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OBITUARIES : Ralph M. Kovel, 1920 - 2008

Wrote books on pricing of antique items

September 09, 2008|Jura Koncius | The Washington Post

Ralph M. Kovel, a pioneer of price guides for antiques and collectibles who wrote 97 books on the subject and helped create the modern mania for family heirlooms and flea-market finds on "Antiques Roadshow" and EBay, died Aug. 28 at the Cleveland Clinic of complications from hip surgery. He was 88.

He lived in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with Terry Horvitz Kovel, his wife of 58 years and coauthor of his books.

"Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide" as well as the Kovels' other books on subjects such as silver or American art pottery, are written primarily for average collectors and history buffs, not museum curators.

Their intensive research and wide-ranging knowledge -- communicated through syndicated newspaper columns, newsletters and a home and garden TV show -- helped educate Americans for decades.

Today, the whole field of junking -- buying something discarded by someone for a low price and then reselling it (often through EBay) to someone who collects it -- is big business.

"The Kovels were the first ones to get information to people about what was once a very secretive business -- antiques," said S. Clayton Pennington, editor of the Maine Antique Digest.

The Kovels were on top of all kinds of collecting. From their home base near Cleveland, they and their staff of 14 interviewed thousands of dealers across the country, chronicling the highs and lows of hot collectibles, whether Tiffany glass, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, vintage eggbeaters or the early 20th century American art pottery known as Roseville Pottery.

"He had a rare combination of great knowledge, as well as great personality and humility," said Leigh Keno, a New York antiques dealer and appraiser on the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow" along with his twin brother, Leslie.

As teenagers, the Kenos used the Kovels' guides to catalog their budding collection of glass bottles and 18th century English ceramics.

"The Kovels were pioneers on the idea of publishing prices for American antiques. Imagine how important this book was pre-Internet. It made the field much more exciting," Leigh Keno said.

Ralph Mallory Kovel, whose father ran a menswear manufacturing business, was born in Milwaukee on Aug. 20, 1920. He attended Ohio State University and served in the Coast Guard on Lake Erie during World War II.

Over the years, he worked as a food broker and in 1989 sold a company called Sar-a-Lee to Sara Lee Corp., where he continued as a senior vice president until 2000.

He and his wife got into the antiques business after their 1950 honeymoon in Bermuda, where they bought some old things.

"Nice middle-class Americans didn't really buy old stuff back then; you just inherited it," Terry Kovel said.

But the couple needed things for their home in Cleveland so they started buying more old things such as lamps and ashtrays at house sales. They were intrigued by the factory marks under their pottery, but they could not find a good source of identifying them.

They decided to publish an alphabetical guide.

"I showed a bookstore what I had done, figuring we might sell it for $100," he told the Washington Post in 1984. "The bookstore sent it to a publisher, and a check for $500 came back."

In 1953, their first book, "Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain," launched them into a lifetime of husband-and-wife collaborations.

At the same time, more Americans were becoming interested in their family stuff.

"They wanted to know what Grandma had left them, and they wanted to know what they could get for what Grandma left them," Terry Kovel said.

They started a newspaper column, now syndicated in 150 papers. Their monthly newsletter, begun in 1974, has more than 60,000 subscribers.

The Kovels never sold an antique -- they only donated them or gave them away. Their white frame house in Shaker Heights is stuffed with their finds, and each room has a theme, such as the library done in Mission style, the family room in Egyptian Revival, and the living room in Sheraton and Hepplewhite.

"Our one big joke is that we finally got everything in the house to be old -- including us," Terry Kovel said.

The "Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2009," which lists 42,000 prices in 700 categories, will be published next week and will be on the shelves of thousands of collectors, dealers and appraisers -- and under the tables at a lot of flea markets.

Survivors include two children, Karen "Kim" Kovel of Miami Beach and Lee Kovel of Los Angeles, and three grandchildren.

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