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Old Curiosity Shops And Antique DealersBy Edwin Valentine Mitchell
( Orginally published 1950 )
"Yes" said the dealer, "our windfalls are of various kinds. Some customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend on my superior knowledge. Some are dishonest," and here he held up the candle, so that the light fell strongly on his visitor, "and in that case," he continued, "I profit by my virtue."
Those are the opening lines of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "Markheim," which, it will be recalled, is about an antique dealer who is murdered in his shop. Although written in 1884, the description of the dealer's place of business in London would fit many antique shops to be seen in New England today. The dark, cavelike interior, crowded with a miscellaneous collection of clocks, mirrors, pictures, china, glassware, incongruous furniture, and curiosities of all kinds, is characteristic of a certain type of shop familiar to everybody.
Back-street places of this kind have always had a fascination for collectors, who never tire of exploring them in the hope of making a find.
The window of an antique shop adds interest to any street. Its profusion of things mirroring a world that is dead and gone is an invitation to adventure. There is hardly one that does not embody at least half a dozen chapters of history worth more than a passing glance. The mere sight of such a window is enough to arouse the hunting instinct in most of us.
Many antique shops were originally nothing but secondhand stores dealing in used furniture and other household goods and were gradually changed over as the dealer saw the possibilities in antiques. One dealer informed me that he learned his first lesson while working in his father's secondhand furniture store. One day a dealer in antiques offered him twenty-five dollars for a drop-leaf table he had bought for a dollar and a half. He refused the offer and began to look into the antique trade.
A second dealer offered him forty dollars, but he turned this down, too, finally selling the table to a third dealer for fifty dollars. Shortly afterward he picked up for two dollars a pewter Communion service consisting of a tankard and two plates and two beakers which he sold for twelve dollars. His eyes were opened, and when soon after this his father died he transformed the secondhand store into an antique shop.
Cabinetmakers also drifted into the business. Called on to restore and refinish antique pieces, they began to pick up old furniture on their own account, which, after reconditioning, they sold, and before they knew it they had become full-fledged antique dealers. Others gained an insight into the trade by working as cabinet makers for dealers who were not craftsmen themselves. Their knowledge of woods and workmanship stood them in good stead. They could tell instantly whether or not a piece had been touched.
"Sycamore, birch, and butternut are hard to tell apart," said one of them. "Fifty per cent of what is labeled CHERRY in museums is sycamore."
Many of the New England dealers are just naturalborn Yankee traders who enjoy dealing in the miscellaneous things of the antique trade. It has been observed that some of these dealers in curiosities are themselves curiosities, but whether this is a cause or an effect of the dealing it is difficult to say. Certainly some of the collectors they do business with are eccentric. In any case, most of the Yankee dealers are gifted with the ability to buy as well as the ability to sell.
Some people who begin by pursuing antiques as a hobby become so interested that they drop everything else and are not happy until they establish themselves as dealers in shops of their own. Many women who are omnivorous collectors acquire so many antiques they don't know what to do with them and end by opening shops. At first it is just a hobby with them, but before long they become serious dealers. Dealing in antiques can run in the blood of a family. A number of New England antique businesses are now carried on by the third generation.
At first the inexperienced dealer, like the inexperienced collector, is liable to make mistakes. But he soon learns his business and is generally willing to admit that much of his knowledge was acquired by talking with customers. From different ones he picks up information about various lines of collecting which is extremely valuable. And once he learns his job he is glad to help the beginning collector with information and advice.
Every antique has a story to tell and the experienced dealer can read an old piece like a book. People are invariably curious as to where antiques come from. "Where on earth did you get that?" they ask, pointing at something which has attracted their interest. One Connecticut dealer had the same answer for everything, whether it was a bedstead, a bootjack, or one of those covered metal spittoons in the form of a tortoise which, if you step on its head, graciously opens up by raising its back shell. "Oh, I got that from a little old lady in Moodus," the dealer always answered.
Where do dealers find the antiques to keep their shops stocked? A large percentage of the business of any dealer is done with other dealers. Every shop has customers interested in certain categories of antiques and to meet their requirements the dealer picks up articles from other shops. City dealers constantly visit country dealers. The small-town dealer frequently knows of antiques which he could buy if he had the money, and the more affluent city dealer will pay him a commission for putting him in touch with the owners. The late Wallace Nutting frequently took advantage of tips given to him by local dealers and often succeeded in persuading persons to part with heirlooms which others had tried in vain to pry loose.
Dealers also obtain things through the medium of small newspaper advertisements, by attending auctions, and by employing "pickers." A picker goes from house to house with a small truck or station wagon buying whatever he can. He usually operates in and around historic towns, sometimes working the same area for several seasons. Knocking at the door of a dwelling he asks the housewife if she has a spinning wheel she would like to sell, apparently on the theory that if there is one in the house it is probably broken and in the attic, which is the place where the dealer is most anxious to look around. The approach of one expert I know, when he is out picking, is to say, "Good morning, madam. I am not selling anything. I am buying. Have you anything in the attic you don't want?"
This dealer saw a clock in the kitchen of a house at which he called and offered to buy it, but the woman said the clock was her husband's and she could not sell it. The dealer returned later when the husband was at home and again offered to purchase the clock.
"Not for sale," said the man curtly.
There were five small children in the kitchen at the time, eating their supper, and in the hand of each the dealer placed a five-dollar bill. He waited a moment for the effect of this to sink in, and then, "What do you say?" he asked the father.
The man glanced up at the clock, then around at the children holding the money. "I guess you win," he said.
When the dealer returned to his shop a customer was waiting to see what he had picked up and was immediately interested in the clock.
"I knew it was a good clock," said the dealer, "but I didn't know how good. I put an arbitrary figure of five hundred dollars on it. The customer was as ignorant as I was about its value. He protested strongly at the price, but he was game and finally bought it. It was a gamble for both of us. Later we learned that the clock was a rare one worth fifteen hundred dollars."
The picking nowadays is not so good as it was. A dealer who used to keep three trucks busy combing the countryside says that a week's search now would not yield antiques enough to load a station wagon. Supplies were cut into so heavily during the boom days of the twenties that there is not much left of stocks that were limited in the first place. It is sometimes forgotten that a century or more ago there were far fewer people in New England than there are today. Lots of furniture which the dealer would now be glad to have was during the golden years taken out to the dump and discarded because it was not worth bothering with. Marble-top tables, sofas, side chairs, parlor suites, all the credentials of the well-appointed home of the last decades of the last century were abandoned, as people would not give them a second glance. One now sees more of this late Victorian furniture and other not-so-old antiques because of the relative scarcity of the better kind of really old items.
Many collectors profess affection for things of this late period which they know to be hideous or absurd, but the sentimental associations of some things are so strong that they discover in them beauties all their own, and from regarding them at first as simply amusing, they presently begin to fancy they are beautiful. This confusion of thought is perhaps a pardonable weakness and certainly from the dealer's standpoint fortunate.
But it must not be concluded from what has been said that there are no desirable antiques to be had. There are still many fine things of their kind in all lines in the shops. Even the most fastidious collector, who is never satisfied with the second-best, is tempted by what he sees, and for the modest collector there is an endless variety from which to choose. Difficult as the task is for the dealer, he nevertheless manages to keep up his stock. People die whose heirs care nothing for the antiques which are left. Others move from large houses to smaller ones or into apartments and have to get rid of many of their things. In these and other ways supplies keep coming into the market.
Fashions in collecting alter from decade to decade, reflecting the social changes of the times. To see what is happening one has only to notice what the antique shops have and have not for sale. Large houses and the massive pieces of furniture that were made for them have no place today. Smaller homes require furnishings on a diminished scale. A man who recently moved from the big old house in which he had lived all his life into a smaller, more modern place found there was not room enough in his new dining room for the large ancestral sideboard he had brought with him, nor were the ceilings of sufficient height to accommodate his ancient tall clock. The size of the house made it impossible for him to hang the large oil paintings which had adorned his former abode. The vogue today is of necessity for small pieces of furniture, small pictures, and small accessories of all kinds. Of course, the dealer gets more for those objects on which the spotlight of popular favor happens to be momentarily focused than he does for the things which have not caught the passing fancy of the crowd. In every shop there are neglected treasures of beauty and value to which the wise collector, ignoring the current vogue, turns his attention, because a good thing always remains so, regardless of whether it is sought after or not. The collector who follows his own instincts and personal inclinations probably fares better in the long run than the person who merely follows the popular trend.
Even dealers have their own preferences and are often collectors themselves. Several times I have inquired the price of things in antique shops, only to be told they were not for sale, as the dealer has a special fancy for such things himself and will pay me a good price for anything of the kind. But usually the dealer who is also a collector has duplicates he is willing to sell. Often he succeeds in imparting his enthusiasm for certain objects to his customers and starts them collecting along the same line. Dealers have been responsible for more than one antique fad.
There are regions within regions even in New England and every dealer worth his salt caters to local pride and prejudice by specializing in things which have local associations. What Maine person, for example, particularly one living in Augusta, would not be glad to have above almost any other clock one by Frederic Wingate, the Augusta clockmaker mentioned in the preceding chapter. The work of a local silversmith, or pewterer, or other craftsman is generally highly regarded in the area where he worked. Old prints and paintings depicting local views and books dealing with the town in which the dealer has his shop are usually in steady demand, and, owing to the local interest in them, bring good prices.
Not all antiques which turn up in New England are of native origin. Dealers have ranged far afield in their search for things, and in years gone by many New Englanders who went abroad brought home small objects as souvenirs of their European sojourns. Some even made extensive purchases of antique furniture. Foreign dealers reaped a rich harvest. During the nineteen-twenties a business called "bird nesting" flourished in France. Americans were taken on treasure hunts through the French countryside by dealers who had planted items in old cottages, caretakers' lodges, and disused chateaux. There is no doubt that antiques show to the best advantage in appropriate surroundings, and the unwary tourist who bought a nondescript chair or table in a humble farmhouse kitchen, or a questionable clock in the hall of a grand house, paid handsomely for the privilege of buying it in the right atmosphere. There were women as well as men bird nesters, some of them expatriate Americans who preyed on their fellow countrymen.
Genuine antiques bought abroad may be brought into this country duty free if they are a hundred years old; but many an American collector has found that, even when he can show the dealer's invoice stating that the articles are at least a century old, the United States Customs officials have taken a different view and made him pay duty because the things were actually not so old as they were represented to be.