Chasing Pablo: For old-school art pickers, the thrill is fading — and so's the payoff

There's a big plaster duck in the driveway of Rick Orr's mobile home in Phoenix, Arizona. If you know Rick Orr, you know this can't possibly be just any plaster duck; it's almost certainly one of the world's rarest plaster ducks, probably worth tens of thousands of dollars and crafted by some dead guy no one's ever heard of but whose work is deeply coveted. And given the duck's placement, about halfway between the door of Orr's house and the bumper of his big, beat-up Ford van, you — if you know Rick Orr — would have to assume the duck is about to be delivered by Rick to some rich guy who's waiting anxiously for the duck's arrival. Someone who will peel several large bills from a thick roll and hand them to Rick Orr.

And you'd be right about everything but that last part. The duck is inestimably rare, and it is on its way to the home of a Phoenix gazillionaire. But the rich guy won't be paying thousands of dollars to Rick Orr — who's spent his whole adult life schlepping rare artifacts from other people's driveways to the homes of wealthy collectors; whose lifelong knack for finding fine art in dusty attics is so renowned, it's the subject of a new documentary film — for the plaster duck. He'll be paying Orr a couple of bucks for fixing the duck's beak. Because Orr, who has made his living for nearly 40 years hunting for treasure among other people's trash, currently makes money as a handyman for the rich people to whom he used to sell million-dollar paintings.

If he's lately reduced to repairing expensive lawn ornaments, Orr is still known among the art collectors and dealers who've heard of him — and they are legion — as the King of the Pickers. At the height of his game he was, according to Benjamin Storck, an art dealer in Palm Springs, California, "the single most impressive finder of fine art and important furnishings in the country. Perhaps in the world. He was the picker."

Rick Orr relaxes among mid-century treasures, some from his own stash, at Red Modern Furniture in Phoenix.
Jamie Peachy
Rick Orr relaxes among mid-century treasures, some from his own stash, at Red Modern Furniture in Phoenix.
Orr's own version of Three Wise Men, the Picasso painting that started it all.
Jamie Peachy
Orr's own version of Three Wise Men, the Picasso painting that started it all.

Orr prefers to think of himself as a treasure hunter, but he'll cop to "picker," the term used in the antiques and fine-art worlds to describe men and women who scout out valuables at yard sales and then mark them up and sell them to dealers, who in turn mark them up again and sell them to us.

Call them what you like (and some call them vultures), pickers are a dying breed. eBay, the Internet auction site, has seen to that. As has Craigslist. And other Internet auction houses. And PBS's Antiques Roadshow.

"They're killing us off," Orr says. "Nowadays Grandma dies, and her kids put the china on eBay, and they overprice it because they saw some poor slob get a thousand bucks for a teacup on TV. Instead of sticking stuff into a yard sale for $5, they're putting it on eBay for $150. It's the death of my industry, man."

These days, the King of the Pickers would gladly trade his kingdom for a decent oil painting.

He's had them, too. Highly prized Expressionist paintings and dead-mint Alexander Calder rugs and Georg Jensen bracelets, too. Some he has found in galleries or antique stores, then marked up 700 percent and immediately resold. Most he has discovered at flea markets, thrift shops and estate sales, those halfway houses for fine art that no one recognizes: "ugly" paintings he buys for $50 and resells for $50,000.

It's that Picasso Orr remembers most, though: It's untitled, though commonly called Three Wise Men. It's the painting that ignited his career as a picker, in 1979. He thinks about it every day while he's out treasure hunting, hoping he'll find something as rare and beautiful as that painting, which has an estimated value of $20 million, and which, at that estate sale, was priced at $500. The story of the painting that got away is the backdrop of Orr's new no-budget movie, Picking for Picasso, about the fate of the American picker. Both the movie and Orr's story have a happy ending, although neither narrative may be entirely true. At the moment, Orr isn't saying.

"What is true," he says, patting the plaster duck's head as he heads toward his truck, "is there might be treasure out there today. And I'm going to go find out."

Time was, finding treasure at tag sales and junk shops was as easy as getting into your car and heading for them. Michael Robertson, who did most of his own picking for the antique shops he once owned in Phoenix and San Diego, recalls having to get up at four in the morning to stand in line at better estate sales, which Robertson calls "a kind of an indoor yard sale, where usually the homeowner has died, and everything in the house, even the aspirin in the medicine chest, is for sale."

"It was insane," he recalls of picking's glory days. "The estate company would open the doors to the pickers, and they'd charge in. Leaping over sofas, knocking each other down. I'd see Rick in that line, usually toward the front, and he'd just calmly walk through and point to things. 'I'll take that and that and that.' He had a good eye, and he was polite, but I think people were put off by him. He's very intense and quiet, and — how can I say this nicely? Rick doesn't really look like most other pickers."

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