here’s a look at a few generally available options, and the “pros and cons” of each.

Before I start, let me offer some advice that could affect the outcome of your sale: Read More