Jewels In The Rough

By Peter Dorr

ISLANDIA, NY — February 16, 2014

There was enthusiastic chatter by collectors, sounds of clinging sterling silver and barely a price that went untold, but at this year’s annual Winter Antiques Fair in Islandia, NY, not everyone was sold.

“It’s a pain in the ass,” said Larry Bukhen of Wantagh, an antiques dealer with 40 years experience in the business. “There’s too many jewels, not enough real antique dealers here.” That seemed to be the common sentiment among the vendors that showed up selling anything but what you would find in your grandma’s jewelry box.

Lately antique jewelry has become the hottest commodity for sellers trying to make somewhat of a profit in a time when the economy is suffering. Those who stick to selling the typical furniture, glassware, tools and other antique goods are falling on hard times.

“I’m winding down to the end of my life, and so is the business,” said Richard Schwarz of North Merrick, an 88-year-old who has been selling antiques for over 50 years. “Financially I make 50 percent less per show than I did 10 years ago. It used to be very lucrative, not anymore,” said Schwarz, while grasping onto a wad of singles from the days sales. “I can hardly make expenses.”

Elizabeth Benjamin of New York, who now only specializes in jewelry sales, started off her antique business selling everything imaginable 13 years ago, but then things changed. “10 years ago I realized my bread and butter money was coming from jewelry,” said Benjamin. “By 2008 when the biggest recession hit, everybody wanted to sell jewelry whether they knew a damn thing about it or not.”

We are in a time where the economy has forced people to spend less and it has caused dealers to ask less because things simply won’t sell if the price is too high. “That’s the name of the game right now, any business could tell you that, even Bloomingdales,” Patsy Dougherty said as she cleared off her table of bargain jewelry at the end of the day. “The inexpensive and real high end items are what sell right now,” she said, “the in-between is what nobody wants.”

When money is an issue, certain restraints need to be placed on collecting habits. “People are very aware that we have come to an age where less is more,” said Mary Meyers of Dix Hills, a passionate vendor and collector of all types of antiques. “But for me personally, if I can lift it, I want it,” she said with a smile as big as her assortment of thousands of jewelry pieces for sale.

But the reliance on buying low-end items might stem from the new generation of buyers entering the antique collecting market. “This generation is growing up where if their parents weren’t involved they’d have no interest in collecting,” said Andy Desena of Stony Brook and owner of Sayville Antiques in Sayville. “If you grew up with antiques in your house you will like antiques, but if you didn’t, you won’t even know what an antique is.”

This years Winter Antiques Fair attracted a wide range of collector’s, but most of them never lifted a penny from their pocket and left empty handed. “I watched someone just before talk to a vendor for a half an hour, and then walk away without buying anything,” said Schwarz.

James Strebel of East Moriches, who has been selling antiques for 40 years, likes to refer to those kinds of buyers as tire kickers. “They look around and never buy anything,” he said, “but then you got the collectors who go because they need a serious fix.”

Sheila Pekale of Merrick, the event organizer and owner of Elias Pekale Shows Ltd., which is responsible for managing over 36 years of antiques fairs across Long Island, realizes that not everyone can afford to spend money at the fairs. “Sometimes people come and they spend hours here and don’t buy anything, but this is also entertainment, it’s the community that makes it all worthwhile,” Pekale said. Naturally she also encourages people to buy stuff, which is after all the reason these shows can keep running. “When you see something here you must ask yourself, do you like it? Can you afford it? Buy it for God’s sake!”

But what drives these vendors to keep collecting, to keep selling if the business is falling off? Bukhen explains: “It’s like looking at a good painting. If you have a horrible day you go look at the things you collect; it calms you down and relaxes you,” he said. “And then you think what can you sell it for.”

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