From The Trenches
Vol. 36 No. 1: Polly doesn't know
I'm not much of a public speaker. In fact, there are days when I'm not much of a private speaker either. I'm a big fan of solitude and quiet.
So when I was asked to be the speaker at the Rapidan River Relic Hunters Association's Christmas dinner party, my first thought was: Where did anyone get the idea I can string three cogent, conversational sentences together? Certainly not from me.
My second thought was that it was months away, and I might get, say, run over by a train or have won the lottery and moved to Tahiti by then, so why not? Three months is as good as forever away.
Predictably, forever came around. Oncoming trains and winning tickets did not.
And you have to hand it to those cagy fellows in the Rapidan club. The Christmas dinner is the one meeting at which spouses are in attendance, and I suspect the selected topic of the talk—Victorian jewelry—was the only Civil War-related theme the club members could come up with that might forestall the fairer sex falling asleep in their soup bowls or actually requiring medical intervention to bring them out of a coma.
I'm not being sexist here. I know there are females who relic hunt and who care very much about capbox rivets, dropped bullets, and eagle buttons. I also know there are men who load the dishwasher and fold laundry; I've just never personally met one.
Civil War relic hunting is still largely a male pursuit, so I knew the Victorian-era jewelry topic was a kind and thoughtful nod to the clubmembers' wives and significant others. It might've backfired because I think I heard a couple of the guys in back snoring.
In any event, one of the excellent questions asked during the Q&A that followed addressed the quandary of selling a piece—excavated or not—that might or might not have precious gemstones in it. I underscored the importance of consulting an expert, in this case a jeweler or registered gemologist, before doing so.
It calls for the assistance of a pro. Otherwise, what if I sold a stone as a diamond and it wasn't? What if I sold a stone as not-a-diamond and it was? Either way, someone loses.
It struck me later that this is an excellent example of collecting being so much more than simply finding, buying, amassing, and selling. It's all in one's approach to the above.
The most succint collecting approaches I've ever heard were summed up thus by the late R.E. Neville: Buy the book, learn the look, don't be a schnook. Stellar advice, and I'd like to expand on it.
I also recommend getting a posse. No one can—or at least no one should—collect in a vacuum. Intelligent collecting requires all the knowledge to be gained in books and magazines, yes, but it also requires the input of fellow collectors. If I didn't have the generously given opinions of my go-to people in various fields, I'd be sitting around like a stunned parrot who knows only three words: "Polly doesn't know, Polly doesn't know ..."
In my case, a jeweler (God love him) is crucial to my posse, but your mileage may vary. Given the questionable food many collectors consume when out on buying, selling, and digging forays, a gastroenterologist would probably come in handy. And if you're even thinking of hunting on illegal property, it might be wise to first have in your posse a lawyer, a bailbondsman, and a friend already on the inside named Tony Bagels or Bennie the Claw.
In all seriousness, the value of surrounding yourself with people who know what you don't cannot be overstated.
Another approach to collecting I've developed is what I call the Rule of Three. If I pick up something and look at it three times, I should probably seriously consider buying it. If I ignore the Rule of Three, I'll go home, think about it some more, get an ungovernable case of nonbuyer's remorse, and contact the seller to find that the piece is gone—it happens every time. It's absolutely uncanny.
Unfortunately, my Rule of Three must have turned into something akin to a poker player's deadly tell. When a staff member at my favorite junk shop recently saw me crawling around under a kitschy mid-century gossip bench doing a condition check for the third time, she said, "That's three, honey. I counted. How ‘bout I tag it sold?"
It's now sitting in my kitchen.
I once explained the Rule of Three to a relic hunter who laughed and said that he applies a variation of it out on the field. If some sixth sense keeps calling him back to a spot three times, he knows there's something there. "And," he said, "there always is."
Another bit of advice. If you aren't genuinely excited about a piece before you purchase it, don't. That lukewarm feeling is probably the fondest you'll ever be of it. With collectibles, strong affection can grow to love, but indifference can lead to comtempt. Not to mention one more piece taking up room in the back of the closet.
On the other hand, if your heart and your bank account are in agreement, don't hesitate. Even if others don't agree. That gossip bench? The publisher rolled his eyes. The circulation director declared it to be the furniture equivalent of Ipecac.
Me? It makes me smile every time I look at it. There is no finer compliment to a collectible.
My last bit of advice: Three months is not forever, and an oncoming train never shows up when you need one. —Ed.
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