For the past score of years, I’ve made antiques and collectibles a significant part of how I pay for my family’s right to live. Obviously, if we don’t pay, we become homeless, we suffer disease and the elements, and we die – so, like almost all Americans not endowed with generational wealth, we are forced to pay to live.
In 2013 when I started doing this (in Oregon) the business was good. There were plenty of buyers for just about every category and sellers were generally clueless about one or more categories so it was common to go to estate sales or garage sales and find things like old military gear, boomboxes, early video games, or even high value art, electronics, music, or books priced so that you could earn ten/twenty/one hundred/ or even a thousand times your cost – overnight. Ebay was in decline from the glory days of the 90s and oo’s, but it was still relatively free of scammers.
It felt like the business was changing though – decorative objects, furniture, and historical pieces began to sit on the shelves of my shop for longer and longer. Customers became pickier and pickier – which is a good thing for customers and a bad thing for dealers.
In 2017, I sold my shop and moved my family to Hawaii – I brought the best of my inventory with me – thinking to open a shop, rent an antique mall space, or sell at shows. The rents were too expensive, there are no antique malls to speak of, and for the past three years, I’ve been selling my inventory at shows, swap meets, and online. I brought a lot of stuff with me – quality items that would have sold in my shop for decent prices.
In Hawaii, I’ve lowered and lowered the prices until they are the prices I used to charge for junk. Then, in frustration, I’ve donated a lot of stuff to the charity shops. The things I’ve kept, many of which I’ve tried to sell – simply won’t sell for any sort of reasonable price – not even a hundred dollar bill. I’m talking about carved black forest ink wells, art glass from Italy, palace keys from Morocco, signed first editions by known authors, quality costume jewelry, and vintage toys in their boxes. People like them, but only at a price where they can quadruple (or more) their investment by selling on Ebay.
At this point, I’m happy to say – I’ve gotten rid of all the junk and much of the mid-range stuff. I’ve sold a couple of pieces for prices that I know were significantly lower than I should have – but they were big, heavy, or simply not my style.
Here is what I’ve learned about the antique and collectible business in Hawaii in 2020.
1) Gold, silver, jade, and luxury items will sell – but only at 10-15% less than you could get on Ebay.
2) You are more likely to get a buyer for a used shirt, a used toaster, a set of kids bed sheets, or some tools than for even the best glass, paintings, carvings, or ceramic pieces.
3) Japanese arts don’t do well in Hawaii -unless it is on the high end of swords, militaria, or older period items.
4) Ivory still commands a premium here. I don’t buy it but I watch others sell it and buy it – I just don’t get it.
5) American coins and military items sell well.
6) Baseball cards (and other sport cards) have made a comeback. Spiderman is still the king of comics – most comics sell for less than a dollar if they sell at all.
7) Good luck selling furniture anywhere besides Facebook or Craigslist.
8) People will buy those little Pops bobble head dolls – but to make money you have to find them very cheap somewhere else
9) If a knife says ‘Made in China’ people just won’t buy it – no matter how good – unless it is below $10.
10) There was a brief period when original Nintendo games and consoles were commanding a premium and could be bought for a song – those days are gone. You can still make some money if you can buy them low enough, but they get snatched up quickly and at garage sales I commonly hear “Do you have any gold, silver, old video games, or watches?”
11) Watches are also a fairly done category except for the very top end. Rolex, Omega, etc.
12) Records seem to have had their moment of resurgence which now has passed. Like everything, the top is still there, but the middle has moved to the bottom. Same for fountain pens, ink wells, pottery, paintings, books, etc.
13) On the mainland – vintage, shabby chiq, and mid-century modern were popping from 2013-2017 – pyrex, old kitchen stuff, rusty signs, farm tools – all of that stuff was gold. I think that moment may have passed – but in Hawaii, it never really came – it’s almost impossible to sell a nested set of primary color Pyrex mixing bowls for more than $20 in Hawaii.
14) Here in Hawaii – the shows are more about people selling very valuable small things from cases than anything else. The sellers doing a brisk business are selling gold, silver, coins, paper money, high end sports cards, jade, gems, and rare bottles.
15) Hawaii dealers are among the cheapest anywhere in terms of how much they will pay and then how much they will charge. This can yield funny results as this story illustrates.
A year ago, I bought a storage locker and found a whole bunch of radio tubes. I sold most of them on Ebay but some just wouldn’t sell despite being cool and potentially valuable. I took those to the swap meet and sold them to a dealer who was from the same town that I bought the locker in! He took them back to that town and sold them to another dealer (for a much higher price). Yesterday, I saw those tubes in a showcase at the collectors Expo and the price blew my mind – that’s when I found how much that dealer had paid when buying them from the dealer I sold them to. Later, I noticed they were gone, he had sold them to yet another dealer for an even higher price – and I suppose that will continue until some dealer dies and loses his storage locker…
It reminds me of the old joke. Two antique dealers are shipwrecked on an island – their friend, also a dealer searches for years to find them and discovers them living alone on the isolated island. His first question “How’s business?” The two castaways instantly reply “Never better. ” And so it goes….
I believe I”m done with this business for now. I’ve got a few odds and ends I’ll sell – but who am I kidding – I’ll be right there, back at the next show – hoping the tide has turned.