Quandry, Gold or Dross?

The scary, little, chubby chess piece sat in the old Scottish antiques dealer’s desk for 50 years.  He bought it for a few pounds and stuck it in a drawer.  After his death his heirs were checking out his belongings and discovered the elaborate carving made from a walrus tusk.  One of them thought it might have some value.  They guessed correctly.

On July 2, it will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s. Its anticipated sale price is around $1 million.

It is a piece from the collection of Lewis Chessmen, carved in the 12th century in the form of Norse warriors.  In 1831, 93 pieces of the group were found on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis.  They now are on display in museums in London and Edinburgh, Scotland.

I read about the 3-1/2” high Lewis Chessman yesterday morning in The Wall Street Journal at my factory office.  Later that morning we had an inquiry from South America on a used threading attachment for a 2-5/8”-6 spindle Wickman screw machine.  I immediately started wondering if the attachment was a potential Lewis chess piece.  I haven’t sold a big Wickman machine for years.  I have stripped several of them for key parts, but we don’t sell much big Wickman stuff anymore.

Then came the pricing quandary.  What do you ask for a 50-year-old attachment for a machine few folks in the world use anymore?  I am blessed to have a complete one in stock and the components to almost complete another one.

I pulled a price out of my behind, $7,500.  Another member of the team objected.  He suggested that another party who was apt to also have a complete attachment available might be asking more money for theirs.  He argued that we probe the other dealer’s price before quoting our prospect in South America.  I pushed back.  To me $7,500 was a nice price for a probably useless antique that would very likely outlast me.  To me it was iron.  To him it was gold.  It’s what makes a market and attracts all those cars to estate sales.

I am fascinated by how things are valued by people.  It is also the apple pie of my business, guessing the value of stuff, believing in my judgment, but having a willingness to throw in the towel when the market proves me wrong.

If I had bought that Lewis Chessman and I didn’t know the ugly carving was 900 years old, I probably would have dished it off, made a few hundred quid, and celebrated with chocolate ice cream.  If you have a business with expensive employees, rent to pay, taxes, and health insurance bills you need a semblance of steady cash flow.  It is hard to wait for the market to discover your hidden brilliance.

I knew that the potential buyer for the seldom-coveted threading attachment might decide to run his other big Wickman longer hours, rather than schlep a heavy piece of metal 5000 miles, pay 40% duty, then find a technician to put it on his machine correctly.  Or maybe he could find a soon-to-be-scrapped machine in Sao Paolo for $1,000.  A collector can afford to wait, but a business person has tuition to pay.

I may have a few ugly ivories on my shelves – dusty, grimy die heads or screw machine manuals that Mr. Davenport may have signed.  I don’t know, and I don’t really care.  Very often less is more in business, and a visually impaired old dude like me is quite likely to trip over a vagrant ivory that falls on the shop floor.

Question:  Do you collect or throw out?  Why?

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9 thoughts on “Quandry, Gold or Dross?

  1. John Griner

    I am halfway between a hoarder and minimalist so I don’t feel any psychotherapy is required. We tend to move unused items to my junk area where they are sold, canabilized, or scrapped over a 5 year period. 20% of our building is for these items. I don’t buy $100 acme threading attachments or other bargains anymore as my staff wants what they want when they want it. I don’t pine over selling my 57 Vette for $800 or my 68 427 L88 vette for $2,000 because I needed money to get into the machine shop business. To plagiarize a Liz Taylor quote “all my marriages (and assets) were good when they started and good when they ended”. I do have some high end Martin Guitars D45, D42 etc however they haven’t sat in my closet unplayed for quite long enough yet (lol)

  2. Lloyd Graff

    Love it, John.

    I have an old railroad pocketwatch, that my grandfather who worked for the BeltLine Railroad saved. Some Eisenhower silver dollars, and white yamulkas from my daughter Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah, 32 years ago.

    1. r in nyc

      Silver, Gold, Copper, Brass & Lead are valuable metals and always worth something! 😉

      Your yamulkas are mementoes from a very special occasion in your family.
      You cannot put a price on those memories.
      God Bless…

  3. r in nyc

    I save lots of old stuff and sometimes make use of it
    As i’ve said in past posts – classic tools, gages, fixtures, components, similar etc…
    – so to answer your question i “collect”.

    Everyone talks about “collectables” and they are worth “so much”

    Saw two friends invest in a classic car and racing motorcycle, both were “very valuable”!

    But i learned from their experience and economics 101 – the price is what the market will bear, AND it is only worth something if you can find someone to give you the money!

    There is of course insurance fraud, but I digress. 😉

    My wife had a cabbage patch doll from when people were duking it out in the stores over them at Christmas in the ’80s.
    She also had some “Hummel” collectable figurines, worth “so much”.
    (and collect dust.)

    One day I went on the great equalizer – EBAY!
    couldn’t give either away for TWENTY BUCKS. 🙁

    AS i SAID:
    it is only worth something if you can find someone to give you the money…

  4. Bill Badura

    I try not to keep something unused, unless I do believe there is a reason, so I would say I am a thrower. Do have a couple collections, but not a collector/ hoarder.
    When I was a youngster, my Dad mentioned a couple of times that he would get a silver dollar on his birthday, until he was an adult. Remember thinking that they were kind of a cheap present.
    After he and then my Mom, had passed, my Sister and I were cleaning out their safe-deposit box and found the sixteen silver dollars he had told us about. We each took 8,
    with no regard to the value of each. I’m sure our kids will end up with them.
    We humans sure can be sentimental.

  5. Lloyd Graff

    One thing worth saving may be handwritten letters. Nice piece today about General Eisenhower writing his wife Mamie just before DDay, saying it might be several days before she heard from him again. The Simon Wiesenthal Center bought the letter from Ike’s son. I enjoyed seeing Eisenhower’s scrawl, and then wrote my grand daughter and hand written letter congratulating her on graduation from 8th grade. Letters can make a difference. My wife and I frequently write very brief love notes to each other if the other leaves the house before we do. They are cherished little gifts that have no price.

    1. r in nyc

      I agree Lloyd
      however, quite sadly, no one in the current generation can read cursive.
      Yes, there are the few, such as my child in a private school.
      For the most part, there is a greater chance of reading them if they were in Cantonese…

  6. fred farnell

    I am a hoarder of industrial stuff. Machines, equipment, and electronics. So far, no one’s gotten hurt by this. I always buy low, and sometimes I use the stuff. Even if I don’t, I learn from it. I study the design, figure out how it’s built and how it works, which I find entertaining and fun, and even useful sometimes. I’ve taught myself how to rebuild engines and air compressors, among many other things by learning how they work from taking them apart. Cheaper and more direct than collage.

  7. Lloyd Graff

    Hello Fred,

    You could make your stuff into a collage.

    Thanks much for your comment,



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