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 WorthPoint.com

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