Real-life dealers downplay value of popular TV programs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Veteran antiques dealer Paul Vanderpool (handling a World War II German officers Luger pistol) specializes in military collectibles.Television shows capturing the hunt for timeless treasures are prime-time hits, but sometimes the programs aren’t really based in reality, say the people in the real-life, everyday antiques business.

“For me, it’s sort of like watching a train wreck, but you can’t look away. It’s horrible, and I hate the people on the shows,” says Greg Weller, a longtime, semi-retired Portland antiques dealer.

“They don’t do us any good. They are more entertainment shows than they are reality,” says Paul Vanderpool, who for 34 years has owned The Raven in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood, specializing in military items.

Dealers and treasure seekers recently gathered at the Portland Expo Center for the Antique and Collectible Show, billed as one of the largest such shows in the country.

A public fascinated by nostalgia has made television programs such as “American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars,” “American Restoration,” “Storage Wars” and “Treasure Hunters” popular. Tune in to A&E, the History Channel, public broadcasting or Discovery Channel any day and you’ll see a number of them.

“Antiques Roadshow” is considered the trend-setter, as owners have their valuables appraised by professionals. But the content of the shows has trended toward the sensational.

The TV programs, along with buying and selling online, have changed the way people are involved in the industry.

The timelessness of many pieces creates a passion in longtime antiques exhibitors, who, on one hand, are embracing the trickle-down effect that the antiques and collector television shows have on the industry.

On the other hand, they are disturbed by how the shows are not exploring the reality of their livelihood.

Christine Palmer has taken over most of the ownership of Palmer Wirfs & Associates, which runs the Portland antiques show. She has seen the industry’s ups and downs in her 32 years.

Web’s impact on collecting

One of the big changes is the Internet’s domination of the market on sites like Ebay. In the past, collectors “would spend four or five years collecting one type of thing, which now takes you around a week on Ebay,” Palmer says.

Palmer’s company began as a monthly flea market in 1974 and has expanded to be one of the biggest antique shows in the country. To make ends meet, Palmer worked as a dealer for Don Wirf on Sundays and as office manager during the week.

“Those were the days where we would go out to buy with very little money and load up on things that were very sellable,” she says.

“What I bought on Saturday I sold on Sunday at one market or another,” adds Palmer, who, since the early 1990s has been running the shows with some key women and her husband.

The popularity of the TV programs is apparent in the price tag that comes when her company advertises during the shows’ airtime.

By advertising they receive a target audience, some of whom want to find out how old their great grandmother’s piece is and what it was used for. But the majority of people watching these TV shows and attending the antique exhibitions are interested in the bottom line: How much can I get for it?

Items kept out of landfill

Whether these TV shows have helped the industry is another question.

The good side, Palmer says, is that it turns people’s attention to the antiques industry and creates more desire for vintage items. People want to stand out and be seen as unique, and these shows produce more of a context for that.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Longtime antique dealer Sol Varon says TV shows that present rare items border on misleading, because of the numerous antiques out there.“I think it is encouraging younger people to come in. They want to be involved in the reusing aspect,” says Debbie Coe, who has been in the antiques industry for 30 years with her husband, Randy. They own a shop in the Lafayette Schoolhouse Antique Mall in Lafayette. “They don’t want to be using the Chinese stuff. I have a lot of people buying cookware made in America,”

“We’re in the green business. We’ve been in the green business for 25 years,” says Greg Otto, who has owned an antique shop with his wife, Doris, since 1986 in the Stars Antiques Mall in Portland.

Examples of his green items include such turn-of-the-century objects as an industrial fan and a 1910 candy scale. He hopes these items will be treasured by someone, rather than hit the burn pile like many of the old things from his childhood farm in Idaho.

Unrealistic offers

One thing exhibitors don’t like about antiques TV shows is that they teach the public bad habits, such as low-balling when purchasing. Palmer thinks you shouldn’t go to a show and low-ball someone; meaning, if someone has a $250 price tag on something, you don’t offer $75. The sellers pay a lot for the items and are in business to earn a living.

“They (TV shows) make it seem that I, as a dealer, can make a living off it when I make $25 on a $400 piece,” Otto says. “That is not a real good perspective of what we have to do to make a living.”

He compares many of these shows to sport-shopping, where people make an offer and then walk away, only to call back later and make another offer — until they have played with the seller enough to get them to back way down on the price.

Rather than low-balling sellers, a buyer seeking a discount should appropriately ask, “What’s your best price? ... What will you take? ... Can you do any better?”

Another issue with TV shows bothersome to antiques folks is the terminology that was brought into the industry, such as “honey bowl” and “bundling.” These are terms most sellers don’t use on principle because of their dislike for these shows. “Bundling” refers to piling pieces together and offering the seller one price for the pile — which has always been done, but never referred to as such.

A common misconception among people watching these shows is thinking they can make a large amount of money in a short period of time. The reality is you have to know so much in order to hope to do that.

Palmer speaks for many of the dealers who understand the shows inside and out, but can’t stand the unrealistic situations that are presented.

“I find that it makes people think just because they’ve watched the show they are some sort of expert or knowledgeable,” says Molly Lance, a vintage and antique jewelry dealer, who took over her godfather, Sol Varon’s, business in downtown Portland when he moved to Israel.

Lance believes that the TV antique shows have given people a false expectation that they will get the highest appraised price for their piece, even if they are living in one of the lowest markets in the country.

“It gets people passionate again about old things, but, unfortunately, miseducates them about what their piece is really worth in their market,” Lance says.

Customers have come into her shop expecting to sell their piece for what it would sell in places like Las Vegas or Los Angeles. But not here in Portland, where people brag about how little they paid for something.

Lance’s godfather, Varon, who owned the store in Portland for 23 years, says that the industry’s evolution has brought to the forefront items that were made in huge quantities.

The TV shows might display an item 150 years old. In reality, there are hundreds more just like it.

“The biggest thing is that most people have an elevated idea of what their items are worth,” Varon says. “They equate old with valuable, but generally old means junk — in most cases.”

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