I have been a collector all of my life, starting back in the era of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris baseball cards, worn Lincoln pennies and Jefferson nickels gathered on my paper route, and, for a brief while, matchbook covers from roadside motels and smoky cafes smelling of bacon grease and eggs over-easy fried in real butter.
It took me a few decades, but I gradually refined my search, although I still love to read about a Ty Cobb card going to auction or a 1943 Lincoln penny selling for 1.7 million dollars. I even survived my own Golden Oak era, eventually selling my assorted pressed-back chairs with caned seats at a yard sale, alongside my enormous, moth-eaten, stuffed Yukon moose named Reckless, but that’s an even longer story.
Yet even now, into my fifth decade as a collector, I still get excited about a phone call or an email from someone who has a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture for sale. Perhaps its just an excuse to sneak out of the office for a few hours, driving down unfamiliar roads, making new friends, and venturing into towns or neighborhoods I had always intended to someday slow down and explore.
And for every little journey that ends with me bringing home another discovery to be squeezed into a house already brimming with Arts and Crafts furniture, there are those other journeys that end in disappointment. Such was the case with the woman who was selling a Gustav Stickley sideboard once used inside a Duke fraternity house. Even though the plate rail had been rudely sawn off, the top had balanced several steel kegs of beer, and the hardware had been painted glossy black, her response to my inevitable question was classic. “Well,” she said, “if Barbra Streisand can pay $363,000 for her Stickley sideboard, then mine ought to be worth at least $5,000.”
That was at least easier to walk away from than another trip I once took, this one to a rural farmhouse outside Iowa City, where I ran Knock On Wood Antique Repair & Restoration. After seeing a couple of her Polaroid snapshots, on Monday I spoke to a sweet farmwife, and over the phone agreed to purchase her signed, original finish, Gustav Stickley magazine stand. We chatted for nearly half an hour, talking about the fall corn crop, her grandmother’s doll collection, and her grown son living in California, who had no interest in antiques.
I couldn’t justify the two-hour trip until the following Saturday afternoon, and can still recall the excitement I felt as I drove up the dusty driveway leading to their well kept, two-story, white farmhouse and an aging German shepherd by the name of Max who was guarding his territory. After a few pleasantries, the farmwife led me around to a sagging back porch, where she proudly pointed to my latest purchase: a gleaming, freshly-varnished, belt-sanded, Golden Oak version of what had once been a signed, nut-brown, pristine, Gustav Stickley magazine stand.
As I stood there in stunned silence, she proclaimed, “You were so nice over the phone that I decided to save you the work, and refinished it for you myself.”
Only the word “deflategate” can describe the sound of air slowly escaping my lungs at that painful moment, as I reluctantly reached into my wallet for the wad of crisp bills I had promised her, money I had earned that week standing for hours over a toxic stripping tray, scrubbing layers of softened white paint off a Victorian china cabinet for one of my clients.
It was a long drive home that Saturday afternoon, one that I have never forgotten, and one that has since taught me to always make every sweet, loveable seller promise to not do anything to their piece before I arrive.
Life’s little journeys, and how much they teach us.
Until next Monday,
Think Spring — sitting outside on the Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn!
To see the brochure for the February 20-22 National Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn, just click on this link:
Bottom picture: Loading my two sons, Eric and Blake, into our Dodge Caravan in 1994 for a journey to yet another Saturday morning auction!