The alchemists of today are in the antiques business. I knew a dealer in western Massachusetts who'd scour auctions for ancient farm implements. He'd buy a wooden milk bucket for a couple of bucks (the rattier the better), haul it back to his quaint, converted barn, tape a tag to it, and sell it later to New York City rustics for $200.
Not all dealers have that magic touch. Dan Popuch used to be a garbageman before he became a "picker" nearly 20 years ago. Pickers go to tag sales, estate sales, back alleys, and thrift shops and look through heaps of worthless junk in hopes of spotting a priceless antique. Pickers usually freelance their finds to shop-bound dealers; sometimes they graduate to dealing themselves. After ten years of full-time picking, Popuch moved up to dealing; five years ago he opened a small shop. Now he runs a much larger shop with his wife, Cynthia Diaz, by the corner of Ashland and Waveland--but he's never stopped picking.
Popuch has an eye for the odd piece, a feel for what's valuable, and the knowledge of designers, materials, and history needed to separate the gold from the dreck. A man who's picked along with Popuch says, "I've seen him pick up an old copper pan and offer 1,700 bucks for it! He could've given the lady that owned it 50 cents and she would've been happy, but he was fair." Popuch later sold the pan to a collector for double, the man adds.
Out picking two years ago, Popuch bought up a large cache of antique picture frames. He could have sold them off frame by frame, but he thought they might serve some larger purpose as a group. He didn't know what that purpose might be, but he hung on to the frames and over time added more. By this fall he had about 150 frames--ovals, squares, circles, rectangles--stacked in his warehouse behind the store, frames of myriad styles and times, from graceful deco designs to wooden monsters hand-carved in the early days of the industrial revolution. Some of the frames were decorated with colored glass jewels, others with seed pearls. The craftsmanship of many must have outdone the pictures themselves. Popuch was ready to sell, and he had a reason.
He's selling the frames in a show he's calling "Framed!"; they'll go for between $25 and $500, and a portion of the take will be given to Open Hand Chicago, the organization that delivers meals to people with AIDS. Most of the frames are empty, but if the frame was occupied by a print Popuch left it in. But he insists, "We're selling the frames. The pictures are free."
"Framed!" opens with a reception Friday from 6 to 9 at Popuch's store, Daniels Antiques, 3711 N. Ashland, and runs through the end of the year. Call 773-868-9355.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Popuch, Cynthia Diaz photo by J.B. Spector.