inAugust 3, 2012 - 7:10am
It is 1971; I am in a huge former sea freight warehouse on the Boston waterfront. It is the second or third antique show where I hope to dispose of excess flea market accumulations in order to raise money to afford more flea market accumulations. Collecting Maxfield Parrish gets me to flea markets; a desire to acquire old stuff gets me in trouble and puts me here.
My day job is finding a day job, currently drafting at an architectural firm. I dare not imagine my hobby as career.
I walk over to the booth on my right. I pick up a multi-colored tin match safe covered in dragons. The dealer approaches. Skinny with straggly hair and a twitchy intensity, he reminds me of Frank Zappa. His name is Abba. We will see each other often over the coming years. I ask the price of the match safe. Forty-five dollars he says watching me. I put it down asking a question, which, over the next forty years, I will come to loath, “Why so expensive?”
Abba takes it in his hand like a precious gem. He tells me to look at the colors, detail, and near-mint condition. How do you put a price on something so fantastic he asks? I remain skeptical. But I am impressed with Abba’s audacity to ask such a high price and pitch it so convincingly.
Why does this exchange feel seminal to me? The worth of an object is created in the mind and eye of the beholder. As antique dealers, we decide worth and are either validated by selling it or rebuffed by having it collect dust in the bottom of a worn out cardboard box. That was the point Abba had so effectively demonstrated.
That weekend I learned more about the business from a dealer named Mark.
Like Abba, Mark was about my age, twenty-two. On his table, he had a collection of still and mechanical banks. I was surprised that someone so young could accumulate an inventory in such an expensive collectible.
Mark was generous in sharing details about his specialty. He told me he had the names of every major collector of mechanical banks. Not surprisingly, most were bankers. He said that there were four rare banks that should he find any one of them in good condition he was guaranteed a ten thousand dollar sale. This revelation caught my attention. My yearly income was about eight thousand dollars at the time. Mark cautioned me about a line of reproduction mechanical banks. He said that dealers would remove the identifying marks on these and sell them as originals. Mark produced a set of pages containing base tracings
These two encounters may seem trivial to anyone who has been selling antiques for a while but they are some of my first. I still occasionally see Abba and Mark and we say hello. I don’t imagine that they remember the first time they met me but I remember the first time I met them and the fundamentals that I learned from them.
Written by Christopher Osborne
City Lights on Ruby Lane