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COVER STORY : Gathering No Dust : Collectibles--they're not antiques, but they hold just as much value for those who search for them.

November 11, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You see them at swap meets and garage sales, antiques shows and flea markets. They have magnifying glasses in their pockets (the better to look for flaws and identifying marks, my dear) and a gleam in their eyes. They are not simply buyers. They are collectors, people whose notion of the good, the true and the beautiful extends to some very odd stuff indeed.

These are people who know what they want, whether it's a vintage Chatty Cathy doll, an old pocket watch, a 1940s cookie jar in the shape of a smiling pig or a pre-1969 Matchbox car in its original box. And when they find whatever functions as their own private Holy Grail, they are willing to pay top dollar for what looks to the rest of us--the uninitiated, the unpossessed--like junk.

We are not talking here about people who spend thousands of dollars for genuine antiques--objects of varying degrees of fineness made more than a century ago. We are talking about people whose acquisitiveness is of a more personal, more idiosyncratic nature.

Such people see something that charms them, that amuses them, that reminds them of their childhood or their parents' childhoods, and they think, "Neat. I have to have that. Maybe I need more than one. Maybe I'm going to buy every single one I can find anywhere on the face of the Earth from now on. Oh, please, dear God, cloud the eye and paralyze the arm of anyone else who tries to collect them. Thank you."

How weird do these obsessions get? Remember those paint-by-numbers sets that were all the rage among the "Howdy Doody" crowd? You think Pogs are hot today? At one point, Craft Master was cranking out 50,000 paint sets a day, and half the children in America were getting ulcers from trying to stay inside the lines. But the fact that the completed paintings are not rare, that the subjects range from the trite to the appalling and that the artists who completed them had to possess all the talent of a porch swing doesn't mean that people won't pay good money for them.

Not long ago, actor Chevy Chase shelled out $250,000 for 200 choice examples, a collection that would be perfect if it only included the two critically acclaimed portraits of clown Emmett Kelly I did when I was 8.

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The collecting virus--the junking virus, if you will--can strike anyone at any time. Van Nuys resident Natalie Hall got it several years ago during a trip through the Gold Rush country of Central California with friend Galen Kues. Kues has a collection of almost 4,000 beer cans, including some rare cone tops from the 1930s, and Hall couldn't help noticing that his passion for the foam-filled artifacts gave a pleasant urgency to their frequent stops at stores where collectibles were sold. Hall decided that she needed a passion of her own.

"Every store had fascinating old bottles, and that's how I got started," says Hall, who has a modest collection of 50 such bottles, mostly for turn-of-the-century patent medicines, as well as a handful of glass insulators once used to keep live wires away from wooden telephone poles.

Like so many of her breed, Hall talks with lyrical enthusiasm about the odd objects she has painstakingly amassed. Love, after all, is notorious for its ability to transform the mundane. "They come in every color you can think of," she says. "I have one in a lovely blue-green that's just a delight."

And Hall, who writes educational materials for AIMS Media in Chatsworth, loves the tangible link her bottles give her to the past. For $16 (the most she's ever paid for one of her treasures) you can get a remarkable history lesson. Most of her favorites contained alleged cures marketed "before the Food and Drug Administration made it illegal to make outrageous claims." As a result, she has a bottle once full of hair tonic that promised results beyond Sy Sperling's wildest dreams.

Before the era of paper labels, vital information was pressed right into the glass. Some of her favorites illuminate women's history, such as a bottle for a Lydia Pinkham tincture that promised to cure the ails that only women are heir to. "Women's health problems were not well understood--they're still not, in my opinion--and women flocked to anything that promised to give them relief from PMS or hot flashes," Hall says. She also has an old bitters bottle that recalls the time when no respectable woman would enter a bar or a liquor store, but a lady could drink herself comatose nipping at patent medicines that were virtually pure alcohol.

Local collectors stalk a remarkable range of stuff, from plastic snow globes to transistor radios, from Civil War memorabilia to early computers, from vintage vacuum cleaners to Pez dispensers.

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