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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Collecting and collectors Part I

After well over three hundred blogs, I guess I can start to reveal my true self. Sure you can read about my interests, my delusions, and glean from some of my useful nuggets, but up until now I have refrained from getting real deep. I don’t preach that much at you, even though you may not think so, yet I am a natural born, insufferable preacher. Just ask my brother or wife or daughter. I haven’t tried to sell you my art, and that is my lifelong passion and profession. And I haven’t really talked much about collecting antiques. So you don’t really know the first thing about me.

You see I was almost born into the antique business. My father was a historian and a habitual packrat, and my mother was an artist, craftsperson and an instinctive decorator, so it was only a matter of time until they discovered antiques as a family pastime. Thinking back, it must have been Hurricane Carla that provided the impetus for this evolution. For months after the great storm we used to patrol the beaches on Galveston Island looking for interesting driftwood, weathered boards, old door panels, shutters, anything that could be transformed into Americana. Many a trip I remember, our sun-charred shoulders aching, headed back to Houston with that stuff sticking out of the station wagon windows while we rolled our eyes in male skepticism. Mom would take an old slab of salty pine and paint flowers or a cornucopia on it, and sold it as fast as she could paint it.

That soon turned into larger projects; old trunks, cupboards and wrought iron beds. By the time I was ten years old I was handed a sanding block or a stripping scraper and told this was what we did for fun. Weekend after weekend, we scoured the countryside hunting for antiques, bringing home truckloads of junk to fix up and sell at my mother’s rent house, turned workshop cum antique shop in a residential neighborhood in Houston’s Park Place.

We kind of became a friendly scourge of the earth. It seemed there was cool stuff lurking in every old shack and barn down every dirt road, and some old guy was glad to get rid of it. When we went to visit relatives in rural Arkansas, we always came home with a car packed with old farm implements and milk cans and churns and other things cast off by my cousins. They still talk about us today.

We made hasty trips to raid Mrs. Winslow’s sprawling shop in Montgomery, where the legendary old dealer greeted everybody with a toothless smile as she petted her pistol and money bag in her lap, forbidding all comers to dare come into her unkempt compound wearing shorts. Large signs on her dilapidated building blared crudely NO SHORTS! In her mind, she was running a high class place. My dad would stand outside looking dejected and then finally confess he was wearing shorts… UNDERNEATH! She would cackle and wave him in, and would melt and give him all kinds of “bargains,” as my brother and I wandered around the jungle in the backyard; an infinite, tangled, rotting bone yard of old farm trucks, tractors, lawn mower parts, and mysterious objects smothered under twenty years of vines and fallen pine needles. We were American pickers before we knew what that meant. But whatever you called it, we loved it. After awhile our little antique cottage in Houston looked like a genuine junk yard, and that’s when we moved out to the country in the northwest Houston suburbs to get more room to operate.

In the meantime, my mother had discovered Texas “primitives.” In the beginning we thought she had lost her mind, preferring that old pine slapstick furniture to beautiful, hand-carved Victorian masterpieces. But she proved she was on to something as she got to know the main Texas collectors and antique moguls, and she began to get invited to some of the most prestigious shows in Texas.

By the time we took up residence at Satsuma (Champions area), we were doing at least half a dozen shows annually and Canton Trade Days or the Common Market on the Southwest Freeway on weekends in between. It was at one of these convention center antique shows where I met Les Beitz of Austin, a Western author and illustrator who sort of gave me the blessing for my life’s calling. He was the one who assured my father, that yes, I had what it took, and he began to send me his own original pen & ink illustrations, published in Old West magazine to inspire and encourage me. I began to decorate my room with cowboy memorabilia, and collected spurs and skulls and animal traps. Suddenly antiques and history and art seemed like one big thing to me.

And Les taught me something else, something with eternal value. The idea of planting a seed in a young person, with nothing more than a hunch, no strings attached, giving them a larger vision of themselves, merely by assuring them they CAN. Les was not in it for the money. He was in it for the history, the love of creativity and storytelling. He understood that it was the people who made the business, not the stuff.

We did antique shows in Columbus, Pasadena, Chappell Hill, Richmond-Rosenberg, La Grange and finally in the early seventies we were invited to do the famous show in Round Top, Texas at Rifle Hall. That was the cat’s meow. Emma Lee Turney had established a real Texas tradition at Round Top, and everybody in the Antique world came to or wanted to be an exhibitor at her stellar show at the old Rifle Hall. You had to pay to even get in to look. As you parked your car, you smelled barbeque and heard German polka musicians echoing in the live oak trees. Sweet country greeters sold you homemade bread and pies at the front door, and inside was a veritable Smithsonian of Texana, with fabulous New England antiquities salted around for good measure. And Texas primitives were IN!

It was not unusual for Texas dignitaries to be seen walking amongst the crowd. This is where I saw my first Houston “Gay” antique dealer. Several of them became good friends of the family and lifetime sources for rarities. Faith Bybee, antique collector and author extraordinaire, and Ima Hogg, legendary Texas preservationist and founder of the Winedale Historical Center were occasionally seen perusing the booths. My mother took great pride when attendants rolled Ms. Hogg, probably in her eighties by then, into our booth. She was even more thrilled when she complemented her on her things, and sometimes purchased something. Meanwhile, my little brother and I ran with the other antique dealer’s kids, exploring the nearby creeks and pastures and enjoying the local food and hospitality.

I was oblivious of what was being instilled in me, and could never have imagined that all those weekends would in many ways set my course for life. Now it is obvious, but at the time it was just having something to do. We were “antiquers,” “junkers” as my dad called it. What little my dad knew about antiques, he more than made up with his skill in merchandising. Whenever mom could not sell something, he always suggested for her to go UP on the price. It was always good counsel, and worked so often that my mom became almost indignant.

My father recognized there was more going on than bargain hunting for a certain group, who needed something even more important to them; status. And to an amazingly sizable group, things only had value when they were difficult to attain, and were priced accordingly.

To be a good dealer, you have to be at least half mercenary. As another old dealer who has known and counseled me since childhood has always preached… “You can’t be in love with the stuff.” If you love it too much, then you will pay too much for it, not leaving enough room for profit, and you will not care whether you sell it or not, and thus not ever make any money. And even though my mother enjoyed antiques, she never loved things so much she would not turn them, and she made plenty of money that way. My old friend also has always told me I was too generous, giving away trade secrets. “Your knowledge is your stock and trade,” he would say. But Les Beitz got a hold of me first. So I am about half mercenary, after all. But it was the Les in me that has started several pickers in the antique pickin’ business.

This was the beginning of my education about collecting, and a more ugly topic; collectors. I grew up with half a dozen collectors hovering around my house, like sharks amongst the fishes, always finding some pretense to come in and “talk” to my mother, who was all too aware of the game. She used her reputation and “home field advantage” like a black widow. She just grinned sweetly, innocently, but now I know she understood these folks, mostly women, were driven by greed and covetousness. They were far beyond wanting what was in her shop, but wanted to get at those things she did not wish to sell. And nearly everything had its price. That was the challenge. Soon it became clear that for the passionate collector, collecting was about winning. About wanting and getting the best, most coveted, most protected treasures, from those who had them. Sometimes these were totally clueless hoarders, other times they might be someone like my mother who was “in the know.” It was an added plus to be able to say, “I got this from Margaret… from her own collection.” This was the ultimate honey hole.

In other words, “I have access to the real stuff, but you can’t even get in the door”. Often, as soon as they “conquered” her, they were calling back, wanting to relive the experience; “What else you got?” Sometimes, as the thrill would wane, they came back, even wanting to trade something back in. It was a collecting “fix” they hungered for; A shallow, materialistic, covetous game, and my mom was the ambivalent pusher. I can’t tell you how many times one of these “customers” would buy something out of our dining room while in competition with the others, only to call the next day with buyer’s remorse. The things themselves had no magic, they only represented a false promise that things always make… “If you have me, you can be satisfied.” But the collectors never were.

That illustration has recreated itself multiple times over the years as I have watched the same demons drive the collectors of my generation. And that has made me love the whole “collecting thing” less and less. I have always told myself I collected for a kind of altruistic purpose, to save the material culture of my community for future generations, so they will care and understand more about our and our forefather’s time and place. I’m worried that we are losing our identity and our story, and I want to help preserve it. The way Ms. Ima Hogg did.

So my family began to dream of living where the antiques grew on trees... out in the hinterland of Texas.. someplace in Austin or Montgomery County. We would drive on weekends and look over the landscape... Taking note of for sale signs. And then we discovered Washington County when we did an antique show there. Soon a picker for my mom said he had a place for sale...

Next time on the Navasota Current.

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