Antiques expert Ken Farmer, a regular on Antiques Roadshow, talks about his love of American folk art and how he got started in the business.
Ken Farmer feat
You may not recognize the name Ken Farmer, unless you follow Antiques Roadshow on PBS. He’s one of the only experts on the popular television show with a Southern accent. And he’s the only specialist on the show who is based in Virginia.
Farmer, born and raised in Pulaski County, and wife Jane began dealing in antiques as newlyweds in 1976—when Farmer was a professional bluegrass musician in the band Upland Express (“We were medium-small big-time,” he says). By the early 1980s, Farmer had left behind careers in both music and real estate to focus full-time on antiques. He opened his own auction house and appraisal service in Radford—and now, some 25 years later, Farmer is an internationally recognized expert on antiques and, particularly, American folk art.
When did you first become interested in antiques?
I was exposed to antiques when I was in college at Emory & Henry. I rented from a lady who was in the antiques business, and she used to wake me up on Sunday mornings to help unload trucks filled with things she had bought on Saturday. My interest grew from there, and when my wife and I first got married, we started going to auctions and flea markets and yard sales to furnish our house. We were attracted to old things because we thought they had lasting value and character.
What areas of antique collection are you particularly interested in?
I’m drawn to both the craftsmanship and the uniqueness of folk art. And I love things from the Appalachian region. I love American furniture and Americana in general. And I love stringed instruments. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about guitars, mandolins and banjos.
What is the most valuable antique that has passed through your hands?
We sold an English painting for $550,000 several years ago. It was a beautiful portrait of two young ladies, hanging in a woman’s house up over the sofa. At the time, I promised I wouldn’t sell it for less than $10,000. The owners had identified the artist as “F. Leighton Bart.” “Bart.” is the abbreviation for “baronet.” And his name was Lord Frederic Leighton.
When I got the painting back here, I started looking for things by this artist—this was such a great painting. I became quite excited because some of his paintings bring over a million dollars. So, we raised the estimate on the painting [laughs] and wound up selling it to a gentleman from Australia for $550,000. It was a life-changing thing for [the painting’s owners].
Many people love antiques, but few make it their livelihood. How did you turn your passion into a business?
Well, I think it was a combination of desire and necessity. When my wife and I moved to Radford in 1980, I had a real estate license. Then the economy went into a recession, and you just couldn’t sell real estate. I took what then was a passion, and almost like a second [job] already, and turned that into a primary occupation. It was something that I loved, and it seemed logical to start doing appraisals and selling things for people who had estates—because that was a service that, at that time and in this region, a lot of people did not specialize in. It was a combination of a love of antiques and necessity.
Why did you choose to locate your auction house in Radford?
Because this is where our children were born, and this is where we had put down roots. Radford is not the epicenter of antiques, admittedly, but as it turned out, it is kind of like Kevin Costner and the baseball field—if you build it, they will come. And the way the market is now, the whole world has everything at their fingertips. Our catalogue auctions are live over the Internet. Overall, if you consider the fact that my family is more important to me than my business, I think I made a good decision.
How did you become involved with Antiques Roadshow?
Fourteen years ago, I belonged to an antiques research database service called Artfact, and when the show was looking for some people to help out with Southern venues, Artfact recommended me. I came to Durham the first year, and after I did a couple shows the second year, the producer asked me if I would do more of them. I have a general knowledge—we sell a lot of different categories of things here at the auction house, and through the years I’ve been exposed to a lot of different things. So, if need be, I can help out at a lot of different tables. One time this summer, I worked the tools and scientific instruments table, because the person who normally did that couldn’t come.
Has the show driven business to your auction house?
Absolutely. It’s a nice feeling to be considered an expert, and to have the gift of public television and the endorsement that comes with that. It’s also a lot of responsibility. I think you’re called upon to do a 125 percent job, rather than just an adequate job, because you have the responsibility of representing an institution that has so much credibility.
Have you ever accidentally undervalued an item?
More than once [laughs]. The one thing in this business that you need to realize is that nobody knows everything. Recently, we sold a Russian icon for a lady who had a family member who had been in Russia in the 1930s—I think he was in the military. I guess back then you could buy early Russian things that would be considered national treasures now. He bought two icons while he was over there. And we estimated each one of them from $100-300. I mean, we’ve sold a lot of icons, but it just didn’t register with us that these were that much better.
An aggressive marketing campaign, and getting things out on the Internet, produced a tremendous amount of interest. And as we got closer to the auction, we pretty much knew they were going to go into the thousands, but we didn’t know how much. One of them brought over $5,000, and the other one brought $131,000. The buyer wound up being a London dealer in Russian objects. So, in that case, curiosity didn’t help us because we didn’t really know to be curious. And the Internet kind of saved us.
W hat makes Virginia distinctive as a place for finding, selling and collecting art and antiques?
Virginia is one of the earliest settlements in this country, and we have had centers of furniture and decorative arts production since the 18th century, and some objects produced in the 17th century. There is just a tremendously diverse array of things from all different periods that are available in Virginia. Virginia is known for the 18th-century furniture made in Williamsburg and Norfolk. And there were furniture makers that produced objects in Richmond, Petersburg and Lynchburg. And as you get out to the “Great Wagon Road,” the Valley of Virginia has a wonderfully diverse group of things available: pottery, folk art, very distinctive furniture from all time periods. Eastern Shore furniture was very distinctive, and we’re known for that. Then, starting in Winchester, down even towards Abingdon, there is a whole different group of things that have a Germanic background—some Scotch-Irish—but great furniture, folk art, pottery.
What is the most impressive fake you’ve ever seen?
Oh, there’s no contest there [laughs]. We had a Tiffany silver cocktail set—it’s called the dragonfly pattern—from a great collection in North Carolina. I mean, this guy had collected really great glass and silver and very great, high-style 19th-century furniture. And his most prized possession was this Tiffany cocktail set. It looked great to us. But it was actually a fake that was made in the 1970s in New York. Supposedly there was a craftsman who made these. They figured out a process to do an electrolytic casting of these things and then finished them off by hand. It was made from sterling silver, but the marks on the bottom of the pieces were somewhat contradictory. Tiffany’s pieces from that time period were hand-hammered. If you look at a close-up photograph of the surface of a piece of silver like that—which had dragonflies and all types of very finely crafted insects applied to it—you could look at the field itself and actually see the hammer marks. And there weren’t hammer marks on the field of this particular set.
When you’re in the auction business and you start marketing something, if you’re off somewhere, your good customers are going to let you know. One of our good customers called and said he thought that this was a fake that was made in the ’70s. I sent pictures to one of my Roadshow colleagues, and he confirmed my worst fears [laughs].
Any advice for people who want to become antiques collectors?
Well, if I were starting out, I would pick a category I really loved and learn as much about that as I could—there are lots of books and even more information available online. And, if I was going to study a specific category, I would look for a mentor. Find somebody who has experience with that particular type of item, and ask questions. Most people in this business are happy to share their knowledge. And handle the stuff. You can look at [objects] on a computer screen, or you can see a picture in a book, but you’ll never know whether something is fake or real until you actually handle the objects and look at them. And even then, you’ll probably get fooled sometimes [laughs].
What object have you found that you really treasure the most?
When Jane and I first got in the business, there was a lady in Wythe County that some people referred to as a “picker.” A picker is somebody who buys stuff out of people’s houses. She calls me and tells me she’s got this pie safe, and I go over there and I see it. And it blows my mind. It’s a Wythe County pie safe, with what they call “urn and tulip” tins [decorating the doors of the pie safe]. It had the original finish, and it had multi-colored paint on the tins. The urn and the grape clusters and the stars and the tulip, and everything, were painted.
Now, this woman would make you court her if you wanted something really good from her. Lots of times I would go there and take my guitar and a 12-pack of tall Budweisers, and we’d proceed to drink Budweisers and I’d play Stanley Brothers songs, and she’d sing this high mountain harmony with me—I mean it was great, I loved it [laughs]. I think that’s how we wound up trading on the pie safe.
It’s still in our house. It’s our favorite object, and it’s my favorite story about the old way of buying from pickers and people like that...actually getting to know them. It was more than just a business transaction. That brings back a lot of good memories.