Selling a White Elephant (or a HUGE Horse)
A month ago I did a house clean out, and sitting right there in the cramped living room, was this giant hand carved wooden rocking horse.
I was driving through our town recently on a Saturday morning, and saw a very Norman Rockwellian scene. In a residential neighborhood of side by side homes with picket fences and herb gardens, I happened to see a little old lady in a flowered smock, and a gardeners’ hat, lifting an arm load of dirt and roots and flower bulbs over the rock wall where her neighbor looked thrilled to be receiving them.
The neighbor looked to be doing gardening herself in her yard at the time, and I imagined their conversation, and what perfect timing it was for her to receive the bulbs, and how valuable they were for her at that moment. All things considered, there was probably $40 in value there for her. A minutes work, and the bulbs were surely in the ground and ready to grow. Now consider anyone else receiving that arm load of dirty mess, and it wouldn’t be worth a penny, never mind $40.
As antique collectors and dealers, this principle plays out over and over in our daily hunt for treasures, or inventory, as we struggle to assign “value” to the items we acquire. The main factors we think of in finding this value, are of course supply and demand, as well as rarity and quality, plus current market “trends”, and a long list of other factors that turn the value of our item into a moving target.
But back to my “garden bulb” example, one factor that can really help a collector make money or lose money, is finding a person who can use, or “handle” those bulbs, right at the time you want to sell them. The classic cliche of course is the White Elephant. No one can handle, or bring home, or use, a white elephant. But if you needed one desperately at a specific moment, you’d be willing to pay a king’s ransom for one!
A spinet piano is the example I see most frequently. Look for one when you need one or want one, and you can find them for $1000 and up. They have been moved and stored in a showroom, maybe for months. They’ll have ramps and dollies, and they might offer to deliver it. But look on Craigslist in the “items free” section, and you will often see “nice piano in good condition for free, you pick up.”
A classic spinet piano is difficult to find at a reasonable price when you need one…easy to find for free when you don’t.
A month ago I did a house clean out, and sitting right there in the cramped living room, was a giant hand carved wooden rocking horse. When I saw it, I didn’t see it as a great find with a lot of value. My initial reaction in my head was “How am going to get rid of that?” It was about 5 feet tall and 6 feet long, and I didn’t know how I would even get it out of the small home. And a pretty decorated giant rocking horse was something that I wasn’t very into myself.
I began the house cleaning, which included closets full of “stuff,” and a general mish mosh of everything under the sun, what a mess! After a few hours, I made my way over to the horse to get a closer look. I have never owned or bought or sold a big rocking horse, so I did what you do now– pulled out my phone, and checked Worthpoint to see if we had a listing here for it, which we didn’t. I looked on the underside, and found the following “S & S Woodcarvers- Hand painted 1988.”
On the underside of the horse was written the following: “S & S Woodcarvers- Hand painted 1988.”
So how do I maximize the value of this horse? Is it really worth that much? I did some more searching, and found a couple of other similar horses posted in ads on web sites, with prices more in the $2500 range. But those ads could have been posted last week, or last year. Do I know anyone who needs one right now? No. But it was obvious the horse had substantial value, but to turn this horse into cash was going to involve a lot of lugging, as well as another factor — storage.
I decided my best bet was to bring it to the big Brimfield flea market, which was only a week away. It would be quite a task to get it in the truck, and set it up for sale there. But my thought was that the New York City decorators crowd would be there, along with thousands and thousands of other potential buyers.
I had a few other large, awkward shaped “white elephant” type items I could haul down as well, including this 6 1/2 foot tall wooden sarcophagus, which opened up into a huge but funky shelving unit inside.
A 6 1/2 foot tall wooden sarcophagus, which contains a shelving unit in the interior.
After hours of back breaking lugging and trucking, I found myself set up at the 3 day Brimfield show, with my giant rocking horse, and the 6 foot sarcophagus. I put price tags on them each, $3500 for the horse and $1000 for the sarcophagus, and watched as the early NY dealers raced around from booth to booth. I watched their reaction to the pieces, and their reaction to the prices. No nibbles. I couldn’t read their reactions well, and I instantly began to panic. I had visions of the show ending, and having to struggle to reload all this stuff in to the truck, and drive all the way back to Maine with my tail between my legs.
Day two of the show came and went, as customers stopped and took selfies with both pieces and commented on how cool they were, but no one seemed like a serious potential buyer. Not one of the thousands of customers who passed my booth needed, could use, or could “handle” a huge rocking horse, or a giant sarcophagus.
I began slashing prices. At that time, the “value” of these good quality items, was not very high. To me, they began to look like a giant burden. Then out of nowhere came a young guy who froze in front of the sarcophagus, and his jaw dropped. It appeared he had wanted a sarcophagus his whole life. I walked up next to him and said ” $500 and it’s yours.” Fifteen minutes later, I was helping him twist and turn it in to the back of his Toyota hatchback, using ropes and blankets, leaving just less than half of it hanging out the back!
That sale was a relief to say the least, disaster averted. About an hour later, and again out of the blue, I turn to see a young couple standing in front of my giant rocking horse, intensely inspecting it, and whispering to each other. It turns out she is a photographer, and was in the market for a giant horse to use as a prop, for photographing young children. Go figure. Fifteen minutes later, the three of us were loading it into their wagon.
These examples worked out well enough for me, and the customer. There are other times though, where you wind up lugging something home and putting it in storage forever, or taking a ridiculously low price for it, even at a loss!
So when you go to an auction and wonder why the guy in the huge flatbed truck pulls up when the auction is half over, you know why. He’ll be the one scooping up all the $10 armoires and dining room sets to sell out of his huge unheated warehouse somewhere across town.
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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