This article was originally printed in Antique Trader
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From broken soup tureens to granddad’s Indian arrowhead hunting trips, Antique Trader subscribers shared their most valued memories of their first experiences in collecting. These funny, poignant letters reflect Antique Trader’s ongoing effort to foster a new generation’s appreciation for the hunt for precious objects.
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Don Fritschel, Boulder, Colorado
Most people become interested in antiques (or collecting) somewhat gradually, often through exposure from others. My interest was instantaneous, happening in a single day.
It was Mother’s Day 1971. My family and I were living in Jericho, Vt., a small rural community about 15 miles east of Burlington.
About 10 a.m. that morning, one of our neighbors, a town “Selectman,” called to invite us to join a group of townspeople who were venturing into “The Range” that afternoon. “The Range” was an 11,000-acre wilderness area that the U.S. Government leased from the township, and re-leased it to the General Electric Company for armament testing. At the time, GE was testing their Vulcan guns, which would be mounted under the wings of jet fighter planes. Due to almost daily test firings, “the Range” was completely encircled by fencing with very limited access. However, according to the contract with the government, townspeople were permitted to enter the Range once each year, in order to “seek out the common boundary” where three townships came together. It sounded like fun, so we agreed to join.
At precisely 1 p.m., my wife and I, and two young children, joined a line of about 18 trucks, 4-wheel drives, and high clearance cars at the main entrance to the Range. A guard opened the gate and the caravan wound its way up the dirt road. The lead vehicles stopped occasionally at road forks to check their maps, and within half an hour they stopped in a wooded grove of trees.
After a short walk, a cement obelisk, about three feet tall was found.
This was the common point where three townships, that shared the Range, came together at a common intersection. A can of white paint appeared and the marker soon had a new color. With mission accomplished, out came the picnic lunches, beer and snacks. For the next hour, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, with adults chatting and laughing, while kids raced through the woods playing games.
Soon it was time to leave, and the caravan motored its way down from the wooded hills onto the flats about a mile inside the gate.
Suddenly, the lead vehicles stopped next to some old cellar holes that were near the road. In Vermont, “old cellar holes” were generally rectangular holes, about 5 to 8 feet deep, with rock-lined walls. Sometimes trees, as large as 2 feet in diameter, grew from the bottom. In most cases, the holes were filled with debris from the house that once stood above, as well as bedsprings and other metal that had not disintegrated during the last 70 to 100 years since the property had been abandoned.
As we watched, several of our friends and neighbors jumped into the cellar holes and began clearing junk out of the way, so they could attack the dirt floor with shovels and rakes. I thought this looked hilarious and I started taking pictures of the melee.
Suddenly someone shouted, “I found one!” It was a clear glass, rectangular bottle, with raised lettering in the glass that read, JERICHO DRUG STORE, JERICHO, VT. I was stunned. There was no drug store in the tiny village, just a post office, a garage, a general store, and an old mill. I was told that the drug store had burned down in 1906 and was never rebuilt.
Then, another bottle was found. This one was similar to the first, except its embossed lettering read, DR. W.S. NAY, UNDERHILL, VT.
Underhill was another small town, about three miles east of where we now stood. Then, some of the older members of the group began to speak up. “I’ve heard of Dr. Nay! My mom and dad used to go to him.” Another said, “I read a book that he wrote. It was called ‘The Old Country Doctor.’ It tells what it was like to go to school here in the 1870s.” Finally, a realtor friend quietly spoke, “I was the last baby that Dr. Nay delivered.”
Suddenly, the commotion in the bottom of the cellar holes was no longer funny. This was interesting stuff! It was history coming outof the ground! We were hooked!
We spent that summer combing the remote jeep roads in the state, looking for old homesites. The next winter, we compared current topographic maps to the old town maps found in historical libraries.
When we found buildings on the 1800s maps, that did not appear on our topo maps, we drew a circle. That location would yield an old cellar hole or a forgotten townsite.
As we ran out of digging sites, we started visiting antique bottle shows that we found to be common in New England. When we learned that many good bottles changed hands between dealers, before the shows opened, we became dealers. Our antique bottle interest expanded to include “go-withs,” such as early bottle-related souvenir chins, almanacs, books, documents and other ephemera, and even souvenir spoons. Those interests broadened to include similar materials, but from a wider scope of antiques. Soon we carried a “general line.”
Today, in my 70s, I still enjoy buying, selling and collecting. I deal by Internet, at antique shows and I carry a broad inventory.
Every so often, I reflect back, nearly 40 years, to that day in “The Range” when I didn’t know an antique from a hole in the ground. On that day, everything changed.
Name withheld by request
Why do people collect things? Is it for the fun of it? Is it to leave a legacy for our progeny? Or, is it the hope of finding something valuable and trading it for a profit? For me, it is all of the above. The enjoyment of browsing antique centers, consignment shops and thrift stores, for the thrill of the hunt, feeds the soul of a quasi-artist like me.
I gave up collecting ceramics and was looking for a substitute hobby. The biography of Pablo Picasso was fresh in my mind when an original watercolor portrait of a young boy caught my eye at a local thrift store. I fantasized about it being painted by Picasso and dreamt it would sell for a lot of money. After all, it was signed by an artist named Ruiz, and Picasso was born Pablo Ruiz.
In his early years, Picasso signed his name Ruiz Blasco after his father, but later decided to use his mother’s maiden name, Picasso. His father was his art teacher. While in school, Picasso would paint portraits in his father’s simple style to earn money. Surely, my find was a piece from this era of Picasso’s budding career.
Carefully, I removed the paper backing to determine if the portrait was truly an “original” – it was indeed! It must have been worth at least a million dollars, or so I hoped. I took it to an appraisal event sponsored by the local PBS station with great anticipation. Sadly, the appraiser said it was probably painted by a “tourist artist” and was worth only $50. Studying the paper, he said it was about 50 years old.
Surely, Picasso lived 50 years ago … it was painted in rose tones … certainly from his “Rose Period,” I thought. I did the research. Picasso’s “Rose Period” was from 1905-1907 – a hundred years ago. I hung the picture on my living room wall. It became a great conversation piece as the “first find” in my adventure as a thrift-store art collector.
My next visit to another thrift store yielded six pieces I liked so much I bought them all, spending a total of only $18! My bounty included:
A lovely Chinese brush painting that would fit well in my healing room, I thought. (Value: unknown)
The Old North Church in Boston, a watercolor signed by an unknown artist named “Marc.” A handwritten note on the back said it was purchased in 1946. Of course, it had value. If not, it would look great hanging on my wall. (Value: unknown) A signed watercolor print of a port town by William McK. Spierer titled Sunday Morning. It became a reminder of Sunday-morning walks through Port Washington, Wis. (Value: unknown)
An original pen-and-ink of a Paris street scene by a French artist named LeAndu. It had a great frame with a seal on the back from Fleck Bros. of New York City, a find that became reminiscent of my trips to Paris and New York. (Value: unknown)
A numbered and signed print (269/300) of a Greco-Roman university structure by noted artist Don Swann. This one reminded me of my college days. (Value: $250)
Last was a print of an etching by James Whistler from 1859, printed in London in 1893, titled, Lime House – Thames Set. I submitted a digital image to Sotheby’s for appraisal. They replied, “We wouldn’t handle it because it’s worth only $5,000” – too minor for their auction house.
So far, my investment of a little time and a few dollars for an art collection that’s worth $5,300 is not bad for an amateur. Plus, I have great art to hang in my home. Visitors always like to look at interesting art. Besides, I can study other artistic styles and techniques. At least that’s what I keep telling myself as this stuff stacks up. I’m addicted.
I discovered a new resource: another thrift store. The sign on the door said “50% off art on Thursdays.” Realizing that day was Thursday, I meandered inside – it’s bargain-hunting time! I literally dug through racks of art, and to my surprise, there were three that I liked enough to buy at half price.
Arriving home with my treasures in a brown paper bag, I decided to sign up for a month’s trial with Ask Art, an online art-research resource, to see what I bought. Surprisingly, Ask Art had listings for my most recent finds. Eureka! I spent $24 for art that’s worth $800! These prizes included: An original, signed watercolor of a farm scene by Wisconsin artist Rob O’Dell, $500.
An original abstract by Illinois artist Joseph Baldwin, in a lovely silver metallic frame, $300.
An image of Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska, by Bruce Bond, a noted illustrator. Not sure if it’s an original or a print.
I tallied it up. My thrift-store art collection was now worth $6,100 for an investment of time and $45, and four pieces are still of unknown value. Now I’m cooking and feeding my soul at the same time. Besides, I learned about collecting art, determining styles and researching value. That’s got to be worth something, and I was having fun.
Several other trips to my favorite haunts yielded more bargains. For $2.99, I found a little woodcut by Wisconsin artist Barbara L. Hughes titled, House Mouses. Hughes is known for amusing themes about animals. I have two cats, so that piece will look good in their eating area and, at least, feed their souls. (Value: unknown) After work one day, I got a psychic impression to stop and shop, so I did. That trip yielded two Navajo sand paintings called Healing People. These would also fit well in my healing room. (Value: unknown)
Looking for something to do over my lunch hours, I drove over to an area consignment shop. Every month something doesn’t sell, the prices drop 15 percent! I discovered another signed William McK. Spierer titled, The Picket Fence, reduced to $14.85. Sold! The landscape is just down the wall from the other piece I own. Someday, I’ll preserve these in matching frames and hang them together. (Value: unknown)
I never know where my travels as a thrift-store art collector will take me and for whom the pieces will have value. The old adage, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” reminds me how much fun I’m having with my hobby. This art-collecting journey of the thrift-store variety started just three years ago and has yielded invaluable experiences. I’m sure the journey will continue to feed my soul with many memories and provide me with great art to trade, research and admire.
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Betsy Douglas, Wicomico Church, Va.
My road to collecting hat pins started in the early 1950s. My dad was in the Navy and we were living in Washington D. C. My sisters and my favorite place to congregate was on my parent’s bed as the brand new TV was in the master bedroom. On my mother’s bureau was a slender vase with a number of hat pins including a German one with a swastika at the head.
As Victory at Sea was one of my father’s favorite TV programs I knew the episodes and music very well. That program regularly told the story of the evil axis of power and showed both Hitler and Mussolini and the swastika – the symbol of the Third Reich. I could see the Swastika hat pin from where I sat on the bed. It became the EVIL HAT PIN and I was afraid of it.
Years passed. The hat pin was joined by others and they usually were displayed on mother’s bureau. When mother died the hat pins were to be distributed among the sisters (and sister-in-law and sort of sister). The gathered females were asked if anyone had a special hat pin they wanted before the distribution and I asked for the EVIL HAT PIN as I was no longer afraid of it. We shared the pins equally that day but two sisters have sent me theirs and my collection today has over 100 hat pins – but the EVIL HAT PIN is what started it all.
Valerie VanOrden, Portage, Mich.
I became an aficionado of antiques through my professor at college, in art. After that I married a man who was/is an “American Picker.” I love your magazine, Antique Trader, for it raises my level of awareness … as one college professor said: “Luck favors thie intelligent … if you found a diamond on the sidewalk … unless you knew it to be a diamond … you might not pick it up.”
Rich Cain, via email
I love the new Antique Trader format! In reading your 12/22/10 edition editorial concerning the on going discussion of the current worries and future of the antiques business, you encouraged readers to write about how we started collecting. You asked: Was it a relative? A love of history? A windfall inheritance? A trip to the town dump?
Well, for me it was family heritage AND a love of history, AND an inheritance that was inspirational for my passion. I collect items in a very small niche for which there is an interesting history, rather few other collectors, and items that can get some pricy due to their scarcity. I particularly enjoy the search for, locating and closing a purchase deal, “the chase.” I also enjoy informing and educating people about my niche hobby.
I collect items made at Eleanor Roosevelts’ home site in Hyde Park, what she called Val-kill Industries. During the period 1926-1936 she and some other women friends started a crafts style business with hopes to employ local underemployed young men in a furniture making enterprise. They hand crafted colonial reproduction furniture. From 1934 – 1940 they added a metal-smith forge and made pewter and steel objects. The heritage link to my collecting is that my grandparents lived and worked for Mrs. Roosevelt at Val-kill during the time. Grandfather worked as landscaper/gardener, but also worked in the furniture factory and the pewter forge.
My mother was born and grew up at Val-kill. Many of my extended family in Hde Park also were involved with the Roosevelts. They had some of the products made at Val-kill Industries, both furniture and pewter and I inherited the pieces when they passed away. As for my desire to educate people, I wrote a book published by Arcadia titled “Eleanor Roosevelts’ Valkill,” in which I portray the historic site and some events there and the furniture/pewter of the business. I have since made a website www.val-kill.com, which provides more information and many of the photos of the representative pieces.
I am friends with the National Park Service in Hyde Park and have several pieces on loan to them for display and have been privillaged to have had them include several other pieces in special ehibits in Hyde Park and Washington D.C. I have also authored an article published by your magazine a few years ago. I may have the largest private collection of Val-kill pieces. The Park Service at Hyde Park has a nice collection and strives to find Eleanors’ actual pieces to furnish her home. The Little White House at Warm Springs, Ga., has a nice collection of pieces that were commissioned by FDR to furnish his home there.
The appeal for me for these pieces is that my grandfather may have had a hand in making them, that there is a historical Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt affiliation, and the scarcity of the items. I also like the “form” and appearence of the pieces, and as Mrs. Roosevelt exclaimed in many magazine and newspaper promotional articles of the time, the sturdy hard wood furniture of traditional handcrafted techniques will last easily a hundred years and is fully functional. I use many in daily living.
Oh, and as for the town dump? Yeah, I did play there as a kid way before my collecting days, but now a days those sites are mostly off limits and prohibited. As for the future of antiques? I’ll leave those thoughts to those more qualified or influential than I. I can only surmise that if the “business” is like most others, it is cyclical and will ebb and flow, rise and fall with time.
All will be well.
Thank you for your time and keep up the good work.
Jim Krzycki, Schuyler, Neb.
In the summer of 1952, my mother asked me to go over to my grandparent’s home, which was only a block and a half away. As I passed my cousin’s home, me cousin Larry joined my in the short walk. When we got near to their home, my cousin noticed or grandmother in the chicken yard about the break up an old gravy tureen (which was minus one handle) for the chickens. The chickens would sharpen their beaks on the pieces of china. My cousin left my side and reached grandmother before she broke the tureen and promptly asked her if he could have the tureen.
Grandma didn’t understand English well but she managed to ask Larry why he wanted the piece of junk. He told her he was going to start collecting antiques so she gave it to him. I immediately goy very jealous and told myself – anything you can do, I can do better! Larry and I competed in several local contests. I know I won many times but Larry didn’t stay with the field of antiques very long. We would go to the local auctions together, sometimes pooling our money to buy something. When we came home from an auction our folks would ask if we got anything. We didn’t care if an item was damaged as long as it was “old.” I kept researching and learning and 59 years later, I’m still interested in collecting. I also had a shop here.
In 1968, I started collecting antique buttons and have competed nationally and have won many ribbons over the years. I really was glad to join the National Button Society (3,500 members from around the world). It’s like being with a huge family. Everybody should join also a local or state button society. I’ve been a member of NBS since 1969.
In 2009, I was asked by the president of NBS if I would consider coordinating and matching up collectors in a pen pal group (worldwide). Of course, I said, “Yes!”
I’m sitting in my living room surrounded by years of collecting. When I look at an item, I remember where and when and under what circumstances I got the antique. It brings back many memories!
Cheryl Cavanah, Marceline, Mo.
My grandmothers piqued my interest in glassware. Both were lacking extra funds to purchase many pieces, but held dear those that had been passed down to them. Growing up I simply looked upon those special bowls or china sets as being part of their “old stuff.”
My first purchase I made was from an older neighbor who was preparing to move. My Grandma Courtney and I visited her one evening to bid or farewells. I probably was about 5 at the time and certainly had little interest in the teacup and saucer that was offered to me for 25 cents. It did, however, set on four tiny legs and that intrigued me. I had never seen such a cup. It sat in the cupboard pretty much forgotten until I graduated high school. It was then I received another cup and saucer from an older relative – an odd gift in my mind. Now, I had two pretties.
It wasn’t until after my college graduation when my mother began accumulating some antique items that I fully began to inquire and study some of her possessions. My first couple years in the teaching profession, I often visited the local antique shops out of boredom. These visits with the proprietors increased my curiosity and I soon began purchasing a few antiques.
Over the years I have had several collections. As most aficionados will tell you, the hunt is the most fun. I haven’t kept all that I acquired, but have loved each and every piece. Today I am interested in leaving my granddaughters some of my “old stuff,” and continue to search enthusiastically for those treasures.
Bill Sumner, Madison, Wi
The seed, which grew into this collector, was sown by my maternal grandfather, Frank Achen. He was a multitalented, master stone mason who witnessed a solar eclipse from the Sahara Desert, who went ashore days after the San Francisco earthquake to pick up his ship’s mail, and who bottled honey in his basement from the hives he kept in the country.
As a young boy the items in an upstairs room of his house fascinated me. On display were rattlesnake rattles, Plains Indians arrows, and glass tubes created by lightning strikes in the sand. He had arrowheads by the thousands and stone axe heads and sleigh bells, a cornucopia of wonders for a small child. His eclectic collection was fresh and new every time I viewed it because there was so much to see and it spurred my imagination.
In the spring, after getting the landowner’s permission, he would take me arrowhead hunting in freshly lowed farm fields. We would wait until after a “gully-washer” (rain) had occurred and off we’d go to walk up and down the plowed rows. We would look for the telltale edge of a stone whose outline had been altered by human means, made visible by raindrops washing it clean. Although I would be lucky to find one “point” to his 10, it was fascinating to me.
Hunting for and collecting these artifacts developed in me a love for the American Indian cultures and their histories. Because not every sortie was successful, I learned the meaning of patience, and also how to focus on a task to get a successful outcome – both lessons applicable to life in general. Collecting also taught me that value is in the eyes of the beholder, irrespective of price guides.
Now, as an adult in my late 50s, I have small collections of everything from glassware to folk art, vintage sports equipment to paperback books. But central to all that I collect are the framed arrowheads and the stone axe heads passed down to me from the mother’s father. The tradition of “collecting” was one of his priceless gifts to me.
Shirley Alder Daiss, Wyoming
It was the summer of 1932 and I was eight years old, sitting on the curb in front of my parents’ grocery store on Main Street in a little Wyoming town of 2000 souls. Like my friend beside me, I was dressed to play in the dusty street, boys’ cord pants and the cut-off top of a dress for a blouse, typical play clothes for a girl in The Depression. Main Street was the only paved street in town and we were amusing ourselves by counting out-of-town state license plates, especially those from far away.
Every once in a while we’d find a round cigar band and we had a ring! But it was the discarded matchbook covers that finally became the real prizes. Somehow I talked my Mom into a large scrapbook and pasted them in careful rows on each page. The traveling grocery salesmen noticed, especially one, and came in with pockets full each week or two saved on their routes. I had a collection! The next summer led to a wildflower collection identified and put in a scrapbook.
But it was the summer when I was ten that led to a real love of things of the past. My parents were able to buy a lot on a creek in the Big Horn Mountains, and my Dad started work on a small cabin on Big Piney Creek. My mom would pack a box of groceries, the cast iron skillet, and give me a silver dollar to buy groceries if we ran out. If I didn’t have to use it for groceries, I would rent a horse for a day at the dude ranch across the creek. She went home to run the store for the week.
I tagged my dad as he fished the creek in the early morning, but after I caught a fish or two, I went exploring for flowers and wild strawberries. One morning my dad was up ahead and I saw something gleaming in the collapsed trapper’s cabin we were passing and went over to investigate. I could see something very shiny under the logs and went to get my Dad. He moved a lot of timber and there it was, a large heavy chromed wall lantern with a large reflector in wonderful shape and the engraving said, “U.S.Q.M. Dept., 1894!" I’ve collected many things since then and operated an antique shop, but that was the true beginning and the biggest thrill.
A long time collector (name withheld by request)
No one in my family or in my husband’s clan ever collected anything. When 50s furniture came into vogue, my parents bought a "blond" dining room set and a living room "suite." When that furniture wore out, it was on to the next wave in home decorating. When we married, I brought books to the union and my spouse built book cases.
We rented an old farm house and went to a country auction. That was it! We dragged anything home that would embellish our "decor" – tools, kitchen devices and crocks! To this day, the delight of seeing a slip glaze design on a piece of stone ware still makes us catch our breath.
Our collection diversified when our son was four, and a teaching colleague asked: "When are you going to collect something worthwhile?" And so the cast iron still bank collection was born.
Pursuit took us to many country auctions as well as special collections over the decades. The learning opportunities have enriched our lives. Today part of the bank collection resides in our son’s home, the rest with us, awaiting the shelves to be constructed for them. In our home, stoneware is prominent in every room. Collecting has opened a door to the past, and spurred on by curiosity and love of learning, we have both collected and preserved slices of history and have been rewarded by the opportunities to learn and share.
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