RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES: It Is About the People You Meet Along the Way

“Yes, I believe that after all is said and sold, the most tangible treasures to be found are the treasure hunters themselves: the collectors and characters, titans or recluses, filthy rich or filthy poor, unequivocally crazy or inequitably sane, truly famous or plain old infamous”

                                                                                                 — Duane Scott Cerny, “Selling Dead People’s Things.”

When trying to decide what attracts me most to the antiques and collectibles trade, the pendulum swings between the objects and the people.  I love the challenge of making an object come alive, uncovering the dozens of stories it has to tell and sharing them with other.  In the back of my mind, I constantly am reminding myself not to forget about the people who owned the object along the way.

I did my Sunday, July 8, 2018, WHATCHA GOT? radio show from the office of the Miller-Dunham House, a bed and breakfast in Odessa, Delaware.  I spent Saturday night there.  Earlier in the day, I conducted a 9:00 AM to 3:30 PM appraisal clinic in Lehighton, Pennsylvania.  At the conclusion of my Sunday radio show, I ate a hasty breakfast before driving to Bridgeville, Delaware, for an afternoon appraisal clinic at the Antique Alley Antiques Mall.

Jane and Robert Kahn, friends from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, met me in Odessa.  They had never been to Odessa and toured its historic houses.  We had dinner Saturday night at Cantwell’s Tavern, the building dating back to 1822.

While Jane and Robert and the other overnight guest at the Miller-Dunham house were enjoying breakfast, I was doing my live WHATCHA GOT? broadcast.  Breakfast was cut short as the guests gathered in the office to listen to my end of the conversations.  A guest had a question so I put her on the air.  Innkeepers George & Karla Ruhl took note.  Before I knew what was happening, Karla was calling friends telling them to bring objects over the Miller-Dunham house for me to appraise on air.  This was an unexpected treat.  While some listeners email pictures of their objects before calling into the show, most do not.  I enjoy the challenge of playing “guess the goodies” without seeing them.

A needlework sampler was one of the objects that came through the front door of the Miller-Dunham House.  It was wrought in the 1790s by a student attending a Delaware finishing school for young ladies.  It had multiple sections of family information, text verses, a building and landscape scene on the bottom, and an elaborate border.  It still was in the family of the young woman that made it.  It was spectacular, a true “I do not see one of these every day” piece.

When WHATCHA GOT? ended, Jane came over to me and asked if I realized what had happened.  Alerted by the dumb “I do not know what you are talking about” look on my face, Jane said my body posture changed, my voice went a pitch higher, and my excitement/passion level rose.  “You are at your best when you are handling objects and talking directly with their owners,” Jane gleamed as though she had discovered some great truth.

Jane is correct.  Day-long appraisal clinics seem to go by in a matter of minutes rather than hours.  On occasion, I enter another dimension in these circumstances.  Judging from what I have written thus far, a reader might conclude it is the object rather than the person that excites me more.  While this is true in some cases, I am more intrigued by the owner of the object, their stories relating to it, and how they react to what I tell them in most cases.

            [Author’s Aside: The husband of the woman whose sampler I discussed on air died recently.  When Karla called her, she was distraught.  “Bring your sampler over for Harry to see,” Karla urged.  As George and Karla said goodbye, they thanked me for providing the woman with a needed distraction.  Who knew?  Had I known, I probably would not have acted differently.]

The antiques and collectibles trade sells stories, dreams, and wonder.  More often than not the stories are not about objects but their owners or people met along the way.  The antiques and collectibles trade is imbued with characters.  A few are forgettable, most are not.

During the appraisal clinic in Lehighton, a woman walked in with a World War I German grenade that was fired from a rifle or some type of launcher.  Prior to seeing the grenade, I visited with Jason Houser of Houser Auctioneers who was working a booth his firm had set up at the appraisal clinic.  Jason attended the Air Force Academy and flew fighter jets before retiring.  I valued the grenade between $15.00 and $20.00.  Wanting to share the piece with Jason, I asked the owner if I could share it with him.  He was enticed and said, “I will pay her $20.00 on the spot.”  I conveyed the message to the owner assuming she would jump at the chance.  Instead, she looked over to Jason and replied: “I bought this in a $1.00 box lot at one of your auctions.  I am not selling it back to you.”  I was stunned.  Who in their right mind would turn down a deal like this?  Twenty times what one paid is a tidy profit.  The woman never explained specifically why she would not sell.  I suspect she was a victim of the old myth that “if he will pay this for something, someone else will pay more.”

As I wrote the above story, I realized that those reading it would not be able to hear the tone of the voices nor see facial expressions of those involved in the exchange.  Still, this story is now part of my personal antiques and collectibles lore and is likely to be recounted again and again as occasion warrants.

While the history of antiques and collectibles objects is well documented, the stories about its personalities, one of the greatest legacies of the antiques and collectibles trade, are largely preserved verbally.  Many evolve from fact to fiction in the telling, the latter only enhancing the legendary quality of the story. War stories involving successful and unsuccessful hunts recounted over and over again by those sharing similar experiences are one such story type.

Occasionally, people’s stories appear in trade publications.  Far too often they are informational and/or biographical instead of incidental.  The best stories are those that describe specific instances and which evoke a “similar thing happened to me” or “I know someone just like that” response.

Early in the history of “Rinker on Collectibles” I decided not to include book reviews.  The exceptions are the “Summer Read” and “Winter Read” columns devoted to the antiques and collectibles cozy mystery series.  Prone to writing what I think in a way that it is impossible to misunderstand, in an earlier career, I discovered that writing what I considered to be an honest review of a lousy book was not conducive to maintaining friendships.

Duane Scott Cerny, one of the principles in Chicago’s Broadway Antique Mall (BAM), has just released his “Selling Dead People’s Things: Inexplicably True Tales, Vintage Fails & Objects of Objectionable Estates.”  I am extremely jealous.  The original proposed title for my “Sell, Keep, or Toss?” published by Random House was “Dead Peoples’ Stuff.”  I tried “Disposing of Dead Peoples’ Stuff,” but Random House held firm with its no.  Do you think Random House would have accepted “Deposing” instead of “Disposing?”

Duane’s book, written from a far different perspective than I would use, is a wonderful collection of stories about the people, a large percentage who were characters, and others he met along his travels.  Of course, Duane is the main character in his book.  And well he should be.  I met Duane and knew/know many of the individuals he references.

This is a down, dirty book about the interactions of people in the trade – sellers, buyers, experts (or whatever one wants to call them), show promoters, and others.  After every chapter, I wanted to call Duane and tell him that his story reminded me of a similar story I experienced.  Although not a buyer and seller, we shared many commonalities in our careers.

A few years ago, I was approached by a publisher who asked me to consider writing a memoir.  I refused.  I could not decide on an approach that satisfied me.  Writing one’s own biography is a bit self-serving – emphasize the good, gloss over or completely ignore the bad.  A similar situation often happens with memoirs.

Duane has shown me a path – people and their stories.  I could talk for days about the characters and personalities I met during my career without once referencing an object.   Where is my tape recorder?


Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

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