California: Forecast improving for antique trade

California’s sunny climate makes every day antiquing season. A good place to start is the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. It is the largest market in the state, attracting about 2,200 vendors and an estimated 20,000 customers the second Sunday every month.

“We’re doing fine because the Rose Bowl in not strictly an antique show; it’s a general flea market,” said Dennis Dodson, chief operating officer of RG Canning Enterprises Inc., which produces the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Founded by several high school friends who had a common interest in car shows, RG Canning is one of the West Coast’s leading producers of markets and similar attractions. The company also produces the monthly San Bernardino Market, the Ventura Flea Market and the twice-yearly Antique Roundup, held outside on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

“We’ve been around since 1957,” said Dodson. “The Rose Bowl was there losing money big time, and had been since the ’20s. So we went to the City of Pasadena and said why don’t we try a flea market? Within a matter of three or four years we had the stadium in the black,” said Dodson. Regular admission is $7 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but there are two stages of early admission beginning at 5 a.m. for an added fee.

Northern California’s largest antiques and collectibles market is the Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire, held on the first Sunday of every month at the former Alameda Point Naval Air Station in Alameda. This outdoor market attracts about 800 vendors and as many as 10,000 customers.
“We get vendors who are in the business full time. Then we get people just cleaning out garages, estates, things that were just left to them, which is what makes our show so avidly shopped. They can look for that little treasure that somebody’s got in their booth, like a painting. They may pay a hundred dollars for it; it could be worth a couple hundred thousand. And it’s happened,” said Betsy Goldman, who owns the show with her husband, Jerry, and associates Allen Michaan and Sandra Michaan.

Because the market is held on a paved runway where there is no shade, Betsy recommends dressing appropriately, including wearing a hat and footwear. “They should layer themselves. It’s always cool in the morning because we’re on the bay. There’s always a breeze in the morning and again in the afternoon. A hot day is 70-75 (degrees),” she said.

Although the market goes on rain or shine, unusually inclement weather hindered three of the first four shows of the 2006 season. “We always get one month out of the year that it rains or is drizzly, but this year we had rain and wind,” said Betsy, adding that the former Alameda Point Naval Air Station is still a beautiful spot for a market.

“The San Francisco skyline is across the bay. On a clear day, which normally it is, it’s gorgeous here,” said Goldman.

The $15 early admission begins at 6 a.m. Regular admission, which costs $5, starts at 9 a.m. A free shuttle bus delivers shoppers to the market from the adjacent parking area, which is half a mile long and usually fills to near capacity by mid-morning.

Specialty shows dot the vast California landscape. Tom Baker promotes his California Country Antique Americana Shows in Los Altos on the second Sunday in June and the third Sunday in October, and in Costa Mesa on the first weekend of every March.

“We’re the only all-American country antique shows on the West Coast … the only ones past Round Top,” said Baker, whose Los Altos show at Hillview Community Center is in its 21st year.

“It benefits the Los Altos History Museum right next door, which is free to show visitors. They have activities, homemade food and country music. They make it more than an antique show … an event,” said Baker, who prefers to restricts his shows to no more than 55 dealers.

The RBF Vintage Collectibles Show held each April at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa showed no ill effects of a split last year, which took the military branch of the show in another direction. “It was fabulous to have the first show sold out and have a wait list,” said Morgan Majors, who partners with her father and show founder, Ralph Bowman.

A dealer for more than 30 years, Bowman handles postcards, movie stills and posters. As the show’s name suggests, customers can expect a broad range of vintage collectibles.

“Maybe in another year, we’ll go to a twice-a-year show, but for now we’re trying to make a name for ourselves because we don’t want to get too big too soon. That’s how shows burn out fast,” said Majors. She said their next show, April 6-7, 2007, will be in a bigger building, allowing some of the 60 dealers to rent more space.

From the major auction houses to the small-town auction barns, California auctioneers report their business is robust. “This year looks like it will be the strongest year in our history. We had a record year last year and so far we’re up 30 to 35 percent over last,” said Redge A. Martin, president of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland. Clars’ long-standing reputation as the largest full-service auction house in northern California, combined with acceptance of Internet bidding, accounts for much of the growth, said Martin.

“We’re selling items all over the world and getting items sent to us from all over to sell. So it’s worked both ways, which is what we were hoping,” said Martin.

An example of Clars’ international scope was the March 5 sale of a painting titled The Bangle Sellers by Jehangir Sabavala, one of India’s premier artists, to a London bidder for $164,400 (includes 10 percent buyer’s premium). The price is a world auction record for the artist.

Clars’ biggest auction of the year, on Sept. 9-10, will include several paintings by Maynard Dixon, fresh from the late California artist’s family. “Last year our September sale was the biggest in our history. Hopefully we can beat it this year,” said Martin.

PBA Galleries in San Francisco, one of the largest auction houses devoted to rare books and works on paper, continues to thrive. “We’ve had considerable growth each year. We’re doing just fine,” said senior auctioneer George Fox, vice president of market development.

PBA Galleries has embraced live Internet auctions and is preparing for the next big step, a live audio stream. “So you can go to your computer and … listen to the auctioneer call the auction as it proceeds,” said Fox. “We’ve experimented with it here the last two or three auctions. In the next month or two we’ll have it ready and available for anyone.”

Widespread use of Internet bidding has reduced the average size of the floor-bidding contingent at PBA Galleries’ twice-monthly auctions to 15 to 20 people, said Fox. “Even local people will come and preview and then go back to their shops and houses and bid by phone so they don’t sit here all afternoon for a couple of items they want,” said Fox.

Another major specialty auction house in San Francisco is Greg Martin Auctions, which handles primarily fine arms, armor, militaria, and historic memorabilia. Principal owner Greg Martin and much of his staff started the Arms department at Butterfields Auctioneers in 1986. Launched in 2002, Greg Martin Auctions quickly became a leader in the field.

“This has been a great year. We sold the first half (750 lots) of the Robert Howard collection from Texas, which was over $5 million,” said Chris Gallo, director of marketing. The April 24 auction included a Dance Brothers .44-caliber pistol in outstanding condition that sold for $53,913, including buyer’s premium.

Gallo, himself a Butterfields alumnus, said he enjoys the adventure of working at the arms specialty auction house. “At Butterfields, I never knew what was coming next. Here we get to focus on one thing and do it really well. It’s fascinating every day,” he said.

Isadore M. Chait, founder of I.M. Chait Auctions & Gallery in Beverly Hills, became interested in Chinese export porcelain while doing a tour of duty as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. After returning from the war and attending graduate school, he began selling Oriental art instead of pursuing a teaching career.
“He started making more money than a teacher could make,” said Mary Ann Chait, his wife and business associate. “I’m primarily wife and mother. Our kids are working here too, so I just kind of clear the path for my husband so he can work,” she said.

China’s burgeoning economy has been a boon to Chait’s business. “We’re selling more to China than to buyers in the United States. There’s a middle class there, and they’re repatriating their things. They’re buying their art back,” said Chait. I.M. Chait conducts about 18 auctions per year, including monthly estate-type sales, two natural history auctions, and several international fine art sales.

John Moran Antique & Fine Art Auctioneers Inc. in Altadena is another family-run auction company. Since holding its first auction of California art in 1986, that market has taken off like a gold rush.

“At our most recent auction, we sold about 87 percent of all lots offered and that sale did about $2 million. Obviously, the demand for high-quality … art has never been stronger,” said Jeff Moran, who is a partner with his father, John Moran.

Along with high-profile auction houses, California has its share of small-town firms that have been around for years, like Hewlett’s Antiques & Auction, “right in beautiful downtown Le Grand. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” said Glen Movey, who does much of their appraising and marketing.

Buster Hewlett is the owner and auctioneer. “(Hewlett’s) father started as a little antique business in their barn in 1955 and grew to be a major wholesaler in the West Coast, hauling out of New England,” said Movey.
Hewlett’s started conducting auctions in Le Grand about 20 years ago. They also hold auctions about once a month at the fairground in Chowchilla, said Movey.

Movey is the new owner of the Serendipity Antiques Show, held three times a year (February, August and November) at the fairground in Fresno. Movey recently purchased the show from longtime show manager Beth Elliott, who retired. Movey credits Elliott and her late husband, Don, for teaching him the antique business 30 years ago. “If you’ve never been to a Serendipity show, you’ll be pleased with the quality dealers, their friendliness, knowledge and willingness to share it,” said Movey.

Antique centers can be found throughout California. Country Antique Fair Mall in Santa Clarita is having a consistently good year, said office manager Candace Doub. “We’ve held our ground though the changes in the economy and spike in gas prices. We have very little vacancy,” said Doub.

An innovation that has been popular at the mall is a themed display that changes every month. “Last month it was cookie jars. This month it’s vintage toys. We’ve had a good response to it,” said Doub.

Holman’s Antique Plaza in downtown Pacific Grove has been open for 10 years and is popular with travelers and local customers. Housed in the former Holman Department Store, built in 1926, this antique shop features period furniture, clocks, jewelry, silver and paintings.

While High Noon Western Americana’s events are held outside California, owners Joseph Sherwood and Linda Kohn can usually be found at their gallery in Culver City. “It isn’t the quintessential retail gallery. It’s kind of a giant storage facility where we prepare for the two auctions we do annually,” said Sherwood, adding that it’s advisable to call ahead before traveling there for a visit. “There’s everything from silver saddles to traditional cowboy to Hollywood cowboy.”

As for Hollywood cowboys, Sherwood said any collector’s item related to Clint Eastwood is riding high. “He breaches the divide between a B Hollywood cowboy and a great actor, and director as well,” said Sherwood.