The Condition Thing

Show picFunny the things that your mind comes up with when it’s in neutral. My wife and I took a couple of booths at an outdoor flea market here in North Carolina last weekend, hoping to sell off a few older items and lighten the load. My mom came along and helped staff the booth too, as she had more than a few antiques from her own collection with which she wanted to part. (See my Sept. 19 post for more on that collection.)

As things slowed down after a couple of hours, I began keeping track of people who noted/asked about/complained about condition. Now, my wife and daughters can give you chapter and verse about how picky I am when it comes to originality and condition, whether of a 19th century lamp or a toy car made in the 2000s. I prefer to think of myself as a discerning collector; but truth be told, I’m high maintenance in this area. In others too, to hear my family tell it.

Some folks didn’t seem to care if the item they were buying from us had a giant hole punched through the center of it, or that one corner of the blistercard packaging was slightly softer than the others. Several of them made counter offers to the marked prices, but many of them didn’t say a word about damage or wear and tear.

Then there were those who listed every flaw for me, pointing out missing parts and frayed electric cords with obvious pleasure. One guy came in and picked up a heavy 1920s electric “cage” fan we had sitting on the pavement near the front of the booth. He asked me if it worked, and I told him we didn’t know as there was no way we were going to plug in the tattered power cord to find out. He said to me “Do you mind if I go plug it in to test it?” I was momentarily befuddled by his question as we were outdoors, but he was off on his quest before I could answer. I wondered if I would ever see the fan, or the guy, again.

He returned a few minutes later with a disappointed look, telling me “The fan’s gettin’ power, but the motor’s froze up.” As he set it back down in the booth, he picked up an iron apple corer that my mom had on one of her tables and said “Can you do any better on this? Look here, somebody musta broke off the original piece that attached to the table and welded this thing in its place…and this part over here is just plain missing…”

I knocked a few dollars off the price, and the guy bought the corer. And I realized that I enjoyed the back and forth and the debates about condition more than a straight sale where the buyer just handed me money. There’s something about that interaction, about that give and take, that just feels right. It made it a good day at the show.

Douglas R. Kelly is no longer in mint original condition, but maybe that’s over-rated anyway.

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A Legacy

There’s no doubt our environment plays a huge role in determining who we are, but so do our genes. Seems to me that, if I had been born and raised in Eastern Europe or the Pacific Islands, there would have been a good chance that I wouldn’t have become a collector of old things. On the other hand, if my father had anything to say about it, antiques and artifacts would have been all around me even if we had lived at the Arctic Circle.

Robert Kelly loved the hunt, and hDad and dressere loved bringing old things back from the dead. Ask my mom, and she’ll tell you how my dad could spot an early 20th century oak dresser hidden under three layers of bad paint, from the car as they were still pulling up to a tag sale. That’s him to the left, happy as can be after my brother had just given him a dresser for Christmas, scoring huge points with the old man. That particular one looks as though it didn’t need much to get it back into service, but many was the hour my dad spent repairing, refinishing, and restoring dressers, tables, chairs, and electric fans.

And flashlights. Did he love old flashlights. He would show me his latest find with a grin on his face, demonstrating how a nine-inch Winchester made in the 1940s put out just as strong a beam as that new plastic job sitting in the closet. FlashlightsIt got so he had me looking for these things at shows and tag sales, and they grew on me to the point where I now have a couple of them in my own collection, although I wish they were still a part of my dad’s collection.

He passed away three and a half years ago and there are days when I miss him so much that it’s like a physical ache. My mom tells me she feels that too; I lost one of my best friends, but she lost the love of her life. For the last couple of weeks, the two of us have been digging through bins and boxes, dusting off and pricing many of their antiques in preparation for selling them at a show this coming weekend. It’s been a revelation for me. Not every piece has a story behind it, but many of them do, and they often involve my parents digging the item out of the back of some dealer’s truck just after dawn at a show somewhere in New England, where they either got it for a song or paid more than they should have just because it would look great in their den.

The thing is, all of these wonderful stories involve both of them; I’ve yet to hear about my dad finding a great piece when he was off somewhere on his own. They did all of this together, and that brings these objects to life for me. I’m learning all over again that my parents truly were a team, best friends who loved each other and loved going after the old stuff.

We’re selling a lot of it, but of course we’re keeping the special pieces. There are several of my dad’s oak dressers doing daily duty in our house, and the flashlights my mom has given me work as well as they did when they were new. It’s a far cry from having him here. But somehow, it helps.

Oh, by the way Pop…that five-inch Royal with the square reflector has me stumped. What should we put on that one?

The “R” in Douglas R. Kelly is for Robert, his dad’s name. That must be why he’s hooked on the old stuff.

Twists and Turns

Figuring out who made what, and when, is an important part of the collecting life for me. Last month, I made the pilgrimage north to Lehigh County, Pennsylvania for Das Awkscht Fest, a three-day party revolving around old Macungie1cars and old toys in the normally quiet little town of Macungie. Along with the toy shows and hundreds of jaw-dropping classic cars, the event boasts a huge automotive flea market; rain or shine, row after row of vendors set up and sell just about anything you might possibly need for your Packard or Pontiac or Pierce-Arrow.

The night before it all got underway, I had dinner with my friend Ben and his family. Not surprisingly, the talk turned for a time to toys, and we continued a conversation we had started earlier at his house as he gave me a tour of his world-class early plastic toy collection. A year prior, Ben had sold me a five-inch plastic pickup truck after I had shown him a five-inch plastic sedan made by the same company, which I had just scored at the Saturday morning show. Along with the fact that it was mint boxed, what really pushed my button about the sedan was the fact that it was more or less a twin to a similar car I’ve had in my collection for years—a car about which I’ve been able to learn absolutely nothing.

Macungie2

The mystery car, center, along with the sedan and pickup from the Luxor series.

This “mystery” car has a friction motor that has the words “Made in Germany” stamped on the casing, and is based on the Jowett Javelin, a British car made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I’ve had it for years and had no clue as to its origin or maker. But when Ben told me he had a pickup truck from the same series as the sedan I had just found, he provided a piece of information that advanced things a bit: Although the sedan (like my mystery car) is unmarked either on the toy itself or on the box, the pickup truck is marked “Luxor Made in Holland.” Now we had something to go on, as Luxor was an established (if minor) player among European toy makers in the 1950s. The fact that the “Mechanical Motorcar” series was made by Luxor told me that the maker of my mystery car either copied the Luxor toy, or perhaps inspired the Dutch manufacturer to include a model of the Jowett in its Mechanical Motorcar series.

Ben likes putting together this kind of puzzle as much as I do, which is why I brought all three pieces to show him when I traveled to the Macungie event last month. We examined them and kicked around a few ideas, but in the end, the manufacturer of the mystery car remains—for now—a mystery. But you’d better believe I’m now hunting for Luxor pieces with a passion.

As for the Macungie shows this year, they proved, as usual, to be target-rich environments for me. Early Friday morning, I dug out a late-1940s tinplate Tri-Ang Minic petrol tanker from a plasMacungie3tic bin that was filled with new-ish action figures and model kits. I asked the seller if he was firm on his $50 price (a bargain, as these often sell for $75 to $100), and he said he was, so I paid up. I took my find back to my car wondering how this English tinplate treasure—in superb original condition—could wind up thrown in with Aragorn and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. By the way, if you have the February 2012 issue of Antiques Roadshow Insider, check out my feature piece in that issue, “Worthy Competition,” which explores the world of Minics.

The icing on the cake came on Saturday morning, when I purchased a cardboard garage, made in the 1930s by an Indiana company called Warren Paper Products. These “Built-Rite” buildings are as scarce as hen’s teeth and look terrific when they’re displayed with toy cars of the period. I’ll put this one together and see if my Minic tanker will fit inside.

Douglas R. Kelly has nothing against today’s automakers, but he thinks new cars should come in boxes, for display purposes.