An antiques primer
"Roadshow" appraiser says collectors
should know their goals
by Deborah Nason
for Virginia Business Options
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
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
What’s hot —or not —in
“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
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
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?
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?
Internet, which has created new groups of collectors.” Farmer
himself conducts auctions online. “I’ve
got several million people involved.”