Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden (June 2017)
Do you salivate at the sight of an antique? If you’re a dealer of antiques, why do you do it? Where in Western North Carolina can you find antiques, and how much will they cost you? More important, what exactly makes an antique an “antique”? Let’s discuss.
The objects may be simple or elaborate; useful or decorative; inexpensive, valuable, sometimes even rare. But for all their diversity, their one essential quality is: They are survivors.
Antiques are the stuff of life, reaching back decades or centuries and offering a glimpse of what it was like “way back then.” They inspire curiosity about their individual history: Who sat in that 19th century chair? Was it a farmer relaxing at the end of another exhausting day? A merchant waiting for customers? A banker listening to a loan applicant? Over the years, how many people owned it, sat in it and—finally—tucked it away in an attic to gather dust for decades?
Whatever its history, that antique piece of china, silverware, quilt, or chair has outlived numberless contemporary items, fading over the years from everyday necessity to enjoyable curiosity.
You may shy away from the idea of an antique in your home, thinking it will clash with your style and give your place the cluttered, fusty appearance of your Great Aunt Minerva’s overstuffed living room. But, whatever your style, there are probably some antiques that would not only complement it, but also add a unique touch of character.
From historical times to “the old days” and even down to the day before yesterday, people have lived with and embraced different styles, from the very formal crystal chandelier and polished mahogany to the primitive country styles where utility dictated design. The resulting products often offered a clue into the era when they were made and an example of the primitive cleverness we relied on before computers and 3D printers came along to solve many of our problems.
If you are thinking an antique or two might add a little something to your life, the first rule is find something you like. Check out some shops that offer a variety of styles and objects from different eras. Attend a couple of antique auctions, which are great vehicles for learning about old things. If you go to a museum, you can look at excellent examples of furniture, silverware, china, crystal—all the stuff of lives long ago. But you’d better not try to touch anything unless you want an immediate introduction to the security staff. The rule at an auction is just the opposite. At a preview, you are expected to hold the object of your interest, check it out up close and personal. Take the drawers out of a bureau to check the sides and back, to see if the brass pulls are original or if the piece has undergone any repairs. Then, once the bidding begins, you can watch what the “experts” in the room think a piece is worth. As auctioneers like to tell their audience: “You’re the experts. The more you bid, the more it’s worth.” Listen and learn. You can use an auction as your personal antique classroom, and you don’t have to spend a nickel.
Once you have decided what you like, begin shopping. Do not to hesitate to ask the dealer pointed questions: How do I know this is really old? Where was it made? (England? Europe? United States?) Is it all original? No replaced parts? The dealer should be comfortable with these kinds of questions, and if you think he’s giving you an evasive answer or brushing off your questions, you probably want to move on until you find a dealer you trust. But once you’ve found something you like at a price you consider fair, and once you’ve gotten satisfying answers to your questions, DO NOT HESITATE TO BUY IT.
Actually taking the leap—and it is a leap of faith—can be a challenge, even to experienced antique collectors. The easy evasion is: “I’ll go home and think about it.” And in all likelihood, you will never enjoy having that special object in your life. Buy it, take it home, enjoy it. And use it. That an object is more than 100 years old does not necessarily make it frail or delicate and does not require the owner to set it in some safe place to look at but not touch. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. The fact that a piece has made it to a ripe old age indicates that is sturdy and built to last. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Getting started in the universe of antiques can be a daunting experience. The uninitiated buyer may be confused, even overwhelmed, by the different styles, eras, the jargon dealers toss about—and particularly some of the price tags. One way to ease the tension is to embrace the customer’s ultimate defensive phrase—“Just looking”—and mean it. Early forays into antiquedom should be to shop, browse, ask questions, and not make a purchase until you feel comfortable with the experience.
Once you decide on a destination, ask the dealer at the first place you stop to direct you to any other nearby shops. Most dealers are willing to help you; many will offer you a pamphlet that lists the shops in the area. They realize it is in their interest to help the buyer find whatever he’s looking for.
The best place to start is at your computer. A number of websites—among them, NorthCarolinaAntiqueTrail.com and AntiqueMalls.com; (see the sidebar about online resources at the end of this report) —will point you to clusters of shops and auction houses where you can find anything from a 15th century suit of armor to a 1940s Schwinn bicycle. Unfortunately, you can also find reproduction pieces (repros) that have an antique look but don’t try to hide the fact that they are not old. Some are even dated in an inconspicuous place to alert the buyer. Repros are disdained by antique purists, but they often make up a significant part of a shop’s inventory. In fact, some dealers have begun identifying them by the much loftier term, “antique inspired” pieces. Another caution is outright fakes. These are pieces that try to hide their newness by adding indicators of long use and wear to a piece manufactured mere months ago. These new items masquerading as antiques are a prime reason you should find a knowledgeable and trustworthy dealer.
Those websites offer a good starting point, but they don’t include every shop in every town. Once you decide on a destination, ask the dealer at the first place you stop to direct you to any other nearby shops. Most dealers are willing to help you; many will offer you a pamphlet that lists the shops in the area. They realize it is in their interest to help the buyer find whatever he’s looking for, agreeing that their best strategy is to steer a customer in the right direction, even if it’s at a competitor’s shop. The antique market is limited, and it benefits all dealers to keep the buyers enthusiastic about their experience. Keep them coming back.
In the wide world of commerce, it is the opportunity for profits that usually dictates what kind of business an entrepreneur will pursue. Antique dealers are different. For the most part, they are in business because they love the stuff. Making money is certainly important, but the base motivation is the antiques themselves.
Nancy Roth and Joe Ewing are a typical case. Owners of The Nancy Roth Antique Shop in Tryon, Joe has been a dealer for 49 years and Nancy for 30.
“You have to have a passion for antiques,” Joe says. He is sitting next to Nancy on an upholstered antique love seat in their shop, surrounded by 18th and 19th century American country furniture—chairs, bureaus, cupboards—and Joe’s silver display, everything from punch bowls and serving platters to dinnerware. In a tall display case, a smattering of old, but definitely not antique, Christmas ornaments and children’s toys presents an anomaly in this room full of early Americana. But it is also a nod to the new reality: For the most part, young people—Gen Xers and millennials—do not embrace early styles. “We don’t have collectors any more,” Nancy says. Joe nods his agreement. “Young people are not interested.”
Their advice to beginning collectors? “Buy antiques if you like them,” Nancy says. “They get you right here,” pointing to her heart. Joe returns to his theme about passion for antiques. “You buy one thing and that starts your passion.”
Nancy and Joe’s shop is one of several in Tryon and neighboring Landrum, South Carolina. Together, the shops offer a full day of “antiquing,” combining a pleasant drive with several places for an enjoyable lunch and shops that have enormous variety of “stuff.” At Dark Horse Antiques, not far from Nancy Roth, one display is wall mounted with about a dozen vintage baseball catcher’s masks, and another wall of hubcaps. The items make no pretense to be antiques, but they offer interesting “out of the box” decorating possibilities.
Because most antique shops are mom-and-pop operations working on limited budgets, they don’t do much advertising, but there are many shops out there in every part of Western North Carolina.
About an hour from downtown Asheville sits the town of Waynesville, another hub of antique shops and another pleasant weekend drive. One of the shops is the funky and mostly primitive Sutton and Sons mall, where Ryan Sutton and his son, Larry, hold forth as a study in contrasts. Ryan sports a white beard and ponytail, while Larry has gone in the opposite direction with a shaved head. But when they start talking antiques, they speak with one voice.
They opened their shop nine years ago at the start of the national economic crisis. It was a time when the antiques market was nearly on life support. But they made it work. “We brought stuff that nobody else had,” Larry says. “Real antiques. Ours are dirty, dusty, and crusty. But they’re real. In dust we trust.” His father, Ryan, nods his agreement and goes on to explain his motivation to become a dealer. “We sorta fell into it,” he says. “I collected all my life. I collected Cherokee baskets, quilts my grandmother and great grandmother made. My great grandmother delivered mail on a mule, and I still have the saddlebags she used.”
If you are thinking an antique or two might add a little something to your life, the first rule is find something you like. Check out some shops that offer a variety of styles and objects from different eras. Attend a couple of antique auctions, which are great vehicles for learning about old things.
Their shop now includes their own items, as well as 25 guest dealer booths, all of them offering country and primitive objects. Taken together, the inventory presents an eclectic mix of baskets, furniture, tools, commercial signs, pottery, license plates, and 33rpm record albums—to name just a few of their items.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a shopper grabbed an old fruit box with a colorful label to serve as a “decoration for my daughter’s wedding. We’re working on a theme.” Another shopper said, “I’m not interested in antiques. I’m just hunting for odds and ends, knick-knacks.” What is the most recent odd-and-end he bought? “A framed Egyptian painting. It’s not antique, but I liked it.” And a couple from Virginia found an old foot warmer at a reasonable price. “We’ll be able to make a profit on this. We’re dealers—part-time,” he said.
In fact, many, if not most, of the people who buy antiques are also dealers. An insider joke in the antique industry is that three dealers were trapped on a desert island with only one chair between them. They sold it to each other often enough that they all made a living.
Yet making a living is the tricky part. Most of the dealers who have booths in antique malls are pursuing a part-time hobby that occasionally produces enough income to pay for itself.
At Oddfellows Antiques in Asheville, owner Tom Haskin agrees. “Most dealers don’t make much money,” he says. But Tom and his wife/partner, Kelly, have turned a good eye for interesting items and a willingness to work long, hard hours into a profitable business. Tom makes two buying trips to England a year, returning with as many as 600 items. Most of them “are from the 1920s and ‘30s,” he says. “So they’re not technically antiques. But they have some age and a lot of character.” (Scroll down to the sidebar for a discussion about how to “define” an antique.)
Tom credits Kelly with spurring his interest in antiques. “She has a good eye, and she got us started,” he says. Kelly looks back to “when I started creating my own spaces, probably college. I started going to flea markets and stuff.” Tom and Kelly agree that the most enjoyable part of the business is the shopping: finding items that have character and an appealing look. Tom says it’s more fun “shopping with Kelly,” and she lets out a hearty laugh. “I go crazy,” she says. Kelly also enjoys the selling. “You meet great people. There are still people who want a couple of character things in their house. The kind of stuff you can’t order on a department store website.” Her grin fades as she considers, “But I see far fewer people who are truly passionate about collecting.”
Kelly would like to see more young people developing an interest in antiques and, as if on cue, a 26-year old man approaches her with a question. He has been browsing through the shop and indicates a real interest in antiques. “I hate to see things destroyed,” he says. “They had real craftspeople back then.” How do his friends react to his interest? “Some of them are okay with it,” he says. “They’ll go out with me to the different shops, just to see what’s out there.”
Oddfellows shows mostly Tom and Kelly’s merchandise, but, as he notes, “We have five outside dealers,” he says. On a recent day, a customer was interested in a small four-drawer chest belonging to one of the other dealers. It had no price tag. Tom called the dealer, got the price—and made the sale. Later, the buyer disclosed that he is also a dealer, who had driven here from Kentucky as part of a regular shopping trip.
Oddfellows is part of a complex of four shops that feature a similar spread of antique objects, from jewelry, old newspapers and magazines, and coins to mid-century furniture and art. The shops sit on Swannanoa River Road, just down from what is probably the most widely known shop in Asheville, the Antique Tobacco Barn. At 70,000-sq.-ft. of floor space, a serious browser can spend hours among the statuary, furniture, oddments, and curiosities presented by more than 60 dealers. Manager Doug Begeman says the inventory is “not all antiques,” but he describes it as an “eclectic variety of collectibles and antiques.” The Barn is certainly among the most popular antique destinations in the Asheville area. On a recent Saturday, Doug says, “We had record sales,” going back over the 34-year history of the place. “It was the longest line I’ve ever seen.”
Moving beyond Asheville, another worthwhile antique destination is the High Country, where more than a dozen shops are sprinkled in Boone, Banner Elk, Blowing Rock, and their surrounding towns. Several of the shops are multiple-dealer locations, including the Hidden Valley Antique Mall in Boone. With more than 30 dealers, the selections range from the very old to the not-so-old furniture, farm tools, sports equipment, and even Santa statues. Whatever your taste, whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find something worth your attention.
MY SO-CALLED ANTIQUE
When is an antique not an antique? And does it matter?
The very term, “Antique,” is open to a wide interpretation. To the purist, an antique is an object that is more than 100 years old. Period. Ninety-nine years and eleven months doesn’t cut it. But to many commerce-minded dealers and forgiving clients, the 100-year rule is meant to be broken. They consider an antique to be anything old and no longer in production.
And beyond antique, we have the concept of “Vintage.” This one can be tricky, as there is no accepted range of dates to qualify a piece as vintage. But items from the 1940s and ‘50s are generally considered vintage. The key here is style. A true vintage piece is one that exhibits a gracious and lasting design that places it in its original time frame. Consider the classic Eames chair: Absolute vintage! It has the self-conscious and semi-sleek contour of mid-Twentieth Century architecture. (It would look perfectly at home in any building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.) And it still sits comfortably among today’s contemporary styles.
After vintage, there’s the also-ran category of simply “Old.” This category could also be filed under the name, “Used.” If you look hard enough, you may stumble over an old piece that works for you—and the bonus here is that it will probably not cost very much.
Moving down the scale of so-called antique stuff, we reach the final category of —you’re going to love this—“Junk.” And here it is useful to offer the reminder that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. So the junketeers are out there, scrounging through flea markets and hoping to find that old Budweiser sign or other such dubious décor. If you’re collecting real antiques, an occasional flea-market foray can be fun, but don’t expect to find that hidden treasure.
Outside the age-related categories sits an indefinable subset called “collectibles.” This label covers an almost infinite array of products. As a rule of thumb, you can assume that there is nothing man has ever invented or manufactured that another man has not collected. So “collectibles” can include Pez dispensers, sewing thimbles, Barbie dolls, Mason jars, and on and on and on. (Hey, what about vinyl records? —CaP Music Collector Ed.) Indulge your browsing among collectibles or run from them. It is your choice.
Another category outside the pure antique field is “folk art.” It can be old, not so old, or even so new the paint is still drying. But if your taste runs to colorful—and often creative—primitive design and structure, you can find examples in many antique shops and, if you’re lucky, even at some flea markets.
Making Your Bid
Beyond mom-and-pop shops and multi-dealer antique malls, an essential antique experience is the auction. Between time spent at a preview and the hours sitting at the auction itself, you can get a good education, and you might even come away with a new (old) family treasure. The preview is usually open the day before an auction and in the hours before the gavel falls for the first item. The schedule is listed on the website announcement of the auction. Give yourself plenty of time to look carefully at the items. You want to check for hidden repairs, cracks, replaced parts, refinishing, or repainting. Finding any of those “problems” doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid a piece; it merely helps you decide what price you’re willing to pay.
And when you’re calculating what you should pay for a piece, remember the buyer’s premium. This takes a little getting used to, but it is a staple of the auction business. Most auctions charge the buyer 13 percent commission on any purchase, with a three percent reduction for “cash or good check.” That’s their way of discouraging credit-card purchases. Check out the rules of the auction before you bid. If you “win” something with a $100 bid, it actually will cost you $110 plus sales tax.
At the auction itself, many, if not most, of the bidders are probably dealers. Auctions are a prime source of inventory for them, and anyone making multiple purchases is almost certainly a dealer. Look for the person buying the kind of items you’re interested in, and then approach him and ask, “Where do you sell?” They’re usually happy to tell you, hoping you might become a customer. And, indeed, you might. That buyer has the kind of things that interest you. He probably has a lot more in his shop, and he likely knows a lot about those things. He might end up becoming a good connection.
In addition to the AuctionZip listings (see sidebar, below), there is one auction house in Asheville that is worth going to for the preview even if you have no intention of buying anything. Brunk Auctions on Tunnel Road (BrunkAuctions.com) features the best of the best in any category you can imagine. Their March auction, for example, included paintings, crystal, pottery, tapestry, furniture, lighting, rugs, sculpture, and other assorted artifacts from around the world. Opening bids can range as low as $200, but it is not surprising when a special piece sells for six figures.
What may be surprising to the beginner is the number of bidders who actually attend the auction. You often see more empty seats than buyers in the room. Many of the bids come from a bank of telephones at the back of the room, where Brunk employees are taking bids from buyers across the country and around the world. The auction also includes on-line bidders and people who have left bids before it began. If you should bid on an object at Brunk, remember, the buyer’s premium here is 20 percent (23 if you pay by credit card).
Lauren Brunk, vice president of the auction house, spoke to the issue of online antiquing. “I think you get to a place where it takes time to develop connoisseurship of a type of object. That is rarely as appealing as it was a generation earlier, when people socialized by collecting things. There was a broader connectivity of collectors. Now that social contact isn’t seen as valuable. And it isn’t necessary, because now you can use Google or a website that might provide information for hundreds of auction houses. So much (of the antique business) has gone online that you have to have people buy confidently without actually having held the thing in their hands.”
That confidence becomes a matter of trusting the online dealer. The buyer must rely solely on whatever pictures and description the dealer offers and perhaps a dialogue via email to get more information. Brunk’s online catalog includes a condition report for every item. “We live here,” Lauren says. “And we plan to continue being here so it’s just a long vision of how we treat people.”
But, as Lauren says, online buyers can’t hold the thing in their hands, can’t translate the seller’s listed dimensions into actual three-dimensional size, or see if the color might have been distorted a bit by the photography. Depending on the size of the purchase, the return process can be difficult and costly. Trusting the dealer becomes enormously important. Many websites link to trustworthy long-time dealers who qualify as experts in their field. One source for “expert” dealers is the publication Maine Antique Digest. The newspaper’s website (MaineAntiqueDigest.com) contains links to their advertisers, who are among the best in their respective specialties. A buyer can certainly purchase the perfect object—exactly what he was looking for—online. But it requires a diligence and an acquired trust in the online dealer.
For young people furnishing an apartment or their first house, antique shops, auctions, flea markets, and the internet can provide a source for everything from kitchenware to a bed or sofa for far less money than new items would cost. The category “antiques” is a tiny player in the overall economy of Western North Carolina. It is not a significant employer; its annual sales wouldn’t amount to even a skinny slice of an economic pie chart. But antiques represent the ultimate in recycling, and the experience of flea markets, shops, and auctions can be an entertaining recreation. And it might even produce a unique and useful purchase.
Compu-Browse: Antiques at Your Fingertips
A multitude of antique shops and auctions dot the Western North Carolina landscape, but the cost of advertising has kept most of them from reaching the general public. The best way to find them is at your computer keyboard, where a Google search of Western North Carolina Antiques will get you started.
This site along with AntiqueMalls.com are also good starting points. These sites contain statewide listings, but they are neatly divided into regional groups. The former site—which also publishes a brochure that you’ll find distributed throughout the region—in particular is useful, not only for its inclusion of city-by-city dealers (38 for the Western North Carolina region alone), but also for the partial list of proximate bed-and-breakfasts that traveling antique hunters can avail themselves of, and the schedule of upcoming antique shows—in fact, there’s one coming up in downtown Hendersonville on June 25, from 9AM to 5PM. (Details: HendersonvilleNCAntiqueTrail.com)
The website also will point you to some antiques in its Shopping section.
These generalized sites can get you going, but they do not include every shop in a given area. Your Google search will also include websites for some individual shops, which you should check out. In Asheville a prominent shop with its own website is The Screen Door where more than 100 vendors offer everything from architectural pieces to vintage accessories.
Finding auctions can also present a challenge. Brunk has its own website, which includes good photographs, descriptions, condition reports, and estimate prices of every item. It is an excellent resource.
Other auctions in the area are listed on a website called AuctionZip. Click on the antiques category, put in your zip code and how many miles you are willing to travel, and the site will show you a monthly calendar of auctions in your area. Click on your projected date of travel to find individual listings, many with photos of the auction items.
The computer offers a good starting point, but finding an antique shop is at best an imperfect science. Be sure to ask the dealers about other shops they might recommend.
The original article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…