There’s a skill to finding vintage, antique treasures
Legend has it that the pirate Jean Lafitte buried his stash somewhere along the Gulf Coast. That’s why, centuries later, believers still bring metal detectors on vacation.
But, there’s another kind of treasure hunt going on — one that more regularly uncovers loot.
It’s called picking, which is the process of finding and buying vintage and antique items and turning them for a profit. But for many pickers, it’s not about the money but rather the satisfaction in saving an object from the trash heap and giving it new purpose.
“My main objective to being a picker is mainly to recycle and turn something old into something beautiful and functional for today’s use and enjoyment,” said Scottie Ketner, owner of Le Chat Noir, 4301 Ave. S on the island. “There’s nothing like taking something that could have been a cast off piece of furniture and transforming it into a work of art.”
Ketner began picking 35 years ago, long before it was fashionable. Her children would sink down into the seat of her car when she pulled up to a Salvation Army or Goodwill store.
Ketner’s best find, however, was at a garage sale on Tiki Island, where she paid 25 cents for a Lalique perfume bottle worth about $700.
Years ago, at an auction at Sour Lake near Beaumont, she found fabulous pine rockers, old wood-burning stoves, hand-carved antique chairs.
“They didn’t want old stuff; they wanted newer things,” Ketner said.
But these days, the pickings are slimmer. Times have changed. It’s a crowded field and people hold on to things.
Still, good finds are there if you look for them, Ketner said. Recently, word of a tall cabinet with a gargoyle on top led her to a house on Double Bayou in Anahuac.
When she arrived at the house, the cabinet was gone. But she found other pieces, including a two-door Victorian armoire of solid oak. She bought that and more at the house. She’s refurbishing the armoire, giving it a shabby chic makeover at the request of a client who’s buying it.
The business isn’t for the faint of heart or asthmatics.
“Acquiring a collection of anything is a labor of love, but it’s still a labor,” said Tara Richardson, owner of The Borrowed Flea, a Friendswood-based vintage rental business. “As dodgy and scary and dusty and dirty as a place might look, you have to go in there excited about the potential, about what you might find.”
Pickers go to work in alleys and on curbsides, at estate sales and in thrift shops looking for treasures hidden in plain sight.
“We call them pearls — the things you get real cheap that are worth a lot of money,” said Harry St. John, who owns St. John Antiques, 2001 Postoffice St., in Galveston’s downtown.
A good pick doesn’t have to cost more than gas money and sweat equity, especially on bulk collection day where brilliant finds are unloaded at the curb and in alleys.
“I’ve found Singer sewing machines in cool cabinets that people just put out for the garbageman to take,” said Craig Cahill, product manager for the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Architectural Salvage Warehouse in the 1940 Sears Building at 23rd Street and Broadway. “Recently, I found a really nice, old rocking chair just sitting out there on the curb.”
Even when the item in question is free, Cahill, who also is owner of History’s Leftovers, 908 23rd St. on the island, follows a personal code.
“I buy what I think is cool,” he said. “That’s where I stop.”
Although its etymology goes further back, “picker” didn’t enter into the vernacular until the 2010 premiere of A&E Network’s “American Pickers,” which follows Iowans Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz on their quest to pick the country.
Like Wolfe and Fritz, St. John and his wife, Frances, go the distance, sometimes thousands of miles, to find objects for their store.
“A lot of it has to do with the population density at the time these things were being produced and where they made the stuff,” Harry St. John said. “You go back to 1900 and there weren’t as many people in Texas as in the Northeast and the farther west you go, the less you find.”
Advice from the pros
1. Try something new.
“It is getting harder and harder to find a lot of the older stuff at a reasonable price,” Richardson said. “You might just have to shift your focus a little bit. So, instead of going to your favorite resale or thrift store, try an estate sale or a garage sale. Change it up a little bit.”
2. Know your stuff.
“By definition an antique has to be 100 years old or older,” St. John said. “Vintage can be a lot newer than that. It gets a little bit fuzzy on vintage, but a good rule of thumb is 50 years.”
3. Embrace the process.
“Even if you don’t find the thing that you really want to find, it’s important to be open to something else, even if it’s just a doorknob or hardware off a cabinet,” Richardson said. “Be willing to go in and look and talk to the people. If you come out with something, awesome, if not, at least you turned over every rock.”
4. Go with the real deal rather than a reproduction.
“Sometimes, it’s very difficult to tell the difference and sometimes it’s so obvious that it’s silly. Look at the quality of the carving, or if it’s china, look at the bottom. If it’s made in the Philippines, it’s a reproduction,” St. John said.
5. Flex your creative muscles.
“I like to figure out how else could you use an object if it’s not going to be used for its original purpose,” Cahill said.
6. Buy what you like.
“Years ago, I saw an interview with a little girl, maybe 7 or 8, who was the president of a company that made jellies. They asked her about how she decided what kinds of jellies to make and she said, ‘Papa says you should only make jellies that you like, because you might have to eat them,’” St. John said. “To the people that are looking to collect, don’t buy something because you believe that it might be worth more money. Buy what you like, put it in your cabinet or hang it on your wall and enjoy it,” he said.