A Story with Every Sale

Hunting Through History for Antiques and Collectibles
by Amy Chovan

Antiques Roadshow has been running on British television since 1979. In 1997, nearly 20 years after its premiere, the popular show jumped the pond, and has been a mainstay in the U.S. ever since. More recently, shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers have popped up, demonstrating a growing trend in all things antique, vintage and collectible.

And not only is the antiques and collectibles industry growing, it’s also changing. While the typical customer in an antique shop was once a woman between the ages of 35 and 55, these days, you’re just as likely to see a man as a woman, and he or she may be as young as a teenager. “As our industry changes and we try to attract new customers, we want to make sure that we understand those customers,” said Dan Philips, co-owner of the Illinois Antique Center located on the Peoria Riverfront. “We do have a lot of young people who are starting their life of collecting and interest in vintage things.”

What’s an Antique?
The U.S. Customs Department defines an antique as something that’s at least 100 years old, a definition, says Dan, that is widely accepted in his trade. And yet, you’ll find that nearly all antique shops carry items much younger than that—that’s where collectibles come in. Many antique stores get around this semantic technicality by labeling themselves “antiques and collectibles” stores. But still, there’s another issue. As collectibles have become quite valuable, “the term ‘collectible’ has kind of been bastardized in the last 10 or 20 years, in that things have been made to be collectible,” Dan explained. At the Illinois Antique Center, a collectible is defined as something unique in nature due to its original use or construction that is typically no longer being produced. 

Vintage is another industry buzzword and has become more of a popular culture label. It tends to be more popular with the younger generation and doesn’t necessarily mean, “Grandma’s stuff,” according to Dan. Much like the word retro, younger generations are more likely to empty their pockets for something labeled vintage than antique.

What’s also of interest is that certain types of items become antiques faster than others. Take cars or power tools, for instance. You can acquire an antique car license plate in the state of Illinois for cars that are 25 years or older. Power tools become antiques at age 50, and as for electronic gadgets, they tend to become antiques…well, seemingly instantly. It’s a somewhat subjective field.

Determining Value
And so, valuing antiques and collectibles is a tricky business. With all of the reproductions and imitations out there, it can be very difficult to sort the trash from the treasure. “For a lot of the dealers in the business, including ourselves, [you learn] from experience,” explained Dan. “It’s through research, the hands-on experience, and it’s through making mistakes—buying things you thought might be desirable, and then finding out that nobody wants them.”

Condition, age and scarcity are the three major determining factors of value. For many years, dealers and collectors looked to published guides as their main resource for help in determining the value of antiques and collectibles. Today, of course, the Internet is the bigger source, especially sites like eBay, but one must be wary of information on unsold items. The data to consider when determining value is what similar items have sold for in the past, not just what sellers have asked for them. This will give you an idea of what people are actually willing to pay.

Antique and Collectible Categories
No day goes by that Dan and Kim Philips don’t get a call from someone looking for information on antiques and collectibles, and oftentimes, they want to know, “What’s selling?” The Philipses say it depends on who’s in the shop at the time, but offered the following list as a starting point.

POPULAR TODAY…
Costume and estate jewelry
Pre-1960s toys, trains and children’s items
Pre-WWII advertising—signs, giveaways, promo products
Souvenirs
Art pottery
Sterling silver
Americana
Books, writing instruments and related ephemera
1950-‘60s Modernist furniture and accessories
Architectural items

UNPOPULAR TODAY…
Avon bottles and merchandise
Pressed glass
Mid 20th century glass
Beanie Babies
Milk glass
Modern dolls and accessories from 1965 forward

Location can also be a factor. The Midwest was typically a stopping point for families as society moved westward more than a century ago. Often, the farther a family traveled, the more possessions they’d decide they could do without. These items, then, would often find their home along the Mississippi River, a natural dividing line where industry and towns developed.

But according to Kim Philips, Dan’s wife and co-owner of the Illinois Antique Center, the fact that there’s more “stuff” here in the Midwest isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to selling antiques and collectibles. While there’s a lot of supply, the demand isn’t always as high. That’s why collectors and dealers from the East and West coasts often come here—to purchase items at low prices and resell them at home for what can amount to substantial profits.

In the antiques world, every item has a story and a past. “That’s something that’s kind of unique to our business,” said Dan. “Everything in here can potentially have a story, and some people like to have a story. It’s had a life before here, and it’s going to carry on.” Not only do those stories add interest, they can also add value. An antique pen that’s dated to the 19th century, for example, is far more valuable if it was used by Honest Abe himself.

Because these stories are so influential, they’re sometimes falsified. The Philipses recalled a one-of-a-kind folk art table they had purchased from one of the dealers in their store. Each of the table’s front legs had a snake carved around it, making it appear as if it were slithering up to the tabletop. While Dan and Kim enjoyed the table, their young daughters found it creepy, so they decided to sell it. They later saw it in Maine Antique Digest, accompanied by a much higher price—and a fictitious story that it had been made by slaves on a southern plantation.

Getting Into Antiques
When they decided to start their own antiques business, the Philipses weren’t huge collectors by any means. In fact, their interest revolved around one piece of Hall China, a promotional item inside a fridge that the couple had purchased when they were newlyweds. The piece had an art deco style to it, and its “neat look” and fairly low cost attracted them to it.

While on vacation in Milwaukee, they found themselves strolling around the city’s warehouse district, which happened to include the Milwaukee Antique Center—a store the likes of which they had never seen before. The concept was much like a shopping mall, in that many different shops were represented, but it operated as one big shop in which various dealers rented space. This offered them the flexibility of not having to be present in the shop to sell their items, as well as the combined advertising power of a larger operation.

The Philipses realized that this was something they could do together that required little in the way of start-up costs. There was no merchandise to buy, as their inventory would belong to the individual dealers. After finding that the only place like this in their home state was located in Rockford, they went ahead with their plans and developed a kit to hand out to potential dealers about the proposed business. After receiving several positive responses, Dan explained, “we just decided to jump into it, and with the help of family, we started down in the old Murray Building in 1986 with about 16 dealers.”

At that time, they made a commitment not to allow their dealers to sell new, reproduced or craft items, which hasn’t always had the greatest impact on the bottom line, but has kept their loyal customers exactly that. The Illinois Antique Center is also unique for its riverfront location, which they selected because they “felt it added a little more atmosphere. We liked the character of it,” said Dan. The couple has been consistently dedicated to the rejuvenation of the Peoria Riverfront, and they feel that both their initial location in the Murray Building as well as their current location on Water Street speaks to the potential they see for the downtown area.

As Peoria’s Warehouse District gets a makeover and the new museum goes up, the Illinois Antique Center is right in the center of it all. Offering amenities like free coffee, period music and sometimes even donuts, customers are encouraged to take their time and enjoy themselves. “Generally people don’t come in here in a hurry,” Dan said. “We call it ‘want-to retailing’ vs. ‘have-to retailing.’ You go to the mall because you have to buy a new shirt or shoes. You come in here because you want to buy something.” a&s


Some Interesting Finds…

  • Native American cabinet cards. A young couple brought a large framed item to an appraisal night that Dan Philips once facilitated in Bishop Hill. They had recently bought a new house and found a garbage-bag-covered frame behind the furnace in the basement. Inside it were seven rows of three “cabinet cards”—cards from the late 1800s and early 1900s on which studio photographers would place photos and their studios’ names—which featured Native American chiefs, warriors and princesses. Not only were the photos extremely hard to come by, even rarer was the handwritten biography of the person on the back of each card. Philips said they’ve sold cabinet cards of anonymous Native Americans for hundreds of dollars before, and here was a piece that included Sitting Bull! He informed them that they had discovered a treasure worth between $15,000 and $25,000, and advised them to take it to a gallery that specializes in Native American art.
  • Charles Perdew duck call. A gentleman once brought Philips a duck call that had been hand-carved by folk artist Charles Perdew. He said his father had given it to him when he was a kid, and because he wasn’t much interested in hunting, he had kept it in the box his whole life. At the time, Philips estimated it was worth two or three thousand dollars. A few years later, the gentleman asked for Philips’ help selling it, and he was able to get close to $5,000 for it.  
  • A monkey roller coaster. A guy brought a small roller coaster—much like a kiddie coaster—into the Antique Center a while back and set it up, hoping that Philips would be interested. It was from the 1940s or ‘50s and was really streamlined with green, red and blue cars. Noticing that the seats were too small for kids, Philips asked the owner about it. Turns out that the rollercoaster was part of a circus or carnival and was meant to be ridden by monkeys. He didn’t buy it, but Philips now says that he wishes he had. 
  • A live grenade! The Antique Center once received a call from a woman who said she had some weapons she’d like to sell. Although the Philipses don’t deal in live weapons, one of their dealers is also a licensed firearms dealer, so they referred him to the case. He went to her house, and she began showing him all of the weapons she had, including a grenade her husband had brought back from the South Pacific…and it was live! The dealer called the Peoria Police bomb squad, who took the live grenade away in a special box.
  • 1800s symphonium. One of the most valuable items the Antique Center has sold was for a local gentleman in his eighties whose mother had owned an antique shop. One of the items he had was a coin-operated, hand-crank symphonium. This giant music box had a 21-inch metal disc with little holes in it that would be placed on the machine. As the crank was turned, different bells were triggered, and the machine played beautiful waltzes. It was nearly seven feet tall and sold for $10,000 to a dealer who was going to restore it and resell it for close to $25,000. 
  • Reddy Kilowatt. The Philips’ favorite piece is a trademark logo that was developed by the Alabama Power Company in the 1930s and is still in use today. Reddy Kilowatt was a graphic character that symbolized electric power with its electric bolt horns, light bulb nose and outlet ear. This version of Reddy used to hang on the Wallace Power Station of the Central Illinois Light Company and was 67 feet tall. When it was going to be torn down years ago, the Philipses came to Reddy’s rescue and bought the character. They first mounted it to the exterior of the Antique Center and used the letters which had previously spelled “Central Illinois Light Company” to spell “Illinois Antique Center,” only having to make about four new ones. It was a big hit—people used to stop by and take their pictures next to Reddy. Today, he finds his home inside the building where there’s only room to display Reddy’s head.





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