Fine Living: Turning Decades Into Dollars

Written by Nathan Winfrey in the December 2010 Issue

What’s the story behind that Civil War rifle? Who was locked up in those handcuffs? The sense of history in an antique store can be intriguing. The items for sale were once in peoples’ homes or businesses for years, if not generations. Each antique sits ready to be purchased by someone new; ready to take the next step in its journey through time.

Bill McConnell, owner of 23rd Street Antique Mall, says he and his wife, Denny, wish their antiques could tell them where they’ve been. “I’ve always been interested in history,” he says, “and antiques are a natural extension of history.”

At just 10 years of age, McConnell put together a list of 300 items he was seeking. “I was going to be a great antique collector,” he says. He went door to door, asking his neighbors if they had any of the items on his list. “They never gave me anything of value, but it was interesting, the things I dragged home.”

It can be fairly inexpensive to build a collection. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get some nice pieces,” McConnell says. He recommends new collectors start by checking out antique shops to get a sense for their taste. “If you’re going to be a collector, zero in on one area and not shotgun it. Usually, your tastes change over the years.”

McConnell encourages collectors to go after things they like, instead of what will bring them the most money in a few decades. “Go out there and find what looks good on your wall. Go out and find what you enjoy,” he says. “Find what turns your head.”

Judy Thorwart, owner of Antiques Boutique in Edmond, has been in the business for 17 years. She regularly searches for items in Florida and Pennsylvania to bring back. She also goes to auctions and consignment sales. “You have to know what you’re doing,” says Thorwart. “It takes awhile; you learn by trial and error.”

There are many reasons why someone might be interested in antiques, like if he inherited a glass and wants to find more to go with it. Shopping online is another option, although most collectors like to see what they are buying face-to-face.

Good antique items can be cheaper than new ones, and they will usually be worth more, later. Estate sales are a good place to find rare items, but the antique community is fairly small and word gets out if there’s something great.

There are very few, truly exceptionally rare antiques. So when a collector sees one, he can sense it. However, Thorwart warns, “If you see something that might be rare, sometimes it isn’t as rare as you think it is.”

McConnell encourages collectors to only buy high-quality items. “It’s better to buy one quality piece than a lot of junk. Quality will be worth more, later. Low quality will be worth the same or less,” he says.

Although it’s tempting to save money buying chipped and marred antiques, Thorwart says it’s important for collectors to buy the best they can afford. “They should try to buy them perfect, if they can get them.” Furniture for example, should not have been refinished in order to retain value.

McConnell and his wife collect match safes and American oak furniture from the 1890s to 1910s, such as Victorian Walnut and Renaissance Revival pieces. Even though Victorian items aren’t very hot right now, McConnel says, “We buy it because we enjoy it. We’re passionate about everything Victorian.”

Although the term “antique” is used for a wide range of items, purists will say an item is only antique if it’s at least 100 years old. Objects any younger would be better described as “collectibles.”

Popular antiques include old guns, silver, glass, and pottery. McConnell says one of the safest bets is toys. For the few who kept their G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls in mint condition, preferably still in the box, they are worth many times more than if they’d been roughed up and played with.

Star Wars is big. Beanie Babies are out and Hummels aren’t as popular as they used to be. “The thing to avoid is being caught up in a fad,” Thorwart says. “I had a woman who bought $11,000 in Beanie Babies, thinking she was going to get rich. Needless to say, she lost her shirt. You just have to really watch what you get yourself into.”

McConnell says, “If you get the collecting bug, it’s an incurable disease.”

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