Gradually the talk shifted to that most favored of all subjects with collectors and dealers: where to find antiques. Each had his own special anecdote. A comb-back Windsor armchair bought direct from a Negro junk dealer's Ford truck on Seventh Avenue in the heart of Harlem. An early mold-blown Zanesville glass sugar bowl, complete with domed cover, found in a bus-terminal lunchroom out in Indiana, where it was being used as a toothpick holder. A Hepplewhite sideboard that had fallen to the low estate of a hen roost on a North Carolina farm. A set of wrought-iron cooking utensils and implements for the old kitchen fireplace of a Connecticut farmhouse, found safe behind the fireboard, which had not been removed for over a generation. The colored glass dolphin candlesticks bought for a fraction of their value at an auction gallery in New York City one afternoon when a bad blizzard had tied up traffic. Finally, there was the delicate candlestand of Salem craftsmanship that a young junior Leaguer brought to a city dealer's shop direct from the warehouse where a roomful of family possessions was stored-she had tripped over the tripod legs of this piece and ruined a pair of nylons that afternoon when she went there to get a costume for the little theater play in which she had a Part.
These were stories of dramatic finds, but I knew the bulk of antiques in their shops had been acquired far more prosaically. So as the group broke up I induced one of them to talk at length about how he ran his business. He is a large city dealer with over twenty-five years' experience in buying and selling antiques. His shop, a building of red brick with marble trim, was once a handsome city residence. Now, from basement to top floor, the rooms are well filled with American antiques of all sorts and periods, from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, and he has sold many fine pieces to leading collectors and important museums, especially examples of the work of Pennsylvania Dutch craftsmen and folk artists.
"Where do you find the antiques in your shop?" I asked "Little Joe," as he is known among the dealers because of his bantam size.
"Honestly, I never know where or how I'll buy my next good antique-the kind of thing I'd want to show to important collectors or museums. I just keep hunting, in the city or out in the country. I make a dozen house calls and get nothing. I'm polite to twice as many more people who come into my shop just to see what I have that is like theirs. I could get disgusted and quit going out or showing people around, but if I did I'd surely miss something worth while. I keep track of the auctions and am friendly with country dealers. I've bought a good many of my antiques from both sources. The bank roll I always have with me helps a lot too. Word has got around that I'm ready to pay spot cash for what I want and money talks a good deal louder than a check, especially at five or six o'clock in the afternoon.
"Sure, I go out into the country whenever I've the chance to get away from the shop, Little Joe continued, "for I'm crazy about both trout fishing and hunting antiques, but I'm not telling where I go for either. One is a personal, the other a business secret. I will say this much, if a dealer doesn't get a kick out of driving a couple of hundred miles hunting for antiques, he'd better get into some other kind of business. Also, to be successful, he's got to have a good eye and be able to spot nice things without wasting too much time, and pass up what isn't so good the same way. Otherwise his shop will soon be loaded down with junk. Then the good collectors won't come around any more. They don't like to waste their time looking at a lot of ordinary things.
"At the same time, just often enough to prove that it can happen, some beginner, either a collector or dealer, picks up a really fine antique in a most unlikely place for a low price. He doesn't always know how good it is, but he feels it's not just run of the mine stuff. I have had many such things shown me. I make a point of always telling the finder what he has, for two reasons. If he's a collector, such a discovery puts him just that much further ahead and in time he'll want more and better antiques. I may be able to sell him something. If the finder is just getting started as a dealer, I tell him just what he has and make as good an offer as I can for it. He is then apt to bring other pieces to me and I have developed another good source of stock.
"Of course, there are those who bring me poor antiques, late stuff or just junk, and start arguing with me when I tell them what they have. But that's part of the antiques business. You've got to expect about so much of that. On the other hand, if they really want to know what's wrong with what they are showing me, I try to show them the difference. I even get out something of my own and compare it with what has been brought in. In my time I've started quite a few collectors and dealers by such demonstrations. It is missionary work for the good of antiques collecting. I haven't forgotten the old collector who was my teacher-customer when I first started. I used to put a new buy away and wait to show it to him. Once, after telling me what I had and in what books I might find a similar piece pictured and described, he offered to buy it. After that I had a lot more confidence. 'Joe, you've the eye to spot good antiques,' I said to myself. 'Now read and go look at what's in the museum, for the best luck in finding things won't do you any good if you don't know quality.'
"I started learning and I haven't stopped yet-don't ever expect to-and I'm always ready to listen to anybody who can tell me something new about American antiques. For in stance, quite a few years ago, near Bridgeton, New Jersey, I came across a retired glass blower, a man about seventy-five years old. He was living all by himself in a little house on a back road. I had heard he had a lily-pad pitcher. He wouldn't sell it, but I kept calling on him whenever I was down that way. One day he took me out to a shed back of his house, showed me his blower's tools and began to talk. He described each step in blowing and shaping a piece of glass, illustrating most of them with the tools used. I was fascinated. Later I had a bowl, blown of greenish bottle glass, that puzzled me. It looked good, and seemed as if it might be a real find in early Wistar glass. I took it to him. Before he was through looking it over, I had had a wonderful lesson in judging glass for quality, texture and color. He even showed me the marks, right in the glass itself, of pincer-like tools with which the rim of that bowl was folded over when it was being shaped. What success I've had in glass goes back to that old boy. I finally got his pitcher too, but not until after he was dead. I bought it from a neighbor who looked after him at the last. He'd given it to her. Now it's in my private collection to remind me of how I learned just a little more about glass."
On other occasions than at this hotel lobby gathering, I have talked with many different kinds of people about finding antiques. Some were collectors, some museum curators, and many more were dealers in various sections of the country. Also, I have had my own varied experiences, dating back to my school years in Brooklyn and summers spent in Vermont and rural Connecticut. Only last winter, in an Iowa city known for its fine ham and bacon, I was shown a collection of glass paperweights.
"Where did you get all these varieties?" was my instinctive inquiry as I scanned the sizable cabinet in which their owner kept them.
"The first half-dozen or so I got from the man at our local rubbish dump," she replied with some pride. "He raked them out of the loads of household refuse and I paid him half a dollar each for them. At that time I didn't know anything about paperweights, but they were pretty and I wanted more. So on vacations or on other trips I was always looking. Occasionally I'd find one in a country dealer's shop. Others I spotted in various cities. As my collection grew, a few friends and relatives gave me weights that had been in their families.
"One time on a convention trip with my husband I saw a newspaper story about a loan exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. On our way home we had a day in Chicago and I spent most of it at the Institute, looking at the weights displayed and taking notes on what the labels said. After that I was really a paperweight collector. I read everything I could find that had been written about them. I began writing to various dealers who advertised weights. Now and then I bought one this way and I swapped my duplicates. There are still many other weights I need before I'll have a real collection, and unfortunately most of the kinds I lack are choice and expensive. So I am taking my time and am turning somewhat to collecting American furniture to go with my weights."
The way this Iowa woman started is typical of many other collectors. A chance circumstance makes some pleasing antique available, and the collecting germ develops. About that time the novice ought to read something about the antiques he has started to collect. Most public libraries have books on the subject, and probably some magazines. He can begin by reading these, and later add those he has found most helpful to his own library. With this added knowledge he will know better what type of antiques he wants to collect. If, as sometimes happened in what collectors call the good old days, he has family connections living in longestablished homes, attics or storerooms may yield an antique or two. If that should happen the beginner would be in luck, but it occurs less frequently these days. Neglected, well-filled attics are fewer, and most of them have been already combed by other enthusiasts.
So for most people who want antiques for their homes, either starting from scratch or putting them with a few inherited pieces, the best way is to go out and buy them. If one lives in one of the older parts of the country, it is possible to find people who have some little regarded furniture or other antiques they will sell, but locating such places cannot be done off-hand. More often one comes home empty-handed from such a quest, or with something of questionable age or merit, purchased "just to buy something after all the trouble I've made."
It is much easier and usually more productive to go antiquing in the most logical places-the antique shops. Start with the one nearest home and gradually widen your circle. They may seem frightening at first, especially to one who has but recently been started on the road to collecting by the chance acquirement, by gift or inheritance, of a few things, such as a table, a chair, a chest of drawers, a candlestick or an assortment of old dishes. So many things are on display, most of them obviously superior, even to the eye of a novice, to what he possesses. Some beginners have told me that when they began collecting they hesitated to go into the antique shops lest they appear ignorant, or lest everything there should prove to be "so terribly expensive." Instead, they would slip into second-hand stores, where they found many things that even they knew were not antiques. Usually they ended by making a purchase that they later discarded. That is the wrong start for a beginner.
The proprieter of a second-hand store deals in things that are just what the name connotes. If there is an antique in the place it is there by accident. Moreover, such a dealer knows little or nothing about antiques, and cares less. He is interested only in selling what he has, and at times is not above suggesting that something might be a very good antique. So, at the start keep out of second-hand stores. Later, when some knowledge has been gained and one has plenty of time to shop around, an occasional good antique may be found in such a store at a fairly low price. But until then, it is best to go to one of the antique shops, preferably one of the smaller ones, since they are less bewildering. They can be found almost anywhere, on side streets in cities and large villages and along main-traveled highways.
Pick well-established dealers who have been in the same locality for a number of years. They are jealous of their reputations for fair practice, and stand back of what they say as to age and originality. As much cannot be said for that very small number of dealers who are constantly moving from one location to another and who largely offer "bargains." When such a dealer thinks he has sold about as many of his low-grade antiques as he can in one spot he moves on to a new location.
When I find myself in a strange town I frequently consult the classified section of the local telephone book for a list of dealers' names. Then I visit the shops for which the descriptions seem most promising. In the same way a beginner can learn about a few near-by shops. Antique dealers are friendly people and, while they are primarily in business to -make a living, they will take a surprising amount of trouble to help new collectors who honestly want to learn something about antiques. Therefore don't be afraid to ask questions about pieces new to you, or to ask prices. It is a simple way to get some inkling of values. An occasional purchase from the dealers whose shops you visit in your early enthusiasm for antiques will also help to create good feeling.
When I was first collecting I came to know a combination furniture repairman and dealer. His shop was on Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, just around the corner from the first subway stop from New York. This shop was a magnet for me. At least once a week I stopped there on the way home from my office, not always with the intention of buying, but rather to see his newest purchases. Over the years I bought a number of excellent things from Charlie. I still have some of them, including a fifteen-inch pewter plate marked "LQNDON" on which our plum pudding is always served. That buy was clearly a case of beginner's luck, for at that time I knew practically nothing about pewter.
The novice will soon realize, too, that collectors are not the only buyers at such little shops. There are the people, mostly men, who cruise from shop to shop and make a living by buying from one shop and selling to another. Within the trade they are known as "pickers." They make a business, and a surprisingly lucrative one at times, by their ability to spot "sleepers"-i.e., good antiques priced low because their merits have not been recognized-which they peddle to other dealers, generally those with larger shops. Although these pickers sell mostly to dealers, the majority of them are not disinclined to do business with collectors, in a curbstone manner, if they can manage it without offending the dealer in whose shop collector and picker have their chance meeting.
It is surprising how much territory some of these pickers cover in a week. One, very well-known among dealers, is actually a wholesaler. He lives less than two hours away from New York City, and back of his home is a two-story warehouse usually crowded with about every kind of American antique of the better quality. Glass be does not handle, "because it breaks too easily." He is home Saturdays and Sundays. Those are the days when New York City dealers and larger ones in the general vicinity visit him. When they come it is not for individual antiques, but rather for a station wagon load. Furniture is his speciality, and it is surprising how many fine pieces have passed through his hands. Some of the pieces he once owned are now in museum collections. I doubt if the average collector could get into his storehouse; but should he hear that a collector has an antique for sale he would call on him promptly. But he would not sell to a collector: he is a dealer's dealer.
As to the prices dealers pay for the antiques they handle, there seems to be an impression among uninformed people that they are consistently trying to get their merchandise for nothing, or as close to that as possible. Actually, the laws of economics operate with antiques as with other commodities. What is scarce and in demand, be it beefsteak or block-front furniture, is high in price. When the dealer goes out to buy in your home or mine, if he expects to remain in business he can not offer more for any antique he has a chance to buy than half the price at which he believes he can sell it. Out of this 100 per cent "mark-up" must come the losses he has to absorb for his "stickers" (the good antiques he buys but cannot sell for a profit), as well as the losses he must absorb on antiques that are damaged or broken in handling. This is particularly true with china and glass, since they are especially fragile. The owner of an antique who thinks he could sell it so much more profitably if he only knew the collectors who wanted it is deceiving himself. As a group, collectors are as keen for a bargain as any dealer, and act accordingly.
Another place for the novice to buy is at the numerous antiques shows that are held in almost every section of the country and have become an important factor for both collectors and dealers. Many of them are either yearly or semi-annual events and are well advertised before they open. As a place where a wide variety of antiques can be seen at one time, I know of nothing that can equal a good show. Most of them are managed by people who specialize in promoting such ventures. They vary all the way from small shows of twelve to twenty exhibitors to large ones of a hundred or more booths, in cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The show managers know the antiques trade well and are assiduous in securing as exhibitors dealers with reputations for handling good antiques. They are just as painstaking in discouraging others who are suspected of offering questionable pieces. Some dealers become regular troupers and go from one antiques show to another, remaining away from home for months at a time. Others choose a certain few shows at which they exhibit regularly, and ignore the rest. Most of the show promoters know that they have dual obligations that they must fulfill if their shows are to be successful and become well established. The collector must find enough interesting antiques on display to be worth the price of admission. The dealers must have enough buyers to "make expenses" and go home with a profit. The show that delights dealers is one at which profits on first-day sales cover booth rental, traveling expenses and room and meals for the show's duration. When this happens, word spreads rapidly throughout the trade and the Promoter has little difficulty in signing up space for his next show.
Getting collectors to attend a show is one of the promotor's big problems. Besides advertising it locally and in magazines read by collectors, the most aggressive promoters maintain sizable lists of collectors to whom they mail reducedrate tickets. They also provide exhibitors with blocks of such tickets, which they are urged to mail to their customers. Much of a Promoter's profit comes from gate receipts. Booth rentals about cover such expenses as rental of the hall, erecting the booths, travel in obtaining exhibitors and advertising.
Opening day of any well-planned show, and especially of one that has been held for several years, is a special event. All the veteran collectors who can possibly do so make it a point to be there at opening time. They want to have a first look at everything and are always hopeful of finding a real sleeper. I have seen as many as three hundred of these collectors lined up and waiting for the big New York show at the 71st Regiment Armory to open. Such a show also attracts many of the more important dealers. They, too, are there to buy.
Besides this, from the moment the exhibitors arrive and start unpacking, there is lively trading between them right in the midst of all the hubbub of moving in and dressing their booths. A successful dealer once told me that he planned his exhibit at the New York show well in advance so that he could dress his booth quickly, after which, until the public was admitted, he was free to buy from other dealers. He found that the profits he made on what he bought in this way sometimes equaled the cost of his booth.
Because of the advantages of this before-opening business, every effort is made to keep all but actual exhibitors out. However, some non-exhibiting dealers, and even collectors, do manage to crash the gate. This usually brings loud protests to the promoter, who is anything but idle at such a time. Another of his headaches is the problem of the picker who smuggles in small antiques and peddles them from booth to booth. When caught, such a one is made to leave immediately, though that doesn't prevent his coming back. In fact, I once saw a persistent picker thrown out of a show three times in one day.
If one likes antiques, any show, big or little, is usually worth while. It is a good way for the beginner to extend his knowledge, meet dealers he might not otherwise know and nearly always find a few things worth buying. I have been going to these shows for almost twenty years and remember scarcely one at which I did not see antiques I would like to own. A good number of the pieces in my collection I acquired at shows. The large city shows have a particular attraction for collectors, and some travel long distances to attend them. One couple living in the Middle West would delay their annual vacation each year until the time of the fall show in New York. Others I have met there and at other shows come from still farther away.
Finally, there are the auction sales. They are of two kinds: those of important collections, held at nationally known galleries, especially New York and Philadelphia; and the country auctions. For the large city sales, the auction galleries issue elaborate illustrated catalogues in which each lot is described in a paragraph of from fifty to fifteen hundred words, according to its importance. For country sales, the auctioneers usually issue handbills that indicate some of the highlights of the coming sale. At all auctions, a "lot" refers to a piece or group of pieces sold as a unit, to which a serial number has been given.
Country sales are usually held on the premises of the seller, though sometimes, notably in Pennsylvania and Ohio, a hall is rented for the occasion. In the case of important sales at the large galleries, the antiques to be sold are exhibited several days in advance. Going to one of these exhibitions is another excellent way to learn about antiques. Allow several hours. Buy a copy of the catalogue (a dollar is the usual price), and then make the rounds of the entire display, comparing pieces and catalogue descriptions. The latter have been carefully written and are explicit. Of course, they stress the best features of each piece, but they also state type, provenance and age clearly. Take time enough to study those pieces that are of particular interest. Unlike antiques in museums, those in the auction galleries can, within reason, be handled in the course of examination.
If possible, attend the auction sessions and write down the prices in your catalogue. Later reread the catalogue. An assortment of auction catalogues can frequently be of help in identifying different pieces and fixing their dates. In such catalogues, where a lot is a copy, a phrase such as "Chippendale style" will be used instead of one that gives the age and provenance. This is a tacit indication that the gallery does not rate the lot as antique.
Prices realized at the big auctions are, in general, indicative of the worth of the antiques sold, but it should be borne in mind that a number of things govern these prices. Condition of the individual piece is most important. For instance, a fine piece of furniture in untouched condition, with original brasses and no parts restored or replaced, will always bring a much higher price than if it has been refinished and has replacement brasses or some part repaired or replaced.
In ceramics, age cracks, stains or a poor impression of decorative design reduce the price. Mint condition in silver and pewter, together with a complete and clear maker's mark, makes for top prices; while repairs or reconstruction on pieces by even the rarest makers materially reduce values. In the case of glass, chips, cracks, repairs and that cloudiness known as "sick glass" are definite price reducers.
Moreover, if the weather is bad and the buyers at the sale are fewer than usual, prices are apt to be down. On the other hand, if the collection being sold was formed by a wellknown collector, it will probably draw a large audience and the prices will range from very good to record high. Sometimes leading museums want certain pieces from such a collection and bid for them. That always runs the price up materially. Besides this, there are always a number of dealers present. Some may be bidding for customers; others are there to get special pieces of unusual merit; and still more are looking for bargains. If the bids are low enough, so that such dealers feel they can buy and resell profitably, they bid systematically and drop out only when the prices go too high for them "to buy for stock." Auctioneers refer to this as the "back of the room dealer cushion."
Smaller city auctions are not as carefully stage-managed. If there are catalogues, they are hardly more than identifying listings of pieces that form the various lots, and should not be considered as guides to age genuineness or provenance. Many fine antiques have been sold at such auctions, but the people who bought them were usually well-informed collectors or experienced dealers. They could act on their own judgment, and paid little attention to the remarks or descriptions of the auctioneer. Veteran dealers frequently have arrangements by which they are notified if any superior antiques are to be sold at such auctions, and are on hand to bid for them.
The country auction is totally different, and is much more informal. Such sales, most often held at houses where the contents are to be sold, begin about ten in the morning and last until late in the afternoon, and are usually completed in one day. An occasional auction may be of two or three days' duration. Not everything sold qualifies as antique, but frequently some excellent antique furniture and the like are among the lots. During the past two or three years prices at some of these country sales have been close to what city dealers would ask for the same kind of antiques. This is because a large number of people, not local residents, have begun going to country auctions. They find them great fun and tend to run the prices up beyond reason. And there are always the dealers.
Often they form a bidding combination, known as a "knock-out," among themselves for the purpose of discouraging individual bids. Dealers in one of these buying slugs are not at all subtle and can often be seen signaling to one another while bidding is in progress. The auctioneers naturally do not like such combinations, and try hard to stop them. After the sale is over, the dealers in a "knock-out" get together and at what amounts to a second auction allocate among themselves the antiques bought. Because of this condition, the beginner should go over the antiques before the sale starts, decide how much he is willing to bid for the things he wants and then stick to those figures. It is well to remember that there will be other sales. Do not be carried away by the excitement and overbid.
An ever-present opportunity to see and learn about antiques that has served many novices well is to be found in museum collections. There are, of course, the large art museums where, in addition to galleries of paintings and sculpture and other works of art, there are separate ones devoted to antiques. There are smaller museums and collections of local historical societies, as well as the more recent group restorations like Williamsburg, Virginia. By frequent visits to the museum nearest him a beginner can soon acquire a basic grasp of American antiques. Before long he will be able to recognize pieces belonging to the various style periods, such as a Queen Anne highboy or a Chippendale gaming table, without first having to stop and read the label. But the labels should not be ignored. Each is a comprehensive description and ought to be read carefully,
Among the large museums that have especially fine antiques displayed in period room settings are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its American Wing, largest and most extensive of them all; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, with its celebrated Karolik Collection; the museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, with its fine display of block-front furniture by the Goddard-Townsend group of cabinetmakers of Newport; the Hartford (Conn.) Atheneum, known for its outstanding collection of furniture of the Pilgrim. century; the Gallery of Fine Art, Yale University, which, in addition to two or three eighteenth-century interiors of Connecticut houses, has an unusually fine collection of American silver; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its Pennsylvania Dutch painted furniture and decorative accessories; and the Art Institute of Chicago, which has about the finest collection in the United States of Wedgwood and other eighteenth-century English ceramics. There are also the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the William Rockhill Nelson Museum, Kansas City, Missouri; the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts; and the Henry Ford Collections that are part of the Edison Institute in near-by Dearborn.
In New York City there are three other museums that should not be missed. They are the Museum of the City of New York, where silver is a feature; the New York Historical Society; and the Brooklyn Museum. The latter has several interiors from old local houses, done in the Holland Dutch manner, complete with furnishings, as well as comprehensive displays of American glass, china and pewter.
Small museums and historic houses maintained as museums, now numbering over two hundred, are located in various parts of the country. Because they are less extensive and more intimate, they are frequently more fun, and are certainly less exhausting to visit. Their collections have developed from a confusing jumble of "relics" poorly labeled to well-organized groupings dramatically displayed. Some of them have specialized groups of locally made antiques that cannot be equaled elsewhere, such as the museum at Bennington, Vermont, with its collection of Bennington pottery, and the much larger Essex Institute at Salem, Massachusetts, with its outstanding collection of furniture made by Salem cabinetmakers.
There are also a number of private museums that are open to the public, or that collectors can visit by writing for permission. A museum of this type is usually the outward and visible sign of an ardent wealthy collector who has established it as a means of rationalizing his incurable urge to buy more and more antiques. One of the finest is the Wells Museum at Southboro, Massachusetts, which has a remarkable collection of early tools and implements. Also, H. F. duPont has assembled a superb collection of choice American furniture and decorative accessories at his home at Winterthur, Delaware, which is open for several weeks each spring and fall to those who write for tickets in advance. Mr. duPont's collection rivals that of any museum. A visit to it is well worth the effort and time it takes.
Although museum collections should be seen not once but several times, for downright enjoyment probably nothing exceeds an evening with antiques in the home of a collector and friend. Your host is not only ready but bubbling over to tell you all about each piece. You can talk back and handle each item with a freedom impossible elsewhere. In fact, your host will be complimented if a piece of his furniture so impresses you that you get down on your hands and knees to study the decorative details of its feet. Hallmarks on silver and pewter can be studied and the rich coloring of early blown glass admired. just one suggestion: no matter how delightful the experience meeting may be, or how much more there is to see or talk about, when the clock strikes midnight, make your farewell and leave. The old adage about short visits holds true even when two antique hounds meet.