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Photos by Adam Moreno

The interior of The Raceway Bar and Grill in Maricopa is an antique hunter's dreamscape of vintage signs, license plates and soda fountain relics. In 2011, the restaurant was visited by History's highly rated antique show "American Pickers."

Brian Siembieda and his wife, Anastacia, have spent the past 18 years sorting gems from junk as operators of Arizona Antique Appraisers.

The Valley has several stores offering space for antique owners to sell their stuff for a cut of the profits including the Antique Trove in old South Scottsdale.

Hot Picks

“It kind of goes in cycles,” says professional antique appraiser Anastacia Siembieda. “A few years ago, rosewood pottery was the hot item. Now it’s Fiestaware from the ’50s. You’ve got to keep up!” Some other hot collectibles today, according to Siembieda:

• Vintage jewelry, purses and compacts. “Don’t be afraid to ask at a yard sale, ‘Do you have any old jewelry?’ Sometimes the best stuff doesn’t get put out.”

• Designer clothes from the ’70s, or from now-defunct local department stores like Goldwater’s. “You can make a lot of money selling that stuff online now.”

• Perennial classic toys like Lionel trains and Barbie dolls. “But they don’t even have to be that old. Cabbage Patch dolls have pretty good value today.”

• Signed pieces of costume jewelry. “Like the old Sarah Coventry necklaces your mother used to wear. Eisenberg is good, too, but harder to find.”

• Vintage shoes. “Shoes are very overlooked. But you can get a good price on ’em.”

• Books, especially “History” and sci-fi. “With bookstores disappearing, old books are hot again.”

• Religious items, especially rosaries, statues and prayer books. “If I get hold of old rosaries, they’re gone in a second. Catholics, especially, are reclaiming these things.”

• Any old postcards having to do with cowboys, westerns, Halloween and Christmas. “But especially Halloween now. I found a lot of German Halloween cards in Prescott, and was able to sell them for $100 each.”

• Hummels. “They’re back! They were dead for years, because the older people got rid of them. But now there’s a new generation that are liking them again.”

• Again: clothing from the ’70s. “All that stuff I couldn’t stand from the ’70s, the college kids are getting into now. Hey, as long as they think that’s antique, I’ve still got my Calvin Klein jeans in the closet!”

Published by Times Publications, Dec. 2012

Rand and Jeanna Del Cotto staked their dream on a hope for the future — a future that, unfortunately, never arrived. Now that dream is being rescued by their love of the past.

When the Del Cottos opened their Raceway Bar and Grill in 2006 at the end of a strip mall in the middle of the desert, everyone was expecting great things of the little incorporated city of Maricopa. Residential developers had been scooping up thousands of acres of land in the area and pouring millions into putting in power, plumbing and pavement for what was expected to become the next Southwest boom town.

The Del Cottos, a long-time married couple from Chicago Heights, had already been living in Maricopa for almost 20 years next door to Rand’s parents, and they welcomed the flurry of new construction. Together with his brother Mark, Rand had been readying the Raceway for what the family anticipated would be a banner business, building tables and decorating the walls with choice pieces from Rand’s lifelong collection of antique roadside memorabilia.

Then came the housing crash of 2007. Home prices plummeted. Developer deals fell through. The lots, leveled by bulldozers, were left vacant as the construction crews picked up and moved on. The Del Cottos were running, as they still jokingly call it, “a neighborhood grill without the neighborhood.”

But then, after four years of struggling to keep the Raceway’s doors open, the Del Cottos discovered a nugget of gold in the odd old artifacts lining its walls.

In February 2011, the restaurant was paid a visit by the crew of “History’s” hit antiques show “American Pickers,” where each week hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz scavenge the country’s highways in search of hidden treasures and valuable artifacts—what they call “rusty gold”—collecting dust in small-town backyards and garages. A pair of elderly snowbirds had sent the show’s producers some pictures of the Raceway’s interior, an antique hunter’s dreamscape of vintage bar and gas station signs, license plates and soda fountain relics, and, after hearing that Rand was also storing a friend’s 1948 Airstream trailer—a rarity Wolfe had personally been seeking for years—the show decided to make a stop at the Raceway on its road trip across the Southwest.

The episode “Airstream Dream” aired in June 2011, drawing in more than 5.7 million viewers, and ever since then, thanks to repeats (on both “History” and its sister network, “Lifetime”) and digital downloads, the Raceway has become a destination spot for both fans of the show and other antique scavengers.

“It couldn’t have happened at a better time for us, because it’s been hard opening up a restaurant without any rooftops around it,” says Rand, who, with his ponytailed graying hair and laidback demeanor, struck a likeable Jeff Bridges vibe in the episode alongside his attractive wife. “It’s really helped us over the last 18 months. We get people from all over the Valley who don’t mind driving a little out of their way for a little pizza and beer in this unique atmosphere.”

They also come looking for treasures. Antique hunting is more popular than ever, thanks to “Pickers” and also “Pawn Stars,” about a fractious family-run pawn shop in Las Vegas. Stir in a few more tough-bartering “mantiquing” shows like “American Restoration,” “Auction Hunters” and “Storage Wars,” and it’s clear antique hunting has shed its genteel “Antiques Roadshow” image for one more blue-collar than blue-haired.

Trekking out to the Raceway Bar and Grill to score an old sign from John Wayne’s favorite Maricopa coffee shop fits right into this fever. And Rand Del Cotto, a self-proclaimed “junkman” who always collected more for fun than money, is finally realizing the value of all the odd stuff he’s been sitting on for decades, a treasure trove that’s finally putting his dusty desert diner on the map.

“If you’re in the restaurant business, it takes a lot of hamburgers each day to keep your business afloat,” says Rand, whose tongue-in-cheek “Rand-ford & Sons” junk shop in the back of the restaurant now offers a rotating assortment from his 5,000-some-odd item collection for sale. “I think the buy, sell and trade side to our restaurant is key to helping us keep the front door open.”

He and Jeanna call the model “Dine and Consign,” and they’ve even gone mobile with it, taking their treasures to other restaurants for events. “You can do it anywhere,” he says. “We just plug our inventory into the place, and it allows people to buy, sell and trade neat old stuff. It’s kind of a fun approach to dining.”

Del Cotto, whose family ran an Italian bakery south of Chicago for nearly 70 years, relishes the fact that most of the people who drive the distance to dine at the Roadway now are fellow junk junkies.

“It kind of fuels who we are,” he says. “What Jeanna likes to do, what I like to do: buying and selling and trading stuff. We’ve finally made that part of our business. And it’s helping to turn it around.”

Scavenger secrets

“Look for grandma’s teeth!” says Anastacia Siembieda, an ebullient Sunnyslope woman who operates an estate sales company with husband Brian called Angels In The Attic.

“It sounds gross, but you can find a lot of 16-karat gold in old teeth, from when they used to make crowns that way,” she says. “I’ll be going through somebody’s jewelry box to make an appraisal, and I’ll hold up a rotted old tooth they’ve got stashed in there and say, ‘Now, here’s your big value item!’”

Siembieda should know. In addition to their estate sales company, which to date has handled over 450 sales, Anastacia and Brian have spent the past 18 years sorting gems from junk as operators of Arizona Antique Appraisers. Together, the Siembiedas have assessed the possessions of everyone from quirky flea market mavens to the family of the late entertainer Donald O’Connor, whose Arizona home in the Village of Oak Creek contained personal letters from Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby and John Lennon, O’Connor’s cherry red Rolls Royce and 25 pairs of tap shoes.

As an appraisal expert, Siembieda knows the secrets to finding hidden treasures amidst the discards of strangers’ lives. In addition to mining gold in grandma’s old choppers, she offers the following tips:

• Always pick in the back rows of an antique consignment mall. The Valley has several stores offering space for antique owners to sell their stuff for a cut of the sale, from the cavernous Brass Armadillo just north of Metro Center and the Antique Trove in old south Scottsdale, to the more compact Antique Plaza in Mesa and Zinnias and Rust & Roses in Central Phoenix. But the prime spaces typically go to the regular sellers, who know all too well what to ask for their artifacts, which can sit on the shelves until they’ve long gone out of style. “They always have spots in the back for newbies who only want to do it for that weekend,” Siembieda says. “And that’s where you can find your deals.”

• Skip the yard sales with baby stuff out in front. Young families have smaller collections and a bigger need for quick cash. “Your best yard sales are in Sun City, because the seniors there are too frugal to pay for an appraisal and to have someone do an estate sale, so they price their old things themselves—and they have no idea that they’re pricing many very valuable items too low.”

• Cruise the historic districts during quarterly bulk trash pickups. “There are a lot of people who own homes in the Central Phoenix corridor—Encanto, Palmcroft—that just don’t know the value of all the things in them, and they’ll be leaving great stuff by the side of the road. That’s when you always see all the pickers in town!”

• Don’t expect the best finds in the wealthiest neighborhoods. Siembieda says rich people can best afford the services of professional appraisers, like her and Brian, who’ll help them set the highest prices for their goods. “They always think their art is worth more.” Occasionally, though, you’ll find an eccentric hermit. “You’re better off going someplace where the person is like a hoarder, who’s just been buying and buying and buying stuff for years. That’s where you’ll find your little treasures.”

• Know your stuff. “No one knows everything,” admits Siembieda. “If we don’t know the value of something, we’ll refer them to an expert in that particular area.” There are also several websites now where you can do your own appraisal; some free, some others, like Siembieda’s favorites, Worthpoint.com and AskArt.com, offering a one-day pass for $25. You can also, of course, sell your antiques online—just don’t use eBay for everything. “If you’re selling vintage ’50s, ’60s or ’70s clothes, for example, RubyLane is better.”

• Lastly, know what’s hot. “Every year, it changes. A couple of years ago, cookie jars were the big thing. Now you can’t give ’em away!” Today, it’s everything ’70s. “Polyester shirts, ugly flowered couches,” says Siembieda, who lived through the era once and laments its return to fashion. “The college kids today love everything yellow, orange or green,” she says, with a laugh. “Yuck!”

Parting with the past

As a picker, Rand Del Cotto admits he always accumulated more stuff than he sold and never gave much consideration to how much a thing could fetch on resale.

“My wife says I’m a cross between a picker and a hoarder, and I do have some of those tendencies,” he concedes. “I’ve always bought things just because I enjoyed them. A lot of people stick to a specialized collection, focused on one a particular genre. I’m all over the place with stuff. I’m one of those guys that just doesn’t like to see something get tossed.”

Del Cotto also shared the hoarder’s hesitancy to ever get rid of anything in his collection, which over the years spilled out to fill a warehouse-sized shed and the surrounding yard. That is, until the “American Pickers” crew swept in and bought up around 29 items for a total of $13,000 in two days.

“You didn’t see everything they bought on the show,” he says. “Even people on the film crew were buying stuff.” At first, Del Cotto admits it was hard letting go of some of their prized possessions. “But overnight, it kind of became exciting to let it go, because it’s given us more dollars to work with.

“This whole thing is helping me come around to the realization that maybe you can’t just hang on to all that stuff,” he adds. “Maybe you’ve got to make that part of your business, because you kind of have to adapt to your circumstances and wake up to what’s happening.

“It’s a different kind of preservation, I guess. But we’re still just trying to save everything from going to the scrapyard.” – end —