Thursday, June 3, 2010

Treasures Hidden For All To See

It never ceases to amaze me that there can be items that are right out in the open for everyone to see, obviously available and they are still sitting right where they have been for 50 years or more.

Now, there can be various reasons why items are visible for all to see, but the owners never sell. Sometimes the owners simply do not care if they ever sell the item. Or, they are simply showing it off, bragging, so to speak.

"I own it and you don't!"

Sometimes there is a disagreement over who actually owns it, a concern than someone else actually owns it. A case in point in one of my favorite areas of interest is advertising items.

Some items that were given to store owners by various companies had right on them "PROPERTY OF SO & SO CO." Sometimes they even had threats of legal action if the item was sold by the store owner and not returned to the company after use.
It is likely for some more paranoid store keepers that this sort of thing drove the thought that the signs and items that companies handed out remained the company's property, in the minds of some storekeepers. Even the very items with the legal warnings didn't pose much of a scare in many storekeepers minds, judging by the number of items with such "PROPERTY OF" warnings on them that I find in old stores, warehouses, etc.

But, some folks tend to be paranoid about that issue, and will refuse to sell things because "they belong to the company who gave them to me".

A case in point is a story I heard from some other Manitoba based pickers. It involves a Chinese Restaurant/store somewhere in Saskatchewan. The owner no longer opened his doors for business, and had lots of Coca-Cola signs, displays etc all over the place, 1950s vintage stuff everywhere. If he did not know you, he would not answer the door. Pickers from all over tried to get him to sell. A $100 bill was even held against the window of the door by one fellow. He go no response.

No one had ANY luck what so ever.

One fellow borrowed a uniform from a friend who worked at a Coca-Cola bottling plant. He also picked up a bunch of brand new Coca-Cola signs, calendars, etc, all the current stuff of the time.

He knocked on the door, he showed him a Coca-Cola employee business card, decked out in a Coca-Cola uniform, and his ploy worked, the owner let him in. He then went about the store and he exchanged all the fellow's old signs, displays, calendars, etc with the new equivalent...and the owner was very, very happy to get all new stuff.

Now, doing this sort of thing I feel is in a pretty dark grey area, if you get my drift. More of a con than anything, really...but, then again, if I play devil's advocate, considering the owner was very happy getting all the newest stuff, then maybe it is ok? Is it? I'm not so sure myself....I wouldn't do it, as I am a pretty straight arrow when it comes to that sort of game....just not a tactic I would use...kinda greasy, you know?

I'd likely have gotten someone who spoke the same language the owner did, to make clear my intentions, and that Coca-Cola did not actually own the stuff, but that he did. Would he have sold the stuff to me? Maybe not...heck, I might not have even gotten in the door.

Sometimes an item holds more value as what it is being used for than what you are offering. Case in point: At a Chinese Restaurant in a little town I was picking in, the owner had an Orange Crush clock up on his wall. A real beauty, too. He had refused to sell it to ANYONE, but had sold LOTS of items from the basement, sheds, backrooms, storefront, etc. BUT,no one could get the clock from him. Price seemed to not matter. His English was not the best, and had an accent that made what English he did know sound like another language. But, eventually I figured out he simply NEEDED it. So, the next time I was there, I brought with me an old office clock the same size as the Orange Crush clock, handed him $80 and the old office clock. The Orange Crush clock came down!

Sometimes items are only hidden in a way that if you know what you are looking at, you can tell there is a potential treasure before your eyes.

I was doing garage sales in Winnipeg, and I walked up a driveway to a sale, in a neighborhood in St James. Very middle class, houses all built in the 1950s/60s. Most dealers preferred older areas, feeling there was more potential for good finds in those areas. But, I had some good finds in St James, so I continued to do sales there as my first rounds Saturday morning.

It was late morning, about 10 or 11-ish, and I was strolling, not too concerned about being in a rush. At that time of the morning I moved at a little slower pace than the hectic 7AM - 9:30AM period. I looked around tables in the garage, saw a few things, and snagged a couple Coca-Cola items, one being a straw box holder and a bottle holder for a shopping cart. Nothing that exciting, maybe $25 items at the time. I looked up to the back of the garage, and to my surprise, was a 1950s, 4 foot high, Coca-Cola 6-pack bottle sign nailed to the back easily 9 out of 10 condition..and there was a bottom of another sticking out from beneath it.

My heart quickened...I love advertising, and loved Coca-Cola stuff even more...not to mention it tends to bring bigger $.

The owner was busy talking with some other garage salers. I patiently waited, and while I was waiting I started gazing around the garage.

Hmmm...the walls were tin....and they all seemed to be made of sheets of 3' x 4' sheets..with rounded corners....and red on the edges of the quickly dawned on me....


I finally got to talk to the owner, and made them a fair offer on the 2 visible signs, and made arrangements to come back after the sale was over to discuss the purchase of the other signs that lined the entire garage. I also immediately got to work removing the two visible signs, to remove the only obvious indications of the treasures that were essentially right there for all to see, yet invisible.

I spent the rest of the day elated, and pondering where I was going to get the cash to buy what was roughly a hundred signs or so...especially when they might be ones worth $300+, so I'd have to pay in the $100 range, each, to be fair. I'd have to take them all down, and deal with slowly selling them, and try not to flood the market. Plus, being upside down, I did not know what shape they were in, but I had my fingers crossed that they were in similar conditions as the two narrow ones I purchased.

With all this going around in my head, still, I went back to the house in the early evening.

Upon closer inspection of the signs on the walls, and ones that reached beyond the ceiling into the attic space, I realized that all but one had a little issue....

The woman's husband had cut 6" of the bottoms of ALL but one of the signs before he nailed them up as the interior wall!

*POOF* - Value GONE.

Any sign with a chunk missing was a tough sell at the time..and, really still is.

I bought the one good sign, though it was maybe an 8 out of 10, condition wise. As it turned out, the woman's husband had worked for the local Coca-Cola bottling plant, and was in charge of hauling all the old advertising and such to the local landfill. So, he had access to tons of sheets of tin...former signs, many new/old stock, and at the time he was working there in the 1950s/60s, only a few years obsolete, and thus, just good usable tin.

I bought other items from the lady, and listened to how they used the signs.....4' x 8' porcelain signs as walls for pig stalls, buried in the driveway at their cottage to create a base for the gravel on top of the soft, wet ground, old NOS Coke trays used to death at family bar-b-q,s, as paint trays, etc, etc... What would now be $1000s of dollars worth of Coca-Cola items, destroyed.

All horror stories to me.

In conversation, it came up that their son lived very near by, and he, too, had used these same 3' x 4' Coca-Cola signs to line HIS garage!


That is, IF he didn't cut 6 inches off each one like his father had....

So, arrangements were made to go to her son's place.

When I got there, I realized he was the sort of fellow who did lots of mechanical work in his garage. His kids, too, had done and were doing lots of welding, body work, etc, there, as they were growing up.

Things like throwing hammers, screwdrivers, etc, against the wall, tearing holes in the tin, rough housing, causing bodies falling against the thin tin walls, etc, etc, etc.

I could tell immediately that this 40+ years of abuse had seriously damaged about 50% of the signs, which, again, were nailed face down, covering all the walls.

Definitely 50% were going to be what I'd consider too rough to get any decent money for. Might be stuff you sell for $20 to someone to nail on their garage wall or rec room. No collector would shell out serious money to buy one.

He had also insulated his garage. He did it properly, first lining it with plastic, then nailing the signs over top of the plastic.

Every sign I pulled back to examine had a surface that resembled a extreme case of acne, maybe even worse. Bubbles of rust, flaking paint, and water were scattered across them all.

There is a problem with a heated building that occurs when you combine rain, humidity & snow typical of Canadian Prairie seasons. You see, with the condensation of the opening and closing of a garage door, letting in billows of cold air, condensation occurs, and moisture can become trapped between certain surfaces at various times...surfaces such as plastic and tin...

They were all a total loss. Not worth tearing a garage apart, for certain.

*sigh* So close to a huge treasure trove, yet so far.

Oddly enough, I am sure these signs showed up on the market 10 years later...from a dump picker. I think the property changed hands, and it seems someone either gutted or tore down the garage, and they tossed out all the signs. Being signs that are now worth easily $600+ in mint condition, what had been essentially mint, though now somewhat creased signs, were selling for $75 - $250, despite their missing the bottom 6"! I still would have a problem asking more than $125 for one missing that chunk, but, hey, more power to those who managed to sell them.

I have bought quite a few hidden-in-plain-view things, especially signs. Porcelain (enameled) signs, as an example, can have been painted over, and the paint easily removed with paint stripper. (Before you attempt this, make sure you KNOW it is a porcelain sign, or you will end up with a bare piece of metal). I have bought a number of signs in this state. Problem is, unless you are familiar with edge hole patterns, shapes, or can see different levels of lettering/designs typical of the enameling process underneath the paint, you will have no idea what sign it is. Compound that with the fact that you really have NO idea what condition it is in. Paint can fill in scratches, chips, fading, etc. Plus, some companies, after taking over a competitor, painted the old firm's signs over with their advertising, to conserve money, or until they could be replaced. Prior to painting they sandblasted the porcelain. Shell did this to North Star signs when they took over North Star Oil in Canada.

So, you are "buying blind." I have done well buying blind, and I have overpaid when buying blind. I bought a 1930s Coca-Cola kickplate (a sign used at the bottom of a door) that was beautiful after I removed the paint. Same goes with a 1950s Coca-Cola Palm Press (a sign used at the height where you would push a door, a foot above the middle, on the side.) Bought blind, paid $40, and when stripped it revealed a $400 near mint condition sign.

On the other side of the coin are purchases such as a Pepsi kickplate I bought right off a Chinese Restaurant's door...and, funny enough, a restaurant where a local nostalgia collector's club met weekly, counting among its members several serious advertising sign buyers.

It was -25 Celsius (-13F), with a windchill, mid-winter. I paid $40 for the sign, blind, as it had been painted over several times. Then when I went to take it off, I realized there was screws across the MIDDLE of the sign. I struggled with the NINE screws, digging the paint out of the slots of each one, and eventually resorting to drilling out the heads of a couple, and starting and stopping my progress as customers came and went.

My fingers were a touch numb after that.

And, when it was stripped, I found it was scratched all to heck.

Win some loose some! I did also end up buying a few other signs from the restaurant's basement, and off an old door in the back. So, it worked out ok in the end.

So, don't discount that ugly painted vase, done in that horrible speckled paint. Take a look at it with a knowledgeable eye. Is it a shape that Weller used? Or maybe Roycroft? Tiffany?

That chunk of metal on the wall may not be some piece of scrap tin, it may be a 1920s Coke sign & that scrap of cardboard nailed over a hole is actually a rare Kodak camera sign. The sheets of cardboard lining that backroom shelf in some store, they may be old signs, and well preserved.

Look close, is that amateur acrylic painting done over an old master's oil painting?

Who knows what you will find, you just need to recognize the treasures hidden right before your eyes.


  1. I've been enjoying your writing. And, I'm glad you raised the issue of ethics. in my opinion, using the borrowed uniform goes beyond grey. Even if the restaurateur was satisfied with the transaction, that does not justify the false pretenses.

  2. My feeling as well. Defintely dark grey...falling into black. Will raise the issue of ethics in furutre postings as well.