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With a little coaching from Orr, it's easy to spot the other pickers: They're quiet, moving quickly through the house. They're not the gals chatting while they paw through a box of soiled linens marked "$2 each, firm!" or the fellow considering the dented cookie press for 75 cents. One picker holds up a Fiestaware disc pitcher, and his companion rolls her eyes and whispers, "Repro!" The two head for the door.
Orr is already outside, grabbing a quick smoke before moving on. He can case a house in less than a minute, pausing only briefly to touch an oil painting or squint quickly at a tabletop sculpture. "She had crap paintings marked $330," he grouses, climbing into his van. "She figures, 'OK, it's an oil painting, it's got to be worth at least $100.' It's junk. Today she's selling this garbage for half price, and tomorrow she'll end up donating it to Goodwill."
A sale around the corner offers more of the same. "It can get nasty sometimes if it's a house full of good stuff," Orr cautions. "There's a notorious picker named Michelle who will trip you to get to a wall sconce."
Picking is highly competitive. "Very few of us are friends. We don't network," Orr says, snorting out a quick laugh. "There are a couple of guys I talk to; we help each other out from time to time. But it takes a long time to form that kind of relationship. There's not a lot of camaraderie."
Orr stops his car to let a little girl on a tricycle cross the street. He waves at her as she passes, then points to a sign hanging from a nearby tree. "Yard Sale Every Sunday Beanie Babies," it reads.
"The whole damn world is selling stuff," he says. "They're living the dream, man."
Art dealer Benjamin Storck remembers the moment he suspected pickers might go the way of eight-track tapes and carbon paper.
"I was at a smaller store in Palm Springs," says Storck, who operates art and designer furniture galleries in New Jersey and Los Angeles and has been buying from Rick Orr for years. "And when the seller saw that it was me buying things, he told me everything I was interested in was already sold." Shortly after, Storck found the items for sale on the Internet for a higher price. "The seller figured if I wanted them, it was to mark them up for resale. He wanted my markup for himself. It was a very sad 'Aha!' moment."Orr didn't see the slump coming. "Then one day I got a call from someone selling a Guy Rose painting," he recalls. "I get there and the seller starts pulling out auction records and computer printouts. And he's like, 'The last Guy Rose sold for $50,000, so we want at least that much.'"
Joel Hamilton, owner of Phoenix's Antique Artisan Marketplace, blames Antiques Roadshow, the snoozy public-television series in which average Joes are told the value of ephemera from their attics. "In one episode Doris brings her cuckoo clock to the show, and surprise! It's worth $25,000. And then antique dealers get to spend the next three months explaining that not every cuckoo clock is worth that much. Yours is worth seven dollars."
Hamilton doesn't much like eBay, either. By making rare objects immediately available, the site has decreased the value of pretty much every collectible while erroneously inflating the price on even worthless junk.
Orr wishes he'd exploited Internet auctions when he had the chance. "I was too old-school about picking," he admits. "There were guys who jumped right on the eBay bandwagon, and now they're doing all their buying and selling on the computer. In their pajamas, man! I tried selling stuff online, but I thought it was a trend."
In fact, it turned out to be the beginning of the end. "Every year got a little worse until there was nothing left," Orr says. "Up until about three years ago, I could still find a $40,000 or $50,000 pick. Two of those a year, all in cash, and I was set. Now even 89-year-old women are computer-savvy, and they're online selling the contents of their basements. And I, to put it politely, am screwed."
Ken Lesko of Cleveland's Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery is even more polite. "People simply do not care about the death of the American picker," Lesko says. "Well, some dealers care. But by and large, collectors are thrilled that the Internet has made things easier to obtain. What's gone is the kind of knowledge that someone like Rick brings to this business. He could stand across the room from your painting and tell if it was a copy. Can eBay do that for you?"
Lesko, who was himself a picker for 35 years before opening his popular gallery, met Orr in the 1980s on a trip to Phoenix. "He had this little vacuum cleaner shop where he sold antiques and art. I walked in and introduced myself, and he ended up helping me find a rare and valuable Kazimierz Zieleniewski painting that I only recently sold. He's been a great friend — another service eBay can't provide."