Writing and antiques keep Pete Prunkl busy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 14, 2012

By Katie Scarvey
It’s always a big deal when the PBS Antiques Roadshow comes into town. People lucky enough to have gotten a ticket arrive at the Roadshow and then stand in line, sometimes for hours, to have an expert appraiser tell them that the painting Aunt Lucy left them is worth a small fortune — or not.
Pete Prunkl of Salisbury — a longtime antiques hound — loves to be a part of this scene. A freelance writer who has found a niche in writing about antiques, Pete traveled to the Roadshow in Myrtle Beach with wife Donna June 23 for an assignment to write several stories for the Antiques Roadshow Insider.
Pete has covered other Roadshows in the southeast, including Chattanooga, Raleigh and Atlanta. He also covers large auctions as the Maine Antique Digest’s North Carolina representative.
When an appraiser finds something of interest, he or she will contact one of the show’s producers, who will decide if the item should be featured on the popular TV show or if it will work better for the magazine. If it’s deemed worthy of being in the magazine, Pete gets called in.
Pete recalls some of the early Road Shows he attended, where people would bring in items that still had bar codes on them.
Although Pete and Donna reported that the pickings were surprisingly slim in Myrtle Beach, a few gems did emerge.
The most fascinating item for Pete was a pistol that fired the fatal shot in the last legal duel in South Carolina, which took place in 1880. Because of the notoriety of the case, which involved two prominent lawyers, dueling was outlawed the following year.
Donna’s favorite item was a Tiffany model of a whale boat, which belonged to a woman named Margaret (the Roadshow only releases first names), whose great-great-grandfather George Wallace Melville wrote an account of his harrowing 1879 voyage through the Bering Strait aboard a sailing ship called the U.S.S. Jeannette, which was trying to find an easy passage to the Atlantic.
Most of the crew died after a violent storm, but Melville and a few others found their way on a whale boat to the shore of a Russian village. The survivors, including Melville, were each given a Tiffany cast model of the whale boat by the Russian Czar in 1884 or 1885.
Both Pete and Donna love learning about the history of such items. And Pete loves to delve deeply into that history so that he can write more knowledgeably.
“Pete loves doing the research,” Donna says.
Pete’s antique writing goes beyond covering Road Shows. He’s typically working on several stories, often for the Maine Antique Digest, a well-known and highly respected publication that caters to dealers all along the East coast.
“It’s kind of the Bible of the antique business,” Pete says.
Right now, he’s researching Danish pottery and ray guns.
He got interested in toy ray guns — think Flash Gordon — after seeing one at an auction in Spencer. Pete jumped into the bidding but dropped out as the price increased. He couldn’t picture himself bringing home a $50 toy ray gun and presenting it to Donna.
Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about it, so now he’s immersed himself in their history so he can write about them.
In Rowan County, most people know Pete from the many cover stories he’s written for Rowan Magazine or from his days working for Lutheran Services for the Aging. He appreciates the community connections he’s forged from those roles.
Formerly a psychology professor, Pete’s passion for antiques began in the mid-1970s, he says.
He was living in Illinois and going to a lot of country sales, mainly so he could furnish his apartment. Antique furniture was inexpensive, well-made and readily available.
“That’s what got me going,” he says. “It was just the best way to furnish a house.”
He no longer needs furniture — he and wife Donna have plenty of beautiful pieces for their home on South Ellis Street. But they do indulge themselves in other ways.
They collect North Carolina pottery, for example. Pete has an array of Maxfield Parish prints, and Donna likes ironstone and pudding molds.
Collectors in general will understand how Pete feels about cherished objects: “We don’t need it, but sometimes you just have to have it.”
Pete’s first foray into writing about antiques was for AntiqueWeek, a publication he subscribed to.
An auction in Weaverville was coming up that featured a collection of antique shoes.
“I could do something with that,” he thought. He pitched the idea, which was accepted. Soon, other doors were opening to him as a freelance writer.
Pete says that a pretty high end antiques market exists in North Carolina, including Brunk Auctions in Asheville and Leland Little Auction & Estate Sales in Hillsborough.
He’s gotten to see some high-dollar transactions. He wrote once about a chair that came from the Vanderbilt mansion in New York. It sold for more than $292,000.
The publications Pete writes for are as interested in the people who buy antiques as they are in the antiques themselves.
“People who read the magazine want to know who bought things,” he says.
He’s attended a lot of auctions, and one of the “coolest things” he’s ever seen change hands was a piece of Moravian pottery made in Old Salem. It was the work of a potter who made figural bottles in the shape of animals like squirrels or fish.
“A turtle surfaced at an auction in Mebane,” Pete says. It was purchased by Old Salem for the incredible sum of $100,000. It wasn’t even perfect, Pete said — “half of its snout was knocked off” — but it was clearly a highly desireable piece.
“That was a surprise,” Pete says.
One of the most shocking sales he’s seen was of a small Chinese vase offered by Brunk Auctions. Since Brunk hadn’t featured it on a whole page in its auction book, as is typically done for pieces expected to fetch big figures, most didn’t consider it a major find.
While auction organizers had assumed it would bring less than $1,000, it sold for a million dollars.
Turns out the yellow vase was a piece of imperial pottery, Pete says, incredibly rare and sought after.
Pete’s background in psychology has taught him to be a good observer and to be comfortable talking to the people he ends up writing about, he says. He’s been pleasantly surprised by how willing buyers of high-end antiques are to identify themselves for publication.
He enjoys doing what he’s doing now so much that he wonders if he might have majored in journalism at the University of Connecticut instead of psychology if he had it all to do over again.
As Pete pitches ideas and gets assignments to write about particular kinds of antiques, there’s always the possibility that he will become seduced by what he’s researching.
“I fall in love with whatever I’m writing about,” he admits. After doing research for a piece about Native American photographs, he found himself buying one that came up for sale at an arts and crafts conference at the Grove Park Inn.
Lately, Pete’s been lusting for Danish pottery after learning about it for a story.
He holds up a small vase he paid $150 for — probably too much, he says, since he knows similar items can be had for less on eBay. Still, he doesn’t seem too upset.
“I just love it,” he says.
Pete has been around long enough that he knows things cycle in and out of style.
Right now there is a great interest in Asian art, he says. Much of that interest is driven by people from China or Japan who are collecting things that originated in those countries.
Carved rhino horn cups are particularly hot right now, he says.
But Pete knows this too shall probably pass, and some new collecting trend will emerge or re-emerge.
But those Beanie Babies you’ve been holding on to? Don’t hold your breath.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270.