Take enjoyment in your unexpected antique discoveries


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One never knows what one will discover when seeking items for a collection. This vintage Universal travel iron in like new condition was a real find. I purchased it for about $3 and use it on those rare occasions when I iron. Photos courtesy Mark Roeder

While I’m searching antique shops, shows, auctions, and the Internet for pieces to add to my collections, I’m forever coming across unsought, but wonderful antiques and collectibles. More often than not, it is such finds that make a trip worthwhile. It is such chance finds that lead to a serendipitous collection.

A lot of antiques experts warn collectors to avoid serendipitous finds and stay focused on their collection. It is a good idea to keep things narrowed down and not buy everything in sight, but those who ignore such finds are cheating themselves out of one of the most enjoyable aspects of collecting. I have no space whatsoever to spare, so I’m very selective about what I purchase. I still take advantage of serendipitous finds, however. As a result, I have some very choice pieces that bring me great enjoyment.

One wonderful aspect of a serendipitous collection is that it often does not cost a lot of money. What usually catches my eye is a special piece at a very good price. A couple of years ago I attended an auction that included a circa 1860 corner cabinet. At the same sale was a large spinning wheel and two circa 1870 cane bottom side chairs. I was able to purchase the corner cabinet for $1,250.

The real buys of the day, however, were the spinning wheel for just $70 and the pair of chairs for $17.50. At another auction I purchased a circa 1900 oak kitchen table with lion’s paw feet for only $95. I had no thoughts of purchasing such a table, but now I use it as my computer desk. At still another auction I ran across some 1910 Santa Claus post cards. I picked up half a dozen or so for $5 each. I’ve used them as Christmas decorations ever since.

One of my favorite serendipitous finds is a small chest of unknown purpose. The chest measures about 20 inches long, 12 inches tall, and 14 inches wide. A feature of the chest that I found especially attractive was the three small drawers along the bottom. I love pieces with little drawers! These were especially interesting because they locked by an unusual mechanism. A small iron rod runs down through the front of the chest into the drawer below, firmly locking it into place until the bar is removed. The chest was originally locked with a hasp. When the chest is padlocked, the small drawers are impossible to open.

The outside of the chest is decorated with metal-work — small pieces of cut metal carefully nailed to the chest. The most noticeable decorative element was the two peacocks on the front of the chest, but the entire piece is beautifully detailed. Most of the metal appears brass in color. The peacocks have a copper hue.

The chest is definitely a serendipitous find. In all my years of antiquing I’ve never come across anything quite like it. I purchased it for $155. I have no idea what it’s worth, but I wouldn’t take 10 times what I paid for it.

Serendipitous finds aren’t always so special, but they are fairly common. When you stop and think about it, this makes sense. For example, a collector who specializes in vintage Christmas ornaments is much more likely to run across something interesting outside of their area than within it. Christmas ornaments are a very specific area. Serendipitous finds cover just about anything.

Once one begins to take note of serendipitous finds, they become a goal in themselves. One could argue that they are no longer serendipitous at this point, since the term means unexpected or accidental. If one is searching for the unexpected, it really isn’t unexpected. I’ll leave that argument to English experts, because such finds are an enjoyable experience no matter what they are called.

I often attend auctions that have nothing of particular interest listed, just in case something unexpected pops up. This is a wise course to follow, especially when one considers that not every item at an auction can be listed. Another important point needs to be considered as well. No matter how experienced, every auctioneer runs across items he or she cannot identify. It is often these pieces that are of the greatest interest of all. Most of my favorite pieces were found when I was looking for something else. Such chance finds are all the more fun because there are unexpected.

I should give a word of warning at this point. Serendipitous finds can expand into full blown collections. I innocently purchased an ancient coin while in Bath, England. The cost wasn’t great and I thought it would make a better souvenir than a post card. Later, I spent over $200 purchasing a silver denarius of the Roman Emperor Geta and a silver tetradrachm of Alexander The Great — and even more purchasing other ancient coins. Had I not made that serendipitous find years ago, I would have saved hundreds of dollars over the years.

Another serendipitous find of long ago was a $3 postcard of Culver, Ind. At the time I purchased it, I spent my summers there working at the Culver Woodcraft Camp. Little did I know how much that $3 post card would cost me. I now have over 200 Culver post cards, almost all of which cost me more than $3. My Culver collection expanded over the years into books, catalogs, uniforms from the Culver Military Academy, china, photos, and just about anything else one would care to mention. The cost of that $3 post card has certainly run into the hundreds, probably the thousands. Consider yourself warned: You never know where an innocent purchase may lead.

I can’t begin to describe the happiness that can be derived for a serendipitous find. When I was about 15, I attended an auction with my parents (my interest in collecting is all their fault). I purchased a primitive Shaker-style country table for only $40. The table still had its original red paint and dated to about 1830-1840.

It was quite a buy then and has appreciated in value considerably over the years. I’ve used the table continuously since I was a boy.

At this moment it supports my wide screen TV. I’ve enjoyed that table for years and can still remember the day I purchased it. I can remember the fun I had with my parents and even the selling prices of a lot of the antiques that sold that day. Besides being useful, the old red table is a treasure of memories. I doubt I’d sell it for any price.

It’s fun to build a collection of McCoy pottery, hats, fine china, or anything else, but you should not ignore the unexpected finds that pop up along the way. They can lead to still further collections and great fun. It’s wise to stay focused on a collection, but it’s also wise to keep an eye out for serendipitous finds. They are one of the true joys of collecting. ?

Mark A. Roeder is the author of two nationally syndicated columns on antiques, Successful Antiques Collecting and Spotlight on Antiques & Collectibles. His expertise comes not only from researching antiques, but from collecting, buying, and selling them for more than three decades.




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More Images:

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This pie-holder isn't rare or valuable, but at $5 I couldn't pass it up. It's great for displaying many collectibles as well as pies.
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This circa 1900 oak kitchen cabinet is one of my favorite serendipitous finds. I wasn't looking for furniture when I attended a local auction, but I couldn't pass this beauty up for $275. The little drawers with porcelain knobs made this a must-have piece.
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This eighteenth century chest of undetermined purpose is one of my favorite serendipitous finds. It's finding a treasure like this that makes browsing for antiques fun.

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