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In a world of high energy Pickers, Hustlers, and quick money Flippers, it's nice to meet someone like Kate. She's a mom of three who's been a Scavenger for years. Her focus is on the items that people think are often literally garbage and finds the artistic and design value of them. She shares with us how she does deep research on these items. Then she's able to list these items on eBay for high prices because she can identity it's value to the collector or designer who seeks after these unique items.
Our conversation with Kate is so important for us because we also have been evolving into filling our store with more of these unique objects that bring high dollar sales. Because most people don't have the knowledge of "weird" items, they are often cheap to buy. And because these items are unique, we often have very little competition online. This is how we hope to keep thriving in a world where everyone is fighting to lower their prices on the same exact toy on Amazon. And in this way, selling on eBay can become a treasure hunt, detective case, history lesson, art theory class at the same time.
Our conversation ended abruptly because her phone died, but she did want to share her process with you. She'll also be glad to answer any questions you have in the comments.
I have a few more stories and thoughts about the research process and the importance of research that we didn't get to before my phone died – and I wanted to include some links as well.
Earlier this year I found a set of framed hand painted tiles at the dump, and personally I found them so unattractive that I almost left them behind. But at the last minute, I took them, because they were framed and signed and I figured I could look up the signature and return them to the dump the next day if nothing turned up. When I got them home and looked up the signature, which was J. Lord, I learned that people attribute these tiles to Jack Lord, of Hawaii-Five-O fame, and that they’re sought after by certain collectors. I ended up selling them for about $250. Personally, I don’t think they’re by Jack Lord at all, and that’s a piece I’d like to write up for my blog sometime soon.
A few months ago, I found a freezer-size Ziploc bag full of old buttons at a local thrift store for $5. I quickly realized that they were primarily Victorian, and could easily have flipped the whole bag for $125 in a day. Instead, I separated out all the buttons, and have started researching every one, or every type (many are matched sets.) I’ve been listing them slowly, as I research them. I have already made over $200 on the bag and I still have most of the collection in-hand. The other day I listed a button which had proved difficult to research. It’s going auction-style, so I’m hopeful. I started it at $45 and already have a bidder. It’s been so much fun, and somewhat profitable as well. There are button-collecting organizations with websites, and a vast number of books out there, too. Never forget about your local library’s inter-library loan service.
The research process really depends on the piece. For something like a signed or initialed vase, I might start just with eBay or Google searches, or Google image searches, or the like, trying various descriptive words to try and find something relevant. For something like a signed painting, I use findartinfo.com to help decipher the signature, and some of the other art/auction websites as well. Findartinfo includes pricing information in their free search, whereas other art/auction websites tend to share pictures but not prices. The sites can be cross-referenced with good results. Also, I believe the Rago Auctions website, as well as a few others, disclose their selling prices.
Using the “archive grid” website can let you know if any museum or university archive has a file relevant to your artist or piece. I also have a subscription to the New York Times, so sometimes look up things in their online archive, and highly recommend the site fultonhistory.com to anyone doing any research project about anything. It’s a really idiosyncratic website with a massive archive of scanned online newspapers, and the information you can find there is amazing. The advertisements and everything are searchable, so you can find out all kinds of information – what years a china pattern was sold, maybe, or reviews of an artist’s work, or newspaper articles about anything. It was really invaluable when I was tracking down information about Henry Ives Cobb, Jr. for, what eventually turned into that Wikipedia article.
Findartinfo.com (great for deciphering mystery signatures)
And, of course, Google’s image search and newspaper archive search (which I think was recently re-absorbed into Google proper), Google books, etc.
For general browsing and getting a sense of higher-end items' lines, moves, and feelings, I like to spend time reading Elle Decor, and browsing sites like 1stdibs and Wyeth Home, and reading blogs such as midmodmom and alamodern.
My personal website is thatobject.wordpress.com, where I write about objects I've found and also address some attribution errors. It’s updated irregularly, when I find really interesting pieces or uncover mistakes I’m able to correct. If you have something you haven’t been able to identify, you can contact me through the site and I’ll take a look!