Brit pickers’ road trips across the US
Peter Smith and Anne McGrath were purveyors of more traditional antiques from Britain and the continent until 16 years ago, when their attention shifted stateside.
“We were in the trade but had been starting to deal with bars and restaurants,” said Anne: “The likes of the Chicago Rocks Cafés.
“People were frequently asking us whether we could lay our hands on chic original signage. We went out and had a look and it snowballed from there.”
Peter and Anne can typically spend four to six weeks a time criss-crossing America, travelling 3,000 to 4,000 miles, and plan their routes according to the weather.
In Maine, for instance, nothing is open in winter.
Their trips take them to Florida and the Eastern Seaboard, to Kentucky, Ohio or up state New York.
They fill four 40ft containers a year that are shipped back to the UK.
They call in at antique fairs, flea markets, scrapmeets, yard sales, malls, as well as utilising the very many contacts they have met along the way. These people are often known as pickers, a term viewers of US television series American Pickers will recognise through stars Mike and Frank.
Peter and Anne are looking for authenticity and mainstream items, but also the quirky and were once asked to source a very specific 1940s washing machine for a production.
The nature of picking is that it is often based on luck.
On another occasion, to satisfy another commission for a film, they were asked to find a 1930s wheelchair. They looked everywhere before locating one in Virginia, buying it and arranging shipping to the container in Florida only to visit a market previously unknown to them the next day and finding another that was half the price and didn’t need the shipping — so bought it as a spare.
“We sell to the public and commercially online and pride ourselves on getting any order out within 24 hours, but a lot of what we do is hiring out our items,” Anne said.
“It’s a very interesting job and we really enjoy it.
“We enjoy the hunt; the going out and the finding of the stuff.
“With the Coca Cola, you’d think it would be cheap given everything was mass produced, but it isn’t because it is part of their history.”
Although the US is a much younger country than Britain, it is still 400 years old and Anne says the Americans love their antiques just as much as their British cousins.
Photographs are one such love, often trading for double and triple their price in the UK, often of random people, because they are considered part of the heritage.
“As a country they are great decorators — what we might call staging — and will go out and spend huge amounts and build huge collections,” Anne said.