Why the antiques we pass up haunt us for years to come

Finding a hidden treasure at a yard sale or antiques show is always memorable, attesting to the popularity of Antique Trader’s “Favorite Finds.”  My mind, however, tends to dwell on another aspect. It must be my genetic makeup that finds the glass half empty versus half full, because what I obsess about for years and sometimes decades after the fact is the one that got away.

Picker’s Bible – How to pick antiques like the pros

Not long ago, a mahogany tea caddy with its original key dangling from the escutcheon fell into my visual crosshairs. Maple and walnut inlay accented this little jewel while the tins, which are usually missing, gleamed in the sunlight. I made a beeline for it.

Complete and in mint condition, I knew I wanted the tea caddy before even picking it up. Obviously, it had waited for me all morning because I arrived two hours late, having overslept. Yet there it was, just for me.

“How much?” I inquired.

“Four hundred and fifty dollars,” the dealer replied, taking the caddy out of my eager hands. That was the first mistake of the day. Never remove an item from a customer’s grasp, as it cuts the emotional tie forming between buyer and treasure, killing the love affair that might have been.

Maybe the dealer didn’t think I could afford it, because I tend to dress “down” for shows, believing if people think I’m broke, I’ll get a better deal. Of course, this only works once. Dealers eventually figure out the ploy and realize I’m still in business and perhaps not so broke after all.

The Buck Stops Here by Melanie Thomas

Then my pitch changes to, “I’m one of your regulars; can’t you do better on the price?”

The dealer placed the tea caddy on an upper shelf, where short people like me cannot easily reach without risking a pulled muscle. I left her with the old “I’ll think about it” refrain and walked away, feeling bereft. My tryst with the tea caddy had been foiled.

And I did keep thinking about it. Even while perusing the aisles and making other purchases, my mind continually wandered back to that first table by the door. Three hours later, I’d had enough.

The dealer was nodding while handing my tea caddy over to a woman with wild, teased hair, and a bright-red lipstick grin. I wanted to be polite, but after all, it was my tea caddy.

“I’ll take that,” I said, attempting to wrestle the caddy from the dealer’s hands before it reached lipstick lady’s outreached palms.

“Oh no, she just paid for it,” the dealer sniffed. Again with the attitude, I thought. Did she really think I couldn’t afford it?

Then the unspeakable happened. My tea caddy was whisked into a giant tote bag by the red lipped, wild-haired one, obviously an interior decorator type who does not truly appreciate old things, but buys them because she thinks she should.

My treasure was gone and I had no one to blame but myself. A subsequent teeth-gnashing episode brought on a nasty tension headache, making my two-hour ride home miserable.

Read more Melaine: Why don’t kids want to be antiques dealers when they grow up?

Onto the bookcase incident, a matched pair made of satinwood from England, circa 1880.

I was not on the market for anything this large, let alone two of them, but there they stood in a majestic glory, rare, exquisite, and eye catching. I owned plenty of books to fill those shelves, I thought. The only thing missing was an old English estate with a drawing room in which to put the actual bookcases.

My husband spotted the pair first and dragged me over.

“Where would we put them?” I lamented.

“I don’t know, but aren’t they gorgeous,” he whispered. When this happens, I’m always thankful my husband is speaking about a well-turned piece of wood versus another woman.

The price was right and the dealer was adamant about not breaking up the pair (who could blame him).

Logistical issues shot through my head. How would we ever get them home? These beautiful behemoths stood more than 86 inches tall. Plus, all that old bubble glass just begged to be broken. Our SUV would never accommodate one, let alone a matched pair.
My husband had already addressed this conundrum. Seems the owner was prepared to deliver these bookcases right to our doorstep, as our house was coincidentally on his way home.

“Let’s think about it,” I said.

Apparently I think too much. When we returned, big blue sold tags flew from the gleaming original hardware.

My husband stomped off and I still haven’t lived this one down. The lost bookcases story has gone down in the annals of our marital lore, much like rescuing our first pet, buying our first home and opening our first store.

There is one last item that still gnaws at me after almost 20 years. Did I ever mention I have elephant-like tendencies? They never forget, either.

Flash back 20 years ago, when I was new to the antiques and collectibles business and living in Franklin, Tenn., a small town that bills itself as the antiques capital of the South. Living up to all this hype, several antiques malls did a brisk business. One was within walking distance of our first Civil War shop.

I’d go in and peruse the aisles, trying to glean an education. Back then there was no Internet, just lots of books and the brains of honest antiques dealers to pick.

Then, as now, antique silver always catches my eye. This piece was different, however. A fruit bowl with a modern look, dating maybe from the 1950s or 1960s. For some strange reason, it reminded me of the teak Danish furniture that had been all the rage while I was growing up.

Intrigued, I checked for hallmarks. Yes, it was sterling but had an unfamiliar maker’s mark. Still, something about this bowl stood out. The lines were sleek, the edges beveled, and it felt extremely balanced in my hand. Obviously, a well-made item and only $25.

Don’t get me wrong, $25 is a lot to spend on a mystery piece. I knew it was sterling silver but unlike today, silver was not a hot commodity in 1992.

I put it down, walked away, then turned around and picked it back up. That little voice inside my head said, “Buy it,” so I spent the remainder of the afternoon meandering through the mall’s aisles clutching the bowl to my chest.

Rounding the turn to the last few booths, a decision had to be made. The cashier’s desk was looming. Was I going to buy the bowl or not?

I ambled around some more and noticed a woman about 15 feet away. Didn’t I see her back in aisle three? In fact, haven’t I seen her on and off all afternoon?

It must just be a coincidence.

“Stop thinking like a paranoid, former city-living freak,” I chastised myself.

Returning to aisle one, I searched for the bowl’s original home, but couldn’t remember where I had first picked it up. I was so naïve back in those days, I didn’t realize antique mall items were tagged not only with the price, but the booth number as well. So I spent the better part of 15 minutes diligently trying to locate the correct table.

As I put the bowl in its rightful place, I glanced up. There she was again lurking, definitely. More like hovering, now less than two booths away. I reflexively clutched my purse a tad closer to my body.

Walking away, regret washed over me. Had I made the conscious decision to pass on the bowl? Maybe the lurker had diverted my attention, rendering me incapable of making a purchasing decision.

Yes, that must be the case. She’s the reason I put it down. She distracted me.
I did mention the paranoia, right?

Emotion overruled reason; I had to have that bowl. So I reversed direction, virtually sprinting back to the table. And guess what? That’s right, the bowl was gone.

And guess who was standing at the cashier’s desk, silver bowl in one hand, and a credit card in the other? That’s right, the lurker.

Apparently, she had the expertise to spot an original Georg Jensen and I did not, at least not then. I do now. The mall’s cashier jabbered for what seemed an eternity after the lurker left, saying what a great deal that bowl was at $25, being a vintage Georg Jensen and all.


Sometimes, however, luck does find me. I was having an unsuccessful and frustrating foray at Nashville’s monthly flea market a few months after the “bowl episode,” when I spied a cigar box filled with “costume” jewelry sitting unobtrusively on a table near the exit. I rummaged for a bit and removed a tagged, “silver ring with blue stones.”

I paused. One thing I knew was silver and this ring felt awfully heavy for that. And those blue oval cut stones sparkled and matched perfectly. I looked inside the band for markings.

“How much,” I asked, trying to act cool and not hyperventilate at the same time.

“Thirty dollars,” the toothless old man replied.

“Sold,” I said, whipping out my wallet.

The “silver” was actually platinum and those “blue stones” wound up being Ceylon sapphires.

I still have that ring. It doesn’t fit me but I don’t care, because it almost but not quite takes the sting out of losing that Georg Jensen, eases the boredom as I listen to my husband tell, yet again, the story of the lost satinwood bookcases, and cools the burning gall in my gut when I remember there’s a dealer somewhere who believes I’m too broke to buy her bloody tea caddy.

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