A Peek Inside the Collectibles Empire of Terry Kovel

For a half century, collectors of all stripes from across the country have turned to antiques expert Terry Kovel. The Shaker Heights resident has scores of historic toys, outdated kitchen gadgets, and various kinds of pottery packed in her home office. It’s a busy operation where Kovel holds court over cast-off bits of popular culture. She says the start of her obsession with collectibles dates back to a purchase, almost eighty years ago.

It’s a moustache cup,” says Kovel, inspecting the ceramic vessel decorated with purple and gold flowers. She points out a porcelain strip across the rim on one side of the cup to protect a gentleman’s moustache from getting soaked when he sips a cup of coffee.

Terry Kovel's first collectible: a moustache cup. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

We were at Niagara Falls, and I had been given a dollar to spend,” she recalls. “My mother said, ‘I’m going to take the money back, if you don’t buy something.’ So, I looked around and decided to buy this cup for a quarter.” 

Terry Kovel doesn’t know why she decided on the moustache cup, exactly. But, it was ground zero for a stockpile of stuff that continues to grow. The home that she and her late-husband Ralph built in the 1950s is filled with a wide-ranging collection, everything from classy to kitsch. There are ancient egg-beaters, vintage road signs and hundreds of other objects.

It is something that’s in the genes, I’m convinced,” she says. “And somebody claims in some of the psychology things, it’s like nuts and squirrels. The squirrel that can get the best nuts - that is the one that survives.”

And the Kovels established an antiques & collectibles empire that has survived for over 60 years, starting in 1953 with a book explaining the identification marks stamped onto the bases of pottery.

The book went 42 printings; it went out of print and it’s now on-line as a paid feature on our site,” she says. “And we did it by hand-drawing every picture. It was unheard of.”

Kovel suspects it was a case of really good timing. They got their start at the same time that the American collecting hobby began.

Soldiers came back from Germany and they’d seen castles, houses, rooms with plates hanging on the wall, and they all brought home Hummel figures for grandma. And then, they wanted another Hummel figure.”

She says, it prompted a whole new way of thinking. Up until that time, you inherited your antiques. If it wasn’t your grandfather’s sideboard, what were you doing with it?

The Kovels built a replica of a general store in their basement [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

My father couldn’t understand that - why would someone buy an old piece of furniture? He began to when we started making money.”

A salesman by trade, Ralph Kovel used his marketing skills to convince legendary Cleveland Press editor Louis Seltzer to tryout a column for six weeks in 1954. And the bulk of the research fell on Terry, while raising two kids at home.

I don’t know how we got that book done,” Kovel muses. “We had to keep everything up in the air, because my son was just old enough to tear it apart if it was on the floor - he was three, what did he know?”

Ralph & Terry Kovel on the set of their nationally syndicated TV program [Press Collection / Cleveland State University]

The Kovels: Antiques and Collecting column has since been syndicated to hundreds of newspapers across the country. And that led to a nationally distributed television program. Terry Kovel has a staff of researchers and assistants who work out of her house. The walls of three converted garages are lined with 18,000 reference books which she’s used to produce a hundred publications - half of them price guides that collectors consult to learn the value of everything from beanies babies to handbags to athletic sneakers.

They’re called sneaker heads,” she says. “I actually first heard about sneaker heads from the guy who came in to read my gas meter.”

But, Kovel admits, the culture of collectibles can get extreme. At one point, she had a reputation as the world’s largest collector of banana stickers.

It’s a way of life,” she says. “And if you’re not a collector, like my son, you don’t understand it at all.”

And so, the obsession continues in this Shaker Heights home, brimming with milk cartons and signs and games and Egyptian Revival furniture and paintings and plates, a moustache cup and other pieces of America’s past.

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