Falling From Grace

Richard Rother lived by his good name. When the cops took that away from him, he walked off a ten-story building.

"The whole intent of this cops-and-robbers game is to find a culprit when there is none," says Tom Rother, Richard's brother, a mortgage broker who lives in Laguna Beach, California. "This kind of thing doesn't produce someone in south Denver who's got a warehouse full of stolen stuff, but they don't care. My poor brother, in his social and physical dysfunction--it could have been somebody else, and they would have just handled it. But Richard lived a very closed-in life."

"It's not just what the police did, but the way they did it," Boderke says. "I really feel he should still be alive."

To understand what happened to Richard Rother, you have to know about picking and the people who do it for a living. Picking is the last great refuge of the indie and the garden-level entrepreneur, the goofball and the hermit, anyone who loves well-made things and despises the workaday world. It's an attic treasure hunt, a basement safari, a raid of the lost ARC, a fleecing of the flea market, an immersion in romance and squalor, with the elusive promise of a monster score wafting from the next aisle.

Feature this: The thrill of being the first one through the door at a one-day estate sale, scooping up a chrome fountain pen from the 1930s and a wafer-thin Patek-Philippe watch while all those clodhoppers behind you are still wading through the cheap ceramics. Or this: The kick in the gut that comes from excavating a path through a dusty back room in a secondhand store, past ratty Barcoloungers and foul-smelling naugahyde sofas, to unearth a perfect Platonic ideal of a chair, something glorious from Aalto or Eames or Noll, in need of varnish but intact. Or this: The heart palpitation that greets you at the bottom of a pile of very bad paintings, when a Birger Sandzen watercolor slips into your grimy hands, begging to be rescued from the crapola and displayed on some rich collector's wall.

Rother knew such joys and more. He loved picking. He lived by it, until they arrested him over a pile of dinged-up silverware. The stuff cost him $165 and everything that mattered.

The characters who populate the art and antique business come from all over, from the street to the penthouse. Rother was a fixture on the Denver scene for at least fifteen years, a regular at art openings and estate sales, but his career as a picker actually began much earlier, when he was growing up in Lansing, Michigan, in the early 1960s.

"He'd done this since he was a little kid," says Gisela Boderke. "He told me that when he was ten he'd go through the dumpsters and show off what he found."

Rother drifted into Denver in the 1970s, a twentysomething with strong opinions about movies and art but no particular ambitions. For many years, he worked as a waiter at the Petroleum Club and bought and sold objets in his spare time. When he lost that job in the mid-1980s over some long-forgotten altercation, he began to make the rounds of the yard sales and thrift stores on a daily basis, determined to survive by his wits. Notoriously frugal, his strategy was to spend as little as possible and sell as quickly as possible, even if keeping a piece longer might yield better offers.

"If he bought something today, he'd sell it today," recalls local artist Myron Melnick. "Thirty cents on the dollar--so the next guy could mark it up. He'd strap chairs to the top of his car and go all over town, trying to get rid of them."

Shortly after Melnick first met him, the picker horned in on a yard sale at Melnick's house. Rother began unloading items from his ancient, battered Volvo, all the while explaining that he had a few things he wanted to sell, too. "Before I could turn around, he'd sold everything he brought," Melnick says.

Rother concentrated on the sort of merchandise he knew best: modernist furniture, regional painters such as Sandzen, vintage watches. He researched obscure artists at the public library and made the sort of connections a picker needs to buy and sell a painting in a single day.

"It's pretty easy buying stuff," notes antique dealer Jay Razor, "but getting rid of it is another matter. You have to be choosey about what you buy, and you have to know where you're going to take the thing that afternoon to sell it. Richard knew what people were looking for. He used to buy primitive furniture for me and leave it in my driveway. Most of the time I'd buy it."

Rother's moods were as unpredictable as his business. He could be loud and abrasive, showing off his knowledge of art and his "new" pair of Italian loafers (no doubt purchased at a thrift store), or brooding and sullen.

"There were a lot of pickers who didn't like him," says one antique dealer. "His forte was standing in line in estate sales. It's very competitive. He'd try to get up to the front of the line, start talking to somebody, and then they'd open the door and he'd get in ahead of everyone else. People would see that and resent it."

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