Hakes Americana: The history of a successful auction company

Ted Hake clearly remembers the mid-1960s, wholesaling political memorabilia to dealers along New York City’s jewelry and stamp district. He was an enterprising college student who may have looked a bit out of place among the much-older dealers. Yet he held his own, a standout who found aesthetic and historic value in items the general public believed didn’t have much value past the current election cycle. “I’m known for always working on the future, looking at the past.”

Hake’s future these days is preoccupied with putting the finishing touches on his 200th pop culture and Americana auction, the latest in his more than 50-year tenure in the antiques and collectibles trade. It’s a lifework that has earned him the distinction of being referred to as the King of Pop Culture. Those who have done decades’ worth of business with him call him simply “The best there is.”

Hake as amassed millions of dollars in sales, built one of the most important buyer lists in the industry and set several world records. In 2007, he shattered existing auction records for a Walt Disney toy when he sold a pair of rare, giant display-model dolls of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse for $151,534. This came after the seller originally posted them on eBay for a mere $50,000 with no luck.

Collector, dealer and pop culture observer Cliff Aliperti has labeled Hake the King of Collectibles on his VintageMeld blog. Aliperti has been bidding on items offered by Ted Hake since the mid-’90s, well before he became aware of the Internet or his online storefront things-and-other-stuff.com. While in that earlier time Cliff actually spent much more time analyzing Hake’s fascinating offerings than actually bidding, the transition to live bidding in the online auction format coincided with the growth of his own business. What better place to hunt down fascinating, odd collectibles than Hake’s Americana?

“I was impressed in dealing with what I considered a large auction house [and] the quick service I received. Though possibly what impressed me most about the way Ted Hake did business was a package of winnings accompanied by a small check to cover a shipping overcharge. That kind of honesty goes a long way, as it’s something I would have never noticed, and it’s a practice I took up in my own business from that point forward.”

While Aliperti does all of his bidding exclusively online in 2010, just like in 1995, the thrill of unexpectedly receiving one of Hake’s now-famous door-stopper thick auction catalogs in the mail can only be topped by actually winning one or some of the items pictured within.

“I still read them cover to cover and am always fascinated by what I find,” he said. “I’m amazed at the span of Ted Hake’s knowledge, not only in offering such an array of collectibles from the 19th and 20th century, but for giving us all a history lesson in each item description. Fascinating stuff, I spend a lot of time with each catalog.”

Hake’s auction catalogs, of which a 4-issue, 1-year subscription costs $50, have indeed become coveted keepsakes.

“For a decade before Hake’s Americana & Collectibles became one of Gemstone Publishing’s sister companies, I got to see first hand Ted Hake’s attention to detail, his thoroughness, and his dedication to getting it right as we worked on several editions of Hake’s Price Guide To Character Toys, The Official Price Guide to Pop Culture Memorabilia, and The Official Price Guide To Disney Collectibles,” said J.C. Vaughn, associate publisher of Gemstone Publishing. “The same effort and intensity he put into those books (and his others) shows up in every auction catalog from Hake’s. There’s little question to me why we’re about to see his 200th auction, and why we should see many more.”

As Hake hits a milestone with his 200th catalog, it is also a milestone shared by his loyal staff.

“I also hit a personal milestone with Hake’s as this is my 25th year with the company,” said Alex Winter, general manager of Hake’s Americana. “Working with Ted all these years has been a tremendous experience. The passion he has for collectibles is second to none, and his knowledge is truly legendary.

“The collectibles industry would not be what it is today without his contribution and I am grateful that I have been along for the ride (and plan to continue his legacy well into the future).”

For Hake, success came from finding work that he loved. His passion took hold at a tender age. Before he could even drive, his mother would drop him off at the home of William Rickrode, one of her former high school classmates. Rickrode was a dealer of coins, political memorabilia and items that did not fit the idea of a valuable antique in the 1960s. Here, buyers could see mechanical banks, a George Washington inaugural clothing button or a Buck Rogers pocket watch.

“While he had a little bit of glass and china, he was the first guy I knew who had a historical tangent,” Hake said. “He’d carry dinner pail torches and any number of campaign things.”

The inventory stoked young Hake’s embers of nostalgia and dazzled his artist’s eye (he would later go on to study writing and film making). At that time, the odd items didn’t carry much monetary value. It was a time when collectors of American political items, who formed as a group a scant 20 years prior, just after World War II, traded buttons, ribbons or documents to satisfy their own interests.

His love of history can be traced back to his parents’ honeymoon scrapbook, stuffed with colorful matchbooks, ticket stubs and other vintage ephemera from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “I discovered it as a kid, and I became fascinated with World’s Fairs,” Hake said. “I even wrote papers about World’s Fairs in high school.” He also became an ardent coin collector, the beneficiary of being the lone nephew to several generous aunts and uncles.

In the early 1960s, he became member No. 292 of the American Political Items Collectors and had made friends with Bob Faust. Faust was a fellow member of the AIPC and a voracious collector of William Jennings Bryan items. The three-time losing Democratic presidential candidate produced a plethora of campaign items, which Hake was able to deal with Faust. The opportunity changed his view on the small items and marked a turning point. “They fascinated me,” Hake said. “Coins, to a certain extent, have a level of predictability. Collecting just became a question of what you can spend, and there aren’t too many mysteries in the coin world. But the buttons and tokens were colorful and had a whole different sense to them than the coins did.”

Soon after, he found customers among the coin and stamp dealers of Manhattan from West 44th Street to 47th Street. During a sale to New York coin dealer Milton Dinkin, Hake learned the valuable difference between wholesale and retail. “I was wholesaling to him, and, of course, Milton couldn’t turn down a sale. I had just finished selling him buttons for $3 to $5 apiece and they were out on the counter. A collector came in and asked Milton, ‘How much is that?’ Milton said, ‘How about $15?’

“I left scratching my head over whether I wanted to still be in the wholesale business.”

A stint pursuing a master’s degree in filmmaking at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania removed him from his New York client base, which by now included collectors at advertising agencies and at the famous financial planning firm Newberger Berman.

From there, he developed contacts using the nation’s largest and most important publication in the antiques and collectibles hobby: Antique Trader. In the late 1960s, there were only three publications that catered to the hobby. “The gem was the Antique Trader. If you were going to be involved in collecting in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Trader was the place. It had shows; collectors knew who was buying and selling what.”

From his contacts in the Antique Trader, Hake met lifelong customer artist Richard Merkin. Ironically, it is the late Merkin’s collection that marks some of the diversity in Hake’s Milestone 200th sale.

Armed with the addresses he collected from Antique Trader, Hake sent a carbon-copy sales list of pin back buttons. Customer reaction was beyond all expectations, with many customers disappointed to learn that an item of interest had been sold a day or two before they could place an order. To address this problem, Hake decided to conduct his sales in auction format.

Hake’s Auction No. 1 included 155 political campaign items, all with minimum opening bids of 75 cents each. It closed April 26, 1968. The auction sold 99 items and grossed $193.67. The average price of the lots was $1.96 – about 50 cents more than the cost of a movie ticket back then.

By the second or third auction, a collector from St. Louis named Ernie Troven purchased a run-of-the mill Buck Rogers Silver Scouts badge for $10. The purchase astounded Hake, since it was more than triple its usual $3 sale price. As he tried to understand Troven’s bid, Hake developed what has now become one of the leading theories behind why grown ups buy old toys. Collectibles are a way to relive the childhood you had, or replace the one you didn’t, he said. “These [buyers] were the guys who had grown up in the Depression,” Hake said. “They had jobs and houses and kids, and they remembered their childhood with great fondness.”

Hake also found commonality among his buyers when it came to nostalgia. For the most part, collectors want what they had, or lost, or never had to begin with, from the era in which they turned 12 years old.

“You don’t see many people wanting items from ‘Mister Rogers’ or ‘Sesame Street,’” he said. At 12 you’re on the cusp of being a teenager and whatever you were doing at that time you are more inclined to be nostalgic over. Then again, not everybody feels that.”

Guided by these two theories, Hake set out to build the most diverse and entertaining auctions around. Categories have been steadily added to reflect changing demographics and tastes of collectors. Auctions now include political items ranging from early Americana to foreign political pin backs, from sports to comic books to autographed record albums, posters and Disneyana.

Hake isn’t done adding categories yet. “I like to say we offer two centuries of Americana, memories and memorabilia.” ?

Hake’s continues to change with the times

As a leading authority of America’s ever-changing popular culture, Ted Hake has seen his fair share of changes affect his own business during the last 50 years.

“When I got into this, people thought it was easy,” he said. “But when you run an auction with 1,000 to 3,000 items and you’re dealing with 1,000 people at one time, it’s a bit of a challenge. This is a time-intensive business – it’s not a 9-to-5 day-a-week thing.”

In 2004, Hake sold Hake’s Americana & Collectibles to Baltimore businessman Steve Geppi. The auction house is one of a number of businesses under Geppi Entertainment, whose portfolio includes media, art galleries and a museum.

Hake credits his dedication to diversity and quality as the two main reasons the firm’s been able to successfully weather rising competition from online auctions and others seeking entry into the collectibles field. “I’ve always tried to put myself in the place of the bidder when he or she opens that package,” he said. “When they open that box and the thing has some problem that was not disclosed because there was no quality control, well, that’s one of eBay’s great failings.”

Over the decades, Hake developed strong relationships with dealers and experts. “For us, Ted represents everything that is the very best about collecting, especially in our toy world,” said noted Disneyana dealers Doug and Pat Wengel. “His influence and expertise will never be duplicated. And he is such a gentleman, too!”

Over the years, Hake has authored 17 different books on collectibles, starting with The Button Book in 1972. His price guides document the global demand and changing tastes for evocative collectibles. It’s common to see Hake offer unusual character collectibles from the 1980s or original art from even later dates.

“We offer neat items and don’t discriminate against a collectible because it isn’t old,” he said, referring to political items offered in a recent auction from the 2008 presidential election. “A lot of great, rare stuff is coming to the market – it’s really coming from the grass roots. It’s coming from the guys who used to shop Renninger’s or who used to visit Brimfield on a Tuesday instead of Friday. Real grass roots. We’re ready for a real revitalization.”

All photos courtesy Hake’s Americana & Collectibles.



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