By Mark A. Roeder

Years ago, I purchased a blue Uhl grape pattern pitcher on eBay to resell. When I received the pitcher, I noticed it was in better condition than the one currently in my collection. I switched the pitchers, keeping the better example and selling the one with a small hairline crack. I upgrade my collections in this way whenever possible. When I find a piece I like better than what is already in my collection, it’s out with the old and in with the old but in better shape. Okay, so the phrase doesn’t roll off the tongue, but upgrading is the key to improving a collection.

We’ll talk more about upgrading later, but for now let’s move onto another important aspect of collecting—specialization. Beginning antique collectors often collect in many areas. They buy whatever appeals to them. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but as collectors become more experienced they usually start to specialize. Instead of collecting everything they narrow down their collections to a more specific area.

When I started out more than forty years ago I collected everything. If it was old I wanted it. Soon the house was full: of Depression glass, books, pottery, country furniture, toys, spinning wheels and more—you name it I collected it. Soon, I was experiencing the common problem of collectors; space, or rather lack of space. There simply wasn’t any more room.

By this time my enthusiasm for certain antiques and collectibles had dulled, while certain other areas of collecting caught my eye. I began to narrow my focus to items of special interest. Instead of collecting every pattern of Depression glass I concentrated on the Parrot pattern. Instead of collecting all antiques I began to specialize in pottery and pieces I could actually use. I began to sell off the other stuff. This served two purposes: it made space and provided money for the things I continued to collect.

Specializing is the route to take if space is a problem, but even specializing will not always solve the problem. This is where upgrading comes in. As one progresses in antique collecting one should begin to weed out lesser examples. Sell off the chipped and cracked pieces and replace them with pieces in better condition.

Most collectors also wind up with an overabundance of common examples. It is a good idea to sell off the more common examples and replace them with more unusual pieces. For example, I love stoneware. I’ve always found it hard to resist. Over the years I assembled a collection of dozens and dozens of apple-butter jars, crocks, and jugs. The overcrowding problem finally reached the point where it was a choice between getting rid of some of my stoneware or not being able to walk through the house. My favorite pieces of stoneware tend to be rather expensive; early ovoid shaped pieces and examples decorated with cobalt blue. I began to sell off my common pieces of stoneware and replace them with exceptional pieces. Soon, a single churn with a blue bee-sting decoration replaced two dozen apple-butter jars. Several common jugs made way for a circa 1850s ovoid jug. Upgrading improved my collection and alleviated my space problem.

Never pass up an opportunity to upgrade your collection. Whenever a better example of something already in your collection comes along, buy it. The more common piece can be sold and the money used to finance your collection. Not only will this improve your collection, but it will allow you to change things around a bit as well. Slowly, over time, you will weed out the damaged pieces and common items and your collection will be the better for it. Upgrading is a slow process, but it is well worth it.

A practice related to upgrading is parlaying. It is basically the same as upgrading, but does not necessarily involve replacing an item with a better example of the same item.

Here is an actual example of how it works. Many years ago, as I was upgrading my Depression glass collection, I began selling off the lesser pieces. I took what had cost me $10 and sold it for $35. With this money I purchased a nice cherry parlor table, which I later sold for $85. With this money I purchased a flax wheel, which I later sold through an antique shop for $225. I put some money with this and purchased a nice marble-topped Victorian dresser for $315. The actual amount of cash that I had to put out for the dresser was quite low, about $90 plus another $10 for the original purchase price of the Depression glass. The rest of the money came from the profits of parlaying. What started with a few pieces of quarter Depression glass ended up with a fine piece of Victorian furniture. Because of the profits involved, I had only $100 invested in the dresser. Later, I sold the dresser for about what I paid, but I still made a profit because of how much of the cost came from parlaying. I also had the enjoyment of using it for years without cost. I turned around and put the money from the sale of the dresser into other pieces. I bought and sold, parlaying my way up to a wonderful circa 1860 step-back cupboard that I have to this day. The cupboard cost me about $600 (a good price when it was purchased and quite a bargain now), but I have nowhere near $600 in the cupboard. Most of the money for the purchase price came from parlaying. Along the way I’ve enjoyed several different antiques. It was an enjoyable process from beginning to end.

Using the technique of parlaying makes it possible to acquire fine antiques without actually having to put out a tremendous amount of money. All it takes is one lucky find, then one buys and sells, buys and sells, and keeps. A collection can largely pay for itself.

Parlaying is also of great assistance when money is a problem. I rarely have the money to just go out and buy a really nice antique. To solve this problem I plan ahead. I pick out a few pieces that I no longer want and sell them. By doing this I generate enough cash to purchase something I truly desire. This is one of the advantages of buying antiques; collectors get to spend their money more than once.

Specializing allows one to focus on what one loves most, while preventing one from cluttering up the house. Upgrading and parlaying increase the value of a collection and provide the funds for additional purchases. Collecting antiques is not as expensive as most people think. A lucky find here and there can allow a collector to amass quite a collection without spending all that much money. Wise upgrading, parlaying, and specializing will keep one from being buried in antiques. Instead of stuffing things in the attic sell them and use the money to buy better pieces. Besides, the rest of us want those things you have hoarded away in your attic—upgrading, parlaying, and specialization make antique collecting more enjoyable for us all.