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In Character with Nigel Barnes

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nigel Barnes is used to being surrounded by unusual signs, light fixtures and assorted other house parts--hes the manager of salvage and antique lighting for Rejuvenation Inc. on Southeast Grand Ave. Southeast Portland’s Rejuvenation Inc. started by salvaging and re-selling light fixtures and hardware from old Portland buildings. Today, 95 percent of its business is replicating those items. But it’s that 5 percent — the stuff that’s found and re-sold — that’s the most fun, and that keeps the weirdness coming to manager of salvage and antique lighting Nigel Barnes.

Portland Tribune: Weirdest thing you’ve salvaged?

Nigel Barnes: You’re familiar with the grizzly bear that’s on the California state flag? That’s actually a specific grizzly bear that’s stuffed somewhere. We found a 12-foot-long, 6-foot-high bas-relief sculpture of the bear that was originally mounted on the funnel of a steamship called the Golden Bear.

When the ship was decommissioned in the ‘70s up in Washington, the ship salvage guy liked the bear, stuck it in a warehouse, and said he’d never sell it. Finally, he retired and said to the picker, “Come get it.”

It went from, “It’s not for sale” to, “It’s a million dollars if you want this thing” to, “Come and get it right now for a pittance.”

Tribune: How did you get it?

Barnes: We were opening our store in L.A. We have a relationship with this picker, and we said we really needed a showcase piece for the store. He said, “Oh, I’ve got something you might want.” We bought it.

Tribune: Can we ask how much?

Barnes: How much we paid for it? I can’t tell you. We sold it for $22,000.

Tribune: The pickers you work with, a little odd on occasion?

Barnes: It seems like it attracts a certain kind of person who may not be able to function in a normal job. One guy had a pocket full of meteorites. The coolest thing we couldn’t buy, other than a human skull, was an electric tube for a very, very old X-ray machine inside of its original packing case. It was suspended in a burlap sling and it was blown glass with these weird electrodes coming out of it. A total mad scientist thing.

Tribune: Why couldn’t you buy it?

Barnes: Because inside this device was a giant pool of mercury, like two cups worth.

Tribune: But as long as it’s contained. ...

Barnes: That amount of mercury, if that broke the entire building would have to be evacuated, every single person would have to be blood tested and the entire building would have to be closed down.

Tribune: On the other hand, it’s really cool. Anyway, now that you’ve got stores in L.A. and Seattle, do you notice any difference in what sells here?

Barnes: Here there’s more of a market for traditional stuff. It’s a more blue-collar town. People are more sensitive to prices.

Tribune: We’re cheap, aren’t we.

Barnes: No matter what the price is, someone is going to complain about it, regardless of the value, if it’s a low price or high price. L.A. is more status-driven. Art Deco and Mid-Century are very big there, especially furniture pieces by a famous maker or designer. Also, big over-the-top statement pieces like the bear.

We had a 7-foot-diameter flashing star sign with 350 bulbs. The kind of thing you’d see in a casino. That sold to an L.A. customer.

Tribune: How much?

Barnes: Thirty-thousand dollars, and that was actually cheap.

Tribune: What did the picker get? Can I ask that?

Barnes: You can ask it, yes. ...

Tribune: Well, can I ask about a favorite salvage story?

Barnes: A man came in looking for a really unusual hardware piece. I think it was a spring-loaded retractable sash pin from the 1870s, a type of window lock. He said, “Do you have this? I’ve been looking for this matching piece for 10 years.” It was ornate, Victorian style. We had gotten that matching piece in very recently. It was in a bucket under the counter. I pulled it out and said, “Here it is.”

He said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” Then he asked how much it was, and I said $10.

Tribune: You sold a star-shaped light for $30,000 and this 1870s piece of hard-to-find hardware you pull out of thin air like magic, you sell for 10 bucks?

Barnes: He said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Tribune: You think maybe you underpriced that item?

Barnes: No. He was upset because he thought it was too expensive. That’s Portland.