A ($6.99) Patron of the Arts

I have a little problem with paintings—I can’t stop myself from buying them. Prints? I have about four. Actual paintings? I’ve got 17 of those (over 30 if you include paint by numbers). There’s something nice about having art that wasn’t mechanically reproduced. Sure, most of these paintings were churned out in large numbers from studios full of starving artists in the 1950s and 60s, but a real hand put brushes to canvas and no two are exactly alike. And today, when chintzy framed prints can cost a pretty penny in home stores, it’s nice to run across an oil-on-canvas painting like this for just $6.99 at a thrift store.

photoI can’t quite make out the artist’s signature, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t reveal much if I could. I’m also not 100% sure what’s going on, but I see some nuns and some school children on a foot bridge. What I really like about it are the colors and texture and the very stylized interpretation of a traditional European subject.

It’s hard to imagine the thrift store’s thought process behind pricing legions of old Justin Bieber posters, terrible cardboard pastoral sofa prints, a framed Dilbert cartoon and this painting all roughly the same. One would think anybody could see the difference—but perhaps that’s just the art snob in me passing $6.99 worth of judgement.

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How a Vintage Item is Priced

How a Vintage Piece is Priced

Before we write our tips and tricks for negotiating (which we haven’t forgotten our request for, we promise!), I thought it would be helpful to discuss why things at a store or flea market are more than when you find them at a thrift store or garage sale. In this post, I will be using a generic 1980s radio, which is my latest find to illustrate pricing.

1980s Radio

I used to only collect, but then I had a hoard of midcentury in my basement and what to do with it all? Help things find a home with other vintage lovers of course. As some of you may know, Austin and I have a little booth are at a local store in Des Moines called Funky Finds Vintage & Retro. If you haven’t been there, check it out because the store and owners are amazing. Therefore, we are in the interesting position of being collectors, buyers and sellers all at the same time.

So here are some “hidden costs” that you may not be aware of when it comes to pricing an item.

1. Almost everything is filthy. Just filthy. I bought this radio at Goodwill the other day for $3 because I can potentially sell it on eBay for $30. But not before I spent 30 minutes cleaning out undefined “goo” from every crevice imaginable. Everything needs some degree of conditioning—i.e. dusting, degreasing, deodorizing or washing—and that time spent is money.

2. Almost every item needs to be tested or repaired. In this example, I needed to go get 5 AA batteries only to find out the tuning dial doesn’t display the station it’s on. Looks like I will be selling it for less than $30 and spent ten minutes of my time. Furniture involves even more work refinishing, re-gluing, researching and often times reupholstering.

3. Sellers pay commission, rent and taxes. This is one thing when I was just a casual collector I never thought about. Sure, the store owners pay a lease, employees and everything else that goes along with a business, but individual sellers whether at a thrift store or on eBay are shelling out too. eBay takes 10% of what you sell. Commission can be anywhere from 10% to 30% at a store. Taxes can be 30%. Rent is negotiable with how large of space. This radio really isn’t so cute anymore and I’m questioning my purchase. But you can record live radio on to a cassette tape!

4. Time spent hunting should be time paid for. One time I heard someone say that a dealer’s time spent looking for things to resell is just for fun. Yes, it is so much fun for us, that’s true! When we are all together going to garage sales we have a blast laughing, telling jokes, running like maniacs out of the van to grab that vintage light first and other nonsense. But shouldn’t everyone have fun at their jobs? There are days when I go to thrift stores and garage sales for hours and I come back with one thing to sell. That radio? I’ve been to the same Goodwill four times since and found nothing. That’s at least an hour spent with one radio found.

5. Getting the item involves gas, storage, postage and more. We drive all over the place, all over Iowa and other states. And then there’s storage. All seller’s have at least some space dedicated to storing pieces waiting to be reconditioned and sold (my two-car garage was not used for cars for a year, much to the dismay of my husband!) and in some cases expenses for renting storage can be staggering. If I do sell this radio on eBay I will need to drive to the post office to get packing materials and postage. At the store where we sell, there are price tags, pens, pins, nails, hangers, all sorts of supplies we need to show the items in the first place.

6. Every item has a price, a price that needs to be researched. It’s important as a seller to research the market value of items you’re selling, either online or the market in your local area. Regularly selling items too high or too low compared to your market can both spell disaster for your business. I had a feeling this radio was cute and probably had some 1980s cult following. I found out that was true with a search on eBay. Sometimes things require a whole lot more time researching, such as furniture or dishes. Again, a little more time spent.

So here’s the breakdown. One radio for $3 that possibly will be sold for $20–$25. Commission of at least $3 on that sale. Taxes about $6. That means a net profit of $11–16. And I spent at least an hour and a half cleaning and let alone finding the darned piece of plastic. My “hourly” pay without taking in to account gas, storage, supplies, monthly rent? $8 maybe?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love looking for antique and vintage things. The point is, most sellers aren’t getting filthy rich and there are so many things that go in to pricing. Not to say that there isn’t wiggle room, and that post is coming up next!

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A Find that Really Sucks

My love of mid-century design knows no bounds and it’s particularly unbridled when it comes to industrial design. Machines. Cars. Radios. Appliances. Oh those glorious metal beasts of yesteryear in gleaming candy coated colors.

After decades of knowing appliances as unremarkable boxes (at their best) or totally undesigned assemblages of plastic parts (at their worst), it’s hard to remember that there was a time when appliances were truly exciting. Like new car exciting. In the 1950s engineers and designers worked around the clock to develop new features that would obliterate the doldrums of housework and turn everyday machines into objects of desire. And it’s for all these reasons that I got all worked up when I found this dirty old vacuum in a thrift store for $5.

photo 3This little two-tone ball of joy is a 1967 Hoover Constellation. It’s about the coolest vacuum I’ve ever seen, but the best part isn’t even how it looks—it’s how it hovers. That’s right, it hovers. Designed to expel its exhaust from the base, the Constellation generates enough air to lift it ever so slightly and glide across floors with ease, despite its lack of wheels. How cool is that?

photo 2

The Constellation was introduced in 1954 and was originally designed with a central mounted pivoting hose with the intent that the vacuum could sit in one spot while you cleaned around it. Later the design was modified to change it to a hovercraft and was available in a slew of color options including pink, orange and baby blue. In 1967 the design was changed to this tilted axis for the model 843 and remained so until the end of production in 1975.

photo 1I’m fortunate that my machine, aside from just needing a good cleaning, is in great shape, works and has nearly all of the original attachments. I have no doubt that in time I’ll find the extension wand and the floor nozzle. Finding bags and filters will be less of a challenge as these machines have quite a loyal following. Thus begins another collection of things that have little practical value to me and yet I feel all the richer for having this mechanical wonder in my life. You can watch the Constellation in action in this 1961 Australian television ad.

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The China That Almost Was

Today I drove by a few signs saying, “BIG SALE!” Normally, I have at least one screaming child in the car and don’t stop. But this sale was seriously two minutes from my house and I decided we would conquer it.

There was quite a bit of nonsense, but I did happen upon this beautiful set of china. It had a complete twelve place settings except for one teacup.


Sorry for the crummy picture. You’ll see why I don’t have a good photo.

Now, normally I’m not a china person. For some reason, this pattern called to me. They looked like orioles, my husband’s late grandma’s favorite bird. They were the family’s great aunt’s, and probably around ninety years old. We worked out a great deal and I went to work packing them up and took them to the car.

If there’s one thing about Iowa it’s that everyone knows everyone. This great aunt was from a small town and I was going to write down her name and do some research and see if I couldn’t find out a bit about her. While I was waiting for the family to write down the name, the eldest of six siblings showed up. They introduced me and said I was buying aunt so and so’s china, and the sibling started crying and shaking. She had reserved the china as something she wanted and it had accidentally been placed in the sale. What?

So, I drove away with it as fast as I could. Just kidding. I helped her unpack it and told her it was no big deal. Thank goodness I hadn’t left five minutes prior. Here’s hoping I come upon this pattern again.

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Before and After: Amputee Hutch

Time and time again I fall victim to the pity buy. That sad, forlorn piece of furniture that really doesn’t seem worth the work of restoration but you just know will fall victim to the merciless wrath of the shabby chic army if left behind. That’s the story of this hutch.


I found it sitting in the corner of a thrift store. No legs. Back falling off. An unreasonable amount of leaves and grass clippings inside. It hadn’t lived a glamorous life, but for about the price of a two-person trip to Starbucks I just couldn’t leave it there to be almost-certain prey for an ambitious crafty person armed with chalk paint.

First it needed legs. I scavenged some blonde tapered legs from an old ottoman and painted them black to better go with the freshly polished dark walnut wood. Then I had to do something about that back. Though the whole hutch was wood, the back was woodgrain printed on Masonite. It really cheapened the whole look. Usually I’d cover it in grasscloth or a neutral fabric, but as I was looking at the fabric store something else caught my eye…


The end result is a little out of character for me. Ok, a lot out of character. But I do think the chevron adds some much needed pizzazz and still gives a nod to the era so it doesn’t feel too out of left field. Plus, unlike the chalk paint route, fabric is easy to change out any time you want. The total investment? $24, including the purchase price of the cabinet. Not too shabby—but still pretty chic.

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