In the Trade
People get into the antiques business in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. Take Jim Morneau for example. When he was 23 years old, a house fire incinerated his furniture, and he discovered it was a lot cheaper to buy replacements at the local auction than to shop at a furniture store.
Today, in addition to being one of the most prolific designers of Colonial-style houses in Connecticut, he also runs his other business, Classic Home Hardware, from his condo in Canton. He stocks thousands upon thousands of period doorknobs, locks, backplates, hinges, doorbells, door knockers, newel post knobs, and a zillion other categories of house hardware dating from the 18th century into the 20th.
Morneau recalled his initial experience with antiques. He had bought a vacation home in Dennis on Cape Cod. He said, “I bought it furnished. It was a Boston family who had furnished it with antiques. I liked them [the antiques, that is], but I lost them all in the fire.” He noted that, being young, he got hosed by the insurance company and didn’t have enough money to refurnish at new furniture prices.
Jim Morneau with a piece of his hardware. It looks as if he’s about to commit mayhem with a knife, but he’s actually holding an early hand-forged spike-top door handle.
Three doorbells. “There are guys who collect just bells,” Morneau said. They generally range between $75 and $125 depending upon design and how complete they are.
A selection of mercury-glass knobs. “Everybody wanted them in the 1850s,” Morneau said. The piece farthest to the right is a bell pull and is priced at $100. The doorknobs are in the $35 to $50 range.
Large exterior door hinges. Morneau thinks they were made by Branford Hardware in Connecticut. They are $175 for the pair. “It’s hard-to-find stuff,” Morneau said.
A foot-tall newel post ornament in white glass from the mid-19th century. Simply as a decoration it seems reasonably priced at $75.
He said, “Somebody told me I could buy stuff at auction. You could get like, Jacobean [style] tables for two dollars.” So that’s what he did. He went to the local weekly auction and stocked up.
But his auction experience also taught him another lesson—one that has seduced numberless naïve auction-goers before and since: you might be able to make some money at this game.
He remembered, “I’d buy a box lot; get what I wanted—maybe a tool—and put the remains back in the auction next week.” It was fun getting desirable things for nothing and maybe making a profit on the rest.
A bit later—this was in the mid-1970s—Morneau moved to Plainfield, Connecticut, and just happened to live next door to an antiques dealer. “He took me to Brimfield. He said, ‘They’ll be running around throwing money at us.’” Which was the case. That’s how exciting the antiques business was in those years.
Neo-Grec handles for a set of pocket doors. Their centers are sunken and are inset into the doors so they can slide into the wall. This set of four is priced at $175.
The pair of mortise locks you’d need for your pocket doors, $150 for the pair. Morneau said, “I have probably at least twenty pairs on hand.”
A selection of specialized pocket-door keys. Many have tops that fold over, so they can be left in the lock and not protrude when the doors slide into the wall. They generally cost about $25, Morneau said, adding, “There are people who just collect pocket-door keys.”
Morneau had a system for acquiring inventory when he would travel to meet the renters of his Cape Cod house. He said, “I used to camp out in my VW bus on Friday night on the other side of the [Sagamore] bridge and, Saturday morning, I’d hit ten tag sales in those old houses on Route 6A,” on his way to Dennis. Adding to the fun, he said, “You could pick the dumps on the Cape in those days. There was always old stuff. There was wicker everywhere.”
Morneau discovered that he had a good eye for architectural antiques, not surprising for a guy who would build a career based on drawing house plans. It started with stained glass. He said, “I saw a guy walking with a stained-glass window, and I said, ‘You want to sell that?’”
Architectural antiques became valued collectibles in the 1970s and 1980s. They were in demand as decorative accents but also fed the boom for restoring homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. And then there was the restaurant business. Entire Victorian bars and tons of Victorian lighting fixtures were shipped around the country to be installed in chic new “fern bars,” where they complemented the brick walls and hanging plants that epitomized the style. Any town with pretensions to coolness had to have at least one fern bar. And thousands of sit-down restaurants—often with cute, phony Irish names (e.g., Rosie O’Grady’s)—pushed the trend into America’s malls and suburbs.
“It was huge,” Morneau said. Large distributors and auctioneers, such as Red Baron in Georgia, developed national networks of suppliers. “I picked for some of the biggest architectural dealers. I traveled from Maine to New York,” Morneau said.
A huge pair of blanket-chest hinges. At bottom right is a one-off handle and latch. “It was probably hand forged by a blacksmith in his own barn in about the 1860s. A lot of these are Canadian,” Morneau said. Bottom middle is a spear-top handle, 1770-90. “Real ones have screw holes that are punched out,” Morneau said. “If they’re drilled, they’re new.” Bottom left is an early industrial “Blake style” (see story) door handle. Everything in the photo is priced under $75.
Two different sizes of cast-iron butt hinges, 1820-40. Pairs sell for around $50. “This is first industrial period hardware,” Morneau said, adding, “Little butt hinges from this period, like those used on cabinets, are the hardest to find, and lots of people are looking for them.”
Two unusual items that you won’t find everywhere. The tall, skinny thing at right is a cremone bolt used on French doors and windows to lock them at top and bottom with one twist of the handle in the middle. It’s priced at $325, which is in the range of what reproductions cost. You need only one for each double door or window. “I have two complete sets,” Morneau said, adding, “These are American. You see European ones out there, but you don’t ever, ever find American ones.” At left is a 5½' tall foliate wood carving that was recessed in to the large exterior chimney of a demolished mansion in New Britain. He has priced it at $850.
The fact that Morneau’s day job was designing homes aided his antiques business. All over Connecticut, early buildings were being taken down as developers transformed the landscape with condos and McMansions. He said, “I may have designed more homes in Connecticut than anyone else. I worked for different developers and saw old houses coming down. I knew who would buy the old parts, the stone, the timbers.” Morneau doesn’t claim to be a hero of the preservation movement, but, given that Connecticut was going to be ravaged by developers anyway, he at least salvaged a lot of good stuff.
During his “pre-hardware period,” Morneau didn’t pick only architectural material. “I picked paintings and stuff for other type dealers,” he said. “If you’re at an auction, you might not get what you want, but you’d pick up something else. I was known as a good picker.”
His interest in period hardware arose from his acquaintance with Web Wilson, a Rhode Island pioneer in the field. “Web Wilson and I were friends,” Morneau said. “He was into stained glass too, and one day he came by and asked me, ‘You got any hardware?’ He made people aware.”
It didn’t take Morneau long to recognize the advantages of dealing in house hardware over other types of architectural material: “It’s easier to carry small things than big heavy things, and you can make the same amount of money.”
Although individual pieces of house hardware may be small, when you have thousands upon thousands of pieces, they can take up a lot of room. Morneau’s stock fills two rooms in his basement, part of his garage, and an upstairs room in his condo. “You have to accumulate a lot because nothing comes complete,” he said. You may have a great door handle, but you can’t sell it until you find the latch that was missing when you bought it.
His customers—collectors, home restorers, and decorators—are rarely interested in parts of old hardware. They want it to work and look great.
Today, given the breadth of his inventory, Morneau said that large salvage companies from as far away as Portland, Maine, and Los Angeles come to him.
Morneau entered the hardware market at an auspicious time. Not only was demand increasing, but supply was exploding as well. It wasn’t a matter of taste so much as it was a matter of law. He explained, “In the 1970s, fire code laws were passed that caused a lot of buildings being rehabbed to change their hardware.” Suddenly, commercial and residential rental properties were having their beautiful old hardware ripped out and replaced with stuff that met the new codes. Subsequent laws requiring more accessibility (for example, mandating lever door handles rather than round knobs) have only increased the likelihood that old hardware will be replaced when buildings are rehabilitated.
While timing and circumstances helped his hardware business prosper, Morneau said his success in more recent times can be traced to a man named Joe Tino, a retired machinist in New Britain. “My money was made because of Joe,” he said. “He cleaned and buffed for me for fifteen years. He just loved to work at the bench. People would look at stuff I had and say, ‘Is this new?’ And I’d say, ‘No, it was Joe.’ He’s so good at buffing. No one wants to put a rusty knob on their door.”
Unfortunately for Morneau, Tino recently decided to call it quits. He’s 88. “You can’t find those guys anymore,” Morneau said, adding as he spoke with us, “When you write your article, put in that I’m looking for someone to do cleaning and buffing.”
Three nice-looking door plates. The one on the left is cast bronze from about 1910. Center, with a brocade pattern, is circa 1880. The ornate example on the right, Morneau said, was designed by the Reading Hardware Company in Pennsylvania for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They’re all in the $50 to $75 range.
Two different lock sets complete with doorknobs and backplates. The backplate on the right has images of birds at the top. Morneau prices sets like these in the $150 to $175 range.
Antique hardware is rarely clean when it first hits the market. “You might have something that you can get a hundred bucks for and it’s only five dollars but it’s covered with paint,” Morneau said, adding that until he finds a replacement for Tino, “I’m trying to buy stuff that’s clean.” That has cut down on his buying, but, to be honest, it appears that even if he buys nothing in the foreseeable future, Morneau has enough to last for many years, or even decades, to come.
Morneau said, “I cover everything from period hand-forged to mid-[20th-]century stuff,” but he has a particular interest in early industrial hardware. Connecticut was a leader in the hardware field, as it was in so many areas of the developing industrial age before the Civil War. New Haven was a particularly important center. Eli Whitney Blake, nephew and one-time employee of the famous Eli Whitney, produced huge amounts of the material. “His hardware came all the way to California in the Gold Rush,” Morneau said. Blake was known for developing the mortise lock that fits inside a door, replacing the old-fashioned box locks that were attached to the outside of doors. He also happened to be in charge of macadamizing streets in New Haven and invented a machine for crushing the stone used on roads, which revolutionized the business.
Two extra-large handles. At top is a 12" example from 1820-40, priced at $125. The even larger one with the scary point dates from about 1790. It is 15" long and priced at $75.
This is a salesman’s sample, not a working lock. The real version was meant to be mounted on the outside of a door. But this piece is purely for show. Morneau said, “It’s bronze, and everything on it is not real.” It was made by Sargent Hardware in New Haven. It’s $125.
Philadelphia was another major production area. The reach of these 19th-century makers is impressive. “By the 1850s, the doorknob industry took off,” Morneau said. Mass-produced hardware showed up all over the country. For example, he said, “Portland [Maine] is full of early industrial hardware. I just got a big load from there.”
Price in the field of house hardware depends almost entirely on rarity. Pieces may be strikingly ornate but if they are not rare, they will not bring serious money. “Emblematic” and “figural,” or “representative,” knobs are the aristocrats of the field. Emblematics are custom pieces featuring monograms that were used in specific buildings, such as hotels, fraternal organization lodges, government buildings, and corporate headquarters. Figurals, as the name implies, have objects or animals depicted on them. “The big hardware companies also custom-made stuff,” as well as mass-produced items, Morneau said.
How much can a rare doorknob cost? “They’ve gone over five thousand [dollars] for a dog doorknob,” he noted. “Government doorknobs, say from the War Department, can go fifteen hundred [dollars]. If rare stuff comes out, there are a couple of guys who’ll fight over it.” (It should be pointed out that not all enthusiasts in the field are “guys.” Morneau said the “second-biggest collector in the country is a woman.”)
And how does he know if something is rare? “If I haven’t seen it before, then I know that’s what collectors want,” he said.
Morneau noted that the market for early hand-forged hardware is not robust: “Not as many people are interested in the earlier stuff,” he said.
Mid-20th-century hardware, on the other hand, has become desirable. Morneau said, “They throw that stuff away here, but I get calls for it from dealers in Los Angeles.” Which only makes sense: if you’re restoring a Modernist ranch house in Palm Springs, you’re going to want original hardware.
Morneau recently launched a new website. He said, “Google didn’t like my old one. The payment options were outdated. I was dreading it because I have over a thousand photos on it. Then I found this guy in Indianapolis who had an algorithm and did the whole thing for a thousand dollars.”
The site works nicely. Not only does it offer many categories based on type of object and manufacturer, but it also has a quick and accurate search function. If, for example, you are looking for a backplate made by a particular company, you can enter the company’s name and “backplate” and it will search the site and present you only with germane results. (In our experience, lots of websites feature a search box, but the results, all too often, are worthless.)
Enthusiasts in this field support an active collectors’ organization, appropriately named the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America (ADCA), which publishes the (equally appropriately named) Doorknob Collector newsletter. Morneau said the organization is working to identify every doorknob ever made and to give each design a unique code.
He noted that the sort of historical research encouraged by ADCA has benefited enormously from Google’s creation of its “Patent” site, which provides access to original patent databases not only from the United States but from several other countries as well.
The organization runs a convention each year in a different city. “Two years back it was in Boston; last year it was Indianapolis. The next one is in New Jersey. It’s usually in the summer,” Morneau said.
Morneau grew up in the nearby towns of Farmington and Avon. His father was a house painter and, he said, neither parent had an interest in collecting. He decided to become a civil engineer and went to Hartford State Technical College. But civil engineers spend lots of time outdoors, and he discovered that the work could be dangerous. On road projects, he said, he came close to serious injury from a falling telephone pole and a truck with rebar dangling off its side.
“I said, ‘I’m going inside,’” he recalled. Working at a drawing board was a lot safer, and it led to his career as a designer of Connecticut’s homes during the region’s biggest housing boom ever. Morneau noted that one-story homes are the coming thing, as baby boomers seek to downsize, often to single-floor homes that are just about as large as their former houses. In any case, they don’t want to climb stairs anymore.
“First-floor living is huge,” Morneau said.
And, who knows, maybe before long people will be collecting doorknobs from all those abandoned McMansions.
For more information, contact Jim Morneau, Classic Home Hardware, P.O. Box 1102, Canton, CT 01019. Phone (860) 693-4451. Website (www.classichomehardware.com). By appointment.
Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest