The treasure hunter
From Idaho farmhouse doors to the doors of Europe's antique dealers – Duane Hill has seen it all
Story by Mara Severin • Photos by Danny Daniels Photography
It all started with a silver dollar. As a young boy growing up in Northern Idaho, Duane Hill received his first silver dollar from his father. More came his way – for his allowance, in babysitting wages and special treats – until soon he had a collection. When his mother deposited his wealth into the bank to earn interest, he was devastated. After all, he recalls, "I had one from 1884 in there." He wanted the coin itself – not the dollar it represented. Duane was five years old and already he loved antiques.
Duane's interest in antiques grew deeper when he began doing yard work for a mining heiress who lived in an enormous Victorian style house on Lake Pend Oreille. "It was filled with antiques," he remembers. "Oriental rugs, Navaho rugs, brass beds, oak tables, ornately carved stuff from Switzerland, and a lot of cut glass," he says. "Her family had been in Northern Idaho since the 1800s and had at one time been extremely wealthy." She loved to talk about her family's collection and Duane was all ears.
Digging up buried treasure
But admiring someone else's antiques wasn't enough for Duane. He began (literally) to unearth old things on his own. He began haunting dumps and old mining camps. "People threw away the weirdest things. You never knew what you might find – old granite wear, old pots and pans, old bottles – you'd find all kinds of things."
He didn't let his collection grow for long. "I started selling it," he says. "Then I started to go to garage sales and I learned about depression glass and carnival glass. And I started to buy and sell that." Then he set his sights on something larger. "The first piece of antique furniture I ever bought was an antique roll-top desk from an old post office that had shut down," he recalls. "They were going to burn it. So I traded the guy a cord of wood for it and I sold it for a good profit." Inspired by early success, Duane – at the tender age of 14 – started to go out after school and knock on farmhouse doors looking for more finds. "I'd make a deal and buy it, then turn around and sell it for a profit."
Duane's previous plans of being an attorney began to take a back seat to his entrepreneurial efforts. When he graduated from high school he decided to see if he could make a living buying and selling antiques. So he spent a few months acquiring stock. Then he hired a hall and an auctioneer. "I sold everything," he said. "I made a good profit, so I decided not to go to college."
European Road Trip
So while some people go to Europe for a year or two after college, Duane took his first trip there instead of college. "I jumped on a plane and flew over to England," he recalls. Then he traveled to Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany – all in one trip. His language skills were based on a few high school Latin classes and he had to learn to look up the word "antiques" in the telephone book in eight or nine different languages. "I knew just enough to know whether I was ordering chicken or fish off the menu," he says laughing.
But he had his best luck back in England. "At the time," explains Duane, "it was easy to find Victorian furniture. The Europeans wanted the really old stuff – early 19th century and before. Anything after 1850, they didn't want. They were throwing it away. You could pick this stuff up off the street – even oriental carpets – on garbage day." In England, he found a reputable dealer who was willing to work with him. He rented a warehouse, got a truck, then found someone to pack a container for him. He imported his first container of antiques and has been importing ever since. He was 19 years old.
Heeding the call North
For the next while, he dealt antiques in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Years later he moved operations to Seattle, where he had a 24,000-square-foot antiques store on the waterfront. It was then that he began doing auctions throughout the state of Alaska. "Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Kodiak, Anchorage…" he recalls. "I'd send a 40-foot container to a town and sell the whole thing."
But his love for Alaska had already taken root. His first visit was as a child during the Christmas before the big earthquake. He loved it instantly. "The guy we were visiting told me that I'd probably come back to Alaska and eventually I would live here." Plus, he says, "My favorite song was 'North to Alaska.'"
Their family friend was right. When Duane was 28 years old, he came to live and operate in Alaska full-time. Today, he runs Duane's Antique Market, the largest and oldest antique store in Alaska.
The frivolous and practical joy of antiques
"The thing about antiques is they've already stood the test of time," says Duane. "Most of the stuff that we sell has already been around for a hundred years. And it will be here for another hundred years."
And there's a permanent value in a well-made antique, he says. "It holds its value." Whereas with new furniture, he says, "the minute you take it out of the store it's worth 10 cents on the dollar. New furniture stores are new furniture stores. They don't care if you've had it a week, a month or six months. It's used. And they don't deal with it. And now you're forced to sell it on Craig's list or at a garage sale."
In the store, he points to a Chinese cabinet, with elegant lines. It's a classic piece – one you might see reproduced in contemporary furniture stores at a similar price. The difference is that the piece is over 100 years old and has the genuine patina of age. "It's so versatile," he says. "You could put a big screen TV on it, you could put a microwave on it and use it in the kitchen, you could put it in an entry hall or you could put it in your bedroom." Or, he says, "if you took that piece and painted it with black lacquer, it would be phenomenal."
If you teach them it will sell…
Duane credits much of his success on his relationship with his customers over the years. As his confidence and knowledge grew, so too did his clients' trust.
"You have to educate your customer as you go along," Duane says. "If your customers are educated and they know what the stuff is, they will feel comfortable buying it," he explains.
"When I first started dealing, one of my very good friends in England was trying to sell me more expensive antiques. I said, 'People don't buy that kind of thing,' and he said, 'Well, you have to teach them. You have to tell them what's good. You have to make them appreciate it. Teach them and then you can sell it.'"
Duane took this lesson to heart. "A knowledgeable customer is going to know that you're offering tremendous value."