Music, Art, History, ‘Stuff,’ Fill Ken Farmer’s Life

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“Nobody cares about the history of your possessions or how much you love them,” appraiser Ken Farmer told the crowd at a downsizing workshop at the Lodge at Old Trail. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Ken Farmer has managed to fill his life with his favorite things, both tangible and intangible. First, the tangible: “Stuff gets a bad name these days,” Ken Farmer told the audience at the “Downsizing Workshop” presented at the Lodge at Old Trail in mid-February. He shot an apologetic glance at the other members of the downsizing panel, professional organizer Mindy Godding and Realtor Denise Ramey, both of whom were to speak on the importance of de-cluttering well before moving. (See more on the workshop in Business Briefs, March 2023).

As for him, Farmer declared, “I love stuff. In fact, you could call me a stuff nerd.” It was no surprise to the audience that he has a fondness for material goods, since that’s his business. He’s been involved in auctions, appraisals, art and antiques for more than 50 years. He’s known locally for his expertise, and he’s also known internationally because of his association with “Antique Road Show,” the popular PBS series. He’s still proficient in the unforgettable ‘auction chant,’ that he used so often when he ran his two auction houses. 

Farmer has been associated with Antique Road Show from its start more than two decades ago. In the 1970s, collectors began to recognize Farmer and his wife Jane as antique dealers with a great deal of knowledge about the art and antiques of rural Virginia and West Virginia. He was approached by a producer of the fledgling show. “People assume I’m a highly-paid media personality,” Farmer said. “The reverse is true. The appraisers on the show do it all at their own expense.” He acknowledged that the publicity and business connections have been priceless.

Why was the man who loves stuff on a panel devoted to downsizing? He was there to deliver some hard truths. “Number one,” he said. “Nobody cares about the history of your possessions or how much you love them.” Hard truth No. 2: “The people who might be interested in your collection of carnival glass or pocket watches are the same people who, like you, are now trying to downsize.” No. 3: “Your silver service is most likely only as valuable as the silver in it.”

There are exceptions, he said. “If you have a few really great items, everyone will want them. It’s the other stuff that causes problems.” Most of those problems are emotional, he said, as it makes downsizing a sad and difficult process. One way to reduce some of the pain is to approach the process in a practical, systematic way. “Identify what you need to keep, make a list of what each of your heirs would like, and form a plan to get rid of the rest.”

Ken Farmer is a band leader as well as an appraiser. His band, Ken Farmer and the Authenticators, plays around the area. Submitted photo.

Appraisers can help, Farmer said, because they can come to your house and place a value on each item as it fits in the context of today’s market, rather than its long-ago sales price. For instance, he recalled, he had a client who’d paid $14,000 for a folk-art bed frame. “Nobody today wants a 3/4 length bed, and this one was not an especially good example of folk art. It was worth about $1500.”  Other goods nobody wants: crystal, china and silver that can’t be put in the dishwasher. 

There’s some good news, too. Farmer has found that his clients often feel better making donations of good-quality items to non-profit groups. “Unless you value them at more than $5,000, chances are you can deduct them,” he said. “Larger deductions are possible, but you’ll need to have careful documentation.” Other clients have become pretty shrewd at placing items in on-line auctions (make sure they’re reputable places with huge numbers of followers) or piece by piece to local dealers, or direct to consumers. There’s something about being able to trace where your things end up that helps people feel better about it, he said.

Two solutions for those hard pressed and in a hurry are to put all their remaining possessions to auction, or to have specialized professionals take care of the placements. 

Finally, he said, “Your house is your biggest asset, probably at least ten times the value of your furnishings. With the tight turnaround in real estate closings, your delay in emptying your home could very well jeopardize its sale. Please don’t lose a good selling price because of your indecision.”

Farmer himself is a collector, but he follows his own advice in collecting things that appeal to him, rather than with some future profit in mind. His second profession—that of a musician—gave him a lifelong interest in musical instruments. He recalls a sign he saw: “If it’s guitars, it’s not hoarding.” 

As a teenager, he followed the rise of rock-and-roll superstars. “I remember the early days of harmony groups as well as the rise of The Rolling Stones and the Beatles. His passion for music is the second thread that runs through his life.

He found the Rolling Stones’ music a little easier to play on his first guitar than that of the Beatles. “I liked the three chords,” he said. “The Beatles were more complicated with their chording.” For a while in his 20s, he worked as a professional musician at the same time he was buying and selling antiques. He loved all kinds of music, but found he was drawn to the blues and to bluegrass music. “They may seem very different, but someone once said they both boil down to ‘three chords and the truth.’” Some of his heroes—Doc Watson, Ry Cooder, and Robert Johnson—have been able to transcend attempts to categorize them by genre.

When he became a father, he focused more on antiques, but played for fun. Now, he and his blues band, Ken Farmer and the Authenticators, play around the area, appearing at Fridays after Five, Durty Nelly’s (he calls it “Charlottesville’s last juke joint”) and at the Central Virginia Blues Society Festivals.

If there’s something that unites his two passions, it’s history, whether seen through music, art or furniture. He presents a popular series at the Greencroft Club in Ivy, tracing the development of different music forms. He’s well aware that he’s been lucky to have the ability to make a living from things he genuinely enjoys, and he hopes to spread some of his upbeat approach. “That’s what I really want with my music,” he said. “I want people to have fun.” 

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