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Collectors are gobbling up antique lures

Bill May's plan to help a local charity and provide himself with a tax break at the same time didn't work out quite the way he had hoped.

A few years ago, May, who lives in Butler, donated an antique fishing lure to WTAE-TV for an auction designed to raise money for Project Bundle Up. It was a Creek Chub Pikie Minnow, a jointed, seven-inch wooden lure with a metal lip and a couple of treble hooks.

May's intent all along was to buy the lure back when it went up for bid. He never got the chance.

"I had it valued at about $2,500, but when they put it up, the very first bid was for $5,000," May said. "I was like, whoa. And it just kept going up from there. My buddies and I were watching it on TV, and they kept saying, 'I guess you're not getting that one back.' And I didn't."

The lure ultimately sold for $18,000.

If that sounds like a lot of money to spend on a chunk of wood originally meant to be dragged through the water, around weeds and over rocks, all in an attempt to catch fish, it is. But then, to serious collectors, there's almost no price too high for a rare old lure.

May has in his collection, for example, a mouse-shaped lure made by Shakespeare. Originally owned by his grandfather, it cost 39 cents when bought new in the late 1800s, May said. He's been offered as much as $30,000 for it, though.

Just a few years ago, a collector paid more than $100,000 for a 10-inch lure known as the Haskill Minnow because it was the prototype for the bait with the oldest surviving patent in the United States, said Dave Hartranft of Bethlehem, region 2 vice president for the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club.

"That lure is the holy grail among collectors," Hartranft said. "It's like anything else that's one of a kind. Look at what an original Rembrandt painting goes for. Millions of dollars. It's the same with antique lures. Really and truly, they are works of art."

Indeed, lures that date back 100 years or so were hand carved and hand painted, sometimes with as many as 15 to 18 layers of primer, paint and sealer, and had glass eyes, said Jack Rose of Latrobe, another lure collector.

"Some people will look at your collection and not be impressed. To them, they're just old fishing lures," Rose said. "But for someone who really appreciates them, those old lures are really something.

"And some of these collectors have enough money that they don't care what something costs. They see what they want, and they buy it up."

A number of factors determine how much an old lure is worth, said Jason Michaels of Mercer, who counts about 14,000 lures in his collection, the most expensive of which cost him $60,000. Brand, color, condition and rarity are all important. More than anything, though, demand determines price, Michaels said.

"I've been to collectors shows where you've got a lure that you paid a couple of hundred dollars for initally, and before the show was over someone would offer you $6,000 for it because they had to have it," Michaels said.

Lure prices really took off a decade or so ago, Hartranft said, in large part because of markets like e-bay. May has noticed the same thing. He's put lures valued at $100 on e-bay for a minimum of $350 and quickly sold them for $750, he said.

"People will say that unless you've got a buyer, those old lures aren't worth anything. Well, now you have buyers galore because of e-bay," May said. "The stupidest things you wouldn't think are worth anything, it'a amazing what they'll sell for."

All that's made it harder for the person of average means to amass a collection of really rare lures, Rose said. But there's still a lot of fun to be had.

"I just enjoy looking at the fine work on these old lures," Rose said. "Back in the days, they spend hours and hours working on just one lure. And they were just meant to fish with."

More than just a box

As valuable as old fishing lures can be, the boxes in which they were originally packaged can be worth even more.

Early on, fishing lures were sold in wooden boxes. Those are prized by collectors. Even more valuable are the cardboard boxes that came along later, said Dave Hartranft of the National Fishing Lure Collectors Club.

"You often find those wooden boxes in someone's basement because when a guy took the lure out, he filled the box with screws or nuts or something. It had utilitarian value," Hartranft said.

"Guys were more likely to just throw the cardboard boxes away because they weren't as sturdy, especially if they got wet, so they're harder to find."

Jason Michaels once paid $10,000 to get the box for a particular Shakespeare lure. Produced for just six months, the box is one of just three known to exist.

"And the lure that goes in it is only worth about $50," Michaels said. "That's because you can go to any collector's show and see maybe 100 of them."

In the meantime, anyone interested in getting started in antique lure collecting can check out the National Fishing Collector's Club web site at www.nflcc.com .

Jack Rose and Jason Michaels also appraise old fishing tackle and lures. Rose can be reached at 724-537-5869; Michaels can be reached at pizzajoes@hotmail.com . You can also visit his web site at www.oldtacklebox.com .

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