Civil War shop owner asks: What makes people think I want to buy their old gold?

Melanie Thomas civil war weaponsWhen did owning an antique store become synonymous with pawn shop/thrift shop/junk shop owner—your choice, pick one. Dozens of people have called, e-mailed and traipsed through the doors of our store lately in an attempt to hawk something. Some act offended when I explain that no, I don’t sell or buy vintage costume jewelry and no, I cannot tell you what that cigar box full of Monet baubles are worth. Do you see any costume jewelry in here? I don’t either.

What’s the world coming to? Once upon a time there was a Civil War shop that also sold antique jewelry. At some point, it morphed into the public’s consciousness as a store where any and everything is bought and sold. Not so!

Realizing this glut of sellers is a sign of the times — and times are tough right now — I also know I can’t keep buying things I won’t be able to sell. After all, my maiden name is not Hilton, Rockefeller or Buffett.

But there have been days when I wish it were.

An elderly woman wanted me to buy an old gold wedding band that may have been her deceased husband’s. (I was afraid to ask.) I told her to keep it. She’d never get the true value from me or any other dealer and how could I weigh and measure her heart strings? I need to look at myself in the mirror every day, so I couldn’t buy the ring under duress — hers or mine.

For folks trying to sell us inappropriate items, I try to be helpful and suggest alternatives. “Check out the antique mall on the Square,” I say, pointing. “Perhaps someone there will buy your grandmother’s china.” Or, “See that new store across the street? They sell toy soldiers. Maybe they’ll buy those hand-painted lead ones you just inherited from your Uncle Bill,” as I nod up and down like a bobble-head in an effort to look positive.

And, “That WWII cigarette lighter with the German swastika will find a good home if you put it on eBay,” I strongly urge the seller.

After I made that last suggestion, I was asked to list the lighter on the auction site for them! Hold on while I reach under the desk and add auction listing service to my bag of tricks.

Thankfully, some people are buying. The recent York Antique Show in south central Pennsylvania was well attended with healthy wads of greenbacks changing owners. Oil paintings, especially those from the Hudson River School, commanded respectable prices. An unsigned painting of a young girl was tagged at $32,000.

Always on the lookout for new items to sell, my eyes rested on an elaborate Victorian Christmas display with feather trees and antique ornaments. Proving that dealers are a magnanimous sort, this lady spent an inordinate amount of time with me, sharing her in-depth knowledge of how the pressed cotton ornaments were made in Germany and what to watch out for in the Russian and Japanese “knock-offs” from the early 1900s.

Her enthusiasm was contagious as she walked me around the show pointing out other dealers’ ornaments and what they were worth. I purchased a pressed cotton fruit shaped German ornament wrapped with wire tinsel for $20. More elaborate decorations were available and valued up to several hundred dollars, but before investing serious money I plan to research this niche market more thoroughly.

I didn’t see anyone at York selling cigarette lighters, but I did notice a lot of horse trading and dickering amongst the dealers. This can be a bad sign, but when customers are plentiful as they were in York, dealers must spend their profits to replenish their inventories. I took this as a healthy sign.

After a two day hiatus (I occasionally rebel), our e-mail inbox was full of requests and entreaties, half from people trying to sell something; the other half wanting a free appraisal based on vague, wordy descriptions, sans photos. For instance: “How much is the gavel of the judge who presided over the trial of the infamous outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, worth?” The judge’s gavel, really? This caught my attention. What was the provenance, I asked. Was there any paperwork, something to link this particular gavel with that judge?

No. The seller knew it was true though, because his great-grandmother told him so. Well if that’s the case, I’ve got some swamp land in Jersey for sale that’s “associated” with Jimmy Hoffa.

Accustomed as I am to stories like this, lately I feel deluged, pestered and hammered. Maybe if I got ‘hammered’ I’d feel better.

Seriously, is this the new normal?

I truly hope not. While I enjoy having the occasional treasure walk in off the street, like the hand painted Victorian fan that I scooped up for a very fair $75 and resold for $125 within a matter of hours, I hate seeing widows parting with a loved one’s ring trying to raise money. And I especially resent the time I spend weeding through emails and voicemails from strangers who want me to do something for nothing.

But my personal favorite is the guy who has something he wants to “swap.”

Debuting at a new location, the Nashville Military Show was full of attendees, much to the relief of the 300 dealers who set up, including us.

Many of the high end collectibles went home with the guy who “brung ‘em,” such as officer uniforms from the Civil War, but items priced up to $1,000 sold well. Pepperbox pistols for example, were selling for $850 to $950, depending on their condition. A rose cut garnet ring from the Georgian era, set in 9 karat gold, sold for $470.

So, what happens during the first hour of the show? A gentleman wants me to “swap” his ex-wife’s diamond cocktail ring (why does he have it, I wonder) for a beautiful stagecoach shotgun. Hmmm, trade a ho-hum quality diamond ring that may or may not legally belong to him for an exceptional antique shotgun. Let me think on this a moment …  I turned and pointed to the open floor below me. “See that tall gentleman wearing the bright red shirt with tables smack in the middle of the floor?” I asked. “Show the ring to him, he’s a pawnbroker.”

Melanie C. Thomas has nearly 20 years of experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa.

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