Published: February 14, 2017
Ted Hake’s first auction in 1968, dubbed a “Special Interest Auction,” consisted of nonpolitical pin-back buttons and other small collectibles. The sale offered 155 lots, each with a 75-cent minimum bid. A total of 99 lots sold and the auction grossed $193.67. There were no pictures, only text descriptions, but the success of the first auction led to his second auction the next month. Hake’s, which has since become a go-to source specializing in Twentieth Century popular culture artifacts, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The York, Penn., auctioneer provided Antiques and The Arts Weekly with a look back on the five decades so far.
What made you start selling political collectibles?
I discovered old presidential campaign items late in 1960, during my senior year in high school. I’d been collecting American coins since the age of 8, but I was so taken by the diversity, color and graphics of 1896–1916-era campaign buttons that I immediately switched hobbies. So, the answer is really twofold — a strong desire to build a collection, tempered by the relative poverty of being a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. Fortunately, in downtown Pittsburgh, I discovered coin dealer Bill Ross, who wanted to add campaign items to his inventory. Basically, I leveraged low prices from my York hometown mentor/antiques dealer Bill Rickrode into a small profit margin by selling to Bill Ross in Pittsburgh. My modest profits went into the items I deemed special enough for my collection.
Where do your collectors come from? Do they share a special bond?
Hake’s offers vintage collectibles of so many types from so many eras that the answer is “everywhere.” However, the interests of many fall into one of two categories we broadly think of as “historical” and “nostalgia.” For historical, advertising, sports and political issues are examples, and nostalgia examples include television, comic books and Star Wars toys. Of course, ultimately, personal nostalgia slowly morphs into popular culture history. At Hake’s, we are the material culture melting pot for both spheres. As a mail, phone and internet auction, our face-to-face contacts with customers are limited to shows and conventions, but judging from the warm welcomes we get at such events there certainly is a shared sense of community with our fellow collectors.
What’s the best or most interesting piece of political or pop culture you have come across?
In Hake’s Auction #192, which closed September 27, 2007, lot #1687 sold for $151,534 against an opening bid of $15,000. Included in the catalog description was this statement: “Many times, over 40 years, Ted Hake has been asked ‘What is the best thing you’ve ever auctioned?’ As of now, his answer is ‘the Mickey and Minnie display dolls by Charlotte Clark in Auction #192.’” Ten years later, that statement remains accurate. Made in 1931 of stuffed velveteen, the standard size dolls sold in select stores at 8½, 13½ or 18 inches tall. This jumbo pair — Mickey is 44 inches tall and Minnie 48 inches tall to the top of her hat flower — was reserved for prominent movie theaters, stores and occasional photo sessions alongside their creator himself, Walt Disney. Why the best? Because these dolls are quintessential classic era Disney, possessing the greatest rarity in the finest obtainable condition and executed in an outrageously exaggerated format. To me, they are iconic characters beloved by children — and a fair share of adults — around the world.
Do you collect this material personally, and if so, do you remember your first significant buy?
My original core business was built on auctioning both pin-back buttons and character/personality collectibles. I am a collector of both but always with focus. In buttons, my favorites are those with outstanding graphics, and in character collectibles my favorite has always been 1930s Disney. My two most significant buys in these areas were a pair of collections. In 1974, I purchased the button collection assembled by Joseph Stone of Toledo, Ohio. Joe began collecting as a boy in 1921 while on an errand for his mother. He spotted a discarded button in a gutter, picked it up and years later the collection exceeded 50,000 different examples. His collection became a large part of my book Collectible Pin-Back Buttons 1896–1986. In the Disney area, my most amazing buy — at Brimfield — was a single group of 48 pieces of original art created by Disney Studio artists for films spanning Snow White through Dumbo. The concept pencil drawings, pastels and a few watercolors by James Bodrero are especially memorable. Over the years, all pieces passed into the eager hands of Hake’s auction bidders.
How do you think political memorabilia connected to the 2016 US presidential election will fare?
Presidential campaign item collectors love a campaign with extremes, so 2016 measures up very well and portends strong lasting interest. While vendor or artist created limited edition buttons made during the campaign might feature neat graphics and biting satire, the material with staying power is more likely to be the officially issued material by specific state, regional or local groups to promote specific day events or coattail candidates. By its nature, that material is often made in small quantity and its rarity aids its value.
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