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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Collectors and collecting… Part II

In the seventies we moved to Plantersville in Grimes County, and set up an antique shop in an old mercantile building. “Bluebonnet Antiques.” Hey, in those days, bluebonnets had not yet become such a pervasive thing, but were still a quaint element in our Texas mystique.

The shop did well, and that is where we met another Texas legend to be; Milburn S. Cox, “Stuart” to a few and just “COX” to the rest of us. A long time employee of the TDC, he would swagger up on his unreliable, polio ridden legs, in his gray uniform and wacky-bent straw cowboy hat, smiling from ear to ear. Stuart would go out and shmooze with the poor black folk in the country and buy whatever he could from them, then try to sell the stuff to my mom. She would tell him the kinds of things she wanted, and he would find them. Cox had a happy, country demeanor, and a disarming charm, that served him well in buying and selling. Of proud German decent, he was somewhat of a craftsman with wood, and had an impressive wood shop in his garage. There is no telling how many warehouses you could fill with the great stuff he scavenged over the years.

Cox and I shared an interest in old saddles, spurs and other western memorabilia, and he sold me some of my most prized possessions… stuff I love too much. He kind of tricked me into repairing some of his broken and cracked stoneware, which led me into that field through the back door. He contacted me about it, since I was making pottery on the potter’s wheel at the time, and he thought his vessels could be repaired with clay. That was over my head, but I could repair them convincingly with epoxy, and about half the time the repairs turned out quite satisfactory. It felt good to give the old cracked pots new life, wholeness and beauty again.

It never occurred to me that anyone would see this as something contemptible. All of my life, my mother and I had refinished and repaired furniture, paintings and figurines. Collectors actively restored old cars, motorcycles, coke machines, juke boxes, radios and whatever. But I found out soon enough that there are those that hate restoration, and vilify those who do it. And this is understandable, as it makes collecting anything more complicated, when you have to watch out for that, as it affects the value.

Over the years I have taken up collecting barbed wire (really!), early soda bottles, old advertising signs, daguerreotypes and other early images, cowboy memorabilia, waterfowl decoys and of course Texas stoneware. As cute little boys, my brother and I got treated like young princes, as the antique dealers encouraged us, gave us incredible bargains, and indulged us like grandchildren. But invariably, whenever I entered a market as an adult into one of these areas of specialty, I encountered arrogant, territorial, ruthless, cliquish, condescending gatekeepers that did not want me there.

I’ll never forget the first time I presumed to sell some of my restored decoys on eBay. I ran into a hornet’s nest of Yankee wizards of waterfowl who attacked my credibility and intelligence based on the fact that they did not know me. How dare I show up in their little pond and offer my wares? Their restorers of choice had already been crowned. I was new to the whole thing, very excited about my projects, and very disappointed, foolishly hoping I would meet a bunch of cool sportsmen who were glad to share the hunt. What I found is what I have always found; little boys being ugly in the sandbox. Bullies playing king of the mountain.

Too many collectors I see are just self-serving hunters after a prey, predators gobbling up bargains, competing like big game hunters for the big trophy… for what? To prove their superiority, and so they snag the latest find and go stuff their garage with yet another thing they have no real use for. In most cases, it will lay there dead to mankind, its story lost upon the next generation who will dispose of it at an estate sale. I meet so many trophy hunters in this business, the antithesis of everything I believe in, who never the less are my best customers. Like wolves on the hunt, they hustle into my shop with that hungry look on their faces, ready for that fix, wanting a deal on a real trophy, scanning the room like the Terminator, barely able to make conversation. “Can you make me a deal on this?” They sigh, feigning boredom and detachment. It is their game and they think they are good at it...

“No…” I hesitate…

“Hell no,” I say,

“I’ve got way too much in that!”

Way too much… like fifty years hunting, purchasing, cherishing, educating and dealing with such junkhounds, who want desperately, and on top of that need to win to get their fix, and that means beating me in the process. It is a clash of titanic wills, theirs to acquire and mine to find worthy stewards. Instantly I recall all that relentless hounding at my doorstep as a kid… and then I bristle. Ain’t gonna’ happen!

I’d rather sell it for less to somebody who has less greed in their eyes. And that is my demon.

So now having revealed my collecting, selling, tormented inner soul, I am going to do a magnanimous thing for a "dealer". Before the wolves lap up all the remaining great stuff for glory or profit, I’m going to share all kinds of antique info, which I used to imagine was a precious commodity: My knowledge. Knowledge that could equip you in your own search for the truly unusual, historic and iconic. I’m hoping to help fire up a whole new bunch of collectors… for the right reasons of course.

Look forward to a series on Texas antiques, and collecting them, where I will attempt to explain the soul of it. The yeng and the yang of it. I’m hoping this series will interest anyone who wants to know more about Texas, her history, her peoples and products, her charm and her complexities. I have found that it is through the things of this culture that we learn and tell our stories, and pass them on from one generation to another.

You see it is not the things that are so important. It is the lives and stories they illustrate.

So I will introduce you to some of those treasures which speak volumes, if you know the language…

Next time, on the Navasota Current.

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