Naturally, Ted Hake didn’t start out striving to be the Father of Pop-Culture Collecting, even though that’s clearly where he stands on the Mount Rushmore of Collectibles.
No, Hake’s first foray into the field was far more traditional. A lifelong fascination with collecting started with a blue Whitman coin folder his parents got him when he was no bigger than a hiccup.
Little did they realize what they were unleashing on the world.
As a kid, Hake, now 77, chased down coins at Larry T. Henry’s shop on Market Street in downtown York, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, with the enthusiasm and purpose of the newly converted. He even discovered a coveted 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, a rare penny long considered the holy grail of coin collectors.
But it wasn’t until 1961 when he ran into political campaign items and pin-back buttons in particular that his lifelong passion began to take shape. In 1964 he joined the American Political Items Collectors. The course was set.
While working as one of the red blazer-wearing guides at General Electric’s Progressland exhibit at the 1964-65 New York World’s fair – where he saw Jackie Kennedy and Walt Disney strolling through – he began issuing sales lists of his collection, which eventually led to the establishment in 1967 of Hake’s Auctions, the first auction house devoted to popular culture artifacts.
His first auction was in 1968 and was dubbed a “Special Interest Auction.” It consisted of non-political pin-back buttons and other small items. A collector had to bid a minimum of 75 cents. The auction offered 155 lots. There were no pictures, just written descriptions. When the auction closed on April 26, 1968, Hake had sold 99 lots and grossed $193.67. It was deemed a success, leading to Auction #2 in the next month. And thus was born an auction empire.
Since then Hake has written seventeen collector guides spanning presidential campaign items, vintage Disneyana and comic character toys. For decades, he helped children’s author Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are) build his 1930s-era Mickey Mouse collection. One of Hake’s favorite items is Sendak’s hand-drawn button the author gave him around 1985.
Hake moved back to York in 1973 after marrying his wife of 47 years, Jonell, a girl from his high school four years his junior, who Hake first met when he moved into her apartment building in Philadelphia in 1967.
The auction business, like the Hakes, has been there ever since.
In 2004, Hake sold his company, which had morphed into Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, to Steve Geppi, owner of Diamond Comics Distributors. He continues with the company, now known as Hake's Auctions, as a consultant. He also started his own website, TedHake.com, where he sells some of his favorite things at fixed prices.
Hake’s many contributions to the field have earned him the American Political Items Collectors Lifetime Achievement Award. He also serves as a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Association Advisory Board and he remains passionate about pin-backs. His latest book, Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It with Buttons, was written with Christen Carter and released in 2020.
As arguably the most influential person in his field, Antique Trader approached Hake with a simple thought: What makes Ted Hake tick? This is what he had to say.
Antique Trader: What is the key to your success in business? In life?
Ted Hake: In business, the thing I hate most is a disappointed customer with a reason to be disappointed. My goal as a collectibles auctioneer and guidebook author is a happy customer with every opened package.
In life, The Golden Rule says it best.
Antique Trader: You were at the forefront of the pop culture-collecting craze, what was it that convinced you that you were onto something?
Hake: In 1964-65, I worked at the Walt Disney designed exhibit named Progressland sponsored by General Electric at the New York World’s Fair, and then in the Long Island City nitrate film vault of the Museum of Modern Art and finally as a graduate film school student at N.Y.U. What I did for fun was visit members of the American Political Items Collectors I discovered throughout the five boroughs by studying the club members’ roster. It was the passionate enthusiasm for collecting historical artifacts that I saw in every collector that most impressed me.
In January 1967, my change in schools from N.Y.U. to the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia physically ended the five-stop salesman route I had established in Manhattan. I could no longer supply my five best customers from my James Bond 007- type black attaché case.
In Philadelphia, necessity forced me to the then novel (believe it or not) photocopying machine just so I could reach my best presidential campaign item collecting customers back in Manhattan. Along with campaign buttons, some 1930s Mickey Mouse club member buttons crept in joined by Judy Garland Wizard of Oz 1939 movie promo buttons and topped off by a Buck Rogers Solar Scouts brass premium badge courtesy Cream of Wheat cereal.
It was early 1967 when the average price of my mail bid auction items was around $2. Then St. Louis sculptor Ernest Trova bid $10 on the Buck Rogers badge and I understood there were collectors for not only historical artifacts but also nostalgic popular culture artifacts. Hake’s Americana morphed into Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, which served us well for fifty years before becoming simply Hake’s Auctions.
Antique Trader: If you hadn’t gone into the auction business, what would you have liked to do?
Hake: Most likely I would have gone into some aspect of politics or government. Fall 1968 found me with a UAW-CIO subsidized job as the assistant to the Vice Chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee. Had [Hubert] Humphrey beat [Richard] Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, I could see myself in D.C. Instead, what I saw was the unemployment office, I think on Woodard Avenue. But I was turning out bi-monthly auctions and the snowball was growing nicely.
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Antique Trader: What motivates you?
Hake: As a collector of many things since age five, I’ve always appreciated the look of or story behind what I collected. Everything I ever collected was a thrill (since of course it met my own self-defined standards of quality). My motivation kind of naturally expanded from finding things that pleased me into another level of finding things that thrilled other people.
Antique Trader: Biggest influence in your life?
Hake: I have to name three influences in my life to be accurate. My mother, who personified goodness in people; my father, who showed me the world of nature and the world outside of York, Pennsylvania; and Carl Barks, comic book artist and creator of Uncle Scrooge for Walt Disney, who gave me a desire to read and showed me the world of imagination and fantasy.
Antique Trader: The house is on fire, what piece from your personal collection do you grab? Why?
Hake: As much as I love much of what I am surrounded by, I truly can’t think of one collected object special to me above all others. I’m not saying I’ll go down with the ship, but my wife is most special to me and I’m not leaving without her.
Antique Trader: As a kid, what were you like?
Hake: Well mannered and pretty much a rule follower. Thanks to my father, more curious and world-wise than my peers.
Antique Trader: What is your best habit? Your worst?
Hake: My work ethic is pretty strong and I’d rather do two or three things at once, not just one. On the other hand, my wife’s adjective is “impatient” and I’d have to agree.
Antique Trader: What is your great-unknown talent?
Hake: At 77, I think I’ve pretty much discovered my talents. Whatever they are, I’ve sure enjoyed my lifetime of pursuing my own interests and interacting with collectors.