Part One: Why Do We Do It?
For most antique dealers the interest almost always begins at some stage of childhood and has nothing to do with money. Ask just about anyone in the trade and they’ll tell you that they began collecting before they could drive a car. Almost always it began with an aged relative or parent who had some intriguing object from the past that they either displayed reverently in a place of prominence or kept locked away in some secret locale and only brought out occasionally to be shared for all-too brief moments.
There is something truly magical about an old object. Whether it’s a contemporary edition of David Copperfield or even something as pedestrian as a buttonhook, objects are like time machines. When we hold them in our hands we are transported to another time. The look, the feel, the smell of a thing can transport us to another place. It is nearly impossible to hold an antique in your hand and not begin to picture what it was like when it was new. Your imagination is transported back in time to the moment it was first in use. You picture the room that it was in. You begin to imagine how it was used. Your brain begins to conjure up images of people and fashions and language and customs long gone by. This is the magic of antiques.
Antique dealers are purveyors of history. The things we buy, sell and collect for ourselves all had a place in the daily life of someone in a long ago time that will never be again. For many of us we feel as though we’re on a crusade of discovery and preservation. Years ago when I first began wading into the waters of antique collecting I was introduced by a friend to a dealer in rural Pennsylvania who was one of the most extraordinary characters I have ever encountered. He operated out of an enormous 19th-century barn along a dirt road that was, to say the least, off the beaten path. In a former life he’d been a farmer and was always dressed the part in worn overalls, a checked shirt and a faded wide-brimmed hat. But the man knew his trade well and was by no means a country rube peddling second-hand wares for kicks.
He had built a lively trade over the years by buying items that were mostly brought to him from local people. His barn was a treasure trove of antiques that had belonged to the once affluent farming families around the region. He advertised to the public and more or less kept regular operating hours, but the thing that was so odd about the man was that you never knew if he would actually sell you something you wanted. The first time I encountered this behavior I was taken completely off guard. In my naïve world a person went into a shop, looked at the price tag on a thing and, if they found the sum acceptable, they bought it. Simple. No muss, no fuss. Such was not the case with our farmer-cum-dealer friend in the wilds of Pennsylvania.
The first time I visited his shop I became almost immediately aware that I was being watched, and not just casually observed but scrutinized suspiciously. It made me feel uncomfortable. Each time I would pick an item up the man’s eyes would narrow a little and he’d cock his head a bit. “How much is this?” I would ask cheerfully. “That’s not for sale.” He said it in such a strange way that it was perplexing. He wasn’t rude or even surly. He almost seemed contrite about it. Undeterred however, I picked my way through the vast inventory of the soaring barn and whenever I came to something I was interested in the same strange dialogue would be played out. Needless to say I eventually left with nothing but a bruised ego and a sense of bewilderment.
It wasn’t until many years later that I truly came to realize why he operated the way that he did. It may have struck many people that he could be standoffish or even was discriminating against them in some way. Perhaps in some ways he was but in his mind he had good reason. At the time I couldn’t understand that it wasn’t about the money. He didn’t need the money. He’d made his living, owned his property, paid his taxes dutifully every year and had no reason to be an antique dealer except that he enjoyed it. But, as I asked my friend after that first visit, how can you call yourself a dealer if you don’t sell anything to anyone?
What had happened that day at the barn had happened to many people, no doubt, over the years. The man was suspicious. Not that he thought you were going to steal something or that he might not like your parentage or religious persuasion. It wasn’t anything as nefarious as that. He was, in his own mind, assessing whether or not a person’s intentions were honorable. He was protecting history. As I later came to find out he frequently sold to first time buyers but only after a bit of conversation. Saying something wasn’t for sale was his strange way of opening up a dialogue. How you reacted gave him a fair idea of your character. Right or wrong he liked to know what kind of collector you were. He was like a protective father assessing the young man who’s come to take his daughter out on a first date. If he felt you truly didn’t appreciate what you were buying he would simply not sell it to you. From what I understand his reputation was infamous. There were staunch protagonists, unaccustomed to taking no for an answer, who would find themselves offering staggering sums of money for an item simply to see if they could get the man to budge. I can only imagine the looks on their faces when he flatly refused them.
Eccentricity is no stranger to the antiques trade but at some level all of us see ourselves as the gatherers and preservationists of history. I, for one, always feel a sense of accomplishment when I’ve discovered something old and disregarded beneath a pile of dusty junk in a thrift shop. It’s as though I’m a first responder who’s discovered that poor soul who’s been buried in the rubble of a collapsed building for days. I can almost hear the object thanking me as if to say, “My God, I thought no one would ever find me!”
Dealing in antiques is one of the most rewarding careers on the planet if you have the stomach for it. It’s not easy by any means. It’s a profession fraught with pitfalls and disappointments, strange Dickensian characters, and villains only interested in making a quick buck. But that’s why we love it. In this business you truly never know where the next road will take you. The spirit of adventure and the thrill of discovery can often take you to places you never thought in your wildest dreams you would venture. Along the way you’ll make friends and extraordinary memories and all the while you’ll be learning. Every day you will be learning. That’s what it’s truly all about.
So you still want to be an antique dealer, eh? I wish you all the best. Your journey will not be a dull one.