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Chasing Pablo: For old-school art pickers, the thrill is fading — and so's the payoff



There's a big plaster duck in the driveway of Rick Orr's mobile home in Phoenix, Arizona. If you know Rick Orr, you know this can't possibly be just any plaster duck; it's almost certainly one of the world's rarest plaster ducks, probably worth tens of thousands of dollars and crafted by some dead guy no one's ever heard of but whose work is deeply coveted. And given the duck's placement, about halfway between the door of Orr's house and the bumper of his big, beat-up Ford van, you — if you know Rick Orr — would have to assume the duck is about to be delivered by Rick to some rich guy who's waiting anxiously for the duck's arrival. Someone who will peel several large bills from a thick roll and hand them to Rick Orr.

And you'd be right about everything but that last part. The duck is inestimably rare, and it is on its way to the home of a Phoenix gazillionaire. But the rich guy won't be paying thousands of dollars to Rick Orr — who's spent his whole adult life schlepping rare artifacts from other people's driveways to the homes of wealthy collectors; whose lifelong knack for finding fine art in dusty attics is so renowned, it's the subject of a new documentary film — for the plaster duck. He'll be paying Orr a couple of bucks for fixing the duck's beak. Because Orr, who has made his living for nearly 40 years hunting for treasure among other people's trash, currently makes money as a handyman for the rich people to whom he used to sell million-dollar paintings.

If he's lately reduced to repairing expensive lawn ornaments, Orr is still known among the art collectors and dealers who've heard of him — and they are legion — as the King of the Pickers. At the height of his game he was, according to Benjamin Storck, an art dealer in Palm Springs, California, "the single most impressive finder of fine art and important furnishings in the country. Perhaps in the world. He was the picker."

Orr prefers to think of himself as a treasure hunter, but he'll cop to "picker," the term used in the antiques and fine-art worlds to describe men and women who scout out valuables at yard sales and then mark them up and sell them to dealers, who in turn mark them up again and sell them to us.

Call them what you like (and some call them vultures), pickers are a dying breed. eBay, the Internet auction site, has seen to that. As has Craigslist. And other Internet auction houses. And PBS's Antiques Roadshow.

"They're killing us off," Orr says. "Nowadays Grandma dies, and her kids put the china on eBay, and they overprice it because they saw some poor slob get a thousand bucks for a teacup on TV. Instead of sticking stuff into a yard sale for $5, they're putting it on eBay for $150. It's the death of my industry, man."

These days, the King of the Pickers would gladly trade his kingdom for a decent oil painting.

He's had them, too. Highly prized Expressionist paintings and dead-mint Alexander Calder rugs and Georg Jensen bracelets, too. Some he has found in galleries or antique stores, then marked up 700 percent and immediately resold. Most he has discovered at flea markets, thrift shops and estate sales, those halfway houses for fine art that no one recognizes: "ugly" paintings he buys for $50 and resells for $50,000.

It's that Picasso Orr remembers most, though: It's untitled, though commonly called Three Wise Men. It's the painting that ignited his career as a picker, in 1979. He thinks about it every day while he's out treasure hunting, hoping he'll find something as rare and beautiful as that painting, which has an estimated value of $20 million, and which, at that estate sale, was priced at $500. The story of the painting that got away is the backdrop of Orr's new no-budget movie, Picking for Picasso, about the fate of the American picker. Both the movie and Orr's story have a happy ending, although neither narrative may be entirely true. At the moment, Orr isn't saying.

"What is true," he says, patting the plaster duck's head as he heads toward his truck, "is there might be treasure out there today. And I'm going to go find out."

Time was, finding treasure at tag sales and junk shops was as easy as getting into your car and heading for them. Michael Robertson, who did most of his own picking for the antique shops he once owned in Phoenix and San Diego, recalls having to get up at four in the morning to stand in line at better estate sales, which Robertson calls "a kind of an indoor yard sale, where usually the homeowner has died, and everything in the house, even the aspirin in the medicine chest, is for sale."

"It was insane," he recalls of picking's glory days. "The estate company would open the doors to the pickers, and they'd charge in. Leaping over sofas, knocking each other down. I'd see Rick in that line, usually toward the front, and he'd just calmly walk through and point to things. 'I'll take that and that and that.' He had a good eye, and he was polite, but I think people were put off by him. He's very intense and quiet, and — how can I say this nicely? Rick doesn't really look like most other pickers."

Indeed. With his trademark doo-rag — he has a seemingly endless supply in various shades and patterns — wraparound sunglasses and carefully sculpted, graying facial hair Orr looks more like a Central Casting biker than a man in search of a Stickley dining suite. Think Bruce Willis without the swagger. Mickey Rourke before the plastic surgery. Pickers, one imagines, would be slender, effeminate men and better-than-middle-aged housewives with an eye for Hummel figurines, not gruff, articulate, middle-aged dudes with a droopy goatee and a voice like gravel frying in brown butter.

The dealers Orr sells to aren't paying for appearances. They want his eye for rare stuff. "You can't buy what Rick has," according to Jonathan Wayne, who owns Red Modern Furniture in Phoenix and has bought from Orr for nearly ten years. "You can't train people to know what he knows. He's an anomaly — a fair businessman with amazing knowledge about art and furniture."

It's knowledge Orr has refined over a lifetime of picking. He built his secondhand empire buying big-deal paintings for five dollars and reselling them for thousands. He started as a kid, growing up in Hollywood and raised by a mother Orr describes as "a hippie with little ambition." Dad was small-time movie actor Greg Benedict (you can see him in the 1963 Troy Donahue picture Palm Springs Weekend), whom Orr rarely saw.

"My stepbrother and I would go pester this old guy in our neighborhood named Junkman Jack," Orr recalls. "He'd go out picking, be gone for a week and come home with these great stories and a truck full of stuff — Tiffany lamps and cool old furniture. He gave me a glimpse into a world most kids wouldn't care about."

Orr cared. Deeply. He dropped out of school at fifteen, scrounged up enough to buy a used truck and became consumed with picking. Eventually treasure-hunting took its toll on Orr's personal life. When he was married, he saw his wife only once a week; when he was home, he was on the phone brokering art deals. Time spent with his daughter, Shannon, usually involved camping out overnight in front of estate sales so Orr could be first in line when the house opened the next morning. Eventually his wife left him.

He might have picked for a few more years, then moved on to something else — perhaps opened a gallery in Los Angeles or become a dealer himself — if he hadn't spotted Three Wise Men hanging over the mantel of a spec home in the desert north of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he had come to scrounge.

"The house was crammed with all kinds of sculpture and studio pottery and fine art," he remembers. "The sellers didn't know what they had, so everything was priced cheap. I turned the corner, and there was this Cubist painting of three figures. Lots of bright colors. It was beautiful, and it was priced at $500 — more money than I had in the world at the time. I was paying for my stuff, and this lady walked up with the painting under her arm, handed the seller cash and left."

A few days later, leafing through a book on Spanish painters, Orr spotted a photo of the painting he'd just missed owning. "It was a Picasso," he says with quiet despair. "It got away from me, and I've been chasing it ever since."

The one about the valuable painting procured from a garage sale is an oft-told tale — and more often than not, it seems, the painting is one by Picasso. Last year an early watercolor by the famed painter was found in an attic in Dorchester, Dorset, England. The year before, a Carolina Beach, North Carolina, couple bought a Picasso for a dollar at an estate sale. And just this past October, a Shreveport, Louisiana, woman paid two dollars for a Picasso at a yard sale. "It just kind of caught my eye," she told a local news reporter. "It looks like a woman, holding a guitar or possibly a baby."

Orr doesn't begrudge these folks their yard-sale Picassos. "The guy was prolific," he says, laughing. "He paid bar tabs with paintings. And then there are the copies — good ones, too. That one in Shreveport doesn't look right to me. I've seen fakes, but I'm not fooled. I keep right on going."

Orr is holding out for the real thing. It's a quest that once made him a very wealthy man — and, more recently, an extremely poor one.

"I have a decent head for business, but when things were going great, I lived large," he admits. "I'd drive by a Mercedes dealership and see a car I liked and go in and write a check. I drove a Rolls and a Bentley. I had homes [in Phoenix] and in LA. I had huge years where I could afford to live like that. I didn't know it would end. I figured, people will always die; they'll leave behind valuable stuff I can buy and resell. I thought I could always make good money."

He was apparently mistaken. Orr sold his last Mercedes, a G500, in 2007; he needed the cash for picking. He lost his home, and he had to sell off his personal possessions as the Internet gobbled up his business, putting him and many other pickers mostly out to pasture.

These were losses that Orr sustained with good grace. There's an excruciatingly obvious but unavoidable irony in Orr's life: He's a minimalist.

"You get jaded, being in the stuff business," he offers. "I have a couple of cool things I've kept through the years because they had stories behind them that meant something to me, but when business took a dive, I sold them off. My rule is, 'Everything is for sale.'"

No one knows this rule better than Shannon Narron, Orr's 27-year-old daughter. She lived with her dad through her teen years and remembers on more than one occasion coming home to find the sofa gone.

"I grew up in a gallery of constantly rotating furniture and artwork," Narron says with no trace of bitterness. "Nothing stayed long. If he got a good price for it, it was out the door."

She says she's proud of what her father made of his life. Her childhood taught her to roll with the punches and helped her grow a tough skin. She needed one, growing up in Scottsdale.

"My friends' dads were lawyers and doctors," she explains. "Nobody I knew even knew what a picker was. I couldn't have a sleepover because the beds might have been sold the day before. Or because there was no place to sleep over at, because we weren't living anywhere."

It was embarrassing, she says. But there were good times. "Dad would get a big score, and we'd go out to dinner and have fun, and he'd be real happy. Then there were weeks where he wasn't finding anything, and it was macaroni and cheese and hanging around the house. Which was OK, too."

Narron remains bewildered, she says, by her father's ability to survive without what she considers essential comforts. "I always ask him, 'How can you not have a toaster?' I go to see him, and he has this great piece of art, but there's nothing to sit on."

"I have always been mystified by the value of things," Orr says. "I've sold quarter-million-dollar paintings to guys who just bought a signature on a piece of old canvas. I've sold valuable paintings to people who have said, 'Can you hold the check until payday?' I'd want to say, 'Are you shitting me? You're spending next week's paycheck on a painting instead of food?' But I'd be like, 'OK. Whatever. I'll hold your check for $10,000.'"

Those days are long past. Earlier this year one of Orr's most reliable clients, an art collector in Maui, returned to Orr a canvas he'd been considering for some weeks. "The guy loved the painting," Orr says, "but he said, 'I can't buy it because I lost $10 million on the stock market last week.' You know you're in trouble when billionaires are passing on your stuff."

The world's most famous picker is on the prowl. It's nearly lunchtime on a Saturday in early fall; Orr has been driving around the many cities and towns that make up metropolitan Phoenix since before 8 a.m. — practically the middle of the day for a professional picker — looking for posterboard signs pointing to estate sales. In the old days, he'd have left the house before the sun rose. "And," he says, jabbing a thumb behind him at the empty interior of his van, "this truck would have been packed with amazing things. Packed."

Monday used to be Sun City day; Tuesday he'd have headed to Apache Junction. He drove farther, too: to Prescott once a week, to Flagstaff every other week. A weekly haul from Las Vegas always netted him an unusual amount of mid-century modern furniture. He knew on what day each thrift store in Los Angeles and Orange County put out new merchandise. Most shops held items for him, based on what he'd bought from them the last time he was there. Once his van was full, he'd head home.

"When I was pounding hard, I was covering an entire half of the [Phoenix metropolitan area] in a day," he says. "There was plenty of competition back then, but if some other guy got something I'd missed, I thought, 'Eh. There's so much crap out here, I don't even care.'"

Today he barely slows his van as he cruises past the umpteenth estate sale of the morning. He can tell, he says, whether there's anything interesting inside based on what's for sale on the driveway. "Piles of baby clothes out front," he explains, "means flatware from IKEA in the kitchen."

Orr pulls up in front of a tract home draped with a banner announcing "Susie's Estate Sales!" and disappears inside. The house smells like adult diapers and despair. A cheerful woman clutching a cash box near the door calls out, "We're makin' deals today, fellas!" A handmade sign behind her reads, "Hi-Fi not for sell."

With a little coaching from Orr, it's easy to spot the other pickers: They're quiet, moving quickly through the house. They're not the gals chatting while they paw through a box of soiled linens marked "$2 each, firm!" or the fellow considering the dented cookie press for 75 cents. One picker holds up a Fiestaware disc pitcher, and his companion rolls her eyes and whispers, "Repro!" The two head for the door.

Orr is already outside, grabbing a quick smoke before moving on. He can case a house in less than a minute, pausing only briefly to touch an oil painting or squint quickly at a tabletop sculpture. "She had crap paintings marked $330," he grouses, climbing into his van. "She figures, 'OK, it's an oil painting, it's got to be worth at least $100.' It's junk. Today she's selling this garbage for half price, and tomorrow she'll end up donating it to Goodwill."

A sale around the corner offers more of the same. "It can get nasty sometimes if it's a house full of good stuff," Orr cautions. "There's a notorious picker named Michelle who will trip you to get to a wall sconce."

Picking is highly competitive. "Very few of us are friends. We don't network," Orr says, snorting out a quick laugh. "There are a couple of guys I talk to; we help each other out from time to time. But it takes a long time to form that kind of relationship. There's not a lot of camaraderie."

Orr stops his car to let a little girl on a tricycle cross the street. He waves at her as she passes, then points to a sign hanging from a nearby tree. "Yard Sale Every Sunday Beanie Babies," it reads.

"The whole damn world is selling stuff," he says. "They're living the dream, man."

Art dealer Benjamin Storck remembers the moment he suspected pickers might go the way of eight-track tapes and carbon paper.

"I was at a smaller store in Palm Springs," says Storck, who operates art and designer furniture galleries in New Jersey and Los Angeles and has been buying from Rick Orr for years. "And when the seller saw that it was me buying things, he told me everything I was interested in was already sold." Shortly after, Storck found the items for sale on the Internet for a higher price. "The seller figured if I wanted them, it was to mark them up for resale. He wanted my markup for himself. It was a very sad 'Aha!' moment."Orr didn't see the slump coming. "Then one day I got a call from someone selling a Guy Rose painting," he recalls. "I get there and the seller starts pulling out auction records and computer printouts. And he's like, 'The last Guy Rose sold for $50,000, so we want at least that much.'"

Joel Hamilton, owner of Phoenix's Antique Artisan Marketplace, blames Antiques Roadshow, the snoozy public-television series in which average Joes are told the value of ephemera from their attics. "In one episode Doris brings her cuckoo clock to the show, and surprise! It's worth $25,000. And then antique dealers get to spend the next three months explaining that not every cuckoo clock is worth that much. Yours is worth seven dollars."

Hamilton doesn't much like eBay, either. By making rare objects immediately available, the site has decreased the value of pretty much every collectible while erroneously inflating the price on even worthless junk.

Orr wishes he'd exploited Internet auctions when he had the chance. "I was too old-school about picking," he admits. "There were guys who jumped right on the eBay bandwagon, and now they're doing all their buying and selling on the computer. In their pajamas, man! I tried selling stuff online, but I thought it was a trend."

In fact, it turned out to be the beginning of the end. "Every year got a little worse until there was nothing left," Orr says. "Up until about three years ago, I could still find a $40,000 or $50,000 pick. Two of those a year, all in cash, and I was set. Now even 89-year-old women are computer-savvy, and they're online selling the contents of their basements. And I, to put it politely, am screwed."

Ken Lesko of Cleveland's Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery is even more polite. "People simply do not care about the death of the American picker," Lesko says. "Well, some dealers care. But by and large, collectors are thrilled that the Internet has made things easier to obtain. What's gone is the kind of knowledge that someone like Rick brings to this business. He could stand across the room from your painting and tell if it was a copy. Can eBay do that for you?"

Lesko, who was himself a picker for 35 years before opening his popular gallery, met Orr in the 1980s on a trip to Phoenix. "He had this little vacuum cleaner shop where he sold antiques and art. I walked in and introduced myself, and he ended up helping me find a rare and valuable Kazimierz Zieleniewski painting that I only recently sold. He's been a great friend — another service eBay can't provide."

Being a good friend doesn't pay the bills. "I've got to start making money again," Orr says. "I can't just keep existing. I need a Plan B."

Actually, Orr has a Plan B, although he's not quick to admit it. He's secretly hoping that the little homemade movie about his life will wind up on the film-festival circuit, generate some buzz and land him some Hollywood dough. Maybe some film mogul will option it and reshoot it with actors and Orr can live off royalty checks.

The story (as told by Rick Orr himself) goes that, while Orr was scrounging around, trying to make a living picking in a post-eBay world, he was approached by a couple of college kids who wanted to make a movie about his life. Orr declined, but the film students kept after him until he finally relented. On one condition: He'd do all the filming himself. The young men agreed, and, a few months later, Orr returned their camera and the several "rolls of film" from which Picking for Picasso was culled.

The direct-to-DVD film, in which Orr is the only person seen, is riveting in a serene, sluggish way. Orr chats amiably about picking while he drives around town in search of treasure. He looks straight into the camera that's wedged onto the dashboard of his van and reminisces about his glory days: the time he found a stack of rare Helmut Newton photos; the 350-year-old Francesco Ruschi painting he bought from a slum and sold for six figures to a museum in Italy. We watch him broker a deal for a small, unimportant painting, purchase a William Saltzman canvas at an auction and drive past his recently foreclosed house in Scottsdale ("I came home last week, and they'd changed the locks," he tells the camera. "There was a note on the door from the sheriff telling me not to go in"). There are lots of shots of Arizona desert rolling past his van window; stark footage of jumbled junk shop interiors; an endless parade of Orr's many doo-rags.

"If this movie sucks you in," says Steve Stoops, owner of Stevens Fine Art in Phoenix, "it's because Rick's depression is so contagious." Stoops, who has known Orr for fifteen years, recently showed the movie to houseguests who have no interest in art or antiques. "And they were spellbound because it's a movie about a world most people don't even know exists. It's a captivating story."

It's also a vaguely disingenuous one. The one-sided phone conversations — a testy one with a client who owes Orr money; an emotional one with his daughter, who's too busy to see him — seem staged and stilted, and some of the speeches about waiting for that big find seem rehearsed. The film commences with Orr telling the story of that first Picasso and ends with him on his way to check out a storage unit full of junk, running out of gas. He walks the rest of the way to the appointment, and the film wraps up with a montage of newspaper headlines (e.g., "Man Finds Lost Picasso for the Second Time") suggesting that, among the pots and pans and other ephemera in that storage unit, Orr discovered — and bought — Three Wise Men, the same Picasso painting that breathed life into his career.

But a little quick digging on the Internet (that 21st-century scourge of the picker) turns up absolutely no evidence of such a news story, a story that would certainly have merited a column inch or two. And of course, there's the obvious question: If Orr actually did again find and resell Three Wise Men, why does he live in a mobile-home park?

Orr caves in immediately when asked about the veracity of his biopic. "I never meant for the movie to be taken as completely autobiographical," he says. "That's why I never say my name in the film. It's more a movie about a guy very much like me, but with a more hopeful ending to his story."

OK. What about the college kids who made the film? "That part's made up, too," Orr confesses. "I shot it with my own camera, and I hired a guy off Craigslist to edit it for me."

All this truth-bending might make one wonder just exactly how much of Rick Orr's life story is invented, if it weren't that he's so forthright about being a loser.

"Why the hell would anyone make up a story about a guy who's spent his life doing nothing but driving around," he asks, "pawing through other people's junk?"

Rick Orr has been driving around pawing through other people's junk all day long. All he has come up with today is a pair of small seascapes by the German painter Otto Nautschmann, for which he paid $35 at a yard sale. "I'll probably get $100 for them," he says. "It's not big money, but it's something. It keeps me motivated, keeps me hopeful that there's still something left out there."

Orr makes one last stop at a downtown thrift shop. The owner greets him at the door with a hug. While they chat, Orr circles the store, touching canvases as if the texture of their dried paint can tell him about their value. His phone rings, and he excuses himself to talk to a client.

The client is calling to say she has cancer. She has recently purchased a piece of Paolo Venini glass for $12,000 and is trying to sell it to help pay her medical bills. She'll take $6,000 for the piece, which is among her favorites. Orr tells her he's sorry. He calls her "Hon." He says that not only is her piece of glass only worth a couple thousand dollars in today's market, but he thinks she should sell it for whatever she can get. Her health, he reminds her, is more important than Italian glass.

"It's the economy, man," Orr says, hanging up and heading for his van. "People have lost their jobs, and they're looking at their collections of crap crammed into a half-million-dollar house in Gainey Ranch, and they're going, 'Man, I wish I had a one-bedroom condo and a bunch of money in the bank right about now.'"

He's headed home. Along the way he pulls into the parking lot of a dentist's office. "This was my building here," he says of the low, flagstone-covered building by lauded modernist architect Al Beadle. "My daughter and I lived in the back, and I had a storefront where I'd meet dealers. Those were good times."

Good times are long gone, Orr fears. He can't manipulate the end of his real life the way he did the movie version of himself. He has thought about opening a gallery, but even if he had the capital, he's not cut out for sitting still long enough to run one. "Anyway, I hate the idea of all that schmoozing and party-throwing and telling people how great they look," he says, pulling into his driveway.

What he really wants to do is walk into an estate sale and find a Picasso hanging over someone's mantel. And if he does, will he use the proceeds to retire to a sunny cottage near the sea?

Rick Orr squints through his windshield at the plaster duck staring at him from just outside his front door.

"The truth," he finally says, "is that even if I never found another thing, I'd want to spend the rest of my life picking."

Robrt L. Pela is a columnist for RFT's sister paper, Phoenix New Times.

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