Stafford: Avid collectors value knowledge as well as price

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

In writing about collectors of antiques, journalists avoid the term “antique collector,” which can leave the false impression that the collector is an antique.

Because both Buzz Jackson and John Bartley are, well, experienced collectors, I want to go out of my way today to avoid any confusion on that issue.

(Insert smile emoji here.)

Jackson, whose first name is Harter, says he has been involved in collectibles since July 29, 1963 – the day he was born.

“Literally, my mother went to an auction, bought the stuff she wanted, and then went to the hospital to have me.”

Bartley, who turned 73 on Friday, says his first memories of collecting extend to elementary school, “when we used to go to the rockpile on the playground and bring favorite rocks home.”

He got more seriously involved in the 1970s when, after collecting his wife, Margie (with a hard g), the two began collecting insulator glass from telephone and telegraph lines.

They soon discovered what collectors of anything discover: that the variety of permutations in color shape and nearly everything else is endless.

They also long ago learned to live with another fact of collector life that Jackson confronted when he found a Ty Cobb autographed baseball bat in a garage sale on Selma Road in Springfield.

Because while Jackson sold the bat for a handsome profit over the 50 cents purchase price, it was far short of the six-figures brought the same year by the very same kind of bat just because Cobb had used in a game.

“Always the bridesmaid,” said Jackson, “never the bride.”

Bartley says he, Jackson and others stick with (or maybe are stuck with) collecting because they have our species’ “hunter-gatherer gene,” perhaps in a more active form.

That gene sends collectors on different paths.

Jackson says he has always focused on “just small items,” for a slapstick and practical reason: “I never met an old furniture dealer that had a good back.”

Having collected and pared down his inventory time and again over the years, he now constantly carries around a collection of the images he’s most recently taken a shine to on his smart phone – things he has not purchased.

Among them are ornate and brilliantly colored displays of long gone Springfield businesses: People’s Outfitting; the Champion Plowing Machine; and Thomas Manufacturing, makers of hay machinery, harrows, grain drills and lawn mowers. There’s also a bottle from Springfield water dealer M. Spangler, a crock from John G. Kramer Meats and Produce on Clifton Ave., and a picture of Buckeye Plow sulky sold by early Springfield industrialist P.P. Mast.

He recently did buy one item from an auction of the late Springfielder Mary Ballentine’s collection: A box of 100 cigars made by C.H. Deckert’s Short Line cigar company, which operated at 33 S. Market St. (now Fountain Avenue) in Springfield sometime in the 1870s.

The cigars weren’t on his bucket list. He just didn’t know they were out there.

“You never see a 152-year-old cigar, and you never see a box of 100,” he said.

“I had no idea we had any manufacturing of tobacco” in Springfield.”

One is the need to be able to walk through the Bartleys’ North Hampton home – a factor that led the couple to donate a couple of thousand locally made bottles of yore to the Heritage Center’s collection.

The second limiting factor is skyrocketing prices, which have collectibles selling in auction houses instead of estate sales and have driven some collectors away from hunting grounds they once so enjoyed.

The one item Bartley picked up from the Ballentine auction was a coverlet – a blanket woven on a 19th century loom that used a punch card system that anticipated early computers to produce intricate color and weave patterns.

He was particularly interested in this coverlet because the corner-plate identified it as having been made for Drusilla Cost, the wife of George Cost, who was instrumental in helping to organized the Reformed Church in North Hampton, where the Bartleys live.

“He and a group of other fellow from Troy and Springfield (also) got the charter to make the Springfield-Troy Turnpike,” which left Springfield on Shrine Road, then connected with what is now Ohio 41 into Troy.”

(Similarly, Jackson would have said “no cigar” to the box of C.H. Deckert had they not been made in Springfield.)

Both say the Internet has greatly changed the hunting and gathering of collectibles because it makes information once learned over years through books bought and sold available at the touch of a cell phone. “It really levels the field for the common stuff,” Jackson said.

But that still leaves some space for those who have been around.

“For uncommon stuff” – and when there is nothing available online -- “you need connoisseurship,” Jackson said. “You need a good eye; you need a lot of knowledge.”

Collectors like Jackson and the Bartleys tend to value that knowledge as much as any price.

“Other people enjoy the selling of an item,” Jackson said. To his peer collectors, “selling it for a profit is merely validation of our judgment and our knowledge” – words he spoke in the manner of a connoisseur.

Haughty as that attitude might seem, it also demands a respect for others driven not so much by price but for love for the objects – and of the collecting game.

A case in point: Having waiting decades to buy an 1862 pocket watch presented to an officer in the Union Army’s Second Rhode Island, Jackson sold it to “a gentleman (who just) had to have it.”

To do otherwise would have been wrong.

So, what is this man born to collecting looking for now?

A journal published in 1765 about the exploits of Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War.

“That book is out there, and I still would like to get a hold of it.” Bartley’s goal is a little more personal.

“One thing I would just dearly love to find” is “an old billhead or advertisement or something” from the Dialton auto garage of Shorty Helfrich.

“I never knew my grandfather,” he said, “but there’s all sorts of stories about him.”

Of course, the two collectors hunter-gatherer gene will always have on the hunt for that something just a little bit different that they don’t know is out there – the Holy Grail of collectors, however antique they may be.