By Mark Brown
You don't need to live in Iowa and drive around the country in a white Mercedes van to enjoy the thrill of antiquing. Our own Shenandoah Valley is a rich hunting ground for antiques, and it's just outside your front door.
For over three centuries, immigrants, soldiers and visitors have left incredible treasures all along the Valley Pike. Our close proximity to Washington, D.C., made the valley an ideal site for summer homes of many politicians and the wealthy, as well as sports figures, entertainment stars, industrial tycoons, social elitists, and high-ranking military personnel. With time, those summer homes evolved into full-time homes filled with family heirlooms, treasured mementoes and personal collections. As their owners passed on, the contents, often unrecognized for what they were, became scattered through bequests, forgotten in attics, donated to charity shops, sold in yard sales and auctioned off. Now they await your discovery.
My favorite guilty pleasure is discovering a "sleeper," an item with its true identity and value overlooked. A great warm weather hunting spot is the Shen Valley Flea Market on U.S. 340. Past finds include a 1911 Nippon hanging porcelain ferner (planter) worth $650 for just $85, a 1937 Winchester Star newspaper headlining the crash of the Hindenberg for $1, and two valuable pieces of early Royal Doulton flow blue in the "Iris" pattern for $45.
Yard sales can be an even greater source, as proven by the purchase one morning of a Confederate civil war pass found for $25 at a yard sale in Middletown that later was valued at $850. Just be prepared for hours of wading through yard after yard of knickknacks and baby clothes!
And speaking of hours of wading, don't forget to circle Aug. 10 on your calendar this year for the Route 11 Crawl - miles and miles of the most surreal yard sale you'll ever experience. Still in its infancy, the crawl has been growing over the past eight years from just a few communities to a 40-mile shopping spree along U.S. Route 11 from Stephens City to New Market.
The bumper-to-bumper insanity officially starts on that Saturday morning, but you'll find carloads cruising the evening before (and into the night!), and flashlight-wielding bargain hunters spread all along the route well before sunrise. The competition can be intense, with hunters from surrounding counties and even adjoining states, who make local hotel reservations a year in advance. All are vying to take home the bargain treasure that will give them bragging rights until next year.
Year-round, antique shops and malls always have been and will continue to be great sources for sleepers. Because nobody is an expert on everything, knowledgeable antique dealers often unknowingly undervalue items outside their area of expertise. During a trip to Manassas this past fall, my wife and I stopped at an antique mall only to discover a hand-painted 1891 Nippon footed dish valued at well over $500. Its price tag was $35. I could hardly carry it to the cashier fast enough! The moral of the story - just because it's sitting in an antique shop doesn't mean you can't pay yard sale prices.
One arena that can bring the most returns for the least amount of time invested is the auction house. Rather than searching out multiple yard sales, flea markets, antique shops etc. to look for antiques, an auction brings them to you in one place, at one time. And if you are a regular, they always seem to turn into a social event where old friends meet up to swap stories, exchange trivia, and tales of bargains are exaggerated.
An average-sized antiques auction generally will have in excess of 300 items. That's a lot to sift through to find a sleeper, especially when the bidding is fast paced. The secret to a successful day at any auction is making the effort to preview. The auction advertisement generally will list the days and times prior to the auction when you can preview or get a closer look at the lots being offered. During preview, you have the time to carefully inspect everything that is being offered. You can compare observations with others, take close-up photos for research at home, and often speak with the auctioneer about the provenance of the piece. This is what makes the difference between knowledgeable bidding and just raising your hand. Come auction time, you'll have the advantage of knowing the exact condition of the item, its age, manufacturer and market value.
But even after applying all the rules, "dumb luck" can often times be the best tool. My most recent example was detailed in the Dec. 3 edition of the Antique Week newspaper - I had purchased 17 Confederate newspapers valued at nearly $2,000. I had done the preview the night before, but like others, had mistakenly identified them as Civil War centennial reprints. It was only two hours into the actual auction when, by chance, I went back for a closer look and realized that I was looking at original 1863-64 newspapers printed in Richmond. You can imagine my surprise when the bidding ended and I held the sole winning bid of $10.
Mark Brown and his wife June Lingwood-Brown own Why Not Antiques located at 7994 Main St., Middletown, Va. For more information or to contact him, visit whynotantiques.com or call 540-868-1141.