The Call of the Collector

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A DeKalb sign typical of those once used on fenceposts

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Most people have an easy time drawing a line between their work and their hobby. But for Tony Mitchell DeZago, that line is blurred beyond recognition. A transplanted New Yorker, Tony works as an auctioneer in southern California. His all-consuming hobby - his passion, actually - is collecting antique farm equipment.

Tony is the kind of man who embraces his passions with an enthusiastic vigor. During the years he worked in the music industry in southern California, he amassed a vast collection of LP records. Later, he was nearly consumed by a collection of classic cars and related literature and photographs. Now, it's antique farm equipment that's found a home on a 7.5 acre ranch in the Anza Borrego desert.

'In addition to the tractor collection, I have nearly 40 horse- or tractor-drawn implements ranging from walking cultivators and plows to grain drills and wagons,' he says. 'I have approximately 400 different antique farm harvest tools and pieces of old hardware, several cream and milk cans, 20 hand-cranked or electric-powered cream separators, a variety of seed separators, fanning mills, grist mills, silage cutters, corn shellers and planters; hay hooks, forks and knives; well pumps, windmills, old gas pumps, numerous iron wheels, single trees and double trees, hames, hay rakes and elevators, manure spreaders, grain bins, livestock carriers, gas engines, farm trucks and vintage cars, antique washing machines, wash tubs, pails, feeders, and at least 275 metal and porcelain signs, pedal tractors, 27 tractors, tractor parts, oh and don't let me forget to mention diecast toys, farm-related books, original factory literature and collectibles.

'Personally, I'm hooked, I'll admit it,' he says. 'I love this stuff, but my wife ... well, bless her heart, she still panics when she sees our neighbor, Jim Carnahan, and me coming through the gate with another trailer load.'

Given the one-way direction of trailer loads through that gate, Loretta DeZago's fears are well founded.

'Occasionally, I'll sell some of my farm stuff,' Tony says. 'But that's pretty rare. I'm constantly buying; I'm always interested.'

That interest - backed up by extensive research - has provided a solid foundation for his work in the auction ring.

'I use old farm books and literature to do research,' he says. 'When you go back to those roots, you get the information first-hand. The worst thing in the world is to be an auctioneer and not know what something is. When you're an auctioneer, you've got to know when you've got good stuff.'

That full immersion into a hobby is equally representative of Tony's approach to his career. Starting in 1972, he spent 10 years learning the business.

'I worked every auction I could possibly work,' he says, 'just hanging around, learning the chant and the lingo.'

A 22x38 McCormick Deering all-steel threshing machine from abut 1930. The piece is in 100 percent original condition, including paint. An unusual piece to find in California, the thresher was hauled there from Iowa, where it had been stored in a barn for several years. 'Everything on it still works,' Tony says. 'You could hook up it up to belts and it would still work. This is one of my favorite pieces. I always wanted one of these ... getting it was a dream come true.'

The work is second nature to him now. Specializing in farm and farmstead collectibles, Tony holds weekly auctions in San Diego and Ramona. He also conducts appraisals for museums and individuals, and occasionally loans pieces for use in parades and film work. Recently, he's handled the auctions at the Tulare and Vista antique farm equipment shows.

That kind of exposure to the hobby has convinced him of one thing.

'The market for farm collectibles is still on the rise,' he says. 'It hasn't peaked at all. Every time we take a farm implement or a tool or a tractor to a sale, we see the prices increasing. I think that's true across country; actually, I think California is slower than the Midwest or back East. And tractors are really starting to take off ... they're finding their range. I think more people can afford a tractor and find room to store it, as opposed to a $50,000 classic car. You can get two tractors and put them in the garage for $1,000.'

Tony's collection sprawls well beyond that 'two tractors in the garage' scenario. The Vallecito Mountains provide a dramatic A portion of Tony's model collection. He displays about 250 farm tractor toys accented by a variety of collectibles including signs, fobs, and medallions. backdrop for a huge collection of artfully arranged artifacts. Storage buildings are packed to the ceiling. He's interested in literally anything with any connection to farming, but he's drawn to pieces with handles and gearing. 'And I like tractors when things are attached to them,' he says. 'I use a lot of this stuff on the land. I plow and disk ... I like watching gears work; that's the fun of having it. It's just fun to run a tractor.'

Sooner or later, he says, 'an auction is inevitable here. I probably have enough for a three-day auction. But not yet. I'm having fun right now, too much fun. It's a hobby for me, not just a business. And there's no end in sight.'

'This model, with just the single front wheel, was made for just one year only,' Tony says of this 1935 Oliver Hart Parr Model 70 NF. 'It was converted to propane in about 1941.' The tractor originally featured a canvas seat, Tony says: he hung a feed bag on the frame. 'My tractors are all California tractors, original and unrestored. Some run, some are derelicts. I like them in original condition; I'm not into restoration. Faded paint, flat tires - as long as they are fairly complete I can detail them out some. I see restored and 'Expo' quality tractors all the time. I just happen to like mine lined up near a fence row or sitting in a field or under the lean-to, pretty much the way they were left all those years ago.'