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. 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 local 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's made his living for nearly 40 years hunting for treasure among other people's trash, is presently making money as a handyman to 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, "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.

For old-school art pickers, the thrill is fading — and so's the payoff.
Jamie Peachey
For old-school art pickers, the thrill is fading — and so's the payoff.

Orr’s version of the untitled Picasso painting that started it all.
Jamie Peachey
Orr’s version of the untitled Picasso painting that started it all.

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's found in galleries or antique stores, then marked up 700 percent and immediately resold. Most he's 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 that Orr remembers most, though, the untitled painting that Orr calls 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 4 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."

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9 comments
PhoenixPicker
PhoenixPicker

There are still places to make money, you just have to know where to find them!

Gai1959
Gai1959

I knew your dad. Gary @gai1959@aol.com

helentroy4
helentroy4

Read this story when it first came out. He better speed up the production of his film because tonight I saw a commercial on one of the cable stations for a new show about "pickers." On the History Channel I believe. It's called "American Pickers."

Looks like his "Pablo 15 minutes of fame" has already been given to someone else.

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Robert W. Gately
Robert W. Gately

I would be remissed if I did not tell Rick Orr that his film would be totally enjoyed by Himself, Dennis Hopper, a man made clean and sober by his dad, Owen Orr, as indeed his Dad did tell me the story.

I was living with Owen at an apartment house he was manager of for and owned by the Directors Guild of America behind their Sunset Blvd headquarters. Owen burst in on me one afternoon and said, "Come on, I need you to ride shotgun." I got off the bed, threw some water on my face and said, "Wha ?"...He explained that some East El Aye punks had broken into Dennis Hoppers agent/managers Mercedes and snatched his briefcase with four signed, sealed and delivered movie deals. We drove down the Strip to the agent/managers office and were delivered right in where set a discolate Dennis Hopper and his main man. The deal was that we were to go down to the Watts neigborhood corner the banditos had directed him to and he was to pass a grand ($1000) and get the briefcase back.

We drove down in Owens puke smelling Cadillac to the corner and parked across the street from the drop zone. There was a gang of , what did we call them, Niggers hanging there and we were like standing out like white narcs at a bust about to happen.I pointed out to Owen that their were eight of them and only two of us and we didnt have even a tire iron to confront them with if the deal went wrong...The agent/manager pulled up, took down his right side window and we saw him and the nigger pass an envelope and the briefcase...the deal was done as the agent/manager checked to see the papers were there. Whew ! We drove back to Hollywood wondering what ta fuck we would have done if the niggers had jumped the agent/manager, took the dough and closed the show. We'll never know as it all turned out just fine. One can only wonder how dem black boys knew that them papers was worth a grand ?

We could go on and on as our adventures with Owen Orr continued, Ricks father was a never ending source of wonderment to all of us who knew him well, and didnt...You could look into his burning Irish eyes and see hell didnt have a chance and he did indeed teach us all how to dance beyond the demons rums trance....Blessed are the Owens who would take us to a place we could not get to without them....

RWG

Robert W. Gately
Robert W. Gately

Yeah, Rick Orr is a pure picker, seeking treasures in other peoples recycled treasures. I too am a picker, I pick among obscure books and newspapers to hopefully find a gem or two that can be recycled in my memoirs. In ,"Chasing Pablo: For Old School Art Pickers, the Thrill is Fading...and so's the Payoff", I was gifted with finding the son of one of the most towering people in my life, his father, Owen Orr, aka, Greg Benedict, the actor. Thank you Robert Pela for bringing my ole pals son to our attention and consideration.

Owen Orr was indeed a towering figure in my high school days in Riverside , California. At 6'4" and with a face that could have been chisled by Michaelanglo,the story on his arrival was as a Bad Assed Mick that could lick any bully that dare bugged his Buddies. He was Old World Irish it was said, a fighter and an actor who would not only drink you under the table but then karate chop the table down on top of you. He came in from out of the blue, or was it the emerald isle, became the Pal of my Pals, Gordon Whitmer and Stephen Dale Squires and the other rowdy boy's of 1950's Riverside.

On graduation he disappeared into Hollywoodland and would come back with tales of the starlets he had fucked and the stars he was shucking and jiving with. It was pure Irish bullshite and we knew it, but, later we learned that it was all true and that he was running with the Brat Pack that included, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Troy Donahue, Dean Stockwell and a host of others with tabloid names and fame.Although he did not become a leading man in the movies, he became more a leading man in life, lifting countless alcoholic drunks from the gutters of El Aye and leading them back into a productive life. Those drunks included the aforementioned, Dennis Hopper, Troy Donahue, Dean Stockwell who would tell you to this day that Owen Orr was their savior when they hit the bottom and he was the only one with the way up out of the shitholes they were wallowing in when it was cool to be a drunk punk puking on your best Buds girlfriends floor.

The day they kicked me out of Betty Fords for passing funny paper (nsf check) on the former First Lady, it was Owen who rode out on his big bad Kawasaki and drove me at 80 miles per hour through rush hour traffic on the Ventura and San Diego Freeways to my first AA meeting in El Aye, the Beverly Hill Stag. I had never seen so many badd assed dudes in my life as was assembled in that room that day. Owen plunked me down in a seat on the first row and went over to the leader of the meeting, said something to him and pointed at me. Opps, I knew I was in for something an sure enough the leader introduced me first after the serenity prayer and I had to get up , go to the mic and announce that my name was Bob and I am an alcoholic and was bounced that morning from Betty Fords when my deposit check to the former First Lady had indeed bounced. The applause and gaffaws was thunderous as the 200 plus drunks in the room related to my fuck up. If I'd of had a tail it was between my legs as I returned to the seat in the front row.There was a guy standing in what would be considered the stage door who looked familuar, Jeez, it was Troy Donahue headed then right to me with open arms. He gave me a great bear hug and said, "Keep comming back, you'll get it." God bless, with Owens winds in my sales, I got it and stayed sober with him as my mentor, guide and best Bud for the next several years.

There is much I could tell Rick Orr about his Dad, the days up in Aspen when he tended bar at the Motherlode, the restaurant our pal, Gordon Whitmer ran for some 30 odd years. How Owen after getting sober told Gordon that he had tapped the till and owed he figured eight grand to The Lode. He paid it off and at his wedding at the Riverea Country Club we all came together to praise our high school Buddy and wish him well in his days ahead. And , he had many a fine day that followed him.

So Rick and Robert, thanks for the memorys, they will be indeed included in my memoirs of a life in music, art, entertainment and hospitality. To be Orr, Orr not to be, that is a good question

Robert W. Gatelyrwgately@yahoo.com(520) 424-8658

Dusti
Dusti

Great movie, I bought a copy off of pickingforpicasso.com and really enjoyed this man's story. I wish there were more films like this.

Bob
Bob

While everyone would love to make that great find, there is always somebody else on the other side of that find who was just ripped-off. Pickers are preying on the uninformed.

Steve Weiss
Steve Weiss

The film from this story PICKING FOR PICASSO will screen this Saturday,December 5 at Space 55, 636 East Pierce,Phoenix AZ 85004 at 7 pm (doors at 6:45)with tickets at $6.00.

Very surprised it wasn't mentioned in the article, but you can get more info at http://www.nofestivalrquired.w...

 
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