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These were losses Orr sustained with good grace. There’s an excruciatingly obvious but unavoidable irony in Orr’s life: He’s a minimalist.

“You get jaded, being in the stuff business,” he says. “I have a couple of cool things I’ve kept through the years because they had stories behind them that meant something to me, but when business took a dive, I sold them off. My rule is, ‘Everything is for sale.’”

No one knows this rule better than Shannon Narron, Orr’s 27-year-old daughter. She lived with her dad through her teen years and remembers coming home to find the sofa gone on more than one occasion.

This Anthony Palazzo painting is among Lesko's favorites of 
Orr's finds
Courtesy Kenneth Lesko
This Anthony Palazzo painting is among Lesko's favorites of Orr's finds

“I grew up in a gallery of constantly rotating furniture and artwork,” Narron says with no trace of bitterness. “Nothing stayed long. If he got a good price for it, it was out the door.”

Narron remains bewildered, she says, by her father’s ability to survive without what she considers essential comforts. “I always ask him, ‘How can you not have a toaster?’ I go to see him, and he has this great piece of art, but there’s nothing to sit on.”

Orr used to prowl not only in Arizona, but also far beyond. A weekly haul from Las Vegas always netted him an unusual amount of midcentury-modern furniture. He knew on which day each thrift store in Los Angeles and Orange County put out new merchandise. Most shops held items for him based on what he’d bought from them the last time he was there. Once his van was full, he’d head home.

For Donald Moger, who co-founded the Long Beach Antiques and Collectible Market in 1982, pickers like Orr are just part of the antique-sale food chain. “They’re kind of a covert group,” he says. “They come in, and you don’t know who they’re buying for and exactly how they’re operating. But they’ve been part and parcel of our business for 27 years. It means more business for our vendors, and what’s good for their business is good for our business.”

“I have always been mystified by the value of things,” Orr says. “I’ve sold quarter-million-dollar paintings to guys who just bought a signature on a piece of old canvas. I’ve sold valuable paintings to people who have said, ‘Can you hold the check until payday?’ I’d want to say, ‘Are you shitting me? You’re spending next week’s paycheck on a painting instead of food?’ But I’d be like, ‘Okay. Whatever. I’ll hold your check for $10,000.’”

Those days are long past. Earlier this year, one of Orr’s most reliable clients, an art collector in Maui, returned to Orr a canvas he’d been considering for some weeks. “The guy loved the painting,” Orr says, “but he said, ‘I can’t buy it because I lost $10 million on the stock market last week.’ You know you’re in trouble when billionaires are passing on your stuff.”

*     *     * 

Art dealer 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 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.’”

Toni Dieb, who has been selling at the Orange Circle Antique Mall in Orange for more than two decades, thinks the pace of modern life has slowed the demand for collectibles. The kids of today’s antique shoppers, she says, won’t be inheriting musty, overstuffed estates like their parents and grandparents did. “The young market coming up is totally different,” she says. “They’re not necessarily interested in sterling silver or fine china. Everybody’s at top-notch speed, and if it doesn’t go in the dishwasher, pretty much they don’t want it.”

The county is a dead-end for pickers. “The guys who are picking for antique hardware—door handles and faucets and like that—are taking it straight to sellers in Orange County,” Robertson explains. “The stuff is already so expensive once it reaches Orange County, it can’t be marked up by pickers and resold.”

Joel Hamilton, owner of Phoenix’s Antique Artisan Marketplace, blames Antiques Roadshow, the 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 $7.”

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