article # 118
by Lazar Freidgeim  
(click on photos to enlarge image)


Like an orthodox Jew follows his traditions I, too, rise every Saturday morning as an employee goes to work and get ready for my good luck hunting, the hunting with an unpredictable result - I go to garage sales. My company almost never changes as well as the activity. Two marvellous friends of mine usually join me. One of them, her name is Alla, I have known since the time we built sand castles together. And to be more precise, we are the second generation of family friendship. Alla studied humanities in Russia, worked in a museum, but she is also a born actress always thrilled about life and those little surprises hidden in garage sales. We have been appearing together for so long that some habituťs of Saturday hunting think we are a married couple. Acquaintance with the other companion, Irene, who is rather reserved, doesn't go back that long but is not limited to garage sales only. Irene became my chief adviser. She even succeeds now and then in preventing excessive filling of home bins. Occasionally one more companion - solicitous Lydia joins us. Garage sales help her to replenish the stock of gifts for her great-grandchildren who live in Moscow, Russia.

We already know the main features of a flea market and Parisian book bazaars from wandering through the pages of classical literature in our school years. Back then I could feel that special search on my fingertips, I could smell it, I even got an allergic asthmatic cough from the old book dust. The memory of Russian war and post-war markets is especially far from romantic. The sellers so desperately wanted to make some money, they were always short of, on hardly practical things that we tried to avoid those spots as much as possible except in case of necessity.

Flea markets and Swap meets are distinctive American versions of a second hand market. But a garage sale is a totally different phenomenon. This buy-sell thing can hardly be called traditional trade. The prices are normally so low that the profit is not worth the time spent. But here we deal with American mentality. Things pile up, become obsolete, on the other hand they are still too good to be trashed because somebody else can use them. No second hand store however would accept them, thus the things are offered on garage sales, sometimes even for free. People coming to a garage sale for the first time are surprised to see that sellers do not come together on a designated spot but lay out their goods in their garage or directly on the lawn in front of their house. This is a scattered private market. A potential buyer goes or drives round these places in search of hidden treasures. Newspapers advertise garage sales; therefore the route and the methods of search can be planned in advance. Estate and moving sales are especially interesting. There is literally everything for sale here, and you might run into really expensive items.

On garage sales everyone follows their own interests. My friend Lydia tells me that it is only possible to visit two sales in one day because you ought not to miss the very beginning -either 8a.m. or 9a.m.- otherwise everything is bought up. But I donít care when to show up. Things I buy other people donít even bother to look at. Leaving home I always ask myself: "Well, what is going to surprise me today - Faberge or Tiffany?" When I find something nice, the pleasure is similar to that of a hunter, a fisherman, or a mushroom picker. You can certainly buy fish in the supermarket. But does it taste the same as the fish caught with your own hands before dawn?

I am rummaging in a box filled with table service items. I see an old tablespoon tarnished to blackness and almost grown with mould. The shape is classically elegant. I take the spoon out of the box and look closer. "84" solid silver, a double-headed eagle - the symbol of the supplier of a court yard of Imperial majesty, and a barely legible inscription whose meaning can be guessed rather than read: Khlebnikov. Squeamishly holding the handle, I go to the owner and ask: "How much?" The lady with no signs of Russian origin tells me the price in a bashfully apologizing tone: "A quarter." With a happy face I come to Alla and show her the purchase: "Look, I found a Khlebnikov spoon for 25 cents!" "As for me, I donít need any," replies Alla examining a box with jewelry. After a slight polishing the spoon of the year 1885 appears a brand new condition as American people say. Even at auctions you rarely come across products of such a high quality. The "hunting" has gone right today! Now I enjoy the spoon every day.
I had been always attracted to Old Russian silver. I used to have a quite good collection in Moscow. Something of a different kind or updated I pick up here. Lately I have been particularly interested in silver items with views of Moscow, though there is very little chance to find them on garage sales. But who knows, maybe next Saturday?

Collectibles vary a lot depending on their owner. The well-known Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya collects Russian miniatures of the 18thth century. One of the most famous ballet dancers Nureyev had a rich collection of painted or sculpted male torsos in his apartment in Paris. My friend from St.-Petersburg possessed a collection of various oil lamps. Every possible thing can make a collection - clocks, locks, or samovars, not to mention traditional collectibles such as stamps, stamped post-cards, baseball cards, etc. I am acquainted with a man in San Diego who collects items nobody knows how to use. Because of indefinite subject of my collections I consider myself not a collector but rather a rag picker who enjoys possession of extraordinary old things. These things may have substantial money value or may have not. But they are supposed to reflect the time they belong to, the epoch.
There was that sale in a Los Angeles apartment where I saw an electric lamp very much alike the design of an oil lamp. The owner had asked five dollars for that but according to garage sales tradition I acquired the lamp for $3. On a bronze base there was a flawless porcelain mount hand painted a la Art Nouveau. A glass vase as if a container for kerosene (petroleum) was consolidated on the mount. Such imitations of old things were very common in the early stage of transition from old to new. Thus the basic design of the first automobiles resembled old carriages. Coming back to my lamp, its entire initial, akin, armature remained intact, and even the wire and the plug were in working condition. The plug consisted of two flat spiral V-shaped pins and bore the patent number dating back to 1880s.
Not bad at all for a desk lamp! Certainly I learned all those details later while studying the lamp at home. But my intuition had worked at the first glance.
lamp with bronze base and porcelain mount hand painted a la Art Nouveau
bronze sculpture Made by Lancere
On the moving sale in quite modern apartment I saw a bronze sculpture on a glass shelf. Not too big but fairly heavy, it reminded me of the style of Russian masters of the 19th century. A horseman holding a gun was pictured in a very dynamic posture. The perfectly sculpted details up to the forged reins. The inscription on the mount said: 'Made by Lancere'. His works are exhibited in the museums of Paris and Moscow, as well as in the best private collections. I had to pay the fixed price - 75 dollars. After a while I watched the Antique Road Show displaying among other things a sculpture from the same series of male and female Cossacks made by Lancere in the years 1870-80s.
Its estimated auction price was five to six thousand dollars. A good investment as appraisers say! It is well known that the lower the price the more time is needed for search. And the lovelier the result...
You may think that only Russian bait works for this fisherman? By no means! When it comes to good old things I am a hundred percent cosmopolitan. On a regular garage sale I see something elegant. A metal handle with a built-in transparent semi cylinder. Very beautiful, but what is this? But does it really matter? I come to the owner sitting aside. The traditional dialogue: "How much?" - "One dollar." I pay, the thing is mine now. But I cannot help my curiosity: "What is this?" The owner replies: "I donít know. I donít know why it has been bought." And after pausing a second he adds: "I donít know why you bought it." I come home, scratch my nape and have a closer look at the purchase. The very fine font on the rim says: "Tiffany & CO Makers. Sterling". The product is one of the most valued American companies. The strange thing turned out to be unique and useful - it was a magnifying reading strip. When placed on a text the transparent semi cylinder - the lens - covers several lines entirely, so that it is more helpful than a usual magnifying glass. Well, let me reiterate: but again (I hope you remember) - it is not merely utility that counts.
One warm California night I had a weird dream. I was a guide in my private museum for my valued guests. The exhibits varied immensely, they could not be classified by time or place of manufacture, by material used, or by their purpose. But there was one common thing about them - every piece was one of a kind, and the illogical logic so typical for dreams reflected precisely the random search for unique antiques.

A sunny morning, a green lawn in front of a house. A couple of fine china cups sitting in a box and partially wrapped in news papers catch my eyes. Usually we have to hurry up to visit as many bazaars as possible, but here we need to slow down and stop. We carefully examine the entire box and find an almost complete coffee set - seven cups with saucers and six cake plates. A fine hand painting, a flawless condition. Irene, excited about the coming deal passionately inquires for the price (in plain English she is bargaining). A few minutes later I pay thirty dollars, and we carefully wrap every piece in the same old newspaper. The fans of the "hunting" who happen to witness the deal shrug their shoulders with surprise: Is it possible to pay that much money on a garage sale? Now the set placed in the china cabinet pleases my eyes. The cups have only one inconvenience: they are so delicate that they can be touched by hands or with lips with great caution. When I showed the set to an antique dealer, whom I happen to I know, he told me that was not one of the kind but still a very good handiwork from the years 1920-1930s, appraisable at 50 to 60 dollars for each cup with a saucer.

Americans do not have a very long history. Things made in 1940-1950 appear ancient to Americans. Showing such an item the owner would respectfully tell you: "This is antique, itís Retro." The European mentality draws the line between truly antique and new at about the end of the 19th century or associates the new era with 1917, the year of the Russian revolution. Occasionally, though, we say about the things not made in archaic times - this is a real rarity.
The search on garage sales is a "terra incognita", which name cannot be pre-guessed. Once I was in West Hollywood and came across a yellowed cardboard booklet the size of a quarter page with various coupons inside, part of them had been already cut out. The cover said: WAR RATION BOOK FOUR. After some confusion I realized that I was holding American ration coupons from 1944. The Russian immigrants who survived in the war with Germany are often surprised to hear that most Americans are poorly educated about basic events of World War II. But at that moment I felt ashamed of my prejudice that Americans had not confronted the hardship of wartime. Now, 60 years after the war, I have, in addition to Soviet ration coupons and other material evidence of those evil years, an American ration booklet, even with an address on it, the address which had not been changed in 60 years.
lbooks and American ration coupons from 1944
My hands often itch to buy old typewriters. Sometimes I find a specimen which I can hardly associate with a typical typewriter. Or old hand operated sewing machines. Or aesthetically enjoyable Art Nouveau and Art Deco books. Unfortunately I am limited by my living conditions; there is just no room for all that. I almost can hear a reproach of some retirees not involved in the mania of collecting: "We would like to have his worries." And indeed, this passion is not crucial for living at all. But I appreciate this lovely side of American every day life with great pleasure.

Another Saturday is coming. Will it be Faberge or Tiffany this time?
Lazar Freidgeim
- 2009 -
English version translated by Lydia Aleksev
Lazar Freidgeim
Lazar Freidgeim, engineer, research fellow. He was born in Moscow, the capital of Russia, and has lived there most of his life. Since 1991 he lives in California (USA). In 2003 - retired - he began to publish his articles and essays in magazines, newspapers and online. His hobby is collecting old Sterling silver, mainly from Russia. His main interest is silver with images of architectural monuments of Moscow.