Is This Your Story, Too? Writer Spotlight – Liz Holderman
Luckily, most of my friends love antiques and collectibles too, so they don’t think it’s too weird to have a showcase in the corner of my living room and bookcases everywhere.
When my WorthPoint editor asked me to write about how I got started (and stayed) in the antiques and collectibles business, I wasn’t sure if I could make the story interesting. But it was truly a journey of learning, so I just decided to share how I evolved along the way. If you are another antiques professional, this probably mirrors your own experience.
I always loved reading. And even though I majored in a scientific field in college and had a 30-year career in the corporate world, I impractically dreamed of owning my own bookstore. As a young adult, I began to collect books. I started with all of the Nancy Drew stories I had borrowed from the library as a teen (the picture-cover, yellow-spine versions from the 1960s). I frequented flea markets, garage sales, and antique shops, picking them up one by one. I subscribed to monthly catalogs with lists of titles for sale. And in the very, very infancy of the Internet, I joined a dial-up bulletin board where users could post messages and talk about antique books – on a big dark screen with nothing but scrolling dot-matrix text. There, I learned and bought from people with a similar passion for books and much more knowledge than me.
Early dial-up bulletin boards like this one helped me learn more about researching antique books, one scrolling line at a time. Photo credit: arstechnica.com
By the time I finally found all of those Nancy Drew titles, I knew that they had really begun in the 1930s with gorgeous glossy illustrations and beautiful period dust jackets. Now that I was smarter, I wanted the coveted earliest versions instead. And the first editions of all the other books I had loved. So my collection started all over. I bought tons of great research guides and began to study all of the variations of edition identification (that changed with every publisher). I learned that something as subtle as a typographical error or a change in an illustration could help date (and change the value of) a book. The research was so much fun; I was hooked.
When I first started collecting all of the Nancy Drew books, I had no idea there were different illustrated versions. The one on the left was issued in 1930 and actually sold for $400; the one in the middle was issued in 1950, and the one on the right was issued in 1965.
I wanted to share what I learned, so I started to edit my own subscription newsletter focused on illustrated children’s books from the Golden Age (1860’s to the very early 20th century). For ten years, I sold the newsletter (in a 20-page pamphlet format) to universities, libraries, collectors, and dealers, which of course resulted in more research and networking. I was thrilled when the Library of Congress assigned it an ISSN and added it to their permanent periodical collection.
In the meantime, I rented a tiny space in a small, family-owned antique store in an outer suburb of Dallas and finally had my (50-square-foot) bookshop. I bought boxes of used books at auctions and estate sales and, surprisingly, they sold. As I upgraded my own collection, I now had a place to sell my replaced books. And, because it was so contagious, I started to sell other collectibles as well. I worked in the store a few Saturdays a month and the other dozen dealers were friendly and helpful. I asked about the antiques they sold and I learned about glassware, Arts and Crafts furniture, holiday memorabilia, postcards, and lamps. I wasn’t much of a designer, but I learned that items sold better if they were displayed on beautiful antique dressers and step-back cupboards instead of plain shelving. And, especially, I watched what customers were buying. One of my first hard lessons was this: you can’t always sell what you like; you have to sell what people want. I happened to think that a baby shark in a display jar of cloudy formaldehyde was interesting. Nobody else did.
Admittedly it was a hobby, not a living, but it was a hobby that paid for itself. At first, I specialized in dinnerware like Fiesta, Franciscan and Candlewick; but I also sold anything that was unusual and hard to find. I studied hallmarks to understand dates of production. I studied identification guides to make sure I knew how to recognize reproductions. And I expanded my repertoire. I learned that cities far away would often have more of a particular genre that was scarcer (and more desirable) in my area. So my new friends took me on long weekend buying trips, leaving at five in the morning and driving for hours so that we could hit ten or fifteen stores 400 miles away. Long before 9/11 and any restrictions on baggage, we would take dozens of empty storage tubs as luggage and fly to Pennsylvania or New England to shop. We brought back quilts, firkins, antique toys, Victorian prints, daguerreotypes, pewter chocolate molds, and vintage Bakelite radios. They sold almost instantly, partly because they couldn’t be easily found in the Dallas area, but probably because I naively priced them too low.
In “the good old days,” I could easily sell a 1930s radioactive red Fiesta syrup for $500. This one sold at auction for $120 in August 2018.
Sometimes it could get crazy. I constantly foraged all over, so when a regular customer asked for a particular serving piece, I usually knew I could find it (affordably) at another store maybe 30 miles away. I’d take a long lunch hour from my “real” job, zoom over to buy it, bring it back, double the price and call the customer. Voilà. As we say in the trade, those were the good old days.
But all good things come to an end, and so did that. Decorating styles changed and younger people became less interested in old furnishings. Some antique stores were filling with crafts and garage sale junk; others were closing. Deserted buildings were now housing restaurants and loft apartments instead of resale shops. When eBay debuted in 1995, I knew for sure that it would drastically affect the collectibles market; and it did. In the beginning, many people did not have personal computers so sellers who did could still stay a step ahead of the buyers. But, as internet access increased in dramatic proportions, more and more items were accessible online. The books and collectibles market tanked.
But that was actually ok for me. I was at a time in my career that involved a brutal amount of overtime hours and extensive travel. I needed to take a hiatus from my hobby anyway. I boxed up what I considered the “good stuff” for storage, sold the rest at a weekend flea market and kept my eyes open on the changing market. I wrote articles for a couple of antiques magazines to make sure I stayed current and continued to learn.
After an early retirement several years later, I rented a space from an upscale antique mall with hundreds of dealers – in an expensive part of Dallas. I unboxed my “good stuff” and quickly discovered it wasn’t so good anymore. But I didn’t stop learning. I worked at the store one or two days a week to see what was selling and asked my colleagues about their beautiful merchandise. I enrolled in the necessary classes and passed the required tests to become an accredited antique appraiser, specializing in what I knew best: books and collectibles. But becoming an appraiser didn’t mean I automatically knew what everything was worth. In fact, it was just the opposite. I learned that values changed in different markets and depended on many particular variables. Analysis and reporting were appraisal requirements, so my sources and research had to ratchet up 100-fold. I enjoyed a whole new group of professional friends who shared their expertise and love of decorative arts. I went to conferences and seminars and always more classes. It was great to be challenged and learning again. And, over the years, I was very, very fortunate to be able to visit art museums and cathedrals all over Europe. I learned so much more than I ever knew possible and I loved every second.
But meanwhile, back at the antique mall, I had to figure out what to sell and how to get it. Those fun weekend buying trips were a thing of the past because most shops were gone, and the ones that remained didn’t sell what my new customers wanted to buy. The older clients wanted Imari vases, ormolu cabinets, Queen Anne chairs, crystal chandeliers and leather-bound books with marbled covers. Younger clients wanted a sleek industrial look, signed mid-century furniture, French architectural salvage, and treasures from nature like antlers, fossils, and minerals. And both generations wanted gently used luxury goods (designer purses and jewelry). Auctions and estate sales were still good for arts and furniture, but I had to establish some trusted overseas and local sources for most of the luxury goods. What’s in demand today could all change tomorrow, too. And it probably will. So I can never stop learning.
Samples of William’s and Kate’s brandy-infused wedding cake were given to members of the Submariners. This one sold for $7,500 (plus buyer’s premium) on November 9, 2012.
I started writing for WorthPoint in 2008 when they were pretty brand new, and that helped keep me studying. I tried to think back on my favorite article and decided it was a 2013 piece I wrote about collecting slices of (very old) royal wedding cakes. It was fun to research and oddball enough to suit my tastes. Best of all, I learned some things that I didn’t know. Thanks, WorthPoint! Keep it up.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.
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