Ephemeral Assays – the Paper Trail


If I had five seconds to ask two questions about life, they would be “From whence?” and “Where to?” Same with paper ephemera. Where on earth do you get it, and what in heaven’s name do you do with it once you’ve got it? Paper is great for collectors because they know what they want and how much they will pay for it, and most antique dealers and booksellers can handle the occasional good piece that comes their way, but full-time pursuit and dealing is pretty specialized. It requires a lot of hunting, winnowing, processing, and marketing. The word is out about paper, especially at auctions, and it’s getting harder to make the big scores that can sustain this career choice. On the plus side, house call purchase prices are still fairly low, the gene pool is deep, you attain a highly efficient degree of retail display verticality (a bucket of nicely packaged paper totaling hundreds of dollars takes up the same shop or show space as a musty $19.00 deco hamper), and you’re in a niche market with universal appeal.

Ask an ephemera dealer how s/he got started. In my case, I used to buy dollar box lots at the tail end of auctions, including those loaded with the paper detritus of an individual’s life. Much of this is dreck, such as banking records, but there’s usually a good amount of family history in there which future genealogists would surely like to see saved. A lot of the older ephemera from the first half of the last century has little monetary value, but these items were created in interesting ways for interesting purposes. They come down to us from an innocent, unhomogenized era, and have defied the odds of survival in doing so. I couldn’t bring myself to discard these things, which led to storage problems, so I packaged the saleable pieces and box lotted out the non-garbage remainders at other auctions in the hope that someone else would spare them from the dumpster. I bumped along in this slightly bemused and barely profitable mode until I had a $5.00 auction purchase epiphany which appeared in the form of two thirty gallon garbage bags filled with the early paper of a future bank president. I was able to trace his life without any voice-over narrative. As a young man around 1928 he made modest investments in mid-western oil wells and western mines that went bust as soon as the Great Depression hit. These certificates and high-pressure missives were nicely decorated with oil rigs and mining equipment, and probably made more for me than they did for countless investors. After that debacle, our young man contacted hundreds of firms that marketed get-rich-quick schemes with a fervor that foreshadowed his future predominance in the world of high finance. There were full color pamphlets and catalogs (the lion king of ephemera) for advertising stilts, store punch-cards, fountain pens, soda fountains, novelty items like nudie knives, radios, popcorn machines on portable advertising stands, thermometers, and just about anything you could think of, all in perfect condition and in their original envelopes. I stayed up all night absorbing them till the robins told me to call it quits. The better examples sold to specialist collectors at book and antique shows for several years at an average of about $40.00 per piece. One telescope catalog collector up from New Jersey begged to come home and look through whatever I hadn’t brought with me, and repeat customers would run way back to my full booth as soon as the doors were flung open at future shows. What I couldn’t have known then is that the days of such auction finds were numbered, and that I would have earned ten times more for this stuff by selling it online years later.

Thus bitten, the next step is to see what ephemera reference books there are, attend paper shows and auctions, join an organization like the Ephemera Society of America, and perhaps learn at the feet of a master. Thus schooled, it’s time to journey into the wilderness alone to test your mettle and perfect your techniques.

Hunting ephemera at general auctions is a very hit-or-miss affair. Many auction halls don’t bother with it at all. Others don’t understand it, and if auctioneers misstated the nature or importance of pottery or furniture in the same manner they’d be hooted off the platform. The only thing funnier than a worthless beer flat of religious hymn books or Currier & Ives calendars or Etude music magazines failing to get a single bid is when somebody pays far too much for them. I know many antique dealers and even booksellers who have been burned by paper so often that they’ve learned to avoid it assiduously. For those auctions that don’t have an aversion to or ignorance of paper, you often find box lots arranged by category. One can usually tell if these lots are first time to market or if they’ve been picked over already. For example, if you scope out a groaning table of Life magazines with no Marilyn, Ali, Beatles, or other standout covers present, you’re not in Kansas anymore. If the auction print ad uses the words “paper” or “ephemera,” bring extra cash. Serious, well-advertised items such as a batch of good Civil War letters seldom go under the money these days.

The secret to success when it comes to general auction paper lies in the preview process. Arrive early, or, if possible, the day before. (True ephemera auctions require a whole day, though you often have the aid of a printed catalog.) If you can’t preview adequately, sit as close to the front as possible. There have been times when I arrived very late and just outbid everyone else on the boxes of ephemera which caused the most excitement, but this is risky business as you may be bidding against the uninformed or against the determined collector who doesn’t have to worry about resale value. On one occasion innumerable boxes of alphabetized files from the career of an ancient social studies teacher came up. It took a long time to preview them and others gave up, but five or so were quite valuable, being chock full of ephemera on Native Americans, canal monographs, etc. I must mention verticality again. When you buy a big box of postcards or a van full of books and paper, you’re getting a lot of stuff for the money. And all kinds of great things can be hiding in there. When you buy a rocking chair in need of repair, there are no mysteries. You’ll spend hours fixing it up, and it may or may not sell for a small profit in your lifetime. If it’s a Hummel figurine called “Sensitive Hunter” or something, you know within twenty bucks what you’ll get for it someday. You know who your three Hummel competitors in the area are, you have to worry about authenticity and hidden repairs and breakage, and you have to have this around your house until you sell it. Give me the virgin forests, hidden ravines, deep fishing holes and swarming exotic game of ephemera any day!

In addition to the Power of the Preview, another admonition is Let the Buyer Beware. All the chicanery of auction houses and the antiques field is refracted by the multiplicity of surface planes and undulating folds inherent in rag and wood pulp products. It pays to know what’s going on around you. Several years ago I was acrobatically extended over a tall narrow box of Boys’ Life looking for Norman Rockwell covers. Ten mags from the bottom I found a huckle of early Stanley tool catalogs that I eventually sold for hundreds. Hours later they got to this part of the heap. The auctioneer was trying to signal his pal up front to pay attention, but the guy was chatting away and didn’t notice that his hidden cache was about to be knocked down. The fix was becoming obvious, so the auctioneer had to let it go for a few dollars. When the burrower realized he’d missed out a moment later, he looked around to see who the naive buyer of a bunch of boy scout magazines might be, in order to make a lowball offer on the tool catalogs. It’s also a good idea to check the lot you’re interested in periodically, to make sure that expensive trade card or whatever didn’t somehow leap from one box to another or even right into a pocket. I heard about a guy in Boston who bid thousands on a loose lot of stamps for one very valuable specimen that disappeared between the preview and the bidding, and the auction house did not give him a refund.

Other more standard auction advice also applies to the pursuit of paper. Calculate ahead of time what you can reasonably expect to make on an item, and don’t let auction fever sway your estimates. Try to pick up some things that you can turn over quickly. Learn what’s hot and what’s not. Listen in on free appraisals during the preview. Avoid entangling alliances because there are usually too many variables. Get to know the runners. Go over and ask them to put stuff up when your bitter rival starts heading for the bathroom (just kidding, sort of). Roll with the punches. I’ve paid $700.00 for a box of faraway local historical photos and papers I fully expected would sell for one tenth that price, and I’ve paid one dollar for a huge amount of 1920s architectural greenhouse drawings I would have spent $500.00 on. Look for unexpected opportunities, stay frosty (as in alert), and make mental notes for future reference. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of buying history, we are doomed to repeat them.

Where else do you find good paper? Yard and estate sales provide the occasional score. Some outfits that run estate sales are willing to unload all the books and paper for one money days before the cutthroat event even begins. Estate lawyers can help along these lines too. Targeted newspaper advertisements sometimes get your foot in the door without the competition breathing down your neck. Dumps are clamping down on bin diving, though I was reading the other day about a growing company that cleans out garages and attics. Many of their franchise holders take advantage of the free spoils policy, and the article included a photo of a guy in overalls (if I recall) holding up a valuable comic book that went quite high on eBay. I work on a commission basis with a good plumber friend, and my brother’s best informant is a Roto-Rooter man. There’s probably even some valuable ephemera laying around your own house which may or may not have enough sentimental value to keep it there.

When you reach the tyrannosaurus level, like a certain colleague of mine (we’ll call him “T”), you no longer have the time, space, or inclination to deal in lower-end ephemera. T displays at a book and paper show almost every weekend, following the circuit. He prefers those where he can set up the night before, allowing time to shop around. T has a great customer base, and he knows his merchandise, so he can simply walk the aisles before the regular crowds arrive, buying low and selling high. He can double his money on a $500.00 broadside with just one long distance phone call. He has the confidence to buy an old bicycle poster all in pieces for hundreds, have it professionally restored, and sell it shortly thereafter for thousands. T also buys entire estates full of paper and books. When I first met him he said he’d just bought a house one state away for $85,000.00, which I thought was pretty cheap for that county, but he meant just the paper in it! He finds things I can only dream about, like a captain’s trunk full of 1850s clipper ship cards and related NY to San Francisco transportation ephemera. A few years ago he purchased a barn-full of boxes that came from a rural New Hampshire lawyer’s office. The lot was sold for the first time in the 1970s, and it changed hands a couple of times before he picked it up for $5,000.00. Obviously, the standout items had been skimmed, but even some of those he was able to buy back separately after the sale because the previous owner didn’t know how to market them. Most of the boxes had not even been opened, however, so he was faced with the monumental task of wading through them one at a time. The amount and variety of ornate nineteenth century letterheads and billheads alone was staggering. There were thousands of old deeds (which will hopefully find their way back to New Hampshire some day). And there were loads of hidden treasures. T opened a boring, nondescript ledger book late one night and ended up with a lapful of early, unusually indecent cabinet cards. These are of the type most highly sought after by serious erotica collectors. “Were they French?,” I asked. “The poodle was, anyway,” came his reply. One can picture the proper small town Victorian lawyer squirreling these away in such a hiding place. After years of handling boxes in alternately broiling and freezing self-storage units, T bought another house near his own in which to sort and store all this stuff. Separate rooms are reserved for different types of subject matter. Someone asked him how his new house was looking and he said, “Frankly, I don’t have very high hopes for it.” T is tired of auctions with a capital “T.” Besides the trickery and all those wasted hours waiting for the books and paper to come up, he often finds himself competing with his friends and customers or being asked to enter into cooperative arrangements with them. He particularly doesn’t like those auction houses that allow consignors to bid their own items up, which most do by the way. T says he makes ninety percent of his mistakes at auctions. He does use them to unload mass quantities of less than stellar stuff, however, and I haunt these whenever possible like a sucking remora follows a shark.

To bring us regular ephemera fanciers down to earth for a moment, there is one final paper trail, and that is serendipitous discovery. True ephemerons hide well. Awhile back I purchased a box lot of books, one of which was that ubiquitous A through B free first volume of a supermarket encyclopedia offer. I think it was called The Encyclopedia of Collectibles. Flipping through the pages very quickly, a crisp yellow and red Big League Chewing Gum card from the 1930s worth $30.00 fell out from the baseball entry under the Bs. I bid on a dreaded old regular encyclopedia set at auction not long ago because I noticed the tiny tip of a silver certificate poking out, and that one volume alone was some departed soul’s hiding place for ten or so more. My favorite, though, is another little coincidence that got me interested in ephemera early on. I was sitting high up in the corner window of a major research library plowing through some books for hours on end, and time was running out. I’d left one large tome that appeared as if it hadn’t been cracked open in twenty years for last because it didn’t look helpful. Turns out it contained just what I was seeking. At the very end of this research session a curious piece of paper fell out and spiraled down in the waning golden twilight. It turned out to be a learned mini-essay on, and tribute to, ephemera, published in the 1970s by some eccentric down south. It is multi-colored and quite beautiful. He likened ephemera to his other passion, which was fireworks. He told of the print run, some five hundred and fifty or so if I recall, and of the vault where a certain number were archived. I doubt if they’re still in that vault. How many have survived? Less than a third, I’ll wager, and half of those accidentally alive like the one I found. Maybe fifteen will still be with us in excellent condition by the year 2100. I believe in the severest punishment for taking anything from libraries, but surely this was different. It didn’t belong in that book or in that building. Some hurried researcher left it there years ago by accident. Any staff person finding this on the floor would have thrown it out. Though not really worth any money, this is my favorite piece of ephemera. I’d like to reprint it in full, but, like all good ephemera, I re-lost it some years ago. I know I’ll find this printed May Fly again when I get down to the right archaeological level in the Mesozoic carbon heap that is my office, and it will be reprinted some day as a farewell column in this series like the finale at an ephemeral fireworks display.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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