We're living in a time of great cultural and social revolution. The internet is mankind's greatest modern accomplishment, bringing the world to our fingertips. But the web's integration into our everyday life has also brought about some negative consequences, with longtime trades and professions facing probable extinction. Publishing has been the most affected by these technological changes, with newspaper publishing in particular looking to remain relevant in today's changing society. History hobbyists and collectors have been keen to take note of this evolution.
I love newspapers. I love the ability to physically hold the news. I love the ability to read, analyze, dissect and focus on a news story. Unfortunately, news of today requires nimbly maneuvering around unwanted pop-up ads, videos, and quickie two paragraph summations as opposed to in-depth news coverage. As a result, I have recently found the collecting of antique newspapers to be a particularly satisfying pastime.
The collecting of newspapers is not an expensive hobby. A mid-1800's newspaper can cost as little as $10 - quite a bargain for the novice collector. Another factor that makes newspaper collecting a freewheeling fun experience is that there is no correct way to collect. You can tailor your collection to suit your taste. Some people collect headlines, while others collect for the advertisements. Some collect for specific writers (Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle or Ambrose Bierce) while others may simply enjoy reading small town snippets of the 19th century (DUI arrest of a horse & buggy). But as with all other collecting disciplines, there are some basic guidelines to follow if you wish to build a compelling collection of value.
Condition is an important factor. Early American newspapers prior to the 1870's were printed on rag paper - i.e. paper with high cotton fiber content - whereas latter newspapers were printed on inexpensive pulp paper. As a result, nearly all early newspapers look and feel relatively new, while the pulp papers will discolor and deteriorate over time.
To most collectors, content and historical significance are important factors. Coverage of a major U.S. Civil War battle will command a higher price than one of lesser engagements of the same period. And although content is an important aspect, demographics can also have impact on value. A 1941 Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper with early coverage of the Pearl Harbor attack is significantly more collectible than a New York Times newspaper of the same date and content. In the context of historical significance, visual impact can also drive up the value of a newspaper. Since many collectors like to frame and display their collection, a newspaper featuring a compelling headline, or map or picture is highly desirable.
Finally, there is condition. This aspect to newspaper collecting should be treated with thoughtful consideration in relation to content. For instance, collectors will overlook the condition of a tattered 1850's San Francisco newspaper with California Gold Rush content due to the paper's rarity, whereas a serious collector will generally ignore a pristine 1790's New England newspaper with no particular newsworthy story.
I am often asked about fakes and forgeries. With regard to newspaper collecting, fakes and forgeries have not been a serious problem in the marketplace. Even an amateur collector with basic familiarity of appropriate typeset and paper content can readily spot a fake. And with few exceptions, fake newspapers intended to deceive a collector are generally too cost prohibitive for forgers to reproduce. Those exceptions include the first reporting of General Washington's death (Ulster County Gazette, Jan 4, 1800) and the New York Times' report of Lincoln's assassination (Apr. 15, 1865). If you have either of those newspapers, chances are you have authentic FAKES.
In today's collecting market, Colonial and Revolutionary War newspapers are highly desirable (values are higher for American newspapers as opposed to British newspapers' perspective), the Civil War, the American West (including the plains Indian Wars), the California Gold Rush and the Mexican-American War. Sought-after newspapers of more focused content include the Titanic sinking, the Lizzie Borden murder, Battle of Little Big Horn, Jesse James, Battle of Gettysburg, and the Alamo (and Texas independence).
In this era of shrinking news and claims of "fake" journalism, it's both fascinating and profitable to look back on an institution that has shaped the consciousness, the history and the make-up of America's character.
It's no surprise that everybody collects. King George V collected stamps, a hobby taken up by his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II. Cartoonist Robert Ripley collected exotic objects and turned his hobby into an amusement empire, (Believe It or Not). Demi Moore is said to have an entire home stocked with her doll collection. Thomas Jefferson collected coins, as did John Quincy Adams. Dan Aykroyd collects police badges. Johnny Depp collects insects and rare books, and of course we're all aware of Jay Leno's expansive car collection.
My family and friends have their own diverse collecting obsessions, ranging from Mexican Folk Art, to salt shakers, to cheesy lounge music LP's. I personally collect vintage wrist watches, and my wife - who delusively claims NOT to be a collector - somehow manages to add to her already substantial holiday nutcracker collection.
Collecting has deep historical roots. In the 16th century, a room of collected rare objects was known as a Kunstkabinett (or Cabinets of Curiosities). Historical or scientific oddities were generally collected, but over the centuries, the art of collecting turned to everyday items.
There are many conflicting theories on why people collect. Psychologists agree that collecting tends to evoke a positive emotion. For some, it is the excitement of the hunt. For others, it is the pride in ownership and the knowledge accrued along the way. Some collectors enjoy the solidarity of like-minded hobbyists and take pleasure in sharing their collection with others. But for most, collecting seems to be an intensely emotional experience that often provides comfort, and invariably bonds people with pleasant memories.
Collecting can also fill an emotional void, or provide psychological security. A client recently expressed to me how she and her husband shared a lifelong ardor for collecting. Although now widowed, she is still a fixture at flea markets and estate sales, and continues to buy items to add. not only to her own collection but to her husband's collection as well. However great her personal loss was, there is a restorative and calming aspect to her collecting.
Readers of my column have come to expect tips on collecting as an investment. This is the practical view of collecting. Unfortunately, collectors are seldom very practical, and the average collector will rarely part with his or her collection. Author and historian Mark Allen Baker reasons that most collectors are emotionally invested in their collections. As a world-class autograph collector himself, Baker estimates that 90% of all autograph collectors will never sell their collection. Although collectors undoubtedly know the monetary value of their possessions, the reality is a collector sees his collection as an extension of his identity.
There is also dark side to collecting. Like a compulsive gambler or alcoholic, a collector may sometimes feel a greater need to feed his collecting addiction. In exceptional instances, an out of control collection can lead to financial hardship, marital break-ups, or alienation of friends and family. A Hello Kitty-obsessed collector from the U.K. is one recent example. 29-year old Natasha Goldsworth has spent the equivalent of nearly $75,000 US dollars to accumulate everything related to the cartoon character, including over 4,000 plush cuddly toys. She's now looking for a larger home to accommodate her collection, and refuses to date any man not supportive of her hobby. If there are any unattached men reading this, she's surprisingly still single!
Finally, let's tackle the "H-word". From my point of view, collectors should never be classified as hoarders. There is a distinct difference, and the general rule is that collectors are methodical. They will neatly maintain and organize their collection, and can easily access a particular item however massive the collection. Conversely, hoarders are pathological in their collecting, and generally amass in a haphazard manner without order or reason.
Fortunately, most extreme collectors are not hoarders. They are keenly aware of their limitations, and will adjust their collecting habit to fit their lifestyle. Bottom line is that collectors - extreme or otherwise - are generally happy. You may not understand why a 50-year old man collects Hot Wheels, but you may have your own Victorian toothpick holder fixation that baffles outsiders.
There should be no shame in collecting. The true joy of collecting is to preserve memories, to touch history, to relieve stress, and to delight in connecting with other cultures, other peoples, and other worlds.
In antique-speak, the term "reproduction" is any item made in the manner or style of the original. These items are not meant to deceive, and are often identifiable as being modern-day replicas. "Fakes" on the other hand, are specifically designed to mislead the buyer, and determining their age or origin is a bit more tricky. Fakes can even fool an expert, and amateur collectors should take extra precautions in their buying habits.
For prospective antique furniture buyers, here's a quick primer to help in your quest:
You don't have to be an expert in Xylology (the study of wood), to identify a fake or reproduction, but a basic knowledge of wood and its history in furniture making is helpful. Oak is probably the most common wood you'll find in your furniture quest. Oak is a popular hardwood component in many older and newer pieces, and the preferential wood used in European furniture prior to the 1700's. At the turn of the 1900's, oak found renewed popularity in American furniture manufacturing.
Also popular into the first quarter of the 18th century, both in Europe and the colonies, was walnut. Cupboards, chairs and chests were frequently made from this wood. By the mid-1700's, mahogany surged ahead as a wood of choice due to its beauty and durability. Mahogany was ideal for making fine furniture pieces such as Chippendale dining sets.
In the 1800's, maple was used more sparingly, but was just as coveted. Birds-eye or tiger grains added considerable style to furniture pieces and makers would often use maple veneers to cover other lesser quality woods.
If plywood or particle board is found anywhere in an "antique" furniture item, it is a clear indication that it's a newer piece.
Older furniture can sometimes be dated by styles of dovetail joints or types of nails used. Dovetails are the interlocking "fingers" that connect two pieces of wood, as evident on the sides of drawers. They were hand cut to help strengthen the joint. Two, three, or four finger dovetails were used up to the late 1800's, and larger dovetails usually signified simpler country-made furniture. In the 1870's, American furniture makers replaced the traditional dovetail with a "pin and cove" style (basically a round dovetail) that can be seen on Eastlake or Victorian furniture. As aesthetically pleasing as it was, this style never found popularity outside the U.S.
After the 1890's, furniture was being mass produced, and factory machinery was able to replicate the hand cut dovetails with five or more fingers. English cabinetmakers were the exception however. They continued to hand cut dovetails well into the late 1930's, but by the 1950's, the entire industry switched to machine manufacturing. Today, nails and staples have replaced the dovetail, and only specialty shops that replicate antique furniture uses the centuries old dovetail process.
Nails are another easy age identifier. Antique furniture nails, particularly before 1790, were hand forged and had a rose shaped head. Subsequent to 1790, the nails were machine cut and the heads were forged by a blacksmith into a square shape. From 1830 to 1890, nails were machine cut and had a rectangular appearance. After the 1890's, nails were manufactured as we know the modern nail of today. Contrary to popular belief, furniture makers of the 19th century did use screws. These were hand forged after the 1830's and can be identified by their irregular appearance.
When determining age, do an overall inspection. Most furniture work was done by hand tools and will show "imperfections". Undulating surfaces of drawer undersides or backboards will indicate a hand planer (prior to 1850's). Circular saw marks will indicate furniture likely made after the 1830's.
Wood will shrink with age and the finish will darken. Joints, panels and inserts in antiques will be irregular or loose fitting and can indicate a genuine older piece. Wood shrinks against the grain, and consequently, an antique round table will measure slightly oval (longer at direction of the grain).
The original finish of an antique will have a naturally darker patina, as opposed to an artificially distressed finish. Shellac was a commonly used finish prior to the mid 1800's. Lacquer and varnish were developed after the 1860's. If your piece has either of those two later finishes, it is a clear indicator that it is a newer piece.
When identifying antique furniture, a magnifying glass or loop is a useful tool, as well as common sense. You should look for imperfections and non-uniform hardware or construction. With antique furniture, if it's too perfect, it may not be the real thing.
I've been posting the high-end items that are rare estate sale finds. In this post, I'd like to focus on every-day items that anyone can find at flea markets, yard sales, or even in their own closet. Many "mundane" items are often marked for Goodwill donation or tossed in the rubbish bin (a big no-no). But it's very smart and financially responsible to do a bit of research to determine what kinds of treasures you have.
Another goodie we pulled from a pile of to-be-donated clothes was a vintage 1960's H Bar C embroidered western shirt. It was in excellent condition and subsequently sold online for $275. Apparently, any vintage western clothing with a label from H Bar C or Nudies brings big bucks, not only in America, but all over the world. The new proud owner of the shirt lives in Paris (not Texas), France. C'est bon y'all....
If you have a hard time finding good yard sales, you probably need a good map. However, in the case of the maps pictured here, they were found in a dusty box of miscellaneous papers. I bought the maps for whopping $3. These twelve maps from the Automobile Club of Southern California, were road routes from various parts of California circa 1915-1920. Vintage maps usually bring good money, but only if they are of desired locations such as major urban American cities. These maps sold online for approximately $150.
Finally, how about paint by number artwork. You may not realize that this kind of kitschy artwork brings some good money, especially those of animals or unique places. In my own yard sale trek, I found three vintage Disneyland scene paintings from the early 1960's which were marked for 25-cents each. Had these cardboard canvases been unpainted, in their original box, they would sell for between $50 and $75. In their current condition, they may be work $7 to $10 each. Not big money, (and certainly not in the Monet league), but well above the change I plucked down for this artwork.
In the coming weeks, I will be posting more cheap yard sale finds, and suggestions of what buyers should look for, and in the case of sellers, what not to throw away. Keep checking back with our blog
We have another estate sale coming up in October. This sale is chock-full of great antique and vintage items. In the coming weeks, I'd like to profile some of those items and give a little back-story.
This blog will focus on a bronze statue by Agathon Léonard (1841-1923). Léonard was a French Art Nouveau sculpter. Having studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris, he became a member of Societe des Artistes Francais in 1887 and a member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In 1900, he was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. He is known for his studies of dancers, with his most renowned sculpture inspired by Lois Fuller (pioneer of modern dance), which was displayed as a centerpiece at the 1900 World's Fair at the Pavillon de Sevres in Paris. Leonard has produced works in marble, quartz and ivory.
Recent auction results for bronze dancer statues vary, and often command prices in excess of $4000, to a high of $22000 for "Danseuse au Tambourin ", signed, Sussex Frères Paris foundry
The bronze to the right will be offered for sale at the October Claremont sale.
We have a mantra that we continually recite to our clients...."NEVER throw anything away."
Whether or not you believe you have items that deserve a place in a landfill, you could very well be tossing out hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.
An example of a 35mm Las Vegas travel slide
A perfect example of this occurred several months back. We met with a client representing the estate of her father. Aside from his profession as a military contractor, he was also a traveler and a very accomplished hobbyist photographer from the 1940's - 60's. The client did not believe his photographs were worth anything to anybody and tossed out thousands of 35mm slides. After evaluating the estate, we determined that many of these lost photos were of early Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip, military sites and general travel pics.
From past sales experience, we determined that some of these photos could have been worth up to $40 each (particularly the early Las Vegas slides). We conservatively estimated that somewhere between $1300 and $3500 in slides were forever lost. Who buys these slides? How about historic archives and stock photo agencies.
We completed a very successful sale, and are now cleaning up (the unfun part of this job). It may take us a few days, but we expect to have the home in "sell-ready" condition by Thursday.
Of the unique items we had on hand, we were able to sell a c. 1910 banjo uke; a couple of original gouache and watercolor illustrations dating from the 1920's (the artist was Charles Charleton, who created early 20th century movie poster art for Universal, and later Castle Films. I will be posting some of the images later this month); and the big sellers: exquisite John Stuart, France & Sons, and Peter Wessel Mid-Century furniture. The owners/clients got good money for these items, and the buyers got great deals. Everyone appears very happy with the outcome of the sales.
When we tackle estate sale jobs, we are ALWAYS attentive to the possibility of treasures contained in the home. We research many of the items, either on the internet or in our library of specialized antiques and collectibles reference books. It may take us a bit longer to get set up, but we nearly always maximize the amount of money collected for the client. That is why I banged my head against the coffee table when I watched tonight's episode of "Antiques Roadshow" from Washington, D.C.
The guest on the show brought in a signed oil on board painting by Jessie Wilcox Smith. He found it at an estate sale where the painting was separated from the frame, and were sold individually for $90 (painting) and $10 (frame). Obviously the person organizing the estate sale thought that he/she could maximize sales by separating the two. However, if this person had just taken some initiative and done some quick research, he/she would have discovered that this artist is highly desirable.
The estate lost BIG TIME and the buyer was the BIG WINNER. The painting was appraised at $75,000 in as-found condition, and if cleaned and restored, it could easily sell for over $100,000 at auction.
For people hiring estate liquidators, PLEASE know the persons who you're hiring and make sure they're competent and know what they're doing.