How to Make $20,000 a Year in Antiques and Collectibles: Without Leaving Your Job
By Bruce E. Johnson
List the Kinds of Antiques That Interest You
The best way to begin in this business of antiques is to sit down with a new notebook and start making lists. List Number One is going to consist of any areas that interest you, regardless of how remote they may seem. If there is a jar of old clay marbles on your bureau that has always fascinated you, put it down; if you love walnut Victorian furniture, note that: if you've always wanted to collect first edition books, that goes on your list, too.
The purpose of this list is twofold: first, it will make you realize that today's antiques and collectibles aren't restricted to French Provincial furniture, Sandwich glass, Duncan Phyfe tables, and Chinese porcelain; second, it will put you in touch with what you enjoy. George Bernard Shaw is credited with saying, "Happy is the man who can make his living from his hobby," and that is our goal, or, at the very least "adding to our living."
List Number One doesn't have to be limited to areas in which you already have started to collect, either. Perhaps you don't own any old quilts, but if you have fond memories of your grandmother's quilting frame surrounded by a half dozen of her friends on a sunny winter's afternoon, trading gossip and piecing together a coverlet for a sick neighbor, you may have the urge to learn more about quilts and eventually to start buying, collecting, and selling them.
Right now, though, it is not imperative that you narrow your field of interest to just one specific area. Let it grow to four or five areas, for experience may soon teach you that because of factors beyond your control, such as where you live, one of your choices may realistically be impractical. Early American antiques, for example, are harder to find in Seattle, Washington, than they are in Providence, Rhode Island. That does not entirely rule them out as one of your interests if you live in Seattle, however, for if no one else there expects to run across a legitimate hand-grained blanket chest or knows how to identify one, you can find some great "steals" where no one else even bothered to look. But in general, keeping your options open to several different possibilities will prevent you from prematurely specializing in an area that may not turn out to be your best choice.
The law of supply and demand is a major consideration we need to examine closely. In the field of antiques, people don't collect what they can't find. You may be fascinated by match-book covers from North Dakota, but if not enough of them are available to spur an interest in collectors outside of North Dakota, then your accumulation is destined to remain a novelty rather than a valuable collectible.
Fortunately for us, there seems to be a collector for nearly every type of antique and collectible, including, perhaps, matchbook covers from North Dakota. Still, the greater the supply, the more easily you can build your inventory; the greater the demand, the faster you can both sell your antiques and count your profits.
The Three General Antiques Categories
Hundreds of items already have established themselves as being blue chip antiques investments; these we will label Establishment Antiques, a category that includes such standard-bearers as Chippendale chairs and Derby porcelain. Others have just recently attracted national attention - especially from a new and younger generation of collectors - and will remain in the category of Collectibles until interest in them stabilizes and is reflected in steadily escalating prices. Coca-Cola memorabilia and Maxfield Panish prints are but two of dozens of collectibles that are currently hot. And then there are those that are just about to burst onto the antiques scene. Tomorrow's Antiques some dealers like to call them. If you can predict what those will be, chances are that you can snap them up at bargain prices and then simply wait for the rest of the country to suddenly sit up and take notice.
A recent example of this most profitable - yet somewhat risky - betting on the future occurred when the farm implement giant International Harvester folded late in 1984. The day after the closing announcement was made a friend of mine drove to several International Harvester dealerships and bought nearly $900 worth of the I.H. toy tractors, plows, and wagons that the company had for sale on its counters. Without even disturbing the original boxes he packed them all away in his attic, figuring that within a year he could sell just half of his inventory and recoup all of his $900 investment. The rest would be pure profit. Judging from the number of antique toy collectors who are already anxious to add pieces of International Harvester to their collections, his profit will be more than just a modest one.
Needless to say, the best of the Collectibles are already making their way into the major auction houses and thus are destined someday to make the jump to Establishment Antiques; these are the stuff success stories are made of, for unlike an original Picasso painting, a signed Gustav Stickley bookcase can still be uncovered in the back of an antiques shop or in the basement of a house and bought for but a fraction of its current value. The smart collector will hopefully find something on his or her List Number One that falls under the category of Collectibles, for here is where profits are made by those who are sharp enough to spot what others, including (or especially!) the more traditional auctioneers and dealers, are too blind to see.
Our third category is to the antiques collector what penny stocks are to the Wall Street investor: cheap long shots. Most of the items now classified as Collectibles were at one time considered cheap long shots, but while a few of Tomorrow's Antiques may someday move up a category, most are destined in our lifetime to remain novelties that require little investment and offer only long shot profit potential.
Inventory the Antiques You Already Own
Once you have completed List Number One (realizing, of course, that it is subject to constant change, revision, and sharpening of focus as you get further and further into the antiques field and begin to discover what your interests are, what is available in your area, and what is in demand by dealers and collectors), start a second list in your notebook. This one is an inventory of the antiques you already own. Some, such as family pieces or those with sentimental significance, should never be sold, but those that you have grown tired of. that don't fit your decorating scheme any longer, or that you never got around to repairing or refinishing should be identified, appraised, and considered as potential selling or trading material for the antiques you are going to be seeking.
Your inventory list will be undergoing constant change, so get into the habit of both updating it regularly and including every piece of important information regarding each item. Your description should be detailed. Right now you may only have one "Oak Rocking Chair/' but will that be true six, twelve, or eighteen months from now when you have a buyer interested in an oak rocker of yours, but you can't recall whether that's the one you paid $10 for at a yard sale or $70 at an auction? Change "Oak Rocking Chair" to "Pressed Back Oak Rocker, Hand Caned Seat, Eight Spindle Back, No Arms, Height 47 in.. Original Finish." Along with a description, assign a number to each piece and include where and when you obtained it. the purchase price, any repairs or restoration costs and any historical significance unique to it. All of this information will be invaluable when you determine your selling price and thus how much profit you made on each particular item.
Start Reading Everything in the Field
Al this point you have List Number One, a preliminary list of perhaps four or five areas that interest you, and List Number two, an inventory of your antiques and collectibles. Your next step is to start reading. If you don't already subscribe to your local daily newspaper, call the circulation department today and get delivery started immediately. And keep your receipt, even if it is just the stub from the paper carrier. The antiques business is exactly like any other business, and since you are going to have to pay income tax on the profits you show, you had better take the legitimate business deductions the IRS has determined you are entitled to (more on that later - for the time being follow this one basic bookkeeping rule: save and label everything).
Savvy stock investors learn to read newspapers from back to front, not because they don't know any better, but simply because the information that is most important to them - the daily stock quotations - is printed in the back of the Wall Street Journal. Even though we may be reading the Daily Babble or the Evening Disappointment rather than the Journal, anyone interested in antiques should be practicing the same technique. Up until now, reading the classified section may only have signified that the paper was ready for the bottom of the birdcage, but tucked inside that fine print the astute reader can find antiques and collectibles that thousands of other subscribers don't even know exist.
Start making it a habit to read the "Antiques for Sale," "Household Goods," "Miscellaneous for Sale," "Garage Sales," and "Upcoming Auction" classifieds before you begin worrying about the headlines on the front page. You'll also find it advantageous either to look through the classified section as soon as you get home from work or, if possible, within minutes of press time, just to get the jump on other dealers and collectors. You should also make it a point to pick up a copy of any weeklies and advertisers on the day that they are published; their ads are generally unclassified, so you have to read the entire paper to make sure you don't miss anything of special interest to you.
At this point you are not so much concerned with making calls or buying or selling antiques as you are with getting both a reading habit established and a feel for what is being bought and sold through classified ads. If you do spot any "Wanted to Buy" ads with references to items that are or might be on your list of areas of interest, copy the name, phone number, and information into your notebook. Later, even if weeks or months later, you will have someone to call when you have something to sell. Do the same for any ads that offer services you might someday have a need for; if American glassware is one of your interests, for instance, it will pay you to know whom to call when you are in need of a glass restoration specialist.
Another reading habit you are going to want to establish will involve bookstores and libraries. Reading has become popular again, as shown by the number of bookstores in all the shopping malls across the country. While your spouse is trying on shoes or debating which Baskin-Robbins flavor will tempt you off your diet, slip into a nearby bookstore to check out the selections in the Antiques aisle. You could invest a small fortune in all the antiques books available, but you will need only one or two to begin with.
You'll Need to Buy Only a Few Books
First, pick out a book that covers one or more of your areas of interest in detail. Depending on your field of interest there may only be one or two to choose from or there may be a half dozen. Antiques books don't generally get extensively reviewed, so you are going to have to rely on your own judgment to determine which is the best for you.
Naturally, sharp, clear photographs and/or illustrations are a plus, as is a detailed index. Check out the author's credentials on the back flyleaf as well. Blurbs from antiques publications are pretty much meaningless, since just about any publishing house can find someone somewhere to say something nice about the book, even if just for a free examination copy.
A Good Price Guide Is a Must
Your second selection should be a good price guide. Here more than anywhere else the publication date is very important, for an out-of-date price guide is about as useful as an old prom dress. Any price guides more than three years old run the risk of being both outdated and misleading. When given the choice, select the newer of two price guides.
The growing trend is for any publisher or antiques writer who has published or written everything he or she has to say about antiques to come out with their own price guide. Read the introduction carefully to see where the suggested prices came from, for many times there will be a great deal of difference between a price guide based on major East Coast auction houses and one that represents an informal survey of antiques dealers across the country. If you live on the East Coast and plan to frequent the major auction houses, then select a price guide reflecting their prices. If you are more apt to be traveling around the country, shop for a price guide based on a cross-section of regional dealers.
At best, a price guide can only give you a general idea of what some antiques are selling for in some sections of the country, for they have several inherent weaknesses. First, most of them are out of date before they ever reach the bookstore; second, they generally do not take into consideration geographical influences on prices.