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By Charles Lam
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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.”
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 Galleries 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’s been a great friend—another service eBay can’t provide.”
But being a good friend doesn’t pay the bills. “I’ve got to start making money again,” Orr says. “I can’t just keep existing. I need a Plan B.”
Actually, Orr has a Plan B, although he’s not quick to admit it. He’s secretly hoping the little homemade movie about his life will wind up on the film-festival circuit, generate some buzz and land him some Hollywood dough. Maybe some film mogul will option it and reshoot it with actors, and Orr can live off royalty checks.
The story (as told by Orr himself) goes that, while Orr was scrounging around, trying to make a living picking in a post-eBay world, he was approached by a couple of college kids who wanted to make a movie about his life. Orr declined, but the film students kept after him until he finally relented. On one condition: He’d do all the filming himself. The young men agreed, and a few months later, Orr returned their camera and the several “rolls of film” from which Picking for Picasso was culled.
The direct-to-DVD film, in which Orr is the only person seen, is riveting in a serene, sluggish way. Orr chats amiably about picking while driving around town in search of treasure. He looks straight into the camera that’s wedged onto the dashboard of his van and reminisces about his glory days: the time he found a stack of rare Helmut Newton photos; the 350-year-old Francesco Ruschi painting he bought from a slum in Glendale, Arizona, and sold for six figures to a museum in Italy. We watch him broker a deal for a small, unimportant painting; purchase a William Saltzman canvas at an auction; drive past his recently foreclosed house in Scottsdale, Arizona (“I came home last week, and they’d changed the locks,” he tells the camera. “There was a note on the door from the sheriff telling me not to go in”). There are lots of shots of Arizona desert rolling past his van window, stark footage of jumbled junk-shop interiors and an endless parade of Orr’s many head rags.