The busiest booth at the Southern California Summer Antiques Show in Long Beach over the long Independence Day weekend wasn't selling objets d' art deco , which started getting hot with collectors a few years ago.
Nor was it any of the booths aglitter with '40s and '50s rhinestones, their prices rising as '80s women--many whose mothers wouldn't have touched the stuff--seek better costume jewelry than they find new in department stores.
Browsed by Booths
And buyers in ones and twos mostly just looked at booths selling art pottery, old prints, old bonds (some with prices greater than their face value), old silver, old glass or anything else old.
No, the busiest booth of all at the antiques show offered not something old but something s new. The busiest booth sold information. Specifically, books.
Book seller Jewel Tucker of Salem, Ore., had more volumes on more collectibles and antiques than Tiffany made lamps.
And she had more customers than just about all the several dozen other booths combined.
"At shows like this you can usually tell what people are buying from the books that sell," she explained.
"This show doesn't have much furniture and I'm not selling many furniture books. But books on art pottery, jewelry and, of course, the general price books, are all moving," she said, adding that five years ago no one bought books about costume jewelry, which was then very cheap.
Tucker sells advice books such as the $75 "Marks on German, Bohemian and Austrian Porcelain: 1710 to Present," with 636 pages of data, in both German and English.
Tucker walked over to one of her tables heavy with printed words and plucked up a new book that, she said, has just begun to sell well. Perhaps the book's subject will rise in price; more on that later in this story.
Books sell well because many folks at antique and collectibles shows don't know much about prices, according to Harry L. Rinker, an appraiser and editor of two of the most popular price guides, "Warman's Antiques and Their Prices" and "Warman's Americana and Collectibles."
Rinker was in town to run an appraisal clinic in one of the growing number of arrangements that tie corporate marketing plans to charitable causes. Hiram Walker Inc., the Canadian distillers, paid Rinker's fee and expenses to attend the show and put up displays for its newest brand of hard liquor. Then Rinker, in return for a donation to the California Historical Society, advised people on what great-grandmother's old treasure will bring on the market.
Breaking the News
"One of the most difficult jobs I have at antique shows is to tell people that their items aren't very valuable," Rinker said.
"Perhaps the most difficult problem is getting them to understand that just because something is old doesn't mean it's valuable," Rinker explained. "My favorite example is that a 100-year-old piece of manure is not an antique, it's just 100-year-old manure."
Sometimes sellers don't know what their stuff is worth, either, according to Walter Larsen, the former college psychology professor who sponsored the show.
"We get people who rent a booth and sell everything they have because they are terribly naive, which they discover when they go out to replace what they sold and find they sold out too low and are wiped out," Larsen said.
Rinker and Larsen, and many of those operating booths, got into the business because they found a way to make something dear to their hearts fatten their wallets. In Rinker's case it was Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia.
"In 1970, in an old cigar box, I found my Hopalong Cassidy cards. Then I wanted a Hoppy watch and then. . . ."
J. Douglas Scott, 37, of San Diego was bored by his Kansas City office job years ago so he sold antique furniture on weekends. Now he sells art pottery--mostly tiles, vases and bowls made to decorate California bungalows more than 50 years ago.
Learned About Maps
Ben and Sue Caughey, Big Bear newlyweds, got into the business the same way. She was an Exxon staff lawyer in Texas who liked old maps, and he was the petroleum giant's marketing manager in Southern California and Arizona.
They took the pile of golden goodby early retirement cash that Exxon gave him after 28 years and started learning about old maps and prints, going to school in San Francisco to learn about paper preservation and spending a month in England buying material.
Customers, Ben Caughey said, come in two types. Serious collectors and people who want to decorate a wall. But Caughey said he has trouble understanding some folks. One Long Beach businessman rejected a 1859 government map of San Pedro Harbor that is so old Long Beach is identified only as "New Town."
"He said he didn't want it because it didn't say 'Long Beach,' " Caughey said, shaking his head at the man's provincialism.
Sells Costume Jewelry
Jean Ashmead of Seal Beach prefers Japanese pottery, but to pay the rent she sells costume jewelry. "Modern costume jewelry is light, cheaply made," she said, showing off two weighty old pieces, one stamped with the name of its late maker, Miriam Haskell.
"Tastes change," Ashmead said. "When I bought my house on the beach 20 some years ago for $13,000 you couldn't give beach property away--people said 'how can you live with all that sand being tracked in?'--and now most people can't afford beach property."
Changing tastes change prices, up and down, Larsen said. Many buyers are on budgets, he said, and once the smart money gets in the small money moves on to something else, raising its price.
And so what was the subject of the book Tucker said has just started selling briskly?
Old Christmas tree ornaments.