June 28 2011 08:22 PM

My admiration for a local antiques collector


Long before the Gaslamp Quarter became the gentrified playground of San Diego's young 9-to-5ers, there was this giant antique mall down there, south of Market. It was in a turn-of-the-century brick building, about six stories tall, surrounded by boarded-up warehouses, produce distribution centers and vandalized phone booths. When I was a kid, one of the things that amazed me about the antique mall was that the very top floor was devoted to vintage automobiles: I remember rows of sleek deco masterpieces of the 1930s. Whoever ran this place chose to put the cars on the top floor!

Another highlight of the old Downtown antique mall was the second floor: There were dozens of operating cuckoo clocks hanging everywhere. If you were fortunate to be there right on the hour, the whimsical clocks' singing birds, Dutch dancers, chiming bells and little opening and closing shutters and doors would simultaneously come to life.

The timing of the cuckoo show was precise because the owner was really into time. When I say “owner,” I mean the owner of half of the second-floor space. I don't know who owned the building; it was divided into rental spaces, from tiny booths (as in a typical antique mall) to an entire floor rented by the owner of the old cars.

When I say the owner was “into time,” I mean he collected not just cuckoos, but all sorts of old timepieces, from art-nouveau mantel clocks to delicate, early-20th-century filigreed diamond and platinum ladies' wristwatches.

As a teenager, I'd waste whole days in the antique mall, inspecting every faded old metal toy, obsolete kitchen gadget, heavy crystal goblet, imposing armoire, rare picture book of boats and campaign button for a forgotten politician. I don't know why I was so fascinated with those old things. I suspect it has to do with my attraction to meditating on the temporariness of life.

That's part of why the antique guy captured my interest: He was older than me, so he had to know that time was slipping, slipping, slipping into the future, and he had decided to denote its passing with a wall of cuckoo clocks.

Eventually, I befriended this master of the cuckoo clock, a former history teacher named Ken, who had a passion for collecting and trading mostly small, attractive mechanisms of yesteryear: not just the inner workings of time-marking machines, but also the artistry of fine jewelry, old carved flatware, daggers, silver, gold, diamonds. It wasn't just the value of the precious metals (though you could tell it was part of the appeal since he sported a chunky gold watch and his eyes would gleam when he showed off his more valuable treasures). Nope, Ken wasn't going to get rich selling antique pocket watches and assorted esoteric tchotchkes; he had an authentic collector's passion.

What I also loved about this guy was that he would take out the loupe and show you the stuff and explain why it was or wasn't valuable.  He didn't push you to buy anything; he just shared his enthusiasm. He wasn't greedy enough to be dishonest with his customers or dishonest with himself enough to be greedy.

Over the years, I sold Ken a few old silver trinkets, but more often, I bought things from him:  a masculine, James Bond-looking, 1962 self-winding black and silver Mido Swiss watch that lasted until a bicycle accident smashed it to bits; an old marble mantel clock that was still working when I eventually gave it to a friend as a gift; a mid-century ladies' watch for another friend, which was either lost or ripped from her wrist one night on Hollywood Boulevard; the 1920s deco engagement and wedding rings that my ex may or may not still have.

When the Gaslamp became gentrified, the old antique mall disappeared—it must've been there until the early '90s. But I soon found Ken at the Ocean Beach Antique Mall, which he owns. He seemed to remember me, and I was happy to have him in my neighborhood.

Whenever I would visit him at the new place, we would shoot the breeze, and once the conversation turned to politics, we learned right away that we didn't see eye-to-eye, so we sought common ground and then let it drop. Politics doesn't trump everything: I've continued to visit his O.B. mall, to find safe subjects to discuss—most often the splendor of old-school objects and pride in craftsmanship—and marvel at the wall of cuckoos, safely transplanted. Recently I picked up the 24-jeweled 1950s Bulova self-winder I'm wearing now—I think it cost me about $100.

A couple weeks ago, three men walked into Ken's Ocean Beach Antique Mall in broad daylight and pulled a shotgun on Ken and his daughter, duct-taped their eyes and arms and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the jewelry Ken had been collecting for 30 years.

He told 10 News that he wondered if the robbers were going to kill him and his daughter.

“This... could have been the last time I saw my daughter alive,” he told the reporter.

The robbers got away, but they were captured very clearly on video surveillance cameras, which you can see here: www.10news.com/news/28316182/detail.html.

Ken, whose last name I learned, from the online news site OBRag.org, is Freeman, is offering a reward of $10,000 of his own money for the capture of the criminals. 

Robberies happen all the time, but when they happen to someone you know and respect, it really hits home. I can't solve the crime, but I intend to go down there next weekend and buy that one particular cuckoo clock I've had my eyes on for 25 years.

Anyone with any information is asked to call the Robbery Division of the San Diego Police Department at 619-531-2299 or Detective D. Wolfe at 619-515-2774.   

Write to dak@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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