OK. This is going to take a moment, but hang in there. It’s important. Terry Kovel is going to tell you something you don’t know about her. It’s not a secret, exactly, it’s just that it never comes up.
Which is odd.
You would think after publishing more than one hundred antiques and collectibles books, having several TV shows, writing a syndicated newspaper column for sixty-five years, running a successful website for twenty-five years, and basically being the face and voice of the hobby with her late husband, Ralph, for just about forever, there wouldn’t be much you don’t know about the 92-year-old Terry Kovel.
But there is.
“I was a good swimmer. The backstroke, that was my specialty,” she says from her Shaker Heights home just outside of Cleveland.
Seems every summer, her parents sent her off to camp in Maine to escape the Cleveland heat. “I don’t know what it’s like where you live in the summer, but in Cleveland, it’s hot. And back then, we didn’t have air conditioning,” Terry says. “And I think Mother rather enjoyed us being gone so she could have some vacation, too.”
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At camp, a young Terry Horvitz (her maiden name) thrashed all challengers. “I won all the camp races. Nobody could beat me,” she says, not so much bragging as simply stating a fact, not unlike reporting on the value of a piece of depression glass. “I was a good athlete in water. But on dry land, I was terrible.
“I tried playing golf, and I hated it. It was such a dumb game. You just walk around and chase after a little ball. I tried playing tennis but all my tennis friends were bad. I was bad, but I wasn’t that bad.”
So swimming was her sport, which seems appropriate for the woman who dove headfirst, hand-in-hand with Ralph, into the vast unknown antiques and collectibles waters nearly seventy years ago.
Pioneers of the hobby
Today, the Kovel name (it’s pronounced ko-VELL) is synonymous with the antiques and collectibles field. The couple, who published their first book in 1953 – Kovels’ Dictionary of Marks – Pottery and Porcelain – were pioneers in the truest sense.
Until they came onto the scene, the field was as incomprehensible to laymen as lawyers’ legal briefs. And just about as interesting.
Even so, when the Kovels started out they were much like the audience they were destined to teach. “We didn’t know anything,” Terry freely admits.
“One of the keys to my success in life was having the right husband,” says Terry. “In the beginning, we were always doing it together. He was a super salesman and I was a good researcher. In addition, I always liked school. I worked hard and always liked research. So it was fun for me. We found subjects that no one else was doing.”
She kids that she and Ralph were destined to be known as the King and Queen of Junk “because we always wrote about the bottom of the market.” Truth is, the couple focused on ordinary things for ordinary people. Somehow it all worked.
Kovel, who earned a Mathematics degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, never intended to become an antiques expert, even though she grew up with a mother who collected.
“I remember as a child we were at Niagara Falls, and I had been given a dollar to spend by my mother,” Terry says. “I couldn’t decide what to buy. My mother said, ‘I’m going to take the money back, if you don’t buy something.’ So, I looked around the store and decided to buy this cup for a quarter.”
Turns out she had bought a mustache cup. Don’t know what that is? Neither did Terry. Her 25-cent ceramic cup, decorated with purple and gold flowers, with a strip across the rim on one side, was designed to protect a gentleman’s mustache from getting soaked when sipping a cup of coffee. Who knew? The cup remains in Terry’s home, a treasured memory.
Experts in the making
Ralph and Terry were married in 1950. Ralph, who died in 2008 at age 88, was a successful food broker – selling brands such as Stouffer’s and Flav-R-Pac frozen vegetables to grocery stores. A curious man, he was intrigued by food labels and marks spotted on the bottom of dishes the couple purchased.
“Ralph was always turning over a plate or a piece of porcelain, looking at a mark and saying, ‘Gee, I wonder what that means?’” Terry says. “Soon we were going to the library and looking things up. It was difficult because there wasn’t much out there. That’s when Ralph said, ‘Well, somebody ought to write a book.’”
Without telling his wife, Ralph drafted eight pages of what evolved into their first book, Dictionary of Marks. Much to their surprise, Crown agreed to publish the would-be title from an unknown author, offering an advance of $750 and another $500 when it was finished. “It was a fortune,” Terry says.
But then Terry asked Ralph who was going to help write the book?
“He looked at me and said, ‘Well, you are. You’re my secretary.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine, but if I’m going to help you write the book my name is going on the cover.’ He said, ‘OK, but it goes second.’ And that’s why we were Ralph and Terry on all our books until he died.’”
Emboldened by the success of their first book, Ralph pitched the now-defunct Cleveland Press an idea for a column on antiques and collectibles. “I thought he was crazy,” Terry says. “I told him, ‘Don’t be silly. We can’t write a newspaper column. We don’t know anything. And Ralph smiled and said, ‘Sure we can. We’re experts. That’s what they’re calling us now. We’ll write for people just like us who don’t know anything.’
“And we did. That’s really the secret. We didn’t use big words. We always include definitions on the things we don’t know. We make it easy for people to understand what we are writing about.”
Building a business
That weekly newspaper column by a young married couple that didn’t know anything about antiques was, of course, called “Know Your Antiques.” It started in 1954 and was nationally syndicated a year later. Today it’s the longest-running syndicated column written by the original bylined author.
“I’m the oldest living columnist in America,” Terry says. The key to her success? “I’m still alive, that’s the trick.”
With the book and the newspaper column, the Kovels had tapped into a vital market, post-World War II collectors much like themselves: young, eager and uninitiated.
Over the ensuing decades, their business blossomed into a multimillion-dollar venture. Besides the books and newspaper column and website, the Kovels put out a monthly newsletter, “Kovels on Antiques and Collectibles,” and wrote columns for Forbes and House Beautiful, as well as created a television series for PBS and HGTV.
Their books are often considered the bibles of the field. They have sold millions of copies, many of which can still be seen carried by collectors to antiques shops, yard sales and flea markets. The best known of their work, The Complete Antiques Price List, as it was originally called when published in 1968, was hardcover with 436 pages of prices and no pictures. Today, Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide is the only annual guide of its kind, featuring 3,000 color photographs and 11,500 prices. It claims on the cover to have sold 4 million copies over the years.
The operation still runs out of the home Ralph and Terry built in Shaker Heights in 1955. The home has four garages, three of them used for staff member offices and some 20,000 books used for research and reference. Daughter Kim, who lives in Miami, serves as co-writer of the newspaper column and oversees operational aspects of the business.
Mother and Father of Antiques
There have been a lot of twists and turns for Terry Kovel through the years. The young mathematics graduate from Wellesley, who grew up a pretty good swimmer, who didn’t know what the heck she was buying with a quarter in Niagara Falls, who fell in love with a salesman who talked her into the adventure of a lifetime, seems she’s done pretty well for herself.
“I’ve had a good life,” Terry says. “I’ve had everything I could want.”
And in the process, shared with millions a wonder of the things that surround them.
“Ralph and I have had a lot of titles through the years,” Terry says. “We’ve been called the Mother and Father of Antiques. I like that. We made it possible for people to learn, to understand and to appreciate antiques though our work. I take great pride in that.”
Oh, and one more thing, not a secret exactly, but close. It’s something not many people know or can remember.
“One year,” Terry says scanning through her memories, “Ralph and I were the grand prize for the Publishers Clearing House contest. It’s true. First prize. If you won you got to spend a three-day shopping trip with the Kovels in New Orleans. Imagine that.”
Seems about right for a Grand Prize. Three days with the Kovels. Of course, many of us have already spent a lifetime with them.
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