By Matt Coker
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By Charles Lam
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By Gustavo Arellano
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Orr is holding out for the real thing. It’s a quest that once made him a very wealthy man—and, more recently, an extremely poor one. “I have a decent head for business, but when things were going great, I lived large,” he admits. “I’d drive by a Mercedes dealership and see a car I liked and go in and write a check. I drove a Rolls and a Bentley. I had homes here [in Phoenix] and in LA. I had huge years where I could afford to live like that. I didn’t know it would end. I figured, people will always die; they’ll leave behind valuable stuff I can buy and resell. I thought I could always make good money.”
He was apparently mistaken. Orr sold his last Mercedes, a G-500, in 2007; he needed the cash for picking. He lost his home, and he had to sell off his personal possessions as the Internet gobbled up his business, putting him and many other pickers mostly out to pasture.
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.
“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.”