Tribune Print Share Text

The king of pop culture collectibles

Created date

January 29th, 2009


If you ve ever caught an episode of the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, you ve probably seen him. He s the appraiser wearing a Hawaiian shirt, bright orange Converse high-top sneakers, and an impressive length of silver hair tied in a ponytail.

He s the always colorful, somewhat eccentric, and incredibly knowledgeable Gary Sohmers, the self-professed King of Pop Culture and a veritable databank of what he says are 100,000 useless objects.

While they may be useless in the conventional sense, they re often very valuable and, in many cases, shoved away in an attic or cellar. When asked what he means by useless, Sohmers sifts through the inventory in his mind and rattles off an example.

It could be a poster from a 1964 Beatles concert; what could you do with that? he asks. You could hang it on your wall. You could wrap fish with it, but it s worth $150,000 if you don t wrap a fish in it.

Passion for stuff

Sohmers is one of the foremost experts on everything from toys and posters to rock and roll memorabilia and guitars. He travels the country attending as many as four antiques and collectibles shows a month, absorbing what s out there and what it s selling for. It s an extension of his passion for stuff, and one that began blossoming at an early age when his father, a traveling salesman, would bring home cigar boxes brimming with campaign buttons.

As Sohmers recalls, his father would teach his siblings and him about the palm-sized artifacts and the politics and history behind them. But even more important to the budding collectibles expert and entrepreneur was the realization that he could buy something for $1 and sell it for $10.

It wasn t long before he found himself standing behind a foldout table making deals with neighborhood locals on secondhand items. I was eight years old when I had my first yard sale, he recalls. I sold the toys that I didn t want anymore so that I could go out and buy more stuff, and I guess I never stopped doing that.

The expert at work

Decades later, he has a hand in nearly every aspect of collectibles as an appraiser and a consultant. Watching him at work on Antiques Roadshow is to witness an expert and a big kid all wrapped in one.

Wow, this is absolutely unbelievable! Where did you get this? he asks as a guest reveals the infamous but desirable Butcher Cover version of The Beatles Yesterday and Today LP.

This particular record was available for just one day in 1966, before stores throughout the U.S. sent their entire shipments back to Capitol Records demanding a cover where the band wasn t posing draped in pieces of meat and baby doll parts. Thanks to that recall, the album that she purchased from Sears for $2.99 is today worth about $12,000.

In another instance, a guest shows Sohmers a collection of 32 unopened die-cast Hot Wheels cars from the late 1960s. Oh, my goodness! Did you know what you had when you were looking through them? he asks the guest. You have some of the rarest examples here. ... Altogether, this collection would probably bring $3,000 to $4,000.

Supply and demand

Determining such values, according to Sohmers, is a combination of marketplace knowledge and economics. It s basic economic supply and demand, he says. Just like anything else, it s based on how much demand is in the marketplace and how rare the item is.

Sohmers has also earned himself a solid reputation as a collectibles consultant, helping people turn clutter into cash as well as appraising their collections. This includes everything from appraisals for tax-deductible donations and insurance riders to helping next-of-kin manage a house full of belongings, some of which go to auctions and others to flea markets.

I help people find the prices of things that need to go, Sohmers explains. I also help people downsize, too. For those who are moving to a smaller, more manageable home, I help sort through what they have to give them an idea of what it s worth.

Regardless of where this wealth of knowledge takes him, though, it all comes back to that very basic love of stuff. He may walk into an antique show a businessman, but he always ends up roaming the aisles in search of that bit of nostalgia.

If you ask him about his personal collection, he immediately calls attention to its eclectic nature a reflection of the collector himself. I m pretty much interested in everything, he says. I collect toys, rock memorabilia, and Disney stuff. If it s interesting, it s fair game for Sohmers.

There s an old saying that one person s trash is another person s treasure. But there s always the chance that this trash belongs in Sohmers s inventory of 100,000 items, very possibly making it everyone s treasure.