The differences between antiques and junk

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

Around 2010, when the economy was still miserably stagnant, I tried making extra money by selling yard-sale finds on eBay. Though I didn’t know anything about the retail prices of antiques, I had heaps of time to cruise eBay’s lists of past auctions. Here, I learned the going rates of items I had acquired, but only after having made dozens of blind purchases.

At tag sales, I was more or less clueless. Value became an esoteric concept. I didn’t know which pieces were legitimate antiques, which could be considered “vintage,” and which should be dismissed as junk. At first, I made my choices based on the notion that if something looked old and unusual it must be worth something. I soon found that I didn’t have near the expertise needed to separate the gold from the glitter.

I changed my strategy and began seeking out items to which I felt attracted. I bought a set of gold-plated, barbed-wire drink stirrers, their metal purportedly clipped from the defunct ranch fences of the American West. I snatched up kitschy vacation souvenirs from decades gone by.

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To my amusement, these things sold far better than the Wedgewood platter or Occupied Japan knickknacks I had been suckered into buying at an estate sale.

“If it’s say a signed Roseville vase, it’s something that does have a pretty established value in the market,” said Laura Levine, owner of Mystery Spot Antiques in Phoenicia. Recognized rarities aside, Laura buys merchandise according to her personal tastes, just as I had. The Mystery Spot is known for its eclectic mix of offerings, which includes clothing, records, collectables and “oddities,” mostly no newer than the 1960s. “I figure, if I think there’s something special about it, someone else will, too,” she said.

Laura has been developing her eye as a vintage connoisseur since childhood. “I grew up in an apartment building in Chinatown, and every floor had an incinerator room,” she recalled. “Anything that wouldn’t fit down the chute people would just pile up. I would start at the 21st floor and walk down all 21 flights, checking out each floor to see if there was anything interesting in there.”
The experience served as good training. Laura’s knack for scooping up worthy finds has kept the Mystery Spot going for 17 years.

 

East of Mystery Spot is an architectural salvage outlet in Kingston that has become something of an institution. Zaborski Emporium contains room after room and floor after floor of old bathtubs, hardware, furniture, fixtures, windows, and more. “My grandfather, Stan J. Zaborski II, used to be a baker down in New York City,” said Steve Zaborski, who co-owns the emporium with his father, Stan J. Zaborski III. “He moved up here and baked for a while, and then started selling items on the side. It eventually snowballed into an antiques and junk business.”

What does a third-generation dealer have to say about value? “There’s guidelines for certain things, but it’s in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, people put a value on certain things if they can relate the item to something in their past.”

This is something I’ve experienced firsthand. I once found a set of glassware at Zaborski that was nearly identical to the one my grandmother had owned when I was a child. I didn’t need it, but I sure did want it.

Not far from Zaborski’s is On The Hill Antiques in Kingston near the Rondout waterfront. The shop is smack in the middle of my stomping ground, and I’ve been inside a number of times.

During my most recent visit, I was greeted by Judith Pokowitz, one of multiple dealers there. We talked about the local antiques and vintage scene. Kingston does have high-end secondhand stores, she told me, but on the whole its prices are reasonable.

 

I shared my observations about Hudson, a town brimming with antiques outlets. Its main drag, Warren Street, has grown exponentially hip in recent years, which has driven up the cost of merchandise. Judith nodded. “If you go north or you go south, it can get expensive,” she said.

Judith also noted that “junk shops,” where the customer must dig through unsorted or uncleaned items to find what they want, have given way to operations with curated displays. This service does come with a cost, however. When professionals and pickers do the work of sniffing out the good stuff, prices go up.

With junk shops in short supply, antique and vintage hunters looking for dirt cheap deals can also check out the area’s flea markets. Flea-market season begins in April, and markets range from the low-key to the massive. The flea market in High Falls attracts perhaps a dozen vendors, while the Stormville flea market boasts more than 600 (both are held on Sundays, beginning April 8).

Prices at flea markets aren’t guaranteed to be low, and not all vendors are there to peddle used goods. Still, without the cost of overhead, bargains can be found that aren’t always available in brick-and-mortar shops.

As I roamed around On the Hill, I spied costume jewelry, old tools and knickknacks. Near a table of picture books, a small brown journal caught my eye. Inside were original block prints created by a woman named Gwen Frostic. Wild columbine filled one of the cardstock pages with dangling red flowers. Fiddleheads sprouted from the corner of another. Every page depicted a delightful scene: fawns, owls, a jack-in-the-pulpit. The tag said $15. I had to have it.

At the counter, Judith and I flipped through the book, cheered by the images within. “I bet you wouldn’t get it for that in Hudson,” she said as she wrote out my receipt.

Once home, I googled “Gwen Frostic” hoping to find an established price for a journal like the one I had purchased. I discovered that she was a Michigan-based artist who died in 2001. Her brief bio on a website still selling her prints revealed that she was a poet, a lover of nature, and the recipient of multiple honorary degrees from Michigan universities. The website gave me no clearer indication of how much I should have paid for the little collection of prints, but it did give me an idea of who Gwen Frostic was: a kindred spirit I had never met.

I knew then how much the book was worth. To me, at least.

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