In 1978, Rob Niederman received an 8-by-10, turn-of-the-century studio camera. It was wooden and chunky, a work of art. Niederman had been a photography enthusiast since childhood (he later studied under Ansel Adams); the gift sparked a passion for early cameras.
Niederman began his collection by scouring flea markets, catalogues and shows for unusual finds. Friends and sources he cultivated would reach out to him with tips. He came to seek something very specific — mostly cameras produced as the daguerreotypes went out of style. They were all brass and wood. Each camera type is so rare that there are no more than five in existence today.
Once Niederman found something good, he’d spend hours phoning and faxing his network of collectors and museum curators. Was his new camera actually a rare find? How many others were out there? Just how special was his purchase?
If he’d started his collection in 2016, the process would’ve looked much different. For serious collectors, the Internet has changed the hunt — and the rules. Today, any camera name can be dropped into Google and the model found. Antiques dealers and major collectors list their wares online. Websites like eBay, Etsy, 1stdibs and EBTH make it easy to click your way to vintage comic books, one-of-a-kind chair covers or hand-painted beer ads.
This shift should have snuffed out the thrill of the chase, but it hasn’t. It’s given collectors access to new worlds and upped competition, pitting dedicated seekers against neophytes. That can breed forgeries and price gouging. But it’s also created a fairer marketplace, one where everyone has more information.
The Internet has “opened up huge doors,” says Ben Marks, senior editor of Collectors Weekly and an avid collector of 1960s and 1970s rock posters. “If you didn’t have . . . a good flea market where you live, you would never see stuff you were really interested in. Once that stuff became available on eBay in the late ’90s, it was like a treasure chest.”
Not so long ago, goods often made their way from someone’s attic or garage to a store via a “picker.” Pickers trolled the countryside, looking for finds. “Old pickers would knock on doors and ask homeowners in Iowa or wherever . . . if they had any old screens — window screens, door screens?” explains Marsha Bemko, who began producing “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS 20 years ago. “That’s how [they] would get into a house.”
Once inside, the pickers would poke around. If they saw something special, they’d try to make a deal. They could throw around significant money, offering thousands of dollars for a bookcase or an armoire. For the seller, it seemed like a windfall. The buyer, however, knew that the piece was worth much more.
Pickers took their goods to dealers or auction houses. Or the stuff might end up in antique shops or at flea markets. Then collectors would come calling. “In the olden days, it was a lot of fun, going to auctions and exhibitions and antique shows and flea markets,” says Eric Silver, an expert in Tiffany glass and director of the Lillian Nassau gallery in New York.
In the mid-nineties, shows like “Antiques Roadshow” exposed many more Americans to the collecting world. Then the Internet opened it up to everyone. Today’s collectors are as likely to start their search for a particular object online as at an auction house. They might have dealers they follow or websites where they can chat with other enthusiasts. “Instead of chasing physically and going out, you are looking at eBay at auctions from around the world,” said Silver, himself an appraiser for the show.
But that doesn’t mean collecting is a easy. Today, collectors aren’t competing just against those people who can be physically present for a sale. This makes knowing who’s got what — and when it will be sold — more essential than ever. Silver recalled driving an hour outside New York to bid on a “nice piece of American sculpture” at auction. “No one was bidding, and I started bidding for a few thousand dollars, and a guy online in London — in the middle of night his time — was bidding me up and it was suddenly $25,000. He had seen a little advertisement for it and contacted the auction house, and found out all the information available on the Web.” Last fall in New Jersey, a painting found in a basement was put up for auction for less than $1,000. It sold for more than $800,000 when buyers in Europe realized that the piece was a lost, early Rembrandt.
But buying remotely makes it harder to confirm that something’s authentic. Google Tiffany lamps, and you’re well past the first page before the real goods surface. Even then you can run into problems. A lampshade might be authentic, but the base it rests on is a reproduction. Or the entire thing might be a very, very good copy. Sussing out the difference requires expertise.
“If I’m going to buy a rock poster for a few hundred dollars, I want to see it. I want to look at the corners and see it’s not bent up,” Marks says. On the occasions he’s eschewed that rule, it’s because he knows the sellers, who offer money-back guarantees.
Of course, there are still random finds. Stroll into an estate sale or brick-a-brack store, and you might stumble upon an obscure piece, a quality painting Grandma picked up at a garage sale. But likely as not, the seller now knows that the item is rare and valuable. He or she may have it listed on eBay. At the very least, they’ve probably Googled it and know about what it’s worth.
At Circa, a well-curated mid-century-modern antiques shop in Pittsfield, Mass., owner Becky Barnini stocks everything from lucite lamps to Lane brutalist hutches. (“Mid-century,” she says, gesturing to the smooth Danish teak around her, “is collectible.”) Her brick-and-mortar store sees lots of repeat visitors, and merchandise moves quickly. However, she has an online presence, too, selling on Craigslist and on her website. She recently made her biggest sale ever — an Adrian Pearsall wingback chair — via Instagram.
“When I was collecting in the 1970s, you could buy things for $5. There were no books, no exhibitions; it was the Wild West of collecting,” Silver says. “Now there is scholarship and exhibitions, and now people out there know. . . . It is very rare you find a dealer who says, ‘I bought this and it was mis-catalogued, and it is actually worth 10 times what I paid for it.’ ”
Niederman has his own steps to find purchases in the Web era. He courts longtime collectors and sellers, people who are divesting themselves of their collections. He makes sure he is on their list of people to approach about a camera sale — thus keeping pieces off eBay that he’d rather see on his own shelf. And he still hits the flea markets whenever he can. You never know.