John Langly may not go out with a pick and shovel, but as far as he's concerned, walking the streets of Ventura is like mining for gold.
For it is here, he says, tucked away in as many as 30 antique stores, that items from the past can still be found at reasonable prices, and where educated eyes have been known to spot bargains that set the imagination turning.
"Everywhere you go there are great finds," says Langly, owner of Antique Alley, a Ventura store that sells the antiques and collectibles of 10 different dealers. "You just have to know what you're looking at."
Many shoppers, some of whom drive up from Los Angeles over the weekend in search of a steal, would agree. And several claim to have had good fortune even without extensive knowledge of an item's value.
"I came up to Ventura and found a brooch for $20. I didn't know what it was at the time, but I loved it," said Blair Ashton, a Los Angeles collector who said she regularly travels to antique shows across the country. When she had the brooch appraised, she learned it had been hand-made in Norway in 1880 and was worth $500.
"That's the kind of experience that really keeps you going," she said. "It's like being on a treasure hunt."
Ventura antique dealers don't claim that every purchase will turn out to be as fortuitous. What they do say, however, is that good buys--whether on antique furniture and jewelry or collectibles such as plates and glassware--are abundant.
"In the last few years the antique stores in Ventura really have gained a reputation for having quality items that are priced significantly less than places like Los Angeles or Santa Barbara," said Dale Bowen, owner of Heirloom Antiques, a local store whose French buyer, Sylvain Caine, travels regularly to Europe in search of French and English furniture. "We get people coming here from all over the state, and antique store dealers come from all over the country."
Many store owners say that as much as 90% of their business is from out-of-towners. Some, store owners say, will whip out their checkbooks at the sight of a 77-inch French sideboard in perfect condition for $280 or a three-piece French bed set--including an armoire and marble-top bed stand--for $579. Others will snap up items such as a Victorian gold necklace, set with four diamonds and an amethyst, for $195; a turn-of-the-century brass lighting fixture for under $200; or a wood stove, made in 1880 and in mint condition, for $800.
The dealers have the deals, they say, because there's none of the flash, dash or panache of L.A., and overheads are low.
"I'd say that prices here are at least half of what they would be in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara," Langly said. "It just doesn't cost as much for us to be here."
Although independent antique appraisers don't argue that Ventura offers some good bargains to shoppers looking to buy a certain kind of merchandise, they also say that comparing the city's antique stores to those in Los Angeles is difficult.
Stuart Salsbury, a former antique appraiser with Sotheby's who now works as an independent fine arts appraiser in Los Angeles, said the antiques themselves are apt to be like the proverbial apples and oranges.
"The quality of antiques in the best store in Los Angeles will be completely different than in the best store in Ventura," Salsbury said.
"Even the stores in Ventura that import from Europe, what you're essentially getting is used European furniture," he said. "In your better shop in Los Angeles, there might not be a single piece for under $1,500."
Not having museum-quality antiques doesn't seem to bother local dealers who, with only minimal prodding, will talk expansively of the incredible bargains they have gotten at estate sales, yard sales or flea markets in the area.
Langly likes to talk about the good finds he's come across over the years, usually because he happened to know an item's value when the seller did not. Take, for example, the antique barber's chair he said he picked up at a swap meet for a few dollars and turned around and sold to a collector--who considered it a good price--for $5,000. A few days later, he said, he learned that a similar chair had been sold at an auction on the East Coast for $16,000.
And then there were the two pieces of inlaid onyx glassware, made for only six months during the 1880s, that Langly said he had just read about in one of his numerous reference books on antiques and collectibles. He said he picked the pieces up in a thrift store in Oxnard for 50 cents and later sold them for $125. Even that price, he said, was a bargain for the buyer, considering that it was still half of the items' listed value.
"It happens all the time that you come across something that the seller doesn't know the value of," he said. "Still, as long as I make my profit, it doesn't bother me if someone else buys it from me and then sells it at 10 times the price. And besides, antique stores around here wouldn't survive if we had that kind of a markup."