photos by David Bader
Alfred Bader was a struggling Milwaukee chemist on a New York business trip when he purchased his first old master painting. Bader knew more about phytochemicals than fine art, but he liked the painting and the dealer was willing to let him pay in 16 monthly installments of $50.
Only later did Bader discover that Man Surprised, the portrait of Adriaen Brouwer, had been painted by 17th century Flemish artist Joos van Craesbeeck (the dealer had credited another artist). It had been a good investment.
Back in Milwaukee, Bader built a successful corporation, the Aldrich Chemical Co., and never had to buy another painting on time. Over the next 58 years, he became a relentless student, picking the brains of the world’s greatest experts in Dutch and Flemish art and amassing an impressive collection of 17th century paintings. Last January, Bader sold Rembrandt’s 1635 Minerva in Her Study to a New York collector for what may be a world record: $37.5 million.
Not everyone becomes a collector on Bader’s scale, but the advent of “Antiques Roadshow” has countless Americans scouring their attics for treasures left by Grandma or Aunt Ethel. Collecting has gone mainstream. Thanks also to eBay, Martha Stewart, price guide gurus Ralph and Terry Kovel, and celebrity collectors like Oprah, there has never been a time when average folks were more aware of the value of collectibles.
And Milwaukee, it turns out, is a great place for treasure hunting. “Dealers from across the country know the kind of deals we have here,” says Third Ward consignment shop operator Billie Dyszelski. They often send “pickers” – the middlemen of the antique business – to shop here, because Milwaukee has a reputation as a city with a history for appreciating quality and a frugality that keeps prices modest.
“Ten percent of the population has the collecting gene,” says Grafton antique dealer Gordon Kirsten. You can identify most collectors early on, he says. They’re the kids collecting bugs, McDonald’s giveaway toys and baseball cards. Kirsten collected rocks, butterflies and comics. Bader started with stamps.
But some start later. Native Milwaukeean Ralph Kovel and wife Terry bought their first antique, a $25 vintage music box, when they were courting. With 96 books to their credit, the Kovels reign as the king and queen of antique and collectible price guides. The Kovels – through their monthly newsletter, a weekly column in 130 newspapers, an Internet e-zine and countless appearances on TV – keep tabs on the middle and lower end of the antique and collectibles market.
Perhaps reflecting Ralph’s childhood spent growing up on Grant Avenue in frugal Milwaukee, the Kovels always collect “what’s not too expensive,” says Terry. The couples’ most valuable collection, she says, occupies their basement, a veritable general store filled with advertising collectibles.
Collectors come in many stripes, Terry says. They may be investors, decorators, purists attracted by the history and quality of an item, status seekers looking for prestige, or buyers recapturing their youth by buying the toys of their childhood. You may be a collector without even realizing it: It only takes five items to make up a collection, Terry says.
Bader, whose one purchase turned him into a collector, calls himself an auction and antique shop addict. He will head to Europe again this summer to scour shops for masterpieces obscured by dirt and neglect. At age 84, he runs the low-profile Alfred Bader Fine Arts Gallery in an Astor Hotel suite, where he sells what’s now the hottest category in the metro antique and collecting market: reasonably priced, good-quality vintage paintings. “I have the best job in the world,” he says.
Antique collecting itself is relatively new. People didn’t collect until the 1950s, Kovel said on a recent Milwaukee visit. “Before that, you either were wealthy and you inherited [antiques], or you were poor, and you had used furniture.” Now, anyone can become a connoisseur and there are more antiques than ever. Anything at least a century old was once the standard, but today anything more than 50 years old is considered an antique.
Alfred Bader has two rules for collectors. The first: “Never buy anything unless you really love it.”
Even veteran collectors can’t always be sure what they’re buying is the real thing, says Laurel Turner, curator of exhibitions and collections for the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace museums. “That’s why you should always buy things you just love. That way you will never be disappointed,” she says.
Riverview Antique Market dealer Victor Mora advises new collectors to start slowly and buy only inexpensive items until their knowledge and confidence grows.
What to Collect & Where
Almost anything that interests you is fair game. There is almost no limit to what people collect. In her 20 years as a dealer, Fox Skylight Gallery of Antiques manager Sandy Kelsenberg has sold everything from a KKK membership handbook to an anti-vampire kit complete with impaling stake, holy water and rosary. She’s sold a set of false teeth samples and even a vibrating belt reducing machine like the one Lucille Ball used in an episode of “I Love Lucy.”
Collector Joe Pabst, a descendent of the local brewing family, favors what he calls “the curious and the macabre.” Among his prized possessions: a World War I-era prosthetic wooden arm displayed as a sculptural object on a table in his home, a 100-year-old veterinarian’s syringe, and “a crappy old hotel chest of drawers” that he had an artist refinish to complete a bohemian East Side interior that includes a hallway ceiling of claret red covered with a collection of 250 antique prisms.
Where Should you Start Shopping?
The antique market begins with auctions, estate sales and flea markets. That’s where dealers buy wholesale, often using pickers to do their buying. The secret of estate sales is to arrive an hour or more before the official sign-up sheet goes up to get a priority position.
Other “wholesale” avenues include consignment and second-hand shops. If you wait until an item sells in a retail shop, you will pay much more.
“The rule of thumb is that dealers like to triple the price they paid for something. One-third represents what it cost them, one-third goes for rent and one-third is profit,” says Fox Gallery’s Kelsenberg.
But for the educated collector, who learns a lot about, say, 20th century art glass, there are bargains to be found even in the top antique shops. Says veteran antique shop owner Kirsten: “The best collectors in any category will know more than the most knowledgeable dealer because we have to be generalists.”
And be careful of buys on eBay. Though the online auction site has taken steps to address problems with fraud, there’s no substitute for holding something in your hands when it comes to evaluating its quality and authenticity.
Look for Quality
Bader’s second rule: “Always buy the very best quality you can afford.”
Be wary of damaged goods, no matter how old or interesting the item looks. “No one wants damaged merchandise anymore,” says Jim Dieter, owner of Blackhawk Antiques Market. “I wouldn’t even give you a dime for it.” As gas prices and living costs rise, lower-end buyers are less active and higher-end buyers seldom take a chance on damaged items, unless it’s an incredibly rare piece (say a 1600s delft charger). “The business has changed a lot in the past four years,” Dieter adds.
Fine quality and unique items hold their value and keep on selling. “Fairly priced, high-quality, rare and unique items sell without any problem,” says Gordon. “The real problem is finding enough of them.”
The best quality is always the best investment. In art glass, it’s Steuben and Tiffany. Sevres and Meissen in figurines. Roycroft and Stickley in the Arts and Crafts movement. And in books, it’s early editions of classic best-sellers. “It’s always better to have one great item at $100 than 10 mediocre things at $10,” adds Kelsenberg.
The good news? Much of the best is still affordable. “A lot of people see an antique and say ‘I could never afford that.’ Well, you could. And a lot of things, including antique silver and furniture, cost much less than the things in stores now, and the quality is much better,” says Gurnee Antique Center manager George Zukowski.
How to Bargain
With any purchase, it’s important to bargain diplomatically. “Dealers just hate it when someone says ‘I’ll give you this much,’ ” says Joanne Toman, a Riverview Antique Market associate. It’s better to say, “Can you do any better on this?” At many shops, simply asking will net a discount of 10 or 20 percent on items priced over $10 or $20.
If you love something that’s out of style, buy it now. It’s on sale. And even if you’re after what’s hot, “The buys are still out there,” Terry Kovel says, “at church sales, little auctions, big auctions, shops.”
How to Avoid Fakes
In January 2006, Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum opened an exhibit of Asian antiquities, including fine old ivory carvings belonging to Dr. Clifton Peterson, a prominent local collector. Peterson assembled the exhibit himself with the help of local appraiser Janice Kuhn, says Turner, who assumed her position as curator for Villa Terrace after the show ran.
(If Kuhn’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she was convicted of four counts of felony theft in 1991 stemming from the sale of antiques for consigners who were never paid.)
Milwaukeean Marvin Sokolow, an “Antiques Roadshow” Asian art appraiser, saw the show and fired off a letter berating the museum for passing off 1960s reproductions as artifacts from the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties.
Sokolow says that when the Milwaukee Art Museum installed its new Asian Gallery a few years earlier, then-director Russell Bowman hired a world-class expert – Dr. Stephen Little, then-curator of Asian art for the Art Institute of Chicago – to verify the authenticity of every item. “That’s the way things should be done when there is no specialized knowledge on staff,” he says.
But Turner is more sanguine. She says Asians have been copying their own art for 4,000 years. “Oriental objects are very difficult to date because they reuse symbols and even ancient ivory. It’s considered a tribute to the past.”
When it comes to verifying authenticity, even big-name museums have been embarrassed. Curators at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., gloated over their coup of purchasing a Pilgrim-era Brewster chair for a mere $10,000 in 1970. Seven year later, Rhode Island artisan Armand La Montagne told museum officials they’d find his mark at the base of one of the chair’s spindles. He’d crafted the chair using historic techniques in an effort to embarrass experts blinded by their enthusiasm for a bargain. The museum had fallen for his hoax. For a time, it displayed the chair as a lesson to others.
In recent years, the number of reproductions designed to look exactly like the originals has exploded. The Kovels recently wrote that you could identify a particular porcelain figure as a copy because the original never had blue feet. “Well, the Chinese read what we write, too, and they started making copies in the correct color,” Terry Kovel laments.
Collectors like Bader and Sokolow say the best defense is to develop your own expertise by visiting top museums and the best antique shows, touching the real thing and debriefing the most respected authorities, then pouring over auction records and reference books yourself. Most veterans of the business are delighted to share their knowledge, as are the members of collecting clubs for everything from Red Wing pottery and Steiff animals to cash registers and cut glass. Ask dealers who carry the items you’re interested in whether they know of a collector’s group or do an Internet search to find one.
Another bit of advice from Kovel: Deal only with well-known shops of longstanding. “Odds are they’re honest,” she says. “But ask a lot of questions. Most people won’t lie, and ditch them if they won’t give you a letter in writing saying this is a 17th century whatever if you’re paying good money. And if someone’s selling antiques in a [temporary] hotel [sale], the odds are they’re not antiques.”
Another great resource – and one of the city’s best kept secrets – is the Milwaukee Art Museum’s American Heritage Society, which hosts lectures, workshops and exclusive tours of the homes of renowned private collections.
“In time, you’ll train yourself to spot real quality and the true signs of age and wear,” says Mora.
If you do make a mistake, consider it a learning experience, says Sokolow, who once acted in the enthusiasm of the moment at an auction, paying $1,000 for a $20 Chinese reproduction. He put the item in his closet as a reminder that he’s not infallible.
An hour’s drive south of Milwaukee, the Gurnee Antique Center provides an admirable customer service in two glass display cases filled with reproductions of classic pieces, ranging from antique Staffordshire figures of recent Chinese vintage to cast iron banks aged by burying them in dirt to Roseville pottery complete with the original raised letters mark.
“It’s almost daily that someone wants to buy something out of those cases even with them labeled reproductions,” says manager George Zukowski. “And they wouldbuy it too, if we put a price on it. A great deal of this stuff is being sold by retailers – Home Goods, TJ Maxx, Tuesday Morning and elsewhere – including a lot of new majolica [a richly colored glazed art pottery] … it’s creating all sorts of problems.”
Selling your Treasures
Let’s begin with a reality check. Not every old thing in your home is worth big bucks. “The ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and all that is making people crazy,” says Karen Hartay, manager of Pilgrim Antiques Mall. “They all think they have something worth a million dollars.”
Many dealers find themselves regularly breaking the bad news to would-be sellers. Zukowski recounts how a woman came into his shop with a platter similar to one valued at $5,000 on the “Antiques Roadshow.” “I had to tell her that one on TV was made by Limoges – hers wasn’t. And that one was in perfect condition. Hers had a chip.”
Another woman came in with Grandma’s cookie jar expecting to sell it for big money. “I had to ask her if Grandma was alive last Christmas, because the Macy’s sticker was still on the bottom,” he adds.
As for the prices quoted on “Antiques Roadshow,” dealers note that these are for insurance [replacement] purposes, which differs from what a dealer – who needs to pay the rent and make a profit – will pay. “If you are selling something to an antique dealer,” Terry Kovel says, “you can’t expect to get more than half the retail price.”
Value and price aren’t determined just by what an object is or even how old it is – things from the 1960s may fetch high sums while 1900s items languish. It also matters where an item has been. In other words, Jackie Onassis’ pearl necklace will always be worth more than yours, even if your pearls are bigger and have a better nacre and luster. “In real estate, it’s all about location, location, location,” says veteran auctioneer Al Schrager. “Well, with antiques, it’s situation, situation, situation.”
As for selling treasures on eBay, Kovel notes that only one-third of the items listed there actually sell the first time through.
Regional arts and crafts from the 1700s through the 1960s and ’70s are hot all over the country, says Kovel, and the museums that specialize in them are growing as well. The old West Bend Art Museum, the foremost collector of Wisconsin art, has been renamed the Museum of Wisconsin Art, and it’s raising $11 million to build a new home.
On Sept. 11, the importance of Wisconsin regional art and crafts will be recognized when the Milwaukee Art Museum opens its new exhibit: “The Finest in the Western Country: Wisconsin Decorative Arts 1820-1900.”
Wisconsin’s 19th century cabinetmakers, potters, weavers, quilters, blacksmiths and other craftspeople created a diverse range of utilitarian, innovative and unusual objects, explains MAM spokesman John Eding.
The title reflects the fact that Wisconsin was originally part of the American West. “From fur trade-era metalwork to the cabinetmaking traditions of European immigrants to original art pottery, the works in this exhibition provide the first major survey of decorative arts made in Wisconsin,” Eding says.
Much of the furniture, ceramics, textiles and metalwork have been brought to light through an ongoing collaboration of the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Chipstone Foundation to document Wisconsin-made decorative arts for a publicly accessible online archive (you’ll find it at content.wisconsinhistory.org/decorativearts).
“It’s going to make things made in Wisconsin more valuable, and it might even spark a whole new collecting trend,” says veteran antique dealer Ron Christman.
Here’s an insider’s list of the best places for collectors.
Bailey’s Honor Auction Service. Auctions held at the Richfield Chalet, Carol Miller auctioneer. 1271 Hwy. 175, Hubertus, 262-569-8687, baileyshonor.com.
Cedarburg Auction Co.“The middle-of-the-road items, at times, they’re giveaways,” says one regular Cedarburg auction-goer. The auctions are held at Circle “B” Recreation Center, 6261 Hwy. 60,
Cedarburg, 262-377-4444, cedarburgauction.com.
Schrager Auction Galleries. Milwaukee’s banks have put their trust in Al Schrager for more than 50 years when it comes to liquidating the estates of the wealthy. Examine auction items at the gallery, then bid from the comfort of home via the Internet. 2915 N. Sherman Blvd., 414-873-3738, schragerauction.com.
The House in the Woods Inc. Weekday auctions are very popular with antique dealers. The annual holiday sale is a big hit. S91 W37851 Antique Lane, Eagle, 262-594-2334, houseinthewoodsinc.com.
Paul Auction Company. Sunday antique and collectible auctions. N131 County Road S, Kewaskum, 262-338-3030, paulauction.com.
Chattel Changers Inc. Chattel Changers keeps prices reasonable, and they drop 15 percent for each month the item is in the store. That brings a steady traffic of collectors, dealers and pickers. 2520 E. Capitol Dr., 414-961-7085, chattelchangers.com.
Fox Skylight Gallery of Antiques, basement level. Shop manager Billie Dyszelski says she caters to young people from Bay View and Riverwest who are just beginning to collect, but antique dealers are also regulars at her eclectic shop, which includes Wisconsin art from the 1800s through the present, 1950s and ’60s commercial and home furnishings, old wicker, and outsider and folk art. 112 E. Mineral St., 414-382-0007.
Legacies Ltd. Items are priced reasonably and prices fall 15 percent every 30 days. Dealers, collectors, decorators and even moms and dads outfitting their grown children’s homes frequent the place. 7922 N. Port Washington Rd., Fox Point, 414-352-8114, legaciesltd.com.
The Consignment Store – Patricia Frances Interiors. A veteran appraiser and antique dealer, Patricia’s consigners keep her 15-year-old shop filled with interesting antiques, including rarities like the “Mediterranean pass,” bearing the signature of U.S. President John Quincy Adams, which sold to a local attorney recently for $600. W62 N634 Washington Ave., Cedarburg, 262-377-7710.
Alfred Bader Fine Arts. More like an art gallery for collectors. European and American paintings from the 1600s to the late 20th century; originals and antique copies. More than half of the gallery’s paintings sell for less than $1,000. “Why would anyone buy prints when they can buy an oil painting for the same money?” asks Bader. No shop hours; call to arrange an appointment. Astor Hotel, Suite 622, 924 E. Juneau Ave., 414-277-0730.
Antiques at Gordon’s. The area’s largest one-dealer shop, this 5,000-square-foot barn is near I-43. Gordon’s features period to country furniture, porcelain, fine glassware and art pottery, postcards, American Indian and fine art antiques. Proprietor Gordon Kirsten has been here for almost 40 years. He’s an authority on art glass and Indian artifacts. 2275 N. Port Washington Rd., Grafton, 262-377-4313.
Antiques Center at Wales. Ron Christman and wife Debby are recognized as two of the area’s finest dealers. They focus on quality 18th, 19th and early 20th century furniture, accessories, folk art and paintings, with a specialty in Early American and painted furniture. And Ron runs a side business providing period frames for paintings. 323 E. Summit Ave. (Hwy. 18), Wales, 262-968-4913.
Antique Center – Walker’s Point. Really three shops: Our favorite is the third-floor collection of men’s vintage clothing, shoes and accessories – best in the region. Good selection of women’s vintage too, all by Dime A Dance (414-383-3036). You’ll find quality 1940s lizard handbags ($35) and matching vintage shoes, costume jewelry, Bakelite and Mexican silver, copper by Matisse and Renoir, along with collectible head vases, books, inexpensive early pressed glass and golden oak furniture. The mid-floor shop, Asiana, sells recent Oriental imports. 1134 S. First St.,
Blackhawk Antique Market. No mundane rummage here. Blackhawk’s 30,000-square-foot Cream City brick warehouse and its 125 dealers are higher-brow, offering 18th century furnishings and accessories, Deco and 20th Century Modern, paintings, vintage lighting, costume jewelry and more. Some shops won’t deal on prices, but proprietor Jim Dieter considers it part of his job. “I try to make it a win-win for both the seller and the buyer,” he says. The adjoining Pierce Regal shop features a good selection of shiny refinished furniture. 633 S. 12th St., 414-385-9999, blackhawkantiquemarket.com.
Clinton St. Antique Center. Tiny shop distinguished by its reasonable prices and beautiful garden out back. Inside: advertising items, brewery collectibles, Milwaukee memorabilia, garden and funky architectural items. 1110 S. First St., 414-647-1773.
Dorothy Gallun and Associates. The area’s most experienced antique jewelry dealer, Dorothy Gallun and her gemologist daughter Patty offer fine antique, estate and designer jewelry. N70 W5336 Bridge Rd., Cedarburg, 262-546-4523,
Fox Skylight Gallery of Antiques. Three floors, two stores. Upper two floors offer 90 dealers selling items as recent as 1970s and ’80s mixed in with older items. See consignment shops for basement listing. 112 E. Mineral St., 414-382-0006.
Pilgrim Antique Mall. Collectible jewelry, glassware, vintage clothing and linens, golden oak furniture from the early 1900s, and even a Shell gas pump ($895) from when gasoline sold for 14.8 cents a gallon! Items are mostly from the 1950s and earlier. “Before Martha [Stewart] went to jail, we’d have crowds of ladies in here looking for her featured item of the week from her TV show,” says dealer Erika Kopp. W156 N11500 Pilgrim Rd., Germantown, 262-250-0260.
Riverview Antique Market. Top offerings include paintings by Wisconsin artists and a wide assortment of folk art. Reasonably priced decorator items practically fly out of interior designer Gene Berube’s three booths. 175 S. Water St., 414-278-9999.
Marsh Hill Ltd. Best time to shop is when a large crate of furnishings arrives from Europe. That won’t happen again until the fall. The shop features 1800s case pieces, like Welsh cupboards and chests. New chairs made using old methods are also sold. Most intriguing: 500-pound staddle stones, once used to support granaries on English farms, now popular as garden ornaments ($1,200 to $1,600). 2045 W. St. Paul Ave., 414-933-1061.
Seth’s Antiques. Wonderful collection of Victorian items – though prices tend to be high. 1233 12th Ave., Grafton, 262-376-1862, seths-antiques.com.
Waukesha: A Dickens of A Place, 521 Wisconsin Ave., 262-542-0702; Fox Riverwalk Antique Mall, 250 W. Main St., 262-549-4404; Susan Kruger Antiques, 401 Madison St., 262-542-7722 for architectural antiques; and Family Heirlooms Antique Shop,259 W. Main St., 262-524-0747, offers great glass.
Elkhorn Antique Flea Market. May 18, June 29, Aug. 10 and Sept. 28. Proprietor Nona Knapp is a stickler for real antiques and collectibles, so your chances of finding something old are better here than at any other local flea market. Most items date from the 1920s through the 1950s with some from the late 1800s, including padlocks, pens, stoneware, jewelry and BB guns. A must-stop for area antique dealers. With more than 500 dealers from eight states and a 7 a.m. start, bring your hiking shoes. Food available. Walworth County Fairgrounds, Hwy. 11., Elkhorn.
Cedarburg Maxwell Street Days. There are 1,150 dealer spaces indoors and out. Held May 25, July 20, Aug. 31 and Oct. 5 from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Still worthwhile, though the proliferation of fresh produce and sheer rummage has diminished the number of real antiques. Fireman’s Park, W65 N796 Washington Ave., Cedarburg.
Delafield Antique Show. The area’s premier antique show is held twice annually, in late April and early November, at the Delafield Hotel, 415 Genesse St. (Hwy. C). It features more than 70 high-quality local and national dealers specializing in 18th, 19th and early 20th century American and English furniture, accessories, folk art, paintings and more.
St. Monica’s Antique Show. Feb. 13-15, 2009: This annual show with 25 to 30 dealers starts off with a delightful social evening of wine, hot appetizers and live music ($35). 5601 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.
Wisconsin Antique Dealers Associationshows will be held Oct. 3-5 and again Feb. 6-8, 2009, at the Waukesha Expo Center Forum Building. More than 50 professionally screened dealers from Wisconsin and Illinois with affordable quality goods, including many show-only dealers.