It’s June 26, 2004, and David Rago is standing beside a woman in a crowded Saint Paul, MN, convention center. Between them is a dark wooden chair without a seat or cushion. To an untrained eye, it looks elegant yet sturdy—not too different from most higher-end dining chairs.
“It’s my sister’s chair,” the woman explains. “She purchased it from some friends of mine in the late ’70s. [Years later], she was looking at an Antique Trader [magazine], noticed another chair in there called ‘the lost treasure,’ and realized maybe she had a treasure of her own.”
It’s a story Rago has heard frequently as an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow— a PBS series that sends specialists across the country to assign values to the nation’s antiques and collectibles. Often, a man-on-the-street comes in with a family heirloom or flea market find and discovers it’s very valuable. Or not.
With one hand resting gently on the chair, Rago speaks quickly, his excitement palpable: the chair is an early one by famed furniture maker Gustav Stickley. He traces its origins to the turn of the 20th century, concluding that “today’s market [value] for this chair is $40,000 to $50,000.”
“Oh, my word,” the woman says, grinning. “That’s awesome.”
Awesome, yes, but all in a day’s work for Rago, who specializes in American and European 20th-century decorative arts and furnishings, and frequently handles items valued at five or more digits.
But despite his success in the field—including appearances on a hit TV show and a flourishing arts and auction center in Lambertville, NJ— there’s one prized item Rago’s still hoping to get his hands on: a BA from The College of New Jersey.
As a teenager looking to earn money for college, Rago began selling American decorative ceramics at flea markets near his Hamilton, NJ, home. He’d scour his neighbors’ basements and attics for items that caught his eye, then keep a third of what he sold them for as payment.
“I knew the first time I saw a piece of American pottery”—a “mediocre” Roseville piece his parents had bought in Lambertville—“that that was it for me,” he says. “I was very fortunate to be 16 and know what I was going to do with my life. It was also a way of being my own boss, paying for college, and having fun at the same time.”
By the time he was a student here in the mid-1970s, Rago was working three jobs to pay for his education: night shifts at a grocery store, packing cooling units into cardboard boxes, and repairing bicycles. On the weekends, he made time for his true passion: flipping antiques.
“On Friday, I’d work at the supermarket until midnight and drive from there to the Englishtown flea market, where I’d set up by lantern,” he recalls. “I’d stay there until 9 a.m., then attempt to drive home without falling asleep. I’d work again Saturday evening, then go to the Lambertville flea market on Sunday morning.”
Soon, he was working 70 hours a week on top of his class load, and it became clear something had to give—that something was his senior year at TCNJ.
Within the year, Rago expanded his business from selling his neighbors’ old possessions to running antiques up, down, and across the East Coast. “I’d get in my van and drive from D.C. to Boston and as far west as Chicago to meet clients, pick things up, and then sell them privately,” he says. “I was a middleman—a source of ceramics for a number of people.”
He still remembers one of his early, exhilarating finds: a piece of Owens Pottery from Ohio made in 1905. When a friend in Massachusetts sent him a Polaroid of the piece, Rago knew it was something special, and paid $1,000— $700 more than the original asking price—to have the friend meet him halfway with it. He sold it the same night for $3,000.
Rago is the first to point out that his do-it-yourself entrée into American decorative ceramics came at just the right time: “Up until 1970, it was very unusual for people to get into the business that way,” he says. “For the most part, people were born into the business or they were art majors. After 1970, it became a little more democratic. You were as good as what you found.”
More importantly, American decorative ceramics wasn’t yet a field of study, so the pieces were both available and affordable, allowing a hard-working teenager on a shoestring budget to transform a talent into a career.
Following a two-year stint at the NYC-based Jordan-Volpe Gallery, Rago decided to start his own antique auction in 1983. “If I had any clue what I was getting into, I never would have done that,” he says with a laugh. “Starting an auction from scratch was more work than I thought possible.”
Still, he dedicated himself to it for the next few years, and “eventually it started to work for us.” In 1996 — the same year he became an on-camera appraiser for Antiques Roadshow — Rago bought a building in Lambertville and moved all his auctions there. The Rago Arts and Auction Center, which specializes in 20th-century decorative art, currently hosts 12 to 14 auctions per year and boasts a client base of 40,000 collectors, dealers and interior designers.
More than three decades after leaving campus to pursue his antiques career, Rago still prizes the years he spent at TCNJ, crediting his English professors with his writing ability and confidence. “In my business, not many people can write or speak publicly,” he says. “Most people have a fear of putting something down on paper. I don’t.”
Indeed, he began publishing articles on decorative arts in 1975, and in 1978 — a year after he left TCNJ — he became an antiques columnist. Over the years, he’s written more than 500 magazine and newspaper articles and five books, and his arts and auction house publishes two national magazines: Modernism and Style 1900.
Now, he hopes to return to the campus where his career began: “I’m thinking of pursuing [a degree] in English or history or maybe computers or maybe all three [at TCNJ],” he says. “I’d like to start with a BA and see how that works with my schedule. I don’t want to do this half-heartedly.”
Ed’s note: Since publication of this article, David Rago has re-enrolled at the College and is working toward finishing his degree.