Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Building Collections – Never Stop Looking

Looking for remnants of America’s transportation past may be disheartening on occasion.  For those pursuing the most elusive wooden wheels, it can sometimes feel like all of the important pieces have disappeared.  In truth, there are a number of amazing collections as well as individual vehicles scattered all over this great country.  Some are highly publicized.  Some are lesser known.  Others – and elements related to those – are still waiting to be discovered.  One thing that’s become increasingly essential to 21st century collectors is the need for careful discernment and understanding of a particular set of wheels.  That ability to look at every detail of a vehicle and clearly understand what it has to say is of immense value. 

At the risk of sounding like I’m overstating the obvious, some of these pieces are more valuable than others.  Pushing that point a little farther down the road, if you’re buying a set of wheels and expecting it to grow in value at the same rate as extreme examples you’ve heard, seen, or read about, it’s important to understand what drives those better sale prices.  Otherwise, we run the risk of consistently ending up with buyer’s remorse.  Ultimately, not every good-looking set of wheels will have the best return on a given investment. (Oh, and for the record, proper appraisal values are not based on list prices seen on the internet – no two pieces are ever the same and what someone asks isn’t necessarily what something is worth).    

As the antique vehicle landscape becomes more picked over and attrition wreaks havoc with other wagons and western vehicles, it’s helpful to know what’s more desirable and why.  It’s also increasingly significant to realize what defines construction features from a particular timeframe of manufacture.  This is an area that sometimes makes me an unpopular fella.  In truth, I understand the disappointment.  If a person feels they have an 1880’s brand X and they find out it’s an amalgamation of several 1920’s W, X, Y, and Z brands, it’s not necessarily good news.  Nonetheless, we work hard to deliver objective and period supportable evaluations without speculation or hearsay.  Likewise, the all-important assessment of what’s original and what isn’t continues to create problems for some.  Why?  Well, with prices on the best pieces continuing to escalate, it’s easier than ever for buyers to be tempted with doctored or less-than-honest pieces.  The old Latin phrase, Caveat Emptor, is as pertinent as it’s ever been. 

But, even if a particular group of vehicles does contain quality and desirable pieces, is that enough of an investment plan?  In other words, how do we help ensure we’re investing in the long-term growth potential of vehicles without purchasing pieces that continually duplicate the collection?  One way is to diversify the types of vehicles in the group.  Like any investment portfolio, the right mix can help look after the value of the whole.  The added variety also has potential to reinforce the intrigue of an entire collection to a broader audience, especially if all the quality pieces are connected by a central theme or purpose. 

Small stage wagons built on Mountain wagon gears were a prominent feature throughout the Old West.  Regrettably, most have disappeared which is one of the reasons we felt this piece was an important addition to our collection.

As our own collecting continues to evolve, I find myself more and more interested in helping tell the whole western vehicle story.  After all, these wheels were tied to a massive industry and there are a host of supporting elements that help fill in some important storylines.  To that point, there’s a wide array of unique or patented parts as well as early signage, tools, advertising, accessories, and design distinctions that can add to the fascination and fullness of a collection.  It’s just one of the reasons we focus on the pieces related to a vehicle’s background as much as we do the vehicle itself. 

 We purchased this rare stage wagon (mail jerky) in 2015 and commissioned Doug Hansen and his team to help with some light conservation and restoration efforts.  It had served in the rugged country around Angels Camp, California.  Our desire was to retain as much of the original patina and hard-earned character as possible.  

Special thanks to the entire crew at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota for the museum-grade work done on this 19th century stage wagon.  It's a special connection to the Old West.

Another reason to consider acquiring background elements relates to the need for authentication at every level of a vehicle.  For instance, just because the box, body, or running gear has a quality maker name attached to it is no guarantee that all of the other parts are of the same make and timeframe.  Correctly-tied period imagery, literature, and promotional materials can go a long way in answering questions while eliminating doubts about originality.  Reinforcing that point, in all my years of collecting, I’ve seen very few original brochures highlighting the full-line of Winona brand wagons.  Just as hard to locate are period images of the vehicles they built.  Why are these important?  Because they offer irrefutable evidence as to how these pieces were designed and used during a particular period of time.  Recently, I stumbled upon an original photo of a Winona Sheep Bed wagon.  It was one more needle-in-a-haystack find we were able to add to the rare history we’ve uncovered over the past two-plus decades.

In a nod to the significance of the sheep industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Winona was just one of a number of major brands offering these designs.  Most surviving Sheep wagon or Sheep Camp wagon photos don’t show enough detail or logos to conclusively identify a maker.  Finding this image not only corroborates the brochure promotions from the same timeframe but gives us a clear example of the vehicle in use.  That can be a valued point of historical reference for those wanting to authenticate a Winona Sheepherder wagon.

Likewise, within the past year, we came across another century-plus-old photo showing an ultra-rare, dual-labeled Moline John Deere chuck wagon.  With the help of some extensive research we did a few years ago, this wagon can be immediately pinpointed to the 1910 to early 1912-era.  It’s a seldom-seen look at the beginnings of John Deere-branded wagons. 

Elsewhere, we’ve been fortunate to uncover more original factory images – including one showing employees of the Stoughton Wagon Works with recently finished products.  Others we’ve come across include the employees and early wagons built by Carver, Ft. Smith, Moline, Piqua, Kentucky, and more.  Our series of original chuck wagon photos have also continued to grow with several hundred now in the archives.  We’re also still in the process of tracking down the maker of a Concord-style coach that may be from a different builder than either Abbot or Downing.  At this point, we know the coach was publicly shown in the West just after WW1 but, like a lot of pieces, it's left very few clues as to its whereabouts today. 

These are just a few of the vehicle-related acquisitions and research projects that make up our regular searches.  It’s our hope that what we uncover not only helps us in our efforts but also adds value to the finds of countless collectors all over the U.S.  After all, it’s the stories behind these pieces that will often boost interest while preserving some of America’s most misunderstood history.  Ultimately, no matter the vehicle brands or area of focus, one of the greatest secrets to building a quality collection is to never stop looking.  Good luck in your pursuits!

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC