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1 Jerry’s Game

I walked across the street from Bruno’s shop to the antiques mall to peruse for sleepers. The Strasburg Emporium is one of the largest antiques malls on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Somehow the word had gotten across the street that I was in town with a load of Louis Vuitton, which can be a problem. More than once I have witnessed dealers rush around their booth changing prices up because I was headed down their isle. Any dealer who raises their prices for that reason is a novice or a fool or both. Said fools will display the same level of stupidity at auctions that I attend, too. They’ll run me up on a bid because they believe, incorrectly, that anything I bid on must be worth more than I am willing to pay, and so they bid higher. But no one really knows for sure what a bidder’s motivation is, except the bidder.

In the early 1980’s I ran a spongeware soap dish up at auction to $285 before I dropped out. At the time it was worth less than a hundred, but I didn’t know that and apparently neither did the high bidder. At that time I was still a novice second generation antiques dealer. The spongeware soap dish was the first that I had ever seen, and so I ran it up. Only later did I discover that the successful bidder was also a rookie. She got stuck with an $85 soap dish for which she paid too much. A few weeks later I was a vendor at an antiques show in Manassas for a day. She was there, too, set up in a booth across from me. The contentious soap dish was on display in her booth for $285. I could tell from the dealer’s sheepish behavior that by then she knew that she had paid too much. To make matters worse, the soap dish was shoplifted at the show. That dealer paid very high tuition to learn a cardinal rule: set your limit at auction and never exceed it no matter what. I do.

That incident was a long time ago. Now I’m a battle-scarred veteran in more ways than one. Dealers whisper when they see me shopping down an isle or when I take a front seat at an auction. In a way, I’m the old sheriff in town and I have earned the right to wear my badge the hard way: I’ve lost fortunes and been lucky, but mostly lost fortunes because I take risks.

Such is the life of a picker.

The Strasburg Emporium is located at the junction of Interstate 81 and 66, in its namesake village. In the olden days teamsters waylaid here over night to rest their mules and oxen from transporting milled grains, timber, furs, pottery, and everything else grown or manufactured on the early American frontier. The Shenandoah River runs swiftly nearby and Signal Knob is its backdrop. This prominent mountain, a sharp end cap to the long and high Massanutten Ridge, was used by both Union and Confederate signal corps troops during the American Civil War. They would glass for opposing troop movements using collapsing brass telescopes and then signal to friendly forces what they saw. I had been told this story many times but by luck I had also read about it in a cache of love letters written by a signalman to his sweetheart in 1863. He described a peculiar spyglass with ‘two eyepieces bound together.’ His description set me on the hunt for what ultimately proved to be a prototype pair of binoculars made by the ocular innovator, Robert B. Tolles. As I walked around to the entrance of the place of The Strasburg Emporium, my method of its discovery was still fresh and poignant.

Jerry Houff, the owner of The Strasburg Emporium, met me at the entrance in the gravel parking lot. “Hello again, Charles,” he greeted me with a smile and a handshake.

I returned his strong grip and replied, “I was in town and thought maybe I should find something to pay for my gas.” This is a colloquial expression amongst dealers indicating we’re looking to pick something with enough profit potential to offset the cost of gas for the day; a modest objective.

“Want to bet again, Charles?” he teased. “You know, to see if there’s another sleeper as rich as the Tolles prototype?”

I shrugged confidently, pushed through the entrance doors, and replied, “It’s your money.”

Jerry and I engage in this sport that we call Jerry’s Game whenever I visit The Emporium. How we got started doing it I don’t remember, but it evolved into a marketing ploy on Jerry’s part after the Tolles. Thereafter his objective was to get the “big dealer” (me) to buy something in his store so that his “little dealers” (his booth renters) would be impressed. It worked. His wait list doubled and I didn’t mind because I made my gas money. If I lost the gambit by failing to find a sleeper (an undervalued object) for the agreed upon amount, then my obligation was to rent a small booth for three months. Either way, it was a marketing coup from Jerry’s perspective, a win-win. For me the game was fun and the risk negligible. So far I have never rented space in The Strasburg Emporium.

I asked him, “What’s it going to be this time, Jerry?”

“Oh, I’ll give you a ten minute window. How much gas do you need, Charles?”

Word had traveled. About eight or ten other dealers had gathered around to watch us, and also about half a dozen nosey customers that were trying to figure out what was going on. I could hear snippets of whispered comments.

“I looked all the way around the store, pirouetting, and then checked my watch. “Let’s make it $150, or more, this time,” I suggested nonchalantly.

“Alright.” He looked at the clock on the wall. “Ten minutes … starting … now.”

Without missing so much as a beat or taking a step, I pointed and said, “I’ll take the pair of ceramic owls behind you, Jerry, on the middle shelf.”

He nearly jumped out of his handlebar mustache. “What?

“You heard me, the owls.” I tried my best to keep from grinning and poked with my index finger in the direction of the fifth shelf where a matched pair of Picasso chouette owls perched. Jerry had his own items for sale on display just inside the door behind the front reception desk, where we were standing.

“But, but you don’t even know what I have on them.”

He meant their price.

I kept a poker face. “I can see that the amount is three digits in the reflection of the price tag in the backmirror, so they can only be priced so high.”

For a moment he stood locked in place looking at them with his hands on his hips. He was wearing an argyle sweater vest, jeans, and white sneakers. Perhaps he was mentally willing them to fly away. Dejected, he finally forced himself, one by one, to place them on the counter. The advertised sticker price was $495 for the pair.

“Do you still have my current tax exempt form on file, right Jerry?”

His shoulders slumped. “Maybe,” he faux-sulked.

I managed to keep my poker face even though inside I was hysterical. I knew Jerry well enough to know that he was elated and that he was working the crowd that had formed. I also knew that he was suffering more from having me find something under his very nose within five seconds of the start of – his – game, than for the loss of a higher profit. More onlookers had gathered around the counter to hear the details. By now the rules of the game were known by all and everyone was waiting anxiously for me to reveal the details. I picked up one and then the other and looked at each of their bottoms. Their bottoms were covered with green felt. An explanation was in order. The on-looking dealers were straining not to miss the lesson.

I explained, “Jerry, someone covered the hollow bottoms of the two figures with green felt. Because no one looked under the felt the pair remained unidentified until now.” And with a thumb I pushed in the green felt, grabbed the loose edge, and gently pulled it away revealing clear markings. I lifted it for all to see.

“Picasso,” the crowd whispered in unison in mutual epiphany, and then I lifted the other one. By the onlookers’ reactions Jerry realized that whatever he had lost by not identifying the two pieces as Picassos, he would gain back in PR. He had inadvertently tapped into the collective consciousness of his niche market: collectors and collectors who rent space. This particular episode of Jerry’s Game would remain his favorite for years to come. Ultimately, it had wide-reaching effect. A couple of issues later in the year this episode of the game appeared in The Maine Antique Digest as national news.

“What’s it worth?” someone in the crowd asked. Others echoed the question within the noise of the general hubbub of excitement. Rather than be a curmudgeon and not disclose, I decided that the best course of action was to turn the event into a PR double whammy for both of us by teaching those present what I knew.

I answered the voice asking the question, “Well, at auction a matched pair of Picasso owls in this condition might fetch $10,000 dollars.” More gallery noise erupted and subsided as they eagerly waited for additional information.

From the back someone hollered, “Is that retail or wholesale?”

I answered, “Retail. Many collectors buy at auction these days. That makes an auction result difficult to distinguish. Some hammer prices are retail and others are wholesale. In this case, $10,000 would be retail.”

Someone else asked, “I didn’t know he made ceramic pieces like these. So, how do you know it is really by Picasso?”

I nodded in the direction of the voice and thought of what to say, as I remembered the part that I couldn’t tell them – that in one of my earlier incarnations I had met Picasso in 1937 in a café in Montmartre. I was a war photographer fresh from the carnage at Guernica with a briefcase full of black and whites. What I showed him changed his life. What I told the group before me was just part of the story. “I was in Barcelona last year. They have a wonderful museum there dedicated to Picasso. I saw a lot of Picasso’s work. Perusing museums might be time-consuming and expensive, but the payoff can be substantial, as you have witnessed with your own eyes here. Specimens like these were represented under a glass dome in the museum and there were thousands of other forms of his ceramics. Picasso had a relatively large line of ceramics: plates, bowls, figurines, vases, and other utility wares designed with the mass market in mind. Art was a business as well as a compulsion for Picasso. He was one of the few who madethat combination successful, and that is rare. The key ingredients for success in the art world seem to be talent, business acumen, productivity, longevity, and a bit of luck. Picasso had all of the above in spades. And that, my friends, is the perfect transition I was looking for to present Jerry with a proposition,” I turned to Jerry who had a what-the-heck look on his face.

“What proposition, Charles?” he asked quizzically. He was practically quivering.

“I want to set an example here with this episode of Jerry’s Game,” I turned to the audience, “as Jerry and I call it if you didn’t already know.” I looked around the room at all of the faces. They looked at me like deer in headlights not comprehending my next move.  

 

 

2 Don’t Glean the Field

A sizable crowd had gathered around the front counter at The Strasburg Emporium. They had just witnessed the latest episode of Jerry’s Game. As usual, I had won and Jerry had lost. My profit advantage was an estimated $9,500 gross. I could have walked out the door with the Picasso owls and Jerry would have still been happy because the stunt had accomplished what he had designed it to do: to provide publicity for Jerry’s Strasburg Emporium, which ensured that his wait list would remain long; however, there was, I perceived, a much larger public relations feat to be harvested on this occasion, although my motives included reasons other than publicity.

The world of antiques was changing rapidly and I felt like I had my foot caught in the gears as changes beyond my control swept over the trade and my life. It felt like I was already behind the ball even though I had just reinvented myself as an accredited appraiser. I hesitated a few moments thinking, and then figured my reputation as an appraiser could be strengthened by a bit of public teaching.

But that wasn’t the whole of it.

There was yet another impetus and it was linked to my Old Soul thing. Even as a child, I had a sixth sense of understanding of human nature beyond what others seemed to possess. I didn’t really understand it. I still don’t, but I have realized that when I teach others the act of sharing somehow opens channels in my mind. More of my past experiences flood in even as my mouth lectures. It’s almost like an out of body experience, as if someone else is speaking as I watch. Sharing serves both the students and me. I have come to accept it as an obligation that has its origins in yet an unidentified Old Soul. Perhaps one day he will be revealed.

I explained to the onlookers, “This lesson is called, Don’t Glean the Field. I believe this ancient expression has its origin in agriculture. It was first mentioned in The Bible, but the lesson has been forgotten by our modern culture. The adage is simple: don’t take it all. Leave something for others less fortunate.”

Blank stares were aimed in my direction. I realized that if I went on for two more seconds half of them would tip over in a coma. My sermon was about to get spicier in ten seconds more but it looked like they weren’t going to be able to hold even on even that long.

I fluctuated my intonation, leaning forward slightly and they responded in kind, leaning in as if anxious for some secret to be shared. “When you make a transaction in the antiques business, or ideally, any business, be fair. Be generous. And be thoughtful of others. Leave something in the field. A farmer’s harvesting machine is imperfect; it fails to pick up every cob of dried corn. Thus the machine’s inherent imperfection leaves a tiny portion of the harvest in the field. Some farmers return to the field to glean what remains by hand or they allow their livestock to graze the field after harvest. But the wise farmer intentionally leaves the ungleaned portion of his crop in the field for wildlife, such as deer and Canada geese. In ancient times an ungleaned field would have benefitted the poor. People would be the gleaners, not geese. It was a form of welfare.

A voice said, “I don’t get it, Mister. Why The Bible story when the topic is Picasso?”

I looked up and then around at the blank faces. Jerry was sitting on a tall stool, elbows on his glass countertop, hands holding up his head.

“Because, sir, I’m about to demonstrate my generosity, here and now.” I looked to my friend. “Jerry?”

Jerry nearly fell off his stool. “Yes sir!” He stood, almost at attention and straightened his vest over his protruding belly.

I peeled off bills from roll of cash in my pocket. That woke up the coma-types. Color returned to all of the faces, and it was mostly green. “Here’s full payment for the two ceramic figures, $495.”

I looked at the faces.

“Notice, folks that I did not ask for a dealer’s discount even though by custom I am entitled to ask. Not asking for the discount is Part One of the Glean Protocol. Its definition is: in the event of a large windfall, be a decent chap, don’t strip the poor sod of a measly ten percent discount just because you can. You’re about to rake in a big one. That’s enough. The $495 owls are worth ten grand. Got it? Don’t glean the field.” There were a lot of understanding nods but there were also a few who shuffled their feet; I’d struck a chord. There was a general rumble of agreement interspersed with ‘I-woulds and why-nots?’

I pressed on with my philosophy.

“Now, Jerry, I want to do one more thing to make my ‘Don’t Glean the Field’ point. We’ve been friends for decades, right?”

He nodded and shrugged his shoulders. One could hear a pin drop. An old lady jumped when a Coke machine compressor whirred on in the break area twenty feet to the side. Across the room I saw a hula girl lamp from the early 50’s suddenly do her thing amidst a collection of neon advertising signs.

“Yeah, sure Charles, I’ve known you a million years at least, it seems.”

“Well, rather than scalp you on this transaction I want to include you in my harvest.”

“Huh?” Jerry grunted quizzically.

“The Picassos, Jerry, I want you to sell them for me and we’ll split the proceeds, 50-50.” The crowd suddenly came alive in a rumble of surprise. I asked him before the hubbub subsided, “Are you OK with that?”

Jerry gulped down a large lump in his throat. “You don’t have to do that, Charles.”

“I know, Jerry, but I want to. Consider this action Part Two of The Glean Protocol.”

He was nonplussed.

To lighten the mood of the moment I explained my attentions, “Since I have $495 in the two owls, any amount we net more than $495 we split down the middle. You broker them. Price them at $10k here in the mall and if they haven’t sold by first frost, put them on eBay.”

“Why not put them on eBay now?” someone asked.

I answered, “Spring is now in the air my friends. It’s low season. This is the time of the year when people are falling back in love with their John Deere lawn mowers.” People laughed and stirred. “If they’re mowing, gardening, golfing, swimming, etc., then they’re not in front of their computers bidding for eBay stuff. In effect, the eBay window narrows from April to first frost.” I turned to Jerry, “You can log it in now, but set the start date on or about October fifteenth and run it for seven days. Starting bid, $300. Set the reserve at $9500. Winner pays for shipping, and insurance is mandatory. Make sense?”

“Yes sir,” Jerry almost saluted.

I started to head out but the onlookers wanted more. “What other tips can you tell us?” someone asked.

Jerry’s assistant blocked the exit by handing me a cup of coffee just the way I like it, two brown sugars and easy on the half-and-half. She winked at me and smiled when she detected the expression of resignation behind my eyes. “Like what?” I turned and replied in the general direction of the question. I took a sip and noticed that I had been tarrying for almost an hour. A chorus of questions from every direction ensued until I waved them to silence. “OK, OK, I see that you all like eBay. Probably many of you use it as a means to turn over slow-moving merch,” heads nodded, “or esoteric stuff unsuitable to the local market,” more heads wagged, “and of course there is always stuff of regional interest elsewhere. Am I right?”

Positive noise ensued as I made use of the moment to morph a Dunkin Doughnuts coffee grimace into a grin. “OK, five minutes and then I have to push off.”

There was general agreement: something is better than nothing.

“You all know the rule, ‘Closest to Point of Origin,’ right?” There were grunts of understanding but also a few blank stares. “OK, in case you don’t…demand for something is always strongest the closer it is presented for sale to where it was made because that is usually where the most number of collectors are.” This time there were nods of understanding all around.

“OK, that’s one,” a voice said.

“Two, the esoteric stuff sells on eBay because the niche for it is narrow and probably not in your market. Hot water bottles with douche accessories mint in their original cardboard and cellophane box were once an example of the esoteric.” A few of the ladies blushed. “Put that out on your table here in The Emporium and it’ll turn to stone before it sells, but if you put it on eBay you’ll have people fighting over it. Don’t ask me why or we’ll have to do CPR on one or two of you that don’t get out much. Suffice it is to say that hot water bottles that I have sold always end up going to customers with addresses in San Francisco.” That brought down the house. One or two initially blank faces guffawed late after someone explained my veiled meaning, but they all chuckled or tittered. “By the way, hot water bottles are passé, or so say an old army buddy of mine that I coached early on in his addiction. They are no longer hot. Pardon the pun. I don’t know what is hot right now in the esoteric line of collectibles.”

Someone said, “Three.”

I looked his way. “OK, three. Peak eBay season is from first frost to Pearl Harbor Day. After December 7th people are too busy with the holiday, which causes demand on eBay to subside, but then it switches back on again after grandma’s Christmas checks clear and trust fund babies have received their annual funding. That would be from around January fifth until they crank on their John Deere tractors in the springtime. Do keep in mind that this is a mid-Atlantic observation; other latitudes are different. The Rule varies with latitudinal location of the seller and the buyer.” There were slow nods of comprehension and a few were jotting down notes.

“Four. Identify buyer distractions. What could they, the buyers, possibly be doing or be distracted by when your auction item matures? What distractions might there be scheduled on TV? You do not want the auction to mature right in the middle of the final episode of Dancing With the Stars, or some other foolish thing that might be distracting possible bidders.

“Five. This is the final tip because I have some work to do, folks. Take into account the age of the prospective buyer for whatever it is that you are trying to sell. For instance, nesting-age customers on the Left Coast should have put their kids to bed when your auction item ends. I’d give then a half hour or more to settle in and regain their enthusiasm before my items mature, if I were you.” I looked at Jerry. “The Picasso auction needs to end at 9:30 PM on the west coast. Wednesday and Sundays are best, by the way. Got that, Jerry?”

“Sure Charles,” he replied emphatically. “It makes perfect sense, right guys?” He raised both arms out, palms up. There is a general rush of approval and faces beamed in my direction.

“Folks, I need to hit the road again.” I stood to excuse myself. A round of applause erupted from the crowd. I bowed slightly in acknowledgement as Jerry grabbed me with a bear hug.

The generosity I showed Jerry with the Picassos was repaid exponentially. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ken Neumann, a Maine Antiques Digest correspondent was present for the whole shebang. Normally a dealer avoids publicity because it can make dickering with sellers more difficult, but Jerry’s Game benefited me as much as it did him because it went viral after Neumann’s article. As a result of my one small act of kindness, according to Neumann’s article in MAD, I have ‘Unwittingly become a legend in my own time.’ Ken may be right. Over the course of the next eighteen months I engaged twenty-five to thirty different clients for appraisals and even more for consultations. Since I was edging my way out of the retail field and into appraisal work, this worked well for me as well.

More importantly though, the ‘Don’t Glean the Field’ lesson became a much talked about concept. It transcended the antiques trade. My niece, Anna, a JMU Business School student, chose it for her thesis topic. A year later a Hollywood screenwriter wrote a story based on her paper.

 

To be continued… Publication date: Fall 2014