We like to go antiquing on road trips, and last summer we spent a sunny day in June treasure hunting in Toledo, Ohio, my husband’s hometown.
We hit an architectural salvage warehouse with a graveyard of pastel porcelain bathroom fixtures, a large “antique” superstore with a maze of junk-filled stalls, and a second-hand furniture shop in a little strip mall, which in Ohio we always called a “plaza.”
It was a nice mix of opportunity, but by late-afternoon we were ready to head home, empty-handed. No new treasures for our home tiki bar.
We left the furniture shop and walked into an interesting scene unfolding in the parking lot.
A big scruffy guy with a bright red pickup truck was talking to, or should I say at, a diminutive man who was the owner of the furniture shop.
He stood beside his truck, gesturing wildly as he held court over a tangle of lawn equipment, electric cords, and tarps in the bed of his truck.
We maintained our distance – it seemed like a deal was going down and we didn’t want to interrupt. Polite Midwesterners that we are.
But, oh my God, do you see what I see?
There was something very curious sticking out of the back of that truck: A large, ornately carved chair with faded red velvet cushions. A weed trimmer rested over top.
From a distance, we could see the shop owner seemed unimpressed. He shook his head as the big scruffy guy spoke.
Rich’s instincts kicked into high-gear.
“Wait, Alice, I think that’s a Witco chair!”
His eyes were fixed on the scene. He didn’t seem to notice that I scrunched up my nose, my face’s way of saying “thumb’s down.”
While they may seem impressive, large pieces of carved furniture usually hold little value. I know this because I’m married to an antique expert and grew up in a house with antiques, with a mom who took me antiquing. No one wants to move large heavy pieces of furniture, and they take up a lot of space.
But this chair was different – little did I know.
The deal in the parking lot looked appeared to be winding down. The shop owner shook the man’s hand and turned to leave. The big scruffy guy reached for the handle to open his door.
Rich sprung into action, his collector’s instincts keen as could be. He told me the chair looked like the same make and model as a famous chair in Elvis’ Jungle Room in Graceland, the highly coveted “Jungle Chair.”
One had recently sold for over $1,000, he added.
“Alright,” I said, raising my eyebrows, my face’s way of saying yes, but be careful. Keep your wits about you.
We approached the scruffy guy and introduced ourselves. We exchanged pleasantries and the sales pitch began.
He told us he found the chair while cleaning out a house – a large, impressive house with a five-car garage. He shared more details about the house and its well-to-do owner than the chair, but I can’t remember them. He reeked of weed.
The guy with the truck didn’t know what the chair was. But he knew he had a chance of unloading it right then and there in the parking lot.
“How much would you pay for the chair?” the guy asked, wasting no time. Any seasoned negotiator knows you don’t want to be the first one to put a number on the table, if you can avoid it.
“Fifty bucks?” Rich said.
The guy shifted a little and reminded us that the chair was special. The chair he knew nothing about 30 seconds earlier.
He was stoned. But he wasn’t stupid.
“I’ll take $100,” he said, doubling his profits.
We ran back into the antique shop and withdrew cash from the ATM.
The guy didn’t accept Venmo or PayPal. Go figure.
He helped us load the chair in our hatchback and we drove it back to my father-in-law’s house, where Rich grew up, and where it remains, in the barn behind his house.
It’s too big to fit in our tiki bar – or our house, for that matter. And it needs some love: the seat cushion is missing; the velvet is faded; the varnish is mostly gone. A few of the big iron bolts holding it together need tightening.
But it is the real deal.
We are proud owners of a Witco Jungle Chair, our tiki cred cemented in the parking lot on a summer day we’ll never forget.
If you have a good upholsterer, please let me know.