You can pay anything for anything these days.

here’s a really old picture of me.

It’s 4:30 pm April 20, 2018, and I am declaring it spring.  I just had to run out to my friends place on the edge of town to deliver a painting I had cleaned for them, and when I got out of the car, I thought,  “Hallelujah. at last, it’s spring.  What a long wait it has been for us here in south-west Ontario this year.  But it’s like being beaten over the head with a two by four, it feels so good once it’s over. I point this out to say it took a lot of will power to reject the offer of a beer and sitting on the porch for a spell for me to write this,  but I met a guy at the market last week who pointed out he noticed I was getting a bit irregular in writing every Friday as I was until recently, and he gently encouraged me to get with it.  It doesn’t take much to make me feel guilty apparently.  But what does this have to do with economics you ask.  Well nothing, but the arrival of spring could not go without comment.

What got me to thinking about economics this week is a new pair of blue jeans I bought at Costco.   I buy clothes only when necessary which at my age is rarely.  I’ve got a lot of clothes and not many occasions when I need to dress up,  plus I am not much of a shopper.  Anyway, seventeen bucks.  I got a really nicely made jeans of quality fabric that fit me and look good for less than the price of a coffee and a snack at Starbucks. I also had the occasion that day to be in the Bay and I saw some designer jeans for about $240.  I didn’t like the fancy stitching on the back pockets but I suppose it was there so people knew you hadn’t bought your jeans at Costco for seventeen bucks, and that’s fine with me. I’m not going to diss anybody for wanting to make a statement with their clothes, if that’s what makes you feel better.  It just doesn’t do anything for me.  I also know that if I looked around I could probably find a pair of jeans for $5, but if you want them to last you’re better off to spend a little more.   My point is you can spend $15 or you can spend $245, or more for a pair of men’s jeans. You can pay anything for anything these days

Next example.  We were at our daughter’s house and over breakfast she said to her husband “when you go out to get the groceries I would like you to go to a hardware store and get a new drip coffee maker.” This was the direct result of having to listen to me once more mutter under my breath when I tried to pour myself a cup of coffee and inevitably, no matter how hard you tried, the stupid spout of the carafe was so tiny that you ended up spilling all over the counter.  That, and the fact that it no longer had a lid and she doesn’t like the smell of coffee.  I find this hard to relate to because I love the smell of coffee, but I did agree with her that the spilling thing was a pain in the ass.  Of course it is not in my nature to replace anything that still works so I objected. I would have put up with that stupid carafe until the thing died a natural death.   Also, the fact is that neither of them drink coffee so the coffee maker is just there for us or other coffee drinking guests so is rarely used.  But she showed great determination so I headed out with my son in law, figuring that I would jump in at the last minute and buy the device as a hostess gift. As it turns out he wouldn’t let me do this but I digress. We went first to the local Loblaws for the groceries on our list, and low and behold, there in the middle isle was a very nice little coffee maker on sale for $22.   Amazing.  It has a spout that pours, a lid, a cleanable filter so you don’t have to  buy and dispose the paper filters, and I can tell it makes a much better cup of coffee than the old one.  I think I may have learned something from the experience. Spending $22 to not have to wipe up spilled coffee is a good move.  When I got home and looked at the Canadian Tire catalogue I noticed you can spend anywhere from $12 to about $350 for a drip coffee maker.  You can pay anything, for anything these days.

This seems to be the case for most items these days thanks to diverse world economics, and the modernization of manufacturing, and I think it’s a pretty good thing overall.   The frugal or poor can buy pretty good things for not much money, and the wealthy have an ever increasing selection to choose from.  However, I think it also makes people suspicious of their understanding of the monetary value of things.

This has always been an issue that antique and art dealers have had to deal with.  When you are asking $350 for a  100 year old rocking chair, there is no price in a catalogue to refer to.  There is just your knowledge of antiquity and markets which the buyer either believes in or not.  I believe that a lot of established, knowledgeable dealers do a good and fair job of pricing, but it is also the case with the way the markets are now that you see prices all over the place.  Recently, a painting by a folk artist that I represented for years sold at auction for $870.  I sold that painting in my shop for $495, and I know of other auctions were similar paintings by the same artist have sold for less than $100.

I once overheard a couple of old time dealers haggling over the price of a chair.  “Well I agree that it is a very nice chair in original paint and great condition but why is it priced at $600.” The other guy looked him strait in the face and said “because I paid $5 for it”.  Ha. They both laughed, and the questioning fellow knew that his negotiation technique was failing but you get the point.  You can pay anything, for anything these days. He may have only had to pay $5 but his knowledge of antiques made him realize it was worth much more. I think this is the basic appeal behind the business. It’s a treasure hunt.  That, and a love for the stuff.  You need that too, or you will never be able to make a go of it.

And don’t get me started on how this affects you when you are trying to do a decent job of appraising items for fair market value.  That’s a topic for another day. I’ve gone on long enough. It’s sunny on the porch and I am dying to go out there and have a beer.  I’m not a big beer drinker mind you.  Don’t touch the stuff all winter, and really don’t drink much in the summer, but on the first day of spring, who would deny me?  Happy spring everyone.

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How I gained an appreciation of painted furniture

mid nineties at the church.
lots of painted furniture

Some people are brought into an appreciation of antique painted furniture by encouragement from a relative or friend who is  a collector.  Some come to it through self-discovery and research.  Some, perhaps most, don’t come to it at all.   It depends on how you’re wired.   Early antique painted furniture is relatively rare and so you don’t even see it all that often, so many people do not know it even exists.

corner washstand in original butter yellow paint over blueberry stain from Thamesville, Ont.

In my case,  I was brought up in a house with several antiques inherited from my mother’s family.  I had a great uncle in Chatham who made furniture so we had a few of his pieces.  All either cherry or walnut and all in original varnish.  I enjoyed going with my mother and uncle to antique shops and  auctions, and occasionally they would buy something.  Although these were mostly of the decorating or serving dish variety.  My father didn’t seem to care much about the furnishings as long as he had a comfortable chair to sit in and was happy to leave it up to my mother.  It wasn’t all about antiques. If we needed a new couch or bed,  my parents would buy a new item.  If they needed a chest of drawers they would go for an antique, but they were practical people.  Antique beds are 5 1/2 feet long for heaven’s sake, and antique settees are almost universally uncomfortable. I think the reasoning was, if the seat is uncomfortable the guest will leave sooner, and of course nobody was stretching out trying to be comfortable watching t.v.

early chest in red stain with remnant of white overpaint

As a teenager I enjoyed the social scene of the rural auction.  My tastes ran more towards an appreciation of old advertising, and household objects, but I also had an interest in older hand made furniture.  Most of the furniture that I would encounter in those days was either in dark varnish, or faux painted to make a cheaper wood such as maple, look like oak, or overpainted with thick oil paint, most often white or similar trim colour that they had laying around.  I’d say an overwhelming percentage was like this, like 80 percent.  But occasionally I would see a piece (usually older) in a bright painted colour, darkened, thinned, and untouched over the years.  I instinctively gravitated toward these pieces.  I didn’t know anything about patina,  but I knew they excited me. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dealers in the crowd would be right onto these pieces and they would draw big money.  I didn’t stand a chance of owning one with my budget.

Then when in the early eighties we started to make a living by selling antiques, with a truck and a strong back I began buying lots of antique furniture at local auctions.   At the time, the biggest part of the market was for stripped furniture in light wood.  You could buy a chest with several coats of paint, strip it down to the wood and refinish it, and make a good buck for your trouble.  I didn’t mind doing this in ninety nine percent of the cases, but every once in a while I would get a piece which as you stripped it down, would reveal a beautiful colour under all the other layers.  Instinctively I would try to save this paint.

a Quebec blanket box in blueberry paint with remnant of white over-paint

We used a relatively gentle water-based stripper called PVR, that if your timing was right, would “pop” one layer at a time.  It took a bit longer but you had more control and the fumes were not as bad. Well, still bad but I always worked with a big exhaust fan which is why I still have a few brain cells left.  I can tell you stories of others, but they are sad, and that’s another day.  In any case, some of this older furniture, the ones with the beautiful original colours were painted in milk paint.  In the days before oil paint.  These paints would stay put fairly well stuck to the surface, and if your timing was right you could take all the top layers off to reveal this original paint, and you could stop there and just wash it down with a little Murphy’s oil soap and it would look good.  Then later I learned about dry scrapping.  I bought myself a good Lee Valley scrapping knife and learned how to control the pressure and retain the concentration to take the top layers off without effecting the original surface.  it is a very satisfying feeling when you get this right, and you sit back and admire the finished piece brought back to it’s original glory.  Of course, on the rare occasions you will come across a piece that has never been touched, or abused, and is perfectly wonderful the way it is, and with knowledge you realize how precious these pieces really are.

sideboard with mustard paint over dark stain

Over the years I have developed an appreciation for the ge3nerally finer made, formal “brown” furniture that many love for their city homes, but I have developed a passion for the early country pieces in beautiful colour.   Once you have this love of painted furniture there is no turning back.  It’s like being in love.

Good pieces are not all that easy to come across but they are worth the search.  Go to a good Tim Potter auction, or the Cabin Fever show coming up February  3rd and 4th in Kingston, Ontario, or the Bowmanville show on Good Friday and you’ll see some.  You might even take something home with you. You’d be wise to.  It will enrich your life.

early chest with original, untouched blue and white paint.

Changes

I’ve just looked on my Word Press home page and this is my 107th blog entry.   I promised myself 100 entries.  Tiny drum roll please.   I’m enjoying it, so I’ll keep on going.  My goal has been to write something once a week about an aspect of my life spent in the antique trade, and the pursuit of Canadian folk art in particular. Beyond this my intension has been to go beyond the technical, and take a look at a life spent as I suggest “seeking authentic”. What is it in an item that catches me, and keeps me interested? Why do I care?   Actually, I am more interested in the expression of beauty, and the preservation of it, than I am in the industry per se, but I have also made a living from my full time involvement, so the industry part affects me.  Today I’m thinking about that.

We listen to a lot of NPR in this house.  Jeanine tries to clear her agenda every day at three to listen to Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  I’ve become a fan as well.  It’s too much politics these days, but it’s still intelligent radio. On Wednesday in the morning I was listening to a business review as I was doing up the breakfast dishes, and a report came on about changes in the antique business since the introduction of on-line shopping about the year 2000.  The program confirmed that as those of us in the industry know, the antique industry has taken a hard punch, and is now greatly reduced in size.  I think it suggested over-all the industry is down 60%, but I could have that figure muddled, and after spending a half hour searching the NPR site I could not find the interview to check it.  In any case it’s dramatic.  They had a quote from one of the appraisers from the Antiques Road Show on how half of the shops in his home town of Houston, Texas had already closed down, and the others were in trouble.  The thesis suggested that the value of dark furniture, china, pottery, etc. dropped dramatically as these items became more easily available on-line.  Basic consumerism. Why drive around when you can sit at your desk and order exactly what you are looking for?  This situation is essentially true for all retail, and with rising costs for a bricks and mortar location, it just takes a trip through the down town of a small city to see the results of this situation.  We have big box stores on the edges of towns but less and less independent little shops in the core. It’s a shame really for those of us who live to dig around in crowded, interesting spaces, but it is entirely understandable.

They chose the antique industry as an example because it has suffered the double whammy of changing retail structure, and of changing cultural tastes.  There are now more Millennials than there are baby boomers.  It’s a fact, and so far the kids don’t want their grandparents finely made dining room suites, or their knick-knacks.  Nor do they want their Great-Grandparents diamond point armoire or harvest table as difficult as that is to comprehend.  At this point the show tried to be up-beat by suggesting that the day may come when the children of the Millennials will decide they want fine mahogany furniture again instead of Ikea, and the cycle will begin again;  but I doubt it will be as simple as that.  And what dramatic changes would need to take place in the economy for the rents of commercial space in busy markets to drop significantly so that an antique shop could start to open up again.  I’m not looking to bring everybody down here although the program did not make me feel chipper.  I believe that by looking at the reality of the situation, and acknowledging the changes , we might better be able to make the best of it.  There is no question that the industry has diminished, but there is still a lot going on.

Pickers are still dropping furniture off the back of their pick-up trucks at various antique shows. A lot of the  co-ops, on-line sites, and surviving shops continue to do good business.  Facebook groups, and magazines continue to support and bolster the ideas behind collecting, and at the heart of it all, yes, I still believe that many people will potentially come to grow tired of mass consumerism, and will come to “seek authentic” for themselves.  To everything, change, change, change.

O.K. next week I will be back to tell a humorous story about my truck catching fire or some such thing, but this week I really wanted to acknowledge the effect that radio report had on me.  It can’t all be happy face, and I believe in facing these realities head on to understand and move beyond them.  And the one thing I know for certain is that  some unforeseen thing,  or event will come along that will totally change everything.  We have to remain positive to make  that positive change.  We have to keep at it.  Support and encourage, and enjoy what you love.  It’s still the best game in town.

“Your Cat is on Fire” – adventures with Albert

Our adjoining shed workshops

Our adjoining shed workshops

We were just on the phone with our daughter Cassandra, and she reminded me it’s Friday.  Somehow with the jet lag I was thinking it’s still Thursday.  It always takes me a couple of days to get back in to swing of things.  So as not to tax my tired brain too much, rather than going into something more serious, I turn to a little tale of barely averted disaster from back in the days when we lived and worked at the old church in Wyecombe Ontario.  Back in the days when we were called Old Church Trading.

albert

Albert

This story involves our faithful, for the past thirty years, assistant Albert.  Albert is a wonderful guy.  We continue to be good friends.  He is actually more a member of the family at this point,  and at 70 years old he is still happy as a clam to come over from time to time to help us with the garden or whatever, and  he can still out work a man half his age.  We met him early on after moving to the church when we bought some children’s yard chairs that he was making and selling from his trailer home in nearby Courtland.  During the conversation over the chair purchase he became aware that we had lots of work to do on the property and asked if we would be interested in hiring him.  He seemed like a nice fellow and his price was right so we said “sure let’s give it a try.’  Well Albert turned out to be a real blessing.  He would come on time very morning and work hard with enthusiasm and dedication, without ever a complaint.  I have always been more likely to say to Albert to slow down and take it a little easy, rather than to hurry up and get on with it.  Salt of the earth kind of guy.  We soon noticed that he never brought or ate a lunch, and so asked him why, and expressed our concern as to his well being.  He said, “oh I eat a good breakfast and then have dinner when I get home so it’s o.k.  That’s when Albert started having lunch with us.   Albert we came to find out, was a ward of the court and had never learned to read or write. He had lived almost as a slave on a nearby farm until he was 18 and legally able to leave.  I will not denigrate him by suggesting that he is unintelligent because  in spite of his lack of education he is very creative in finding ways to do things his own way, and very capable at many things.  Let’s just say that he is an original thinker, and because he is always working so hard to please, everything is great as long as you don’t leave him too long unattended, because sometimes he is a bit overzealous.  So understanding this, we come to our story.

It was an unusually hot, and windy spring morning, and I had spent it working indoors, while Albert on instruction raked up the leaves and limbs that had fallen on the yard over the winter.  At noon Jeanine had prepared some delicious soup and so we called Albert in for lunch.  As usual we had enjoyed our lunch together and conversation and was just  finishing a cup of coffee when there came a frantic knock on the door.  We opened it to find a local farmer shouting “your cats on fire, your cat’s on fire”.  We looked across the room and saw our cat Elvis sleeping there so we were puzzled to say the least.  “He’s  o.k. he’s right over there.”  We had misunderstood.  “Oh, our shack is on fire” What the…?

We ran out and indeed one of our three little out buildings was indeed engulfed in flames along one wall.  It didn’t take long to realize that Albert had piled up the refuse at the edge of the property, and had taken the initiative to light it.  Then when called him he had then come in for lunch, assuming I guess that it would be fine. Well the wind had picked up and it wasn’t fine. The fire had run along the dry weeds and caught under the edge of the little building. The dry hot wind had fanned it, and it was already burning pretty convincingly all along the wood siding.  Yikes! Crap.  Albert get out the hose and shovels and get over here pronto.  Albert is pretty darn fast when he needs to be so within seconds he was back and we were throwing dirt on the fire and spraying the side of the building with all the water that our little well pump could muster.  It didn’t take a minute to realize it was a losing battle so  Jeanine ran in and phoned the fire department.   Albert and I continued to fight the blaze as best we could but it had now jumped on to the pile of one hundred year old pine barn planks which we had stacked neatly with two inch spacers in between so they would not rot.  Well let me tell you, when that hot dry wind blew the flames across that dry stacked wood, whoosh, up she went like a match shooting flames into the sky. Holy Crap!  Our main effort at this point was to just stop the flames from reaching our two adjoined work shop buildings which were a mere three feet away. All we could do was to spray the walls to try to keep it from igniting.  Of course the work shop was full of valuable antiques and combustible chemicals, and also was just a few feet away from the church so things were beginning to look pretty bad. Just when it seemed hopeless the entire Langton volunteer fire department arrived with both their trucks because they had understood from Jeanine’s frantic call that the whole church was on fire.  They got out one of their big hoses and within five minutes extinguished the burning pile of boards and the burning shack, and left us with a cautionary note and a bill for $175.  Whew, thanks fellows for coming out so quickly and getting this situation back in control. I lost my two big pile of pine boards and we had to restore one side of our little shack but we were so grateful that things had not been worse that we just took a moment to thank our lucky stars and the brave men who volunteer to fight fires.   Albert, of course felt bad enough as it was without reprimanding him further, so we just got on with cleaning up the mess.  However, we all learned a valuable lesson that day.