Nevada: Antiques’ entertainment value highly regarded

Peter Sidlow had bought and sold antiques in California for 35 years, but when it came to running a high-profile auction company, he liked the odds of rolling the dice in Las Vegas. Six years ago he and longtime friend Pat McGuire acquired Victorian Casino Antique Auction, a company founded by the late Roy Arrington, who had been a prominent figure in the vintage coin-op field.

“Everybody likes to come to Las Vegas, so it’s an added treat for people to come out here for a sale. It gives them something else to do. They can then go gamble or whatever they want to do,” said Sidlow, who has seen crowds dwindle at other auctions around the country. “Because of eBay and the Internet, in-house crowds are pitiful. We get 500 or 600 people to our sales mainly because we’re in Las Vegas.”

Prior to acquiring Victorian Casino Antique Auction, Sidlow conducted auctions in California and found that potential customers were easily distracted. “People always had an excuse why they couldn’t come. Here the audience is more or less captive. We cater to the in-house audience more than to the Internet,” said Sidlow.

In addition to two regularly scheduled auctions last year, Victorian Casino Antique Auction conducted a special sale last summer to disperse the collection of the famous Liberty Belle Saloon in Reno, which exceeded $1 million, said Sidlow. The property was owned by the grandson of Charles Fey (1862-1944), a pioneer slot-machine inventor and manufacturer. “Prices were phenomenal because they had a wonderful collection and people wanted a piece of that history,” said Sidlow, whose son Daniel is operations manager at Victorian Casino Antique Auction. The firm’s next auction, which Sidlow expects will top the $1 million mark, will be March 3-4 at the Alexis Park Resort hotel in Las Vegas.

Antiques are more than a diversion in Las Vegas, which is famous for its grand casinos. “We do get serious buyers,” said Cheleen Morgan, owner of the Antique Mall, located 2 miles east of the Strip at 1495 Flamingo Road. “We just sold a Victorian wall unit with oak and stained glass. It was absolutely stunning.”

The Antique Mall will celebrate its fifth anniversary in August. Housed in a former La-Z-Boy furniture store, the mall has about 80 dealers who stock everything from ephemera to a 1924 racing scull from the Palo Alto Rowing Club. Morgan, who was born at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base, takes pride in being a business owner who is actively involved in local children’s charities. She has been an antique dealer for 16 years and a certified personal property appraiser for 10 years.

“We get serious antiquers and we get the hobbyists that are looking for the fun collectibles or Vegas memorabilia,” said Morgan, noting sales last year were down slightly. “Of course, gas got as high as $3.50 a gallon here. Most of our business is tourist driven. When tourism is down, we’re down. It wasn’t bad, just a little soft.”  The Antique Mall, open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., also features a tearoom and a bookstore.

With its ties to the entertainment industry, Las Vegas was an ideal place for Victor Moreno to base his American Memorabilia Inc. A native of Pittsburgh, Moreno got his start as a clothier to professional athletes. He often traded new clothing to athletes for sports memorabilia. He moved to California to launch his career as a singer-songwriter, but ended up in Las Vegas buying and selling sports and celebrity memorabilia. His partner and vice president of the company, founded in 1994, is Kieta, a single-named model and actress.

Frank Chmielewski, who designs American Memorabilia Inc.’s auction catalogs, first connected with Moreno via the Internet. “I sold him a (New York) Mets jersey on eBay back in 1999,” said Chmielewski, a native New Yorker, who moved to California to teach college courses in graphic design and become a professional musician. He moved to Las Vegas to work full-time for American Memorabilia in 2004. Chmielewski is also an authority on Beatles memorabilia.

American Memorabilia Inc. conducts about eight cataloged phone and online auctions per year, each consisting of up to 1,000 lots, as well as ongoing online auctions at its Web site, “Basically there’s one going on 24/7,” said Chmielewski.

“We are one of the few auction houses that accepts credit cards. We’ll do consignments of one item to huge collections. We sometimes purchase items. We offer cash advances on some collections if it’s high-end merchandise. We’ll come to see you,” said Chmielewski.

American Memorabilia Inc. has auctioned off the baseball bat Babe Ruth used to hit his 702nd home run. Signed by the 1934 New York Yankees, the bat sold for more than $99,000. A current online auction lot listed with American Memorabilia was a Babe Ruth autographed baseball with a minimum bid of $22,976. Although American Memorabilia Inc. recently moved to a larger location, at 2539 E. Washburn Road in Las Vegas, there are no plans to add live gallery auctions.

Behind gaming and tourism, mining is the next leading industry in Nevada. Mining lured Californian Fred N. Holabird to Reno in the mid-1970s. “I was one of the weird guys who came out of high school wanting to be a mining geologist,” said Holabird. To hedge his bets in the unpredictable mining business, Holabird had a backup plan.

“We decided to start an Americana company just in case mining went bad, because it goes in cycles,” said Holabird, who had a keen interest in the historical aspect of the industry and the West. As his career as a gold mining manager took off, his enterprise known as Holabird Americana grew slowly. His big break came in 1987 with the first auction of gold coins from the Atocha shipwreck discovered by treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Although the Black Monday stock market crash of Oct. 19, 1987, reduced the bottom line of that sale, Holabird has since conducted numerous high-profile auctions and realized many world record prices.

Last summer Holabird Americana joined with California-based Kagin’s Inc., a combination that spans the numismatic and Western ephemera collecting fields. Holabird is president of the new venture, which is a division of Kagin’s Inc. The first Holabird-Kagin Internet Auction, consisting of 569 lots, closed in December. Since then they have come out with a fixed-price catalog of rare and unique assay and presentation metal ingots and bars.

A hallmark of every Holabird Americana catalog is the scholarly research that goes into it. “The trick is you have two professional mining guys here that work on descriptions and write about the mining industry,” said Holabird, referring to his associate, Vernon Prestia. “Our viewpoint as professional mining people is completely different than writing about it from the viewpoint of a historian. We’ve lived it, breathed it, we use different references and we think about it differently. It all gets down to two things: the science of geology and the business of finance in the mining and gold industry,” he said.

Customers may be present at Holabird-Kagin Americana Auctions, bid by phone or on the Internet. Holabird conducts auctions at several hotel casinos in Reno. “It depends on what venue is available and how many people we expect. We’ve had as many as 175 people. In today’s climate of Internet bidding I don’t know that we’ll have that many again,” he said.
Reno has many antique stores along with its casinos. Arlene Schier, owner of All ’R Yesterdays, sees many customers whose spouses are holed up at local gaming halls. “We hear people say they were in the casinos but it was time to get out of there,” she said.  Occupying an old five-and-dime store, All ’R Yesterdays is located at 1215 S. Virginia St., a good hike from the downtown casinos. City bus service and taxis are available.

Schier describes All ’R Yesterdays as a co-op. “There are 27 different businesses in here,” she said. Dealers stock a variety of antiques and collectibles including vintage clothing, chandeliers, pottery and glassware. A veteran of 20 years in the antique trade, Schier said business last year was not bad and hopes for improvement. She describes Reno as a friendly community. “We try to make everything enjoyable to visitors,” said Schier, who keeps a fresh pot of coffee on for customers.

100 North Sierra Antiques & Art has been at that address in downtown Reno for three and a half years. “It was a well-built store, for J.C. Penney. When they moved out to the shopping mall, very little had to be done,” said manager Lena Black. “We have three floors. People still recognize it as a department store and anybody local remembers it as the Penney store and remember when they were kids getting their scout uniform here.” Fifty dealers stock the antique mall, which has about 40,000 square feet of display space.

“One of our claims to fame is that we’ve built a reputation for fair pricing,” said Black, who said the store has an established base of local customers and a steady stream of tourists. “That’s a great mix because collectors will go anywhere for antiques. You don’t have to have a good location, but when you have easy access for the tourists it’s a bonus. We don’t try to be the ritziest place in town, but we try to be the most fun for treasure hunting,” she said.

Customers and passers-by are attracted to 100 North Sierra Antiques & Art by its traditional department store window, which is put to good use. “My granddaughter, who has a decorating business, started doing really dramatic windows. We couldn’t believe the response we got. Window decorating is a thing of the past or they’re very minimalistic everywhere. We get calls, several every week, about our window. It’s amazing how people love seeing it,” said Black, noting the window for February has an Academy Awards theme.

100 North Sierra Antiques & Art is open daily and on Fridays until 8 p.m. “When all the other stores close, you can still get a couple more hours of antiquing in at our store Friday night,” said Black.

Hanifin’s Arts & Antiques in Carson City bills itself as the largest and most elegant antique shop in northern Nevada. Fine European and American furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries is a specialty, and is supplemented by jewelry, sterling silver, art glass, bronzes and paintings. “The majority of items are a minimum of 100 years old. We try to stick with what’s really an antique,” said manager Vera Treat.

Hanifin’s occupies a 130-year-old stone and brick building at 210 N. Carson St. (Nevada Highway 395). “We’re right in the middle of downtown, catty-corner from the Capitol building,” said Treat, who describes Carson City as having old-town character. “The ambiance is there and the setting is perfect. There are other antique shops in the vicinity, which is good for people who love antiques because they like to wander from shop to shop,” she said.

Owner Michael Robbins said the business has its ups and downs. “It’s not as dependable as a gas station or a hamburger stand, but we’re doing more volume each year,” he said.


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