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An antiques primer
"Roadshow" appraiser says collectors should know their goals

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by Deborah Nason
for Virginia Business Options
March 2006

Finding Ken Farmer is a bit of an adventure. It means traveling to Radford, a college town in Southwest Virginia. There you turn down a lonely industrial side street, cross the railroad tracks, and find a large, nondescript warehouse. Inside, visitors enter a tall, cavernous auction room before finding Farmer in a small, windowless office.

The office is filled to the gills with fabulous American antiques. Over here is an original Currier and Ives print. Over there is a 250-year-old side table. And all around are folk sculptures, banjos, guns, paintings and other wondrous “bric-a-brac.”

It is an appropriate setting for the 55-year-old appraiser, auctioneer and TV star. Farmer is one of the guest appraisers on the PBS smash hit “Antiques Roadshow,” watched by more than 10 million people a week.

Farmer, a specialist in Southern antiques for more than 25 years, has been with “Antiques Roadshow” since 1997. He is relaxed, affable and ready to share his thoughts on collecting.

Where does one begin?
Before deciding what to collect, collectors should examine why they want to collect, Farmer says. “The best collectors not only have the means — they buy because they love it.”

How people collect depends on their goals and motivations. “Some collect something to look at it every day. Some enjoy having a series; they like the challenge of completing it. Some want things that remind [them] of [their] childhood, such as toys. Others want something rare,” says Farmer.

What’s hot —or not —in collecting?
“Well, the middle market stuff comes and goes — small items, under $500, like factory-made furniture. Now with 9/11, the hurricane, gas prices — that market is soft. The one thing that stands the test of time is quality.

Something you hold on to for 10 or 20 years — a great piece of art, or something iconic from pop culture, like a Jimi Hendrix signed photo.

“There is a lot of demand for Southern furniture and folk art and art. But if you want to buy things made in Virginia [for example], they’re harder to find. This was an agrarian society — we didn’t produce as much furniture or paintings. [Therefore], the most charming stuff is early 1900s naive interpretations.”

Virginia-made furniture is rare, but it can be extremely valuable. Farmer cites a piece made by furniture maker Johannes Spitler in the early 1800s, which recently sold for $960,000 in Mount Crawford.

Do items need to be old to be collectible?
No, says Farmer. “There are things today you can get into, such as wristwatches. I collect them, so does Eric Clapton.” Farmer also suggests musical instruments, or an artist painting now — “painting anything.”

Any warnings?
Stay away from so-called “limited editions,” he says, because “a lot of large companies get a lot of people to buy things.” He credits the Internet for making information more accessible and allowing people to realize that “things you thought were rare, really aren’t.” He uses the example of Blue Ridge china, which is sold on eBay.

Can you ever know enough?
“The main thing you need to know is what you don’t know. I would get a second opinion on something over $10,000. Most people hire a dealer or a curator from a museum.” You have to decide on your level of involvement, he says. “Are you going to take the time to go to shows or to the Internet? Will you become your own expert?”

Any trends to watch out for?
“The Internet, which has created new groups of collectors.” Farmer himself conducts auctions online. “I’ve got several million people involved.”

 


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