The artifacts we pursue—whether mid-century, rusted, paper, 1880s, metal, mint condition, glass, or whatever categories they fall into—are the reason we’re in the game. But an old saying has worked its way into my consciousness lately, and like most time-worn adages, it has an element of truth to it: it’s the people, and the relationships, that matter the most.
This was impressed upon me once again recently at an outdoor show that serves as the beginning of the antiques year here in central North Carolina. The field at this twice-yearly event doesn’t open until 8AM (haven’t they heard of dawn?), so I was motoring among the tents and booths by 8:04, doing the back-and-forth head swivel thing as I scanned the landscape for the stuff of dreams. In the third aisle, I stopped at a tent containing an assortment of old toys. As I made my way in among the throng, I recognized the booth’s owners, a husband and wife team from whom I’d bought several good pieces at this show the previous year.
With all of the people and the activity going on in and around the tent, I didn’t expect them to remember me or the items I had purchased from them more than 6 months before. The husband greeted me and motioned me over to one of his display trays. “We’ve got some good oddball stuff this time,” he said, pointing to a small metal car in one of the trays. Rare would have been a better word for this toy, which I recognized as one that had been made for just a short time in the mid-1950s. It was in nearly perfect original condition and I bought it on the spot.
“You were here last year and you’re after the unusual stuff, right?” I was surprised that he remembered, and we began talking about old toys and the items he and his wife had sold me at the previous show. He reminded me of one in particular—a hard-to-find six-inch plastic Pontiac coupe made by Fitchburg, Massachusetts-based Irwin Corporation in the early 1950s. It was in excellent original condition and the friction motor worked like a charm. I told him it looks terrific in my collection, and he really seemed to get a kick out of that.
I actually had bought the Pontiac as part of a “bundle” deal, which also included a delivery van made by Ideal, about five inches in length. But while examining the van later during a food break, I discovered it was missing part of its front bumper. Although I had bought the van in good faith and any flaws were now my problem, I went back to the seller’s booth with a proposal. After showing him the damage to the van, I asked if he’d be interested in taking the van back in exchange for my purchasing a Tootsietoy sports car kit that I had been eyeing in one of his cases. The kit was an Austin-Healy, made around 1960, and was still on its original blistercard. The kit was more expensive than the Ideal van, and I suggested that I just give him the difference. He didn’t have to accept the deal, of course, as it meant he’d be taking back a damaged item.
But to his credit, he said yes, enabling me to acquire a piece that I planned to photograph and include in a feature article I was working on for a magazine in England. Like the Pontiac, the Austin-Healy kit has a fair degree of accuracy, and it’s really a snapshot of 1950s automotive design.
On balance, a fun day made even better by dealers who help connect people to the right objects. They’re at the show to make money, of course, but it was obvious these two also enjoyed seeing their treasures go to good homes. As I drove out of the show grounds, I realized I’d forgotten to ask their names. Note to self: look for these dealers—these friends, I guess they’re becoming—at the fall show.
Douglas R. Kelly loves old stuff and would live in one of his display cabinets if he thought someone would bring him his meals.