A Profile of Russ and Karen Goldberger

By Harold Hansen

Reprinted by permission from Northeast Antiques, 2002.

From the Editor: Throughout 2002, many antiques dealers will participate in antiques shows across the US. Northeast travels widely, and endeavors to meet as many people as we can. After a very troubling six months, the antiques world seems to have found its bearings. The enthusiasm among sellers and buyers Northeast witnessed during 'Americana Week' in New York City confirmed this turnaround. In March, and in April, a full schedule of antiques shows affirms a renewal of public confidence.

Among the select antiques dealers who will participate this March in the Wilton Historical Society Antiques Show - one of the nation’s most prestigious shows - are Russ and Karen Goldberger of Rye, NH. We’ve known Russ and Karen for many years. We believe you will enjoy this interview.

Q: Russ, you've been in business for 25 years, a very long time. How did you get started - was it something you started as a part-time interest, perhaps as a collector? What was your initial field of interest?

A: Yes, 2002 is our 25th year in the antiques business, first selling quality antique decoys and then expanding to a full line of American high country furniture, accessories, and folk art, with emphasis on their original painted surface. We love the dry, mellow patina and the feel of the grain that comes through an old piece that has its original surface.

You develop an eye for this over time, and it was a comfortable fit for us to extend our knowledge of painted wooden decoys to other painted wooden objects. Even weathervanes, another specialty, fit well into our sphere of expertise because of their three-dimensional form and dry surface.

I began selling decoys to the antiques trade in Cincinnati 25 years ago when I worked for Procter & Gamble in marketing/brand management. The original motivation was to generate funds to support my growing interest in collecting decoys. As my knowledge and taste grew, it outstripped my pocketbook. Cincinnati was not located within a duck flyway, so there were few native decoys in the area. I made good contacts in Michigan, the nearest duck flyway where quality antique decoys could be found, and discovered that antique dealers and their customers wanted them. I became a wholesaler and traveled to antique shows within the half dozen large towns surrounding the city every weekend.

I became well-known to the Midwest antiques trade. As I helped antiques dealers become more familiar with decoys, they planted the seeds of our subsequent activities in the antiques marketplace. Also, Procter & Gamble is a wonderful place to learn about consumer marketing and, before long, I was expanding our decoy business to collectors nationwide. I began offering lists of decoys for sale in 1979, supported by advertising in various decoy collectors’ publications. These lists have since expanded to full-color catalogs, which we mail twice a year to about 1,000 customers.

We began building a database of customer contacts, first by hand, and then by computer about 15 years ago so we can match customer wants with objects we acquire. We have a large website - www.rjgantiques.com - now in its third generation, and this has brought us a greatly expanded customer base.

Q: If I remember correctly, aren't you from the Midwest originally? How did you and Karen decide on living in New England, New Hampshire specifically? As a result of a visit?

A: Karen also worked for Procter & Gamble. We met 20 years ago, moved to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter where I worked for Smith-Kline Beecham (as a senior director of brand management).

During the mid-1960’s I was a captain in the Air Force stationed at Peace Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH. I joined Procter & Gamble right afterwards.

This lead to a familiarity with coastal New England (I am from Long Island and was raised near the ocean, so this was a perfect fit.) We began to vacation every year in mid-coast Maine and did a lot of antiquing (yes, we got the collecting bug too.) I also would bring antique decoys with me, which we sold to antiques dealers up and down the coast. So again we knew a lot of the dealers in this area.

After seven years at Beecham, and with a large and growing decoy business, we decided to make the break from corporate life and go into the antiques business full-time. Because the decoy market was more limited than it is today, we expanded into American country furniture and accessories. We remained in Pittsburgh one year to put the business together, all the while evaluating homes in coastal Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

We settled in Hampton, NH first, and are now in Rye where we have built a house and gallery.

Q: What is the scope of your interest in antiques .. the various specialties you offer? Is your love of decoys something that stems from your childhood? What is unique about decoys? Can you tell Northeast more about the books you have authored on the subject?

A: We offer a full-line of American high country painted furniture and accessories, as well as folk art and quality decoys. We like clean, relatively untouched items with a strong decorative appeal.

We try to select things that have decorative merit beyond their functionality. After all, we and our customers surround ourselves with our ‘treasures’ and they should make us happy beyond just their intended purpose.

How did it all begin? - My family on Long Island did not collect decoys. In fact, they did not collect antiques until I had left home for college and the Air Force. Nor did they hunt.

However, we did spend a lot of time on the water; I always had a power boat and sailed competitively. Decoys reminded me on my origins, particularly in the Midwest where there was plenty of water, but few ducks. Later, I learned to appreciate their purely American origins (they are a Native American "invention") and the history associated with them.

In 1993, a fellow decoy dealer and friend, Alan Haid, and I published Mason Decoys - A Complete Pictorial Guide. The Mason Decoy Company was in Detroit from 1896 to 1924, and sold largely handcrafted decoys around the world.

This hardbound book continues to be the definitive review of this important chapter in American sporting history. It was published by Decoy Magazine, and is available from me (personalized and autographed) for $49.95, plus $3 shipping.

Q: I remember once we talked, and you spoke about the fact that you gear your inventory toward "advanced" collectors, people who know what they want, and who appreciate why these examples of Americana .. furniture in original paint, decoys, weathervanes .are special. What is your advice to people as they ponder whether or not to spend appreciably more for something is "fine" and/or "documented"?

A: All serious collectors seek the very best examples of whatever they specialize in. This is a natural motivation as collectors mature and gain confidence in their ability to discern good from mediocre (or worse).

The market places a premium on the best material, so by definition it is expensive. However, this is where the action is; this is the hardest to find and commands the highest prices. It brings the most enjoyment and is the easiest to trade, sell, realize a financial appreciation, etc.

This observation is not original; you will hear it from many diverse sources - buy the best you can afford; don’t make quality compromises; decide what you want and then stretch if you have to. Over time, these objects will be the ones you have the most pride in, enjoy the most, and will see the most obvious appreciation in their values.

Q: Can you usually provide provenance for the things you sell? Do you think this is important?

A: We provide a full written description of anything we sell with a perpetual guarantee that the object is exactly as described. If we know some relevant provenance, we share this with our customers. Often, however, provenance gets lost and the object has to stand on its own merits.

Q: Do you feel comfortable talking about whether buyers should look at things as "investment grade" .. is it appropriate for people in the antiques business to talk about antiques as an "investment" medium, in addition to whether it is functional or decorative in their homes?

A: I can appreciate the term ‘investment quality,’ but we rarely use it. No matter how well collectors buy, there are probably better investment vehicles available to them. I think a collector’s objective should be to live with an object for a number of years, enjoy it, and when it is time to move on, at least recover their cost. In such an event, that means they are able to have the use and enjoyment of an antique at minimal or no cost. After all, surrounding oneselves with antiques brings much more daily pleasure than reviewing one’s investment portfolio.

Q: From our observations as ‘Northeast’ visits better shows throughout the Northeast, I believe you and Karen are among the most seasoned dealers that we encounter. I know you participated in the debut of the ‘American Antiques Show’ in New York City in January. Any thing you might want to say about this experience...and ‘Americana Week’?

A: The new American Antiques Show last month was a tremendous first effort by the American Folk Art Museum. Attendance was strong and buying was intense. This was the best show we have ever had in New York City, and it answered those questions being raised by many about new dates, new location, New York City post-’9/11’, the economy, etcetera.

We could not be happier for the experience, and we think the American Antiques Show will only grow in importance.

Q: We know that you are participating in the ‘Wilton Historical Society Antiques Show’ – we’ve seen you many times in past years at this event. Can you tell me about why the Wilton shows are important - and why you are eager to be part of them?

A: Marilyn Gould is one of the very best show managers. She travels to a wide range of other shows to promote hers. She advertises extensively and draws people from throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic. She cares about her dealers, and has done a number of nice things for us which we would call ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.

Her two one-day shows are good, solid, and efficient; we can drive down from Rye the day ahead to set up and be home the following night.

The upcoming two-day show is a different format - fewer dealers, larger booths, a prettier show with carpeting throughout, and probably more important offerings. This is one of the better shows on our calendar.

Q: Over the last decade, there has been a noticeable shift away from "traditional" antiques to the "decorative look" at many of the antiques shows throughout the eastern US. I guess the emphasis has been on "color", "form", "reasonable quality", "shabby chic". Is there too much Martha Stewart at work today in the marketplace?

A: As I said earlier, we like to offer objects with a strong decorative statement beyond their pure functionality. Why shouldn’t things have some personality if we want to incorporate them into our lives and homes?

However, I am not endorsing a ‘look’ per se. Recall we start by suggesting that collectors seek out quality with minimal restoration.

Don’t buy a wall of decoys because it is fashionable; buy individual decoys one at a time because you like them and then seek out ones with purity of condition, color, and form. Eventually, you will cover your wall with a collection that you have built over time. Each piece will recall a memory of where you found it, and that is one of the beauties of collecting.

Q: Do you think antiques dealers that have a strong signature (decoys, Masonic items, architectural elements, cast iron banks, et al) have the best chance to succeed these days? Is "focus" important?

A: We try to help collectors refine their collecting objectives. Rarely do collectors know where they want to go over time, and they can spend a lot of money buying things they later have little interest in.

We do not impose our tastes; that is up to each individual.

However, once a collector has some sense of what they like and don’t like, we then try to help them express that. This gives them the best chance to develop a truly fine collection.

Q: While you live in eastern New Hampshire, this hasn't stopped you from going to Nashville .. did you exhibit at "Heart of Country"...what was that like...can an Eastern antiques dealer match up with collecting tastes in the Midwest, South or West?

A: We have done the Heart of Country show in Nashville for about 10 years. It has always been a good experience for us; we have found many new customers from the South and Midwest who like the type of things we offer, and we generally buy well.

Q: Russ, how do you go about finding things to sell ... auctions, other dealers, from customers who want to de-access, house calls?

A: We buy wherever we can find the quality we are after. Having been in the business for a long time helps. We have many customers who go through life’s changes (children go to school, divorce, change in focus or interest).

Good relationships can work both ways, and our customers know we love to reacquire our own merchandise for trade, outright purchase, or consignment, depending upon the circumstances.

We also buy from other dealers at show setups, at auction, on the Internet, and sometimes from house calls.

We spend as much time sifting through leads and looking for things of our quality standards as we do selling. As you know, it is getting increasingly hard to find good things.

Q: How do you select the shows you want to exhibit at? What is the criteria you follow?

A: We have reached a point where we are cutting back on the number of shows we do.
We would like to do only shows that are ‘events’ - shows where collectors want to travel some distances because of the quality of the offerings.

Our schedule is now down to about 15 shows a year, including three decoy shows.

This means we are in New York City in January, Nashville in February, Wilton in March, Philadelphia (Navy Pier) in April, York, PA in May and November, Maine in July, New Hampshire in August ... still an active schedule.

Q: Can you tell me when you first became interested in "e-commerce", setting up a website. Did you experiment with e-auctions? What have you learned about how to successfully operate a website? Can quality items be sold this way?

A: The Internet is just another way of meeting and selling to potential customers. It will never replace ‘hands on’ contact, but it lends itself to allowing collectors with specific interests to find supporting dealers.

The more specific the interest (i.e. decoys) the better.

Many collectors live outside of the mainstream antiques marketplace in the East. The Internet has allowed them to find sources.

You can get burned; we certainly have. But it is not much different from buying out of an advertisement in an antiques publication. In fact, on the Internet you can get good color photos from many angles, if you ask for it.

Our advice - check out the dealer before you buy, even talk to him/her and see if you feel confident. Feedback ratings on eBay are useful. Get a written receipt with full description regarding condition and restoration.

Q: Are you and Karen already thinking about the New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Association show in August?

A: A show of the magnitude of the one sponsored by the NHADA in Manchester, NH, requires a lot of forethought and planning. Yes, we have begun to put a few things away for this and the other big shows we do. As dealers, you have to.

Q: Any final thoughts you would like to share with the readers of Northeast?

A: All of us recognize that these are uncertain times, but we remain optimistic about the future of the antiques business. All signs are positive - the January shows in New York City were strong for most dealers, the auctions produced many records and high gross sales, 2001 was a very strong year for us - and 2002 has started off at even higher levels.

We have enjoyed the energy of this business and, in particular, the many long-standing relationships that we have developed over the years. We always look forward to working with other collectors with similar interests to our own.