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Five Hundred and Four Elephants

Five Hundred and Four Elephants – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2007
By Ed Welch
The Wanted to Sell ad read: Four bow front china cabinets. Asking price $1,000, firm.
I called the listed number and spoke with the owner. She had received many calls and was a bit upset that everyone wanted to buy her china cabinets for much less than $250 each.
The year was 1972. $250 was top money for a bow front china cabinet. I arranged a visit, the first potential buyer to do so. Three of the china cabinets were of standard quality, worth at that time $250 each. However, the fourth china cabinet was exceptional and in my opinion worth more than the other three cabinets combined.
I told the owner that I would pay her asking price, $1,000, for the four china cabinets. Her reply was something I did not expect. She said, “I will call you to pick up the china cabinets once I have sold my collection of elephants.” The lady used the china cabinets to display her collection of 504 elephants. I had no interest in buying 504 collectible elephants, but I did not want to leave without the china cabinets.
The seller wanted $504, one dollar each, for her elephant collection. Today, a dollar is worth little. In 1972, one could buy ten loaves of bread for one dollar. The collection was not overpriced but it was not a bargain either. On the spot, I decided to buy everything for $1504.
I resold the best china cabinet for $725 the next day. I resold the three common china cabinets for $650 two days later. I quickly received $1375 of my investment back. I still had $129 invested in the elephant collection.
I was now at a point at which I felt that I would not lose money on my investment. However, the amount of money that I did make would be determined by how well I managed the sale of 504 elephants.
I had no idea what a collectible elephant was worth. I quickly checked prices at several flea markets and the one group shop that existed in Maine in 1972. The selling price of collectible elephants ranged from 25 cents to $5 each. The most common selling price was $1.25 with a discount of 25 cents. My next task was to sort the collection into groups based on the potential selling price.
I had recently discovered a book written by Albert Sack, [amazon_link id=”0517001489″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Fine Points of Furniture: Early American[/amazon_link]. Mr. Sack used hundreds of illustrations to highlight the differences in Early American Furniture made by different cabinetmakers. He sorted his findings into three categories: good, better, and best. I saw no reason why this system would not work for collectible elephants.
It did not take long to sort the collection into three groupings. However, after the first quick sorting, I noticed problems. I had many elephants that were too good to go into the low-priced group but they were not of high enough quality to go into the mid-priced group. I also had many elephants that were of a quality too high for the mid-priced group but not high enough for the high-priced group. Obviously, the sorting of collectible elephants required more groups than did the sorting of Early American Furniture.
I resorted my low-priced elephants into groups of good, better, and best. The result produced a more accurate assessment of my low-priced elephants. Next, I resorted my mid-priced elephants into three groupings and finally resorted my high-priced elephants into three groupings. I now had nine groupings of elephants based on potential selling price. I refined my nine groupings by moving individual elephants up or down one level. I had seven elephants that were much better than all the rest.
The seven best elephants made group number ten. Two elephants were carved from ivory, two were hand blown glass, two were cast iron (very large) and one was marked 18K gold.
I entered the antique trade in the mid-1960s. By 1972, I was fast becoming a full-time dealer. Old-time dealers had told me that the antique trade was divided into three levels. The levels were low, middle, and high value items. Albert Sack’s book – in which he categorized Early American Furniture as being good, better, or best – reinforced the three-tiered theory.
I always had problems working with the three-tiered theory. I felt that too many items did not fit into one of these rigid categories.
Several months before I purchased the elephant collection, I was outbid at auction for a barn full of junk. The lot contained blacksmith tools, carpenter tools, horse harnesses and other tack, farm equipment, lots of shovels, rakes, hoes, scythes and sickles.
The buyer was ecstatic. He was overjoyed that he had bought the whole lot at such a cheap price. I clearly remember him saying repeatedly, “This is the best junk I have ever owned.” His excitement made me realize that it was possible to have some junk that was better than other junk.
Early American Furniture can be categorized as good, better, or best. In much the same manner, low value items can be sorted into categories good, better, and best. Being outbid for a barn full of junk plus sorting a collection of 504 elephants impressed upon me the possibility that there were more than three levels of values in the antique marketplace. I became convinced that if I could train myself to recognize the differences between the good, better, and best of any type of antique or collectible, I could make money moving items from lower to higher levels.
I soon discovered that in addition to price differences between levels, there are social, economic, and political differences. Some dealers are in the antique trade for reasons of vanity. Being a “Dealer of Antiques” has social ramifications. Snobbery and elitism are not uncommon.
A dealer in the trade to make money must develop the skills necessary to place a particular antique in its proper price level. The dealer must also develop the skills necessary to understand the politics of the various levels and learn to deal with the different types of individuals who choose to be either a low, middle, or high-end dealer. I have always been a low-level dealer operating at level three. At times, I also bought and sold country furniture at level five and then level six.
I now operate two businesses, one at level three, and the other at level eight. Although the product is related, I treat each level as a separate business. I maintain two buying methods, two selling methods, two advertising programs, and separate inventories. In no way do I mix the two levels. Mixing levels always results in customer confusion and fewer sales.
It took my wife and I seven years to sell the collection of elephants. Our total gross income from the collection was nearly $5,000. Much of this money was made reselling level nine and ten elephants.
The slow resale of the collection was the result of a lack of high-level selling outlets. We were low-level dealers. As the number of antique shows and group shops increased in the 1970s, we gained selling outlets of a higher level.
Not all $50 price tags have the same value. If you are in an exclusive shop, antique or any other type of retail business, an item priced at $50 seems cheap. If you are in a flea market or Wal-Mart, a similar item priced at $50 can seem expensive.
Jaguars and Fords are not sold from the same showroom for many reasons; some obvious, others subtle. Antique dealers should not sell low-level, mid-level, and high-end antiques from the same shop or – worst yet – booth, for the same reasons.

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