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Leaping from IT to Antiques

by Sandra Lee Stuart (11/24/08).

The economy may be coming to a screeching halt and consumer spending plummeting, but there are still good buys and opportunities in the antiques-and-collectibles market, according to David Malbuff, proprietor of the Great Strasburg Emporium and a WorthPoint expert.

“There is no question that things have slowed down,” Malbuff said. “Collectibles are a discretionary, end- of-the-line purchase. . . . Still, folks do shop.”

The Great Strasburg Emporium, located in the Shenandoah Valley, about 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., is housed in an old, 40,000-square-foot silk mill and provides space for 80 to 100 antiques dealers.

The Great Strasburg Emporium

At the Emporium, a shopper might find a Victorian claw-foot bathtub, an 18th-century ribbon cabinet, a 1860s Pennsylvania two-horse surrey or a 130-year-old paper scrip used to pay for rides on the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

These days, however, items like the two-horse surrey, which sold for $4,500, or the ribbon cabinet, which fetched $15,000, aren’t the ones that are moving.

“Since the economy has tanked, I’d say our sales are off 40 percent,” said Malbuff. People, however, are still looking for bargains. “Instead of spending a couple of hundred dollars a sale, folks are spending $30 or $40.”

The items people are focusing on are lamps, mirrors, small furniture, coins, jewelry and glassware, Malbuff said. “Though,” he added, “I can’t tell you exactly what style will sell.”

Two Emporium booths filled with lots to buy

These are items that tend to be more utilitarian or useful, and when obtained by a well-informed and skilled dealer, can actually be a better value than going into a retail store to, say, buy a mirror.

“People look for something rare or unusual,” Malbuff said, “but that doesn’t mean it has to cost a lot.” For example, old glass bottles or pottery pieces from the early 20th century are handmade, distinctive and reasonably priced.

“We look to be competitively priced with stores,” Malbuff said, “and you can do that by going to estate sales, buying lots.”

The Emporium’s answer to Williams-Sonoma

The key is knowledge of the market—and that is the biggest lesson Malbuff said he has learned since taking over the Emporium a little more than five years ago.

Malbuff and his wife, Annette, had been collectors—buyers, not sellers. “I was interested in historic items, old books and cool stuff,” Malbuff said. “My wife is a serious glass, china and porcelain collector. She’s an expert on Wedgwood jasperware, Irish Belleek and Noritake china.”

A former IT executive, Malbuff soured on corporate America and was looking for a new opportunity, and Leo Bernstein—a Washington banker who had created the Emporium and was then in his 80s—gave the Malbuffs that opportunity.

“He was looking to turn over the ownership, and we worked as consultants for a year, working with the various dealers, and we learned so much from them,” Malbuff said. The Malbuffs would go to auctions and estate sales with dealers, learning the inner workings of the trade. After a year, the couple took over the operation.

More treasure-filled Emporium booths

The biggest lesson Malbuff said he learned is that there is a huge lack of knowledge and information among both sellers and buyers. “So often people don’t know what they have,” Malbuff said. “When I started, I thought I’d be the dumb one.”

And finding good information isn’t that easy, either. “Some people are going around saying they are appraisers and don’t know what they are doing,” Malbuff warned.

At the Emporium, Malbuff said he learned the value of working with a group of experienced and well-versed experts in their fields. It helped inform his work and management. And that, he said, is his aim at WorthPoint. “The market is so broad that what you need is a knowledge base—the accumulated knowledge of a lot of people,” he said.

WorthPoint—Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles

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