Inside Joseph Lentini's Center City salon, SignaCurl, partitioned trays hold small treasures like antique eye cups, lighters, hand-carved soapstone, Czech glass, gold and silver charms, and glass bottles.
The collectibles hang on a wall, salon-style, a few feet from the hair-washing station where Lentini works some product through the tight curls of a regular client. Another client waits his turn on a red-patent-leather loveseat as the stylist explains his reason for wanting to get rid of all the tchotchkes he has been collecting for the last 35 years.
"I've changed," he says. "I'm into reduction. And I'm going through the economy like the rest of us."
Going through the economy has a lot of people looking around at their furniture, their art, their jewelry, and their collectibles and wondering how to turn these items into quick cash.
Glenn Hudson, a florist, photographer and potter in South Jersey, has long used his second bedroom as a walk-in closet for more than 600 vintage garments he has been collecting for more than 25 years. He has mostly used them as props for his photographic portraits. Hudson recently took a six-hour class at the Hammonton Inn on the ins and outs of eBay, taught by a Power Seller. Now, he's begun cataloging his pieces and strategizing the best way to catch buyers' attention in eBay's very active vintage-clothing category.
"I could use the money," Hudson says. "That's the main thing." He's hoping to make a few thousand dollars to pay bills, fix up his house, and invest in some new camera equipment.
Lentini's also going the eBay route, with the help of an eBay-savvy friend, who offered to research the market value of some of his knickknacks. It turns out the L&M lighter that's still in its box is now worth around $199. Lentini paid $15 for it at a flea market. His collection of cobalt, clear, and olive-green glass eye cups could probably go for $199 a pop. He's thinking he might be able to parlay his profit toward the price of an original Warhol print.
"I never would've expected that," says Lentini, "but it makes some sense. Economically speaking, it's a good market for things that aren't that expensive. People have money for items around a hundred dollars."
That low-end market and the very-high-end antiques market might be the only ones doing much business right now.
Susan Golashovsky, a Doylestown-based accredited senior appraiser of antiques, says the middle market is dead. She defines the middle as furniture below $15,000 and smalls (decorative items, collectibles) priced lower than $5,000. Unfortunately, most of the phone calls Golashovsky's getting these days are about pieces of furniture that aren't moving. "People think they have something that's worth money because it's large," she says.
In the last six months, the calls she receives in which the caller's objective is to unload an heirloom as quickly as possible have gone from one a week to one a day. "People are calling and saying, 'Can you help me sell? Will you tell me if it'll sell?' " she says. "They tell me flat out, 'I need the money.' "
From talking with colleagues in other parts of the country, she knows it's going on in Texas, Connecticut, and California, too.
Golashovsky has changed her first question from, "What do you have that you want me to appraise?" to "Why do you need the appraisal?" to gauge immediately whether she's dealing with someone who is desperate. "I won't take their money," she says. "I tell them to send a photo of what they have to an auction house. If the auction house is interested, they might have something, and if so, I tell them to call me then."
Alasdair Nichol, head of Samuel T. Freeman & Co.'s department of fine American and European paintings and sculpture, traces the sea change to the beginning of this year.
"The latter half of last year, people were sitting tight because times were uncertain," Nichol says, "but since the beginning of this year, I've found that people are really selling because they have to."
Freeman's is receiving more general inquiries. "It's not a sudden outpouring," says Nichols, "but it's certainly noticeable."
On the flip side, this may be the best time for people with a little cash to pick up items at auction for a veritable bargain. Freeman's, like auction houses all over the country, is adjusting estimates. "It's a different world," says Nichol.