A Working Vacation – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2006
By Ed Welch
I do not think it is possible for an antiques dealer to take a real vacation. My wife and I quit trying to do so after our youngest child went off to college. My wife, Marilyn, and I spend two weeks to a month in Europe every year buying antiques. We usually visit Europe in February, which is the slow season. Air fairs are low, prices in hotels and restaurants are low. Expenses in Europe at this time of the year are actually cheap.
On July 2, Marilyn and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. We moved our buying trip from February to the last week of June and the first week of July. We wanted to celebrate our 40th anniversary doing something different.
I wanted to spend our anniversary in Florence, Italy. My wife wanted to visit Scotland. I tried for several weeks to convince her that Florence would be a much better choice. I pointed out the Cathedral in Florence, the Medici family museum, and the chance to see artwork by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. She would have none of it. We started planning our visit to Scotland.
If Marilyn wanted Scotland, then I would give her Scotland. I rented a castle, not just any castle; Borthwick Castle, the last home of Mary Queen of Scots. I arrange to stay in Queen’s private apartment and ordered meals fit for a Queen. Marilyn, of course, complained about the expense and insisted that I reduce the number of days spent in the castle. I wanted to make her Queen for a week. She insisted that two or three days would be more than enough.
I had a second anniversary related quest. I wanted to purchase for Marilyn a custom woven, custom fitted, kilt. Marilyn owned such a kilt 30 years ago that we purchase from L.L. Bean. She literally wore the thing out. We have tried for years to buy another both here and in Europe without success.
In the late 1970s, I carried in inventory a large quantity of woven antique textiles. I had a good business dealing in vintage textiles for nearly 10 years. I quit handling this item in 1985 when it became impossible to replace sold stock at a cost low enough to allow for a profit. However, while I was in the textile business, I purchased numerous books on antique textiles, visited museum exhibitions, and formed relationships with collectors. I taught myself how to recognize quality woven textiles. One bit of information that always stayed with me was an article I read about the Waverly Mill, located 25 miles south of Edinburgh. They specialize in producing a limited amount of superior quality wool cloth used to make the best Scottish kilts. The Waverly Mill is in the village of Galashiels, about 10 miles from Borthwick Castle.
I had two business objective to accomplish while in the UK. First, buy enough merchandise to pay for the entire trip. Second, I have been studying golf related antiques and collectibles for more than a year. Much of the higher quality golf related items come from Scotland. I wanted to meet a wholesaler who specializes in golf related antiques and collectibles.
The wholesaler and I had to be compatible with one another. I have been dealing with wholesalers my entire career. I can tell within a very short time whether or not I will be able to do business with a particular wholesaler. I have a list of about 10 questions that I can work into a conversation that will give me a good idea if the wholesaler really understands my needs as a buyer, wants the additional business, and is capable of finding enough merchandise to adequately supply a new buyer.
I am willing to spend thousands of dollars to purchase my initial stock. However, I need a reliable wholesaler who is able to keep me supplied with golf related antiques and collectibles at a cost that is low enough to allow me to make a profit.
Day 1: Arrived in London around 7 a.m., picked up our rental car, spent some time in the parking lot becoming familiar shifting a standard transmission with my left hand and finding the location of the headlight switch, wiper switch, and other controls that were not in locations common in the U.S.
Drove from the airport to the M-25 Motorway, a beltway around London, and then to the M-11 Motorway that heads North to the Midlands and Scotland. Our first destination was the picturesque village of Hutton le Hole that sets on the edge of a large national forest. A stock fence that must be opened and then re-closed by the operator of every automobile that passes bars the road to the village. Sheep roam the pastures, roadways, and even the downtown areas of the village. We arrived in mid-afternoon, had a light lunch, walked about the village for a short time, and then went to bed to catch up on lost sleep, and the five-hour time difference between the U.S. and the UK.
Day 2: Visited the weekly flea market in Hutton le Hole and bought one small item. We drove to Helmsley to visit an antiques market and several secondhand shops. We could not find a single item at the antique show, the secondhand shops, or at the flea market. We had a light lunch in Helmsley and headed to our next destination, Edinburgh. We arrived in Edinburgh late in the afternoon. We asked directions to a local restaurant and had our first full meal since arriving in England.
Day 3: We got up early to visit a large Antique Fair located on the outskirts of Edinburgh. We bought several medical and optical related antiques. We also purchased a rare pair of eyeglasses, circa 1760, for a very low price. Our first “sleeper” of the trip. We spent a couple of hours speaking with local dealers about the possibility of being referred to a picker or wholesaler who might be able to sell us medical related antiques in volume. We also asked to be directed to a wholesaler willing to sell golf related antiques in volume. We were directed to two shops in Edinburgh. However, none of the dealers we spoke to was willing to give us the name and telephone number of local wholesalers. Such a reaction is to be expected. Why should a dealer give away his or her source of supply?
Day 4: We got up early this day and drove to the village of Galashiels. We visited the factory store of Waverly Mill and spoke to a sales clerk about the possibility of having a Tartan woven especially for us, and using that Tartan to make a full-length kilt for my wife and a scarf and tie for myself. We arrange to revisit the mill on the following day to meet one of the owners.
We had a quick light lunch and then drove to Borthwick Castle. After checking in, we were escorted to our room. This Castle is a fortified structure and not a palace. The walls are 24 feet thick on the first floor. Our room was 100 feet straight up in the south tower. For defensive purposes, the staircase is extremely narrow and steep. The doors are less than four feet in height. The low doors made it impossible for a Knight in full armor to enter.
Our room was once the bedchambers of Mary Queen of Scots. The room was quite large considering that the walls at this height were still 14 feet thick. Picture a small window with a 14-foot windowsill. The light shining through the window enters the room as a beam, much like the beam of a flashlight. Without the use of many candles, the room was dark even during daylight hours.
Off to the side of Mary’s private room was a Great Hall with a huge fireplace and several large windows. This room, although dark by today’s standards, was well lit as long as daylight lasted. The Great Hall featured a small chapel at one end for Mary’s private use. The King and Queen entertained here, held court, public gatherings, attended Dances and Balls and could relax in splendor when they had the space entirely to themselves.
In the 16th century, the King and Queen did not share a bedchamber. Each had his or her own apartment. The Great Hall served as a passageway between the two apartments. No other room in the Castle had direct access to the Great Hall except those of the King and Queen.
We had full use of the castle including the stables. We could ride, fish in one of the streams that ran through the property, and arrange a hunt with the Falconer. In my younger years, I may have done all three and more. At age 64, I settled for exploring the castle, lounging in the Great Hall, and reading in the library.
We had a feast for supper that evening. Because it was our 40th anniversary, I chose to ignore my diabetic diet and ate nearly everything that was presented to me. The next morning my blood sugar level was three times higher than normal. It took several days of fasting to being my sugar level back to normal.
Day 5: We had breakfast at the castle, spent some time exploring the castle grounds then headed back to Galashiels and Waverly Mill. We met with one of the mill owners who gave us a tour. We were introduced to the workers who would set up the loom that would be used to weave the Tartan we chose. We spoke briefly with the person who would actually weave the Tartan. We spoke to a woman that had the task of inspecting the finished Tartan to be certain that the correct number of threads were used, that each thread was in its proper position, and that each thread had the proper color and shading.
This woman was in a process of changing one thread that did not have the exact shading of color required. She was working a crochet type needle over and under the weft of the fabric along besides the offending warp thread. She had to do this for the entire 60-yard length of the fabric. When the crochet type tool was in place, the offending warp thread could be removed and a thread of the proper color could be hand woven into place.
A simple repair can take a few hours; a complicated repair can take a week or more.
Marilyn chose the modern version of the Sinclair Hunting Tartan. She was measured by the tailor. I requested that my scarf be made four inches wider and two feet longer than normal. I use a scarf constantly in the winter. I find it difficult to buy an off-the-shelf scarf that is wide enough and long enough to serve its intended purpose.
Day 6: Although we had the use of the castle and all its facilities for the day, we made our excuses and left after breakfast. Back in Edinburgh, we began to visit many of the antique shops that had been recommended to us when we visited the antiques fair. We had luck in finding an item or two in several of the shops. However, our success that day was in being referred to two wholesales.
The first wholesaler specialized in golf related antiques. I spent several hours talking with this dealer discussing volume sales, pricing, shipping arrangements, and shipping costs. This dealer has an inventory that includes more than 6,000 golf clubs made before 1920. He also has several hundred antique and vintage golf balls and thousands of golf related collectibles. We spoke late into the evening and then arranged to continue our conversation the following afternoon.
If I am to establish a wholesale relationship with this dealer, I will needed consistent pricing on golf clubs, golf balls, and golf related memorabilia. I let him know that I was not expecting the impossible. Rare golf items and one-of-a-kind items are in great demand. Such items cannot be wholesaled but a good costumer should be able to buy such items at a somewhat lower cost. My judgment of his inventory is that 90 percent of his stock is replaceable and therefore a type of item that can be wholesaled in volume.
This dealer personally knew the second wholesale dealer who had been recommended to us. He called this person and explained that an American dealer who specialized in medical, dental, optical, and scientific antiques was in his shop and would like to arrange a visit. The first response was, no! However, the dealer in golf memorabilia convinced his friend that he should take the time to see us. He told his friend that we were serious buyers and not just lookers. “Patrick,” he said rather firmly, “if you have anything they can make money on, they will buy it. You will not be wasting your time.” Patrick agreed to see us early the next morning.
Day 7: Patrick, not his real name, was just the type of dealer that I was hoping to find. I purchased enough quality antiques to pay for the entire trip to the UK and make a good size profit. I am not willing to list everything that I purchased; however, I will list a few of the unique pieces.
I purchased three gas discharge tubes similar to the tubes by Wilhelm Roentgen when he discovered x-ray. After Roentgen’s discovery, the design of the gas discharge tube was altered by adding a second Anode (Anticathode) to better control and focus the x-ray beam. I purchased a prototype of the first x-ray tube done at a 10 percent scale.
I also discovered the purpose of a pair of red lens spectacles that I had purchased more than 10 years ago. The spectacles were invented in 1916 by Wilhelm Trendleenburg to use with the Roentgen x-ray tube. The red lenses did not protect the users eyes rather, the red lenses made it possible to see the developing x-ray image in greater detail. This bit of information greatly increased the value of my spectacles. They are rare and worth much more than I expected.
I purchased an 18th-century Archimedean Screw that demonstrates early water-lifting technology. Archimedes, a Greek mathematician (278 – 212 BC), is credited with discovering this technique. I purchased a rare birthing doll that was once in the collection of James Simpson (discoverer of chloroform). I purchased 18th-century optical equipment, 18th-century surgical tools, and several anatomic models of the human body.
My visit to this shop lasted just over three hours. All my purchases were carefully packed by Patrick and shipped to me by FedEx. I received my purchases two days after I returned home. I will revisit this dealer at least once each year. In addition, Patrick will introduce me to several other dealers who carry similar items. I hope that this is the beginning of a profitable and long relationship for both of us.
Marilyn and I returned to Edinburgh and visited several dealers who had been recommended to us by Patrick. We managed to buy four more items. Next, we paid a second visit to the golf memorabilia dealer. I have much more to say about this dealer and about the process of adding a new item to my inventory. I will save these comments from my article next month.
Day 8: We visited the Edinburgh Surgeons Museum and another museum with a large display of anatomical models. Purchased three books on the museum’s exhibition and one book on the tools and equipment on display. By midafternoon, we were on the road headed south to our next destination, Alnwick Castle.
A large antique show was being held at this castle the following day. What I did not know is that this is the castle where all the Harry Potter films are made. The castle was a beehive of activity involving costumed characters from the Harry Potter movies and literally thousands of children. Fortunately, the antique show was located on the other side of the castle grounds away from all this activity. The show was large, the merchandise was displayed well, but the prices were three times retail prices. I was not able to purchase a single item.
Day 9: We drove to the Manchester area to attend yet another show. This was a medium-size show. The merchandise was well displayed. We purchased several items that will return a good profit. We met a dealer from Nottingham who is in the process of buying an estate that includes a large collection of medical antiques. This dealer has contacted us since we returned home. She has sent many images of the medical antiques she is about to acquire. I have politely refused her request to make offers on any of the items I may wish to purchase. Instead, I informed her that I would purchase the entire lot but it was up to her to set the price. I also let her know that if she did not want to invest her money in this collection, I would gladly pay her a finder’s fee if I were able to purchase the collection with her help. This collection has more than enough value to warrant a trip to the UK.
Day 10: Spent the entire day driving back to London.
Day 11: Got up early and returned the rental car. We took the Tube to London and visited a large flea market held in the area of London called Camden Town. I purchased many low-end items that I simply call things and stuff. I generally buy such items at 10 cents on the dollar. I will probably make a few hundred dollars on my purchases.
Day 12: Got up early to visit the flea market held at Covent Gardens. I bought extremely well at this flea market. Next, Marilyn and I made the rounds to several large group shops. Many of the dealers from whom we normally buy were on holiday. It was unfortunate for us not to have made contact with these dealers. We did buy a few items from other dealers. By early afternoon we had finished visiting shops.
We decided to try to get tickets to one of the theaters in the West End. Buying tickets to popular shows is nearly impossible with one exception. Seniors more than 60 years of age have first refusal on tickets that the original owners have returned because they are unable to attend. To qualify for these tickets you must prove that you are over 60 years of age and place your name on a waiting list by 2 PM the day of the show. One hour before the performance begins, simply check back at the theater to see if someone has returned tickets. All returned tickets are sold to senior citizens at a cost of 20 pounds each. This is generally one third of the original price. As usual, several people had returned tickets. We were well entertained by the comedy “Avenue Q.”
Day 13: Spent the entire day returning home.
A Working Vacation – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2006