Antique shopping is all about the thrill of the hunt
Galveston is an antique and many of its residents and visitors are antique seekers.
“It’s all about the thrill of the hunt,” said Mike Ragsdale, co-owner of Big House Antiques in downtown Galveston.
Sometimes, regulars call Ragsdale and his partner, Gary Jones, asking them to look for a particular item at auction or an estate sale. Customers might be looking for furniture by a particular maker or a piece from a specific era to match furniture they’ve already got.
Other times, perusing the inventory of an estate, Jones and Ragsdale come across an unexpected treasure, like the massive 9-foot-tall mahogany armoire in the back of their store, a piece so large and heavy it had to be disassembled to be moved. The interior is lined with birdseye maple. The armoire is priced at $5,900.
“We do a good armoire business here on the island, with these old homes that don’t have much storage,” Ragsdale said. “So, a piece like this is a real find.”
The value of an antique, nonetheless, is in the eye of the beholder and subject to trends and fashions, Ragsdale said.
“The business has really changed,” Ragsdale said. “It’s more about a look now than a particular period, especially among millennials.”
Where 15 to 20 years ago dealers couldn’t get enough Victorian-era furniture, now you can’t give it away, Jones said.
“Now they lean more toward a New Orleans French look,” he said. “We look for what we know we can sell.”
Their treasure hunting is guided by that principle, as well as by the reality of available room within their store.
“We’re a smaller shop, so we try to keep it turning over,” Ragsdale said.
A welder by trade, Jones worked on historic houses when he first arrived in Galveston and was intrigued by what he saw inside them, he said. He and Ragsdale started working together 20 years ago.
“We live it and breathe it, literally,” Ragsdale said, pointing upstairs to where they live in the building they bought together.
A couple of blocks away on Postoffice Street in downtown Galveston, Jim Nonus, gallery director of Antique Pavilion, lets the treasures come to him, he said.
“I don’t ever really want to go to another estate sale; it’s really depressing,” Nonus said. “I work with dealers who bring things in and I sell them on consignment. I just sit here and the treasures come to me.”
Nonus tells dealers he doesn’t care what they bring in as long as it’s attractive and it’s priced to fly out the door, he said.
The “attractive’” part of that equation is purely subjective — subject to Nonus’ specific tastes — and that’s what separates his store from a warehouse of non-curated old furniture, he said.
“I’m not a period stickler,” he said. “I look for what’s decorative, what’s functional and what helps you achieve the look you want.”
A personal fan of Napoleonic and Empire period pieces and paintings from the early 19th century, Nonus nonetheless has an art gallery within his store stocked with large, modern abstract canvases. The furniture in Antique Pavilion includes everything from mid-century modern to painted pieces to classical antiques.
People visiting his store might be moving to Galveston and downsizing or living somewhere else and furnishing a second home on the island, Nonus said. They might be looking for one particular thing, like a hall tree, and he might or might not have one on hand.
All three dealers lost their inventories and, in Nonus’ case, his business, during Hurricane Ike in 2008. Simpson’s on the Strand, which Nonus managed at the time, was buried in bay water and wiped out by the flood. Big House took on several feet of water as well, destroying everything inside.
Ragsdale and Jones rebuilt and re-stocked their inventory over time, treasure hunting to fill the empty Big House Antiques. Nonus stayed out of the business altogether for a time, but missed contact with customers, and returned to manage Antique Pavilion, he said.
It’s about love of history and old things, Nonus said. It’s about finding what customers want or a hidden treasure whose value they recognize, like the tiny Tiffany lamp in their store, the single most valuable item there, Jones and Ragsdale said.
It’s about the thrill of the hunt and knowing what you’re searching for, they said.