How to Become an Antique Dealer: Collect Something

My first summer out of high school in 1967, I worked with a friend delivering furniture for a used furniture store in Brookline Mass. You don’t see honest to goodness used furniture stores any more. They all seem to be antique shops now. Well for that summer, two scrawny high school kids struggled couches up flights of stairs and dumped the drawers out of bureaus trying to get them into bedrooms.

Arriving to work one day, there among the many pictures crowding the store walls was one of two women dressed in flowing medieval gowns on a patio overlooking a glen. Leaning against the balustrade was a nymph like figure playing a flute. I found myself drifting into this bucolic scene.

Paul, the owner of the shop, said it was by Maxwell Parrish. In a conflation of Maxfield and (Norman) Rockwell he got the name wrong as many people do. He told me he’d read that this Parrish guy had recently died and the Vose Gallery in Boston was selling the estate of original oil paintings. Paul sold me the picture for five bucks or two hours work. Shocked aren’t you.

I went to the Vose Gallery. They sat me in a small room and proceeded to bring the paintings in one by one like a fashion show. I felt like a fraud since, even though the paintings were only a few hundred dollars, as you may have noticed I was only making $2.50 an hour. At around painting number twenty I was getting tired of nodding appreciatively and authoritatively so I told them they could stop. They were very polite about it. I think they had begun to suspect that I was more of the $1.50 sort of customer. They gave me the names of several collectors of Parrish’s “printed material.”

I left the gallery feeling as though I had entered another country and in a way I had since those two simple actions, buying that picture and visiting that gallery, would lead me into the profession I now inhabit. I knew I wanted to see and own more Parrish illustrations and in so doing I began to feel what I call “the collector’s ache.” That feeling is the anticipation, the desire, and the slightly neurotic sense of fulfillment that comes with collecting.

I called and made an appointment with one of the people on the list they had given me. It was eighty-year-old Horace Taylor. I will not go into my visit with Horace since that is an entire story in itself. Briefly, however, Mr. Taylor started collection Parrish in 1920 when you got the magazines at the newsstand and calendars free at the hardware store. He had almost everything there was to have and some in multiples. Now I wanted a collection as great as Horace’s collection.

I hit the flea markets.

What more is there to say? As many who read this know, if you go the country flea markets in the summer and then city antique shows in the winter it doesn’t take long to notice the mark-up. During the next several years, I tried to find a “real job.” I washed dishes, unloaded trucks, drew plans in an architectural firm, and painted houses. During my off hours, I bought a thing or two at Sunday fleas and resold them to Boston dealers. And, when the accumulations of stuff in the apartment became difficult to maneuver around, I rented an occasional booth at an antique show. Like the realization that the woman you have known all your life as a friend is the one you are really in love with, I soon had to acknowledge that buying and selling old stuff was a lot more fun and profitable than all those other jobs. I hung up my paintbrush, found an inexpensive shop in Cambridge, and emptied my apartment into it. And, as they say, I never looked back.

Ironically, once I became expert in Maxfield Parrish I discovered that the first print I bought from Paul was not by Parrish but a period imitator of his style named Atkinson Fox.

Written Chris Osborne

City Lights on Ruby Lane