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Pounding Doors for a Living

Pounding on Doors for a Living – Business of Doing Business – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – November 2004
By Ed Welch
Antiques purchased directly from homes generate more profit for the dealer than antiques purchased at auctions, group shops, shows, and from other dealers.
Generally, the money received by the homeowner is about the same and sometimes more than selling through the services of an auction house. The extra money for the homeowner is the result of eliminating the middleman. Auction service fees add 35% to the cost of items sold.
Dealers who buy entire estates and collections have an advantage over auction houses in that the cost of operating a single owner business is substantially less than operating an auction service. Therefore, such a dealer can offer the homeowner a higher price.
Dealers who buy entire estates and collections have a second major advantage. The homeowner is paid up front. Auction service payment often takes between 90 and 120 days. It takes time to organize, advertise, and run an auction.
When I bid against auction services for an estate, I stress the fact that I pay up front and that the dollar amount is known by the homeowner. I also point out that auction sales may not meet pre auction estimates for any of a number of reasons, including bad weather, poor attendance, and the possible lack of retail buyers at the auction.
Dealers who buy complete estates and collections along with individual items directly from homeowners are called “Pickers”. I will call such dealers Pickers for the remainder of this article. Pickers pound on doors for a living. However, the nature and the circumstances under which doors can be pounded upon has changed drastically in the past 30 years.
In the 1960’s, Neil Hawes, who worked for Smiley’s Dairy, delivered dairy products door-to-door. He stopped at my home three times each week. The delivery driver for Harris Baking Company delivered bread, rolls, and doughnuts twice each week. Mr. Fortin, the local butcher, stopped once a week with my order of fresh cut and frozen meat. The Avon Lady called once each month. The Fuller Brush man and Raleigh representative stopped on a regular basis. In addition, encyclopedia salesmen, vacuum cleaner salesmen, and contractors often stopped in an effort to sell their product or services. Door-to-door selling and canvassing was a common and accepted practice.
In the 1960’s and the early 1970’s, I pounded on many thousands of doors. My technique was simple. I drove to the next town on my list, picked a likely looking neighborhood, and then pounded on every door. I tried to gain access immediately in order to buy. But, I was willing to return later. I always left a business card and a list of items I was willing to purchase with the homeowner.
Today many towns severely restrict door-to-door canvassing. Generally, a canvassing permit is required. Some towns and cities outright prohibit canvassing. In fact, some states have passed laws making it a crime to canvass door-to-door. Some of these laws are so restrictive that even the Girl Scouts of America are prevented from selling cookies door-to-door.
With the demise of home delivery of milk, bread, meat, and other products, homeowners today have no experience dealing with strangers who pound upon their doors.
Many Pickers, having lost the ability to cold canvass simply turned to the auction trade for re-supply. A few Pickers found ways around the laws. Since it is not a crime to pound on the doors of a home to which you have been invited, the trick has become, to get invited.
I seldom cold canvass these days. I have developed more effective methods of buying estates and collections. I advertise in professional journals, college related publications, and on the Internet. This method of getting house calls is more expensive than cold calling. But, it is not as expensive as buying from a middleman such as an auction service or another dealer.
When I do cold canvass, I get a permit from the local police. I make a point of talking with the chief of police if possible. Because I tend to cold canvass in rural communities, I make a point of learning the names of the selectmen, fire chief, police officers, and other town officials. I try to buy from these individuals if possible. I also locate the town historian, every small community has one. I learn as much as possible about local history and characters.
Canvassing a rural community can take several weeks to several months. I make a point of buying gas at the local station and eating lunch at the local gathering place. I always carry a letter of introduction, business cards, a list of things that I purchase and a copy of any permit or permits required.
Leaving contact and callback information is very important. Many of my best purchases have been made from homeowners who have contacted me weeks or months after our first contact.
I recently made a house call in Houston, Texas. This house call was a result of Internet advertising. I decided to visit Houston after an exchange of photographs and several telephone conversations. The homeowner had a large collection numbering close to a thousand items. I planned a two-day trip to inspect the lot and to package and ship the collection back to Maine.
While I was in Houston, I was invited into two other homes. I made several additional purchases. A collector who wanted to show off his collection of early dental antiques also contacted me.
His collection was impressive, museum quality. I helped him identify one rare item. I also offered to buy his duplicates, mistakes, and things he no longer wanted. He is considering my offer. This person is an advanced collector, his duplicates and discards include many fine antiques.
Pounding on doors is not for the timid, the uneducated, persons who are offended easily, persons not willing to put their money at risk, and persons who do not have a source of funds that they can use should they discover a rare and expensive item or have the opportunity to purchase a collection.
I once paid several thousand dollars for a collection of toothpick holders. I had no idea what they were worth. The collection included several sterling toothpick holders, one 18K gold toothpick holder, and a dozen porcelain examples by known makers. The collection also included cut glass and lead crystal examples. I lost more than $1000 on this purchase.
From the same home, I purchased linens, Victorian clothing, decorated stoneware, a Federal Period four draw chest, and a collection of medical tools, papers, and books. I also bought a pickup truck full of old automobile tools and equipment that the owner intended to throw in the dump.
Although I lost money on the toothpick holders, I made money on the entire purchase. Had I not bought the toothpick holders, I would not have been shown the other items that were for sale and I would not have been given a tour of the home that lead to the purchase of the Federal Period chest.
I was called back to this home three times and made purchases on each visit. I was introduced to the owner’s sister who lived in another state. From the sister and her neighbors and friends, I made many purchases.
Auction houses have benefited because of the demise of cold canvassing. With fewer Pickers pounding on doors, homeowners are left with little choice but calling an auction house when the need arises to liquidate an estate or sell a collection.
The auction industry, as a whole, has little incentive to control prices or increase productivity. Auction houses have become too large and many are over-staffed. Some auction houses seem to care more about their image than the buyer’s and sellers that they serve (boasting world record prices as some sort of a badge of honor). Auction surcharges to buyer and seller alike have escalated to new heights. Buyer’s premiums of 15 percent are common.
At a recent auction, my buyer’s premium (17 percent) was more than $3,000. For my business, this is wasted money. In my opinion, the $3,000 would have been better-spent buying ads to solicit house calls.
When I entered the trade 35 years ago, most dealers were Pickers. Today, few dealers are Pickers. In addition, Pickers have changed the nature of their businesses. Pickers no longer sell wholesale to other dealers.
Instead, they tend to sell to a small clientele of collectors and a few high-end dealers.
Opportunity is knocking: young dealers should consider the advantages of becoming Pickers. The only competition that a Picker has is the auction industry. Many of today’s auction houses are over-staffed and require large amounts of money to operate. A knowledgeable Picker can easily pay more for an estate or collection and make a good profit. The requirements are knowledge, knowledge, and knowledge.
Pickers must subscribe to and read every trade publication. They must buy reference books and study these books. They must attend auctions for reference purposes. They must attend shows and visit group shops to get a feeling of current asking prices.
The antiques trade, as a whole, is money intensive. Picking requires a large amount of ready cash. It is not necessary that a young dealer personally have the amount of money required. Financial backing can be obtained from other dealers and from auction houses.
My generation of Pickers is dying out. The generation of Pickers below me is few in number. Young dealers who are Pickers are rare. The opportunity to make a good living in the antique trade as a Picker has never been greater.

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