In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
North Carolina is full of hidden treasures — jewelry and clocks and radio and lamps and furniture that contain generations of tales. But it takes a little know-how when you’re on the hunt for something special at estate and yard sales, antiques shops, and auctions across the state.
“It’s something that everybody should get into,” says Andrew Keller, owner of The Ivy Cottage in Wilmington. “Antiquing is saving a piece of history that you can’t get back once it’s gone.”
We talked to Keller and three other North Carolina antiques experts — Jon Lambert, owner of Mebane Antique Auction Gallery; Leland Little, president of Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough; and Terri Dickson, owner of Blue Moon Estate Sales in Charlotte — about what makes a piece special, the latest trends to look for, and their best tips for getting started.
Andrew Keller Owner of The Ivy Cottage in Wilmington
Jon Lambert Owner of Mebane Antique Auction Gallery
Leland Little President of Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough
Terri Dickson Owner of Blue Moon Estate Sales in Greensboro
How did you get into antiquing?
Andrew Keller: I was an Air Force brat. My parents moved every two to four years, and when I was about 12, we moved to England. My parents took me around to thrift stores and auctions there, and I’ve just found it interesting ever since. I’ve always been getting up early and going to yard sales just to see what I can find.
Jon Lambert: My grandfather was an auctioneer here in Alamance County in the ’50s and my father was in and out of antiques until about 1972. We’d see trash piles and tanks sitting out [with items] that had value at that time: fruit jars and jumbo peanut butter jars, inkwells and agateware. We would pull these things out and try to repurpose them. We were taking them to the Jamestown flea market in Greensboro back in the ’70s — that was the hot spot back then. We would lay our goods out, and people would come by, and we were happy that they would rescue them. And it grew from there.
Leland Little: I got into it when I was in southwest Virginia. I would go to the old country estate auctions and farm auctions where they would pull the inventory out of the home — the furniture and pottery and quilts and things like that — and have the auction in the front yard. I found that not only interesting, but also quite exciting.
So how do we get started?
Terri Dickson: I started in my own neighborhood, when we lived in Raleigh. A few of our favorite places were the Fairgrounds Flea Market, estate sales, and some auction houses. There are several great shops and markets in Greensboro and surrounding areas, and, of course, estate sales! Prior to pickin’, you need to learn the lingo, so do a little research before you head out.
Andrew Keller: I always tell people to just go to an auction. They don’t have to buy anything. Just sit on your hands and from there you can learn. Get up early and go to yard sales. You kind of have to know what you’re looking for because there are so many reproductions out there. But auctions are the best, especially the ones where they describe in detail what’s being put up for sale. From there, you can read books or watch Antiques Roadshow or just go around to estate sales with friends.
Jon Lambert: First off, do not buy anything for a year. Look for objects that you have an interest in. When you find that object or that subject, then you start studying it. Read all you can about that subject. Then physically go and look at the objects, hold them and understand them. Once you find that passion, master it and talk to other people that collect that material. There are Facebook groups and clubs you can join so when you start collecting, you also have a network of people that share your passion, and it creates a nice community.
What kinds of things do you look for when you go picking?
Terri Dickson: Quality, condition, and character.
Andrew Keller: As a store owner, I pick whatever I think I can sell. However, my favorite items to find, because I collect them, are head vases or face jugs. They are usually North Carolina or South Carolina pottery, and they’re hard to find nowadays. Obviously, if you find sterling [silver], that’s great because, as a shop owner, it pays the bills. I keep an eye out for old radios, things that I can look up and learn about and that I haven’t seen before. A lot of things out there you’ve seen 100 of, and I tend to skip those and go for the interesting things.
What’s your go-to antiquing spot in the state?
Terri Dickson: Since moving here to Greensboro to start our business, we have been so busy selling other people’s antiques and personal belongings, we have not had as much time to go shopping outside of our sales, but we still love the Antique Market Place and Shoppes on Patterson in Greensboro and Grandaddy’s Antique Mall in Burlington, and we look forward to attending events like the Liberty Antiques Festival.
Are there any hot trends in the antiquing world right now that our readers should keep an eye on?
Andrew Keller: Mid-century modern is hot. You can’t find it anywhere, and when you do it’s like a little prize. Anything mid-century, anything from the ’50s that’s retro and cool is popular. Fiestaware has come way back — people are loving it. And even Hummel [figurines] for some reason; they’ve been flat ever since I’ve been working at antiques stores and they’ve started selling again. Old wooden radios, like Victrolas, have also made a comeback.
Leland Little: I do see a little bit of resurgence in what is traditionally called “brown” furniture. So that’s your mahogany and [solid dark-wood] furniture. I see good interest in accent pieces: English porcelains, Asian accessories, Asian porcelains; vintage and antique musical instruments, guitars and banjos [from the 20th century]; and jewelry — not only contemporary pieces, but also vintage jewelry, like David Webb, Schlumberger, and Art Deco and antique jewelry.
But how will we know for sure that we’ve come across a special item?
Terri Dickson: It can take years to know the value of antiques, but when you run across something that “speaks” to you, that’s special. “Special” is in the eye of the beholder.
Andrew Keller: A special item, in my opinion, is something you find special — not what other people think is special. There are a lot of things I like that nobody else likes. They wonder why I like face jugs. They’re “ugly” by most standards. My wife has made me put them all in the garage now because our children are scared of them. But they’re interesting, and each one is different. Just collect what you like.
What’s the most memorable item you’ve ever picked or sold?
Jon Lambert: In the late 1980s, I’d just graduated from high school and was just starting out, so I went picking with my father’s good friend who was in the business. We were in Burlington and going down a little side street, and I saw a building there with some signs leaning against it. We pulled over and talked to the guy who lived there, who happened to work for the Coca-Cola advertising department at the plant in town. The guy didn’t want them — he had just been leaving them out or painting over them — so we bought all of them. I sold most of them, but I still have one on my mother’s basement wall, which is a 1927 two-sided, die-cut arrow Coca-Cola sign.
Leland Little: We were privileged a few years ago to sell a collection of Alfred Stieglitz works. He was an early photographer, and we sold, I think, seven of his original photographs from a collection here in North Carolina. I remember the top lot (the item that sold for the highest price) of the day — it was a snow scene with some trees. It brought $440,000 on the hammer that day, and that was very exciting.
Help! It feels like a lot of the antiques shops are as big as museums — do you have a strategy on how best to navigate them?
Leland Little: I think there are two answers here: I believe people collect what they like visually, so if you’re walking around in a large antique mall and something catches your eye and you can use it somewhere in your home, then that’s the first and perfect answer. If you’re looking for something specific, you’re scanning the room to find if you can locate exactly what you’re looking for.
North Carolina is renowned for its furniture — is there any advice you have for our readers looking for those antiques?
Andrew Keller: If you’re looking for authentic antique North Carolina furniture, you have to pay attention to the style. I find that most oak chest of drawers or bow-front washstands seem to be from North Carolina, whereas the maple and Empire pieces seem to be from up North. Make sure you look in the drawer to see if it has a manufacturer — High Point or Wilkesboro were two of the larger spots for furniture manufacturers in the state.
Leland Little: Personally, I like furniture that doesn’t have a lot of restoration. Wherever you are buying from, take the time to make sure it’s not been terribly rebuilt. If you’re looking for something that is authentic, that will reasonably hold its value, and that you can enjoy, you want to have it as original as possible, meaning that the piece of furniture — the tops, the drawers, the feet — are original to when the piece was built.
Jon Lambert: I would study the piece, the maker, and the time period. All North Carolina furniture that was made in the mid-20th century and earlier is very good furniture, but it really depends on the consumer and what they’re looking for. You can go out to auctions, do an Internet search for North Carolina furniture, go to antique malls and shops, and just talk to the right people about furniture you are interested in. Do your homework before you go out looking for these pieces.
What do you love most about antiquing?
Andrew Keller: I love that everything’s different. It seems like everything these days is mass produced. With antiques, each piece had to be handmade or hand-cut. With a lot of the antique pieces you find, you’ll see the signature of who built it in the drawers. It’s just those little trademark features. More time was put into making things back in the day.
Jon Lambert: I was in Alamance County at the home of a family whose mother had just passed away. I was in the kitchen when I spotted a small piece of pottery. The family said they wished they had video-taped my expression when I found it. This little piece of pottery was made by Timothy Boggs in southern Alamance County around 1845. That’s an exciting piece and it’s a new discovery from an important potter from the Piedmont-Triad area. It’s not broken, and I wonder how it survived all those years. So that’s where my passion is — rescuing and discovering objects made in our state.
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