Unearthing buried treasure with David Wasserman.
➼ A strange-looking visitor stopped by Jake Hutchinson’s Pickers Paradise shortly after the Fairmont guitar and antiques store opened in 2011. “He had that big beard split in two, one (half) was going to the left and one was going to the right,” Hutchinson says. He watched as the man perused the shop and picked out a piece of folk art. The man paid and left, only to return a few minutes later.
“He said, ‘Hey, could you give me a push?’” Following him to the parking lot, Hutchinson learned the secret behind the man’s facial hair style—a vintage knucklehead Harley-Davidson. He got behind the bike and pushed. The customer popped the clutch and rode away.
The favor was not forgotten. “The second time he came in the store he said, ‘You’re in my circle. I want you to come to my house.’” Hutchinson didn’t know it yet, but he’d just been invited to the sanctum sanctorum of West Virginia’s antiquing scene: the home of David Wasserman Antiques.
The cozy, hand-built house on the outskirts of Morgantown is an unsorted museum of 20th century American life, a collector’s dream. Even the hinges and door knobs are antiques.
There’s a trunk at the bottom of the basement steps that, according to the faded yellow lettering on the side, once belonged to Sergeant C.G. Burton of Dayton, Ohio, “The World’s Greatest Daredevil.” Across from the trunk is a homemade soapbox derby car. Next to that, there’s a rocking chair made from cow horns.
Hanging on a nearby wall, above a cowboy-themed “Fast Draw” pinball machine, is a white T-shirt featuring the motorcycle-riding likeness of Frank Fritz, co-star of the popular American Pickers TV show. Frank has scrawled his signature on the right-hand shoulder along with a dedication: “To Dave, my idol, the real picker.”
Wasserman wears this compliment with pride. “I don’t want to buy stuff you can find in your antique guide and find out what it is,” he says. “The stuff I look for, you ain’t finding another one like it.”
The uniqueness of his finds allows him to sell them for a premium. It’s the world’s oldest business plan: Buy low and sell high. Or, as Wasserman puts it, “Buy junk and sell antiques.” This is how he’s paid the bills for the last four decades, almost since he arrived in West Virginia in the 1970s.
Playing the Angles
Wasserman grew up near the Jersey shore before running away from home when he was 15. He crisscrossed the continent for a while but eventually moved onto a back-to-the-lander farm in Roane County.
One day, while running errands in Spencer, he noticed lawn furniture, bicycles, and all kinds of other stuff piled at the side of the road for city workers to haul off to the dump. Wasserman stopped and threw it in the bed of his International Harvester pickup. He set up at the local flea market and made $800 his first day.
For a while Wasserman trafficked in tools, buying and reselling factory seconds. Then he found a handmade ebony block plane for a few hundred bucks. He decided to take a risk. The plane eventually sold for more than $1,000 at auction. Suddenly, he was in the antiques business.
Like a good angler, Wasserman doesn’t give away his favorite fishing spots. Asked where he finds his picks, he usually replies, “You know about those Keebler elves?” But the truth is, he sees things hiding in plain sight.
He’s scored great finds in people’s front yards. For years he made money reselling neon clocks he purchased off the sides of mom-and-pop stores. He also finds merchandise at auctions and flea markets, buying from people who’ve done the heavy lifting of sorting through estate and yard sales.
In the late 1990s, Wasserman invited Dick Duez, an antique furniture dealer from Bridgeport, to Brimfield, Massachusetts, for one of the town’s gargantuan outdoor antique markets. The fields around Brimfield were swarming with collectors from across the country, and everyone was looking for the same thing: a deal. Wasserman needed an edge.
On their last morning in Brimfield, Duez and Wasserman got up before daylight, walked through a field behind one of the flea markets, climbed a tree, and dropped down inside the 6-foot-tall chain-link fence. While other collectors waited outside the gate, Wasserman and Duez shopped as vendors set up. “That’s Dave for you. He likes to play all the angles,” Duez says.
Something That Will Last
Making good finds is only half the challenge—Wasserman also needs to sell. Sometimes that happens through his website, a photographic trove of his finds, or eBay. Other times he sells at flea markets and swap meets. But, many times, collectors find him through word of mouth. “There’s a lid for every pot. There’s a collector for everything out there,” he says.
While he’s happy to help collectors out, Wasserman is emphatically not a collector himself. Almost anything is up for sale, for the right price. “One time I was with Dave and he was talking to somebody,” says Hutchinson, of Pickers Paradise. “They said, ‘Hey, Dave. What do you collect?’ He said, ‘Hundred dollar bills.’”
It’s a well-honed joke, just like the line about Keebler elves, but there’s truth behind it. In the late 1980s, Wasserman and his wife, Kim, spent years building their dream home in Morgantown, taking pains over every detail from the design of the roof to the antique doors in each room. Then, a few years after they moved in, Wasserman returned from a trip to Brimfield to find fire trucks jamming his dirt road—and a forest fire destroying the woods around his home.
Fast-acting friends protected the house with water hoses as Kim wrapped neon clocks in Navajo blankets and packed the most valuable items into the family Subaru, along with photo albums and clothes for their three kids.
Their home escaped damage, but the scare shifted Wasserman’s thinking. “Back 25 years ago, there was a common bumper sticker: ‘Whoever dies with the most toys wins,’” he says. After the fire, “I thought, ‘The one that dies with the most toys is a fool.’ The fun is in the search.”
Some things hold more emotional attachment than others, though. Wasserman bought a hand-forged iron slave collar at an antiques show in Columbus, Ohio, in 1990. Judging by the size, it was probably worn by a woman or child. He’s never offered the collar for sale. Instead, he keeps it in a floor-to-ceiling display case in his home office alongside an ashtray from the Copacabana, Buddy Lee dolls, and toy robots. Whenever a new friend visits his house, Wasserman slides back the glass, removes the cold cast iron ring, and says, “It will chill you when I tell you what it is.” He likes to see the weight of history come crashing down.
Still, he figures he’ll sell it someday, along with everything else he’s acquired over the years. Because the more he sells, the more he can go hunting. “Old stuff, it’s interesting. I love learning about it,” he says. “If you want to buy something that will last, buy something old.” dwasserman.com
photographed by Carla Witt Ford