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Monday, November 14, 2011

Hard lessons in antiquing… The 7up List

Every kid once pretended he was a pirate. Pirates were the traffickers of buried treasure, and that was an exotic and sensational prize. When I first started collecting, it had that mystique about it; Searching all over, learning to read clues, absorbed in the hunt, you were focused, and determined. The prize was out there. You had to find it. And the fun part about the search was that not everybody was aware of the value of your prize. They might be using it for a door stop, or a dog bowl. It might have been thrown away in some dry gulch, waiting for someone to retrieve it. It might be put up for sale in a garage sale by uninformed and thus unworthy owners. Better yet, it might be on a shelf of a country junk shop, dusty and neglected and begging for recognition. Often covered under a bunch of worthless rubble, it often felt like a treasure hunt when you dug around some old and time-forgotten place.

And there were so many different kinds of treasure. There was the obvious gold and silver coins, and old money, and things made of precious metals; watches, jewelry, serving sets. But more exciting to me were things that told stories. Old guns and tools, and arrowheads. We bought metal detectors and spent countless hours methodically searching likely areas for buried artifacts. But that was often hard work, requiring some hefty digging to recover an … old rusty bath tub leg or a bent horseshoe. Soon we learned more profitable ventures, like rifling through old dumps. Every settlement, large or small had a dumping ground, where people disposed of their unwanted glass and crockery for perhaps fifty or a hundred years. We found promising places very near our home in Satsuma, and kept an eye open for promising looking gulches.

Once we found a great little dump on Malcomson Road, south of Tomball, where we found one of the all time great stashes. My brother and I had already gone over the spot, dug here and there, and were convinced there was nothing of value. When our dad heard we had given up, he became disgusted and made us go back. He guaranteed we would find something. He was like that. So we went back and looked again. Still, we dug around in a spot we thought the loot might be, with no luck. Then our dad got out of the car and began to kick around on the very top of a sea of rusty cans. We had gone too deep, to the layer that might cough up pre-turn of the Century bottles. The cans were almost fifty years old, and never disturbed again since they had been dumped, and now soft and fragile, they disintegrated in our hands as we dug. Suddenly old brown, squatty 7-up bottles began to show up. Some were like new and were from the 1930’s. We had a field day, thrashing through the old rotted cans like bulldozers, and ultimately found a whole case of the bottles. Some of them still had all the paint, and were worth fifty bucks apiece, even then.

That was our first lesson in this collecting adventure. Never make assumptions, never quit looking, never leave a stone unturned. When you enter a building, look down, look up, look underneath things, up in closet, in the attic… You never know.

My brother Reynolds and I went to Canton's First Monday Trade Days the next month and put out the bottles on the table. Suddenly we were big shots. I must have been sixteen and he was thirteen. The sharks swooped in and out- foxed us pretty quickly. They begged and begged to trade with us, perhaps we would like some nice colorful medicines or bitters bottles... The collectors at Canton Trade Days were the worst about squirming and begging, almost like you owed them to let them beat you in an unfair trade. They kept offering junk we did not want. We just wanted the money. But we did not find many collectors there that used money unless you put a gun their head. I saw what was coming, so I divided up the bottles, telling Reynolds to do what he wanted with his half. Soon many were gone and he was looking blankly at some old “stomachic bitters” bottle, and other unimpressive glass medicine bottles. After they got all of his, they swooped on me like a vengeance. By now the word was out. The booth became Custer’s last stand, as we grew tired of the eager interest in our old 7-up bottles. They relentlessly hounded us until we coughed them up, for less than wholesale prices. That was a hard lesson, and it was not easy to say NO to grown-ups, who keep pressuring you. But it sure was fun being a big shot for a few hours.

Easy come, easy go.

That brought up the second big lesson; Time is your friend. If you keep it, it will only be worth more. Use time to your advantage. Antiques are not fruit or vegetables, they will not rot or go bad. Make the collector sweat. After all, his whole existence depends on getting your stuff. The show might end and he has not gotten what he wanted. Make him be the one who breaks down.

But I had not learned my lesson very well. While in college I ran upon a trunk load of old antique Texas license plates. 1938-1955. Mint, never issued, still had the paper between the plates. I swaggered out to Canton like I was a big shot, unloaded my boxes of treasures, and had them strewn across the grass like a real operator. Suddenly they converged on me. Will you take a check? Can you break a hundred? What will you take for them all? I ran to get some change, and while I was gone, somebody lifted all the 1944 War tags. That was worth around five bills. Disgusted, I sold off the remainder and only brought home some damaged ones. I made around four hundred dollars, but I lost more than I made.

Lesson number three, four and five: Never underestimate your success. Treat it like a business. BE PREPARED. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Don’t squander your great treasure finds. Watch your stuff like a hawk, the first thing that will happen is somebody will take advantage of you. Do your homework, and know enough about your product to fake it BEFORE you set up.

Years later I had a booth at Canton and I had a really nice pair of old Kelly spurs for sale; early Kellys, before they were marked with the famous stamp. All weekend the cowboy collectors came jingling by, looking at my spurs, tight-lipped, grunting to each other, indignant that someone like me had such treasures. I wasn’t even a real cowboy guy. They did not know me. I must be stupid. So they made ridiculous offers, trades and whatever. They questioned the maker. Complained about the mark. If they keep coming back, berating you and your merchandise, that is a good sign! And there was whining and gnashing of teeth. Some guys made several visits to my booth, unable to hide their eager interest. They were trying to use time as their weapon. But I knew, at the very worst, I would go home and hang those great old spurs on my cowboy wall, until I found somebody smart enough to pay me for them.

Good old Walt Rambo, a spur maker and spur expert happened to be showing nearby, so I took them down for his opinion. He did not want to make things any harder for his friends, as the spurs had been a topic for discussion at his both as well. But he told me they were probably good old “honest” (good original condition, not repaired or cleaned) spurs as he liked to call them. That was all I needed to know.

You can never know it all, so always welcome an opinion you trust.

Come about 4:30 that evening, as everybody was starting to pack up, one of my cowboy guys, the biggest whiner of all, came back and made me a fair offer. Time had been my best friend. And when it comes to antiques, it always will be.

That’s the 7up List. Made by learning the hard way. I’ll always keep one of those bottles around to remind me. Antiques often make good object lessons as well!

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