“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 one another 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.”

Indeed. With his trademark head rag—he has a seemingly endless supply in various shades and patterns—wraparound sunglasses and carefully sculpted, graying facial hair, Orr looks more like a Central Casting biker than a man in search of a Stickley dining suite. Think Bruce Willis without the swagger, Mickey Rourke before the plastic surgery. Pickers, one imagines, would be slender, effeminate men and better-than-middle-aged housewives with an eye for Hummel figurines, not gruff, articulate, middle-aged dudes with a droopy goatee and a gravelly voice.

The dealers Orr sells don’t care about his appearance; they want his eye for rare stuff. “You can’t buy what Rick has,” says Jonathan Wayne, who owns RED Modern Furniture in Phoenix and has bought from Orr for nearly 10 years. “You can’t train people to know what he knows. He’s an anomaly—a fair businessman with amazing knowledge about art and furniture.”

"I lived in a furniture gallery, growing up," says Orr’s daughter, Shannon Narron
Jamie Peachey
"I lived in a furniture gallery, growing up," says Orr’s daughter, Shannon Narron
Ken Lesko says eBay "can't replace the Rick Orrs of the art world."
Courtesy Kenneth Lesko
Ken Lesko says eBay "can't replace the Rick Orrs of the art world."

Orr has refined this knowledge over a lifetime. He started as a kid, growing up in Hollywood and raised by a mother Orr describes as “a hippie with little ambition.” Dad was small-time movie actor Greg Benedict (you can see him in the 1963 Troy Donahue picture Palm Springs Weekend), whom Orr rarely saw.

“My stepbrother and I would go pester this old guy in our neighborhood named Junkman Jack,” Orr recalls. “He’d go out picking, be gone for a week, and come home with these great stories and a truck full of stuff—Tiffany lamps and cool old furniture. He gave me a glimpse into a world most kids wouldn’t care about.”

Orr cared. Deeply. He dropped out of school at 15, scrounged up enough to buy a used truck and became consumed with picking. Eventually, treasure-hunting took its toll on Orr’s personal life. When he was married, he saw his wife only once a week; when he was home, he was on the phone brokering art deals. Time spent with his daughter, Shannon, usually involved camping out overnight in front of estate sales so Orr could be first in line when the house opened the next morning. Eventually, his wife left him.

He might have picked for a few more years, then moved on to something else—perhaps opened a gallery in Los Angeles or become a dealer himself—if he hadn’t spotted Three Wise Men hanging over the mantel of a spec home where Orr had come to scrounge.

“The house was crammed with all kinds of sculpture and studio pottery and fine art,” he remembers. “The sellers didn’t know what they had, so everything was priced cheap. I turned the corner, and there was this Cubist painting of three figures. Lots of bright colors. It was beautiful, and it was priced at $500—more money than I had in the world at the time. I was paying for my stuff, and this lady walked up with the painting under her arm, handed the seller cash and left.”

A few days later, leafing through a book on Spanish painters, Orr spotted a photo of the painting he’d just missed owning. “It was a Picasso,” he says with quiet despair. “It got away from me, and I’ve been chasing it ever since.”

The one about the valuable painting procured from a garage sale is an oft-told tale—and more often than not, it seems, the painting is one by Picasso. Last year, an early watercolor by the famed painter was found in an attic in Dorchester, Dorset, England. The year before, a Carolina Beach, North Carolina, couple bought a Picasso for a dollar at an estate sale. And just this past October, a Shreveport, Louisiana, woman paid $2 for a Picasso at a yard sale. “It just kind of caught my eye,” she told a local news reporter. “It looks like a woman holding a guitar or possibly a baby.”

Orr doesn’t begrudge these folks their yard-sale Picassos. “The guy was prolific,” he says, laughing. “He paid bar tabs with paintings. And then there are the copies—good ones, too. That one in Shreveport doesn’t look right to me. I’ve seen fakes, but I’m not fooled. I keep right on going.”

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