After 50 years of collecting vintage vehicles, music boxes,
jukeboxes, Houdini memorabilia and more, auctioneer
Preston Evans is set to pound his gavel one last time.
With all the cars he owns, you’d think Preston Evans could roll around Newnan in a snappier set of wheels.
He’s got an orange 1930 Packard convertible (in next section), with glove-soft leather interior and a rumble seat. He’s got an apple red 1957 Plymouth Belvedere, like the one Keith Gordon drove in the movie “Christine,” a car so bad it was Satanic.
He’s got the “Driving Miss Daisy” Cadillac (pictured here), for crying out loud, a black, ragtop behemoth, built in 1949. He’s got a warehouse full of cars, and they all run.
Does he drive these cars? No.
Instead, Preston sports a canary yellow Aveo, a South Korean subcompact, with a broken nose and a caved-in door. Adding insult to injury, the car has a billboard on the side, for a museum that doesn’t exist.
It’s a classic case of the cobbler’s children owning no shoes.
Preston Evans doesn’t care. Fix his banged-up Aveo? “I wouldn’t spend a nickel on it,” he says, looking over his fleet, his salty-gray hair bristling with each word. “I don’t spend my money like that. I drive it. When a horse breaks his leg, what do you do? You shoot him, right?”
You can bet that Preston, the one-time auctioneer, is quick on the trigger. The 73-year-old Newnan man is a picker, featured on the television show “American Pickers.” And he doesn’t really care about driving cars. What he cares about is finding them. For about 50 years he’s been very good at finding cars and vintage motorcycles and precious music boxes and classic jukeboxes and Houdini artifacts and a dozen other categories of antiques.
He has bought thousands of items, out of barns, warehouses and defunct museums, and he has sold thousands, usually at auctions that he stages himself.
But this May Preston is getting out of the game. This May he’s going to offload his mind-boggling collection and then put his hammer down.
The question is, can he do it?
Millionaire next door
When he was 20, Preston knew he was going to be a millionaire. He thought it would happen by the time he was 40. He missed it by one year. It wasn’t because he loved money, but because he loved work. He is that unusual self-created entrepreneur with no particular advantage, nor special training, who never borrowed money, always worked overtime and used the extra income to pursue his own peculiar enthusiasms: antiques.
He grew up in Gordon where his grandfather ran a Sinclair station and his father worked as a tool and jig craftsman for the Air Force base in nearby Warner Robins. A mechanical wizard, the father built things for the son, like a goat wagon and a go-kart.
The boy’s aptitude was in a different arena. He’d invest in bubble gum at his grandfather’s filling station and resell it at school for a profit. “I was buying and selling when I was 6 years old,” Preston said.
His parents divorced and his father moved to Macon. By then young Preston was collecting coins and acquiring wash pots and “smoothing irons” at yard sales. He attended Willingham High School but happened to visit Wilkinson County High School one day when he met his future wife, Lauretta Carswell.
“He was cute,” she said. “He asked if I wanted to go to a movie. I said ‘yes, yes, yes, yes.’”
The two were wed when he was 19 and she was 18. Preston studied at Mercer but didn’t graduate. He took extra courses in accounting. Crunching numbers was easier than his previous job, hosing out tanker trucks and cleaning boxcars that hauled kaolin. Eventually he got a job as a bank auditor and Lauretta worked teaching fourth grade. When their daughter Kathy was sick, Preston took several days off from his job at a local bank, and his supervisor criticized him.
“I asked him what was more important to him,” said Preston, “his child or his job? He said his job. I said ‘You son of a bitch!’ and that was that.”
Preston found another job, selling large appliances at Sears in Conyers where the family settled. He hunted for antiques after work. “Sometimes I’d just follow the truck,” he said, going wherever the road took him.
One day he peeked in the open door of a barn and saw a row of jukeboxes. He inquired about buying one. The owner asked if he wanted the whole lot. Preston bought them all for $200, and got help from his friends at Sears carting them home.
That began a lifelong obsession. What motivates Preston is the deal, the bargain, the hunt. He likes buying warehouses full of stuff, not just one item.
“If you’re not loading up the truck, you’re losing money,” he says.
The selling seems almost secondary to him. When he buys, he knows he’s made his money. “Rich people will always be around, and if you have what they want, they will buy it.”
He soon branched out from jukeboxes to 19th century music boxes, nickelodeons, Mutoscopes, Kinetoscopes, automata and other arcade machines. Before he retired from Sears at age 49, he opened an antiques store in Conyers and expanded his buying trips to the rest of the continental U.S.
One day a dealer from Las Vegas bought several jukeboxes from Preston and then sold them individually at auction. Preston took note and decided to hold his own auction. He essentially taught himself the skill. “You have to have a strong set of lungs.”
Until recently he held two a year.
Get your motor running
There are hundreds of fascinating objects in Preston’s warehouse, and there are stories attached to every one. Preston rattles them off with a voice like a Thompson machine gun — an auctioneer’s voice.
The mechanical elephant (below), who blinks his eyes and waves his trunk, came from the New Jersey farm of Volney Phifer, an animal trainer who worked with the lions and monkeys in early Tarzan movies.
After Phifer died, his belongings came to relatives in Georgia where Preston acquired some of them.
Another buying trip took Preston to South Dakota, where he struggled to convince a fellow to sell some items from a museum full of motorcycles. No deal. But the owner was willing to part with an antique gum dispenser shaped like Santa Claus for $600, something Preston had no knowledge of whatsoever. Yet Preston later auctioned it for $13,400, causing Lauretta to jump up onto the podium and kiss him right on the mouth, “in front of everybody.”
Another collector owned a music box that Preston longed for, a Swiss-made cylinder model, with a tiny bird inside that turns its head, opens its beak and sings (below). No sale. When the collector died, Preston bought it at auction for $32,000.
Plenty of owners refuse to sell their cherished collectibles, but when they die, somebody else sells it for them, Preston said.
He couldn’t stand it if that happened to his collection, which includes 14 cars, 75 motorcycles (a few of them are shown in his warehouse here), about 100 music boxes, mechanical toys, slot machines, velocipedes, toy pedal cars and magic show memorabilia. His collection is stored in several different warehouses in Newnan, and some of it is scattered around Warm Springs and South Dakota.
It will take an 80-page catalog to list every item in the 2,000 lots for sale during the three-day auction, May 27-29, at a warehouse in Newnan. Some items he won’t sell just yet, including his Houdini collection of handcuffs and leg-irons used by the performer.
“I know the future!” Preston said, walking through the warehouse one day last month, side-stepping a full-size statue of Marilyn Monroe. “The best person to sell my lifetime collection is me! I want to do it before my wife has to.”
He has said this before, just before he bought an automotive museum full of cars in Pleasantville, Pa. He was even thinking of slowing down years earlier, before visiting that museum full of motorcycles in Alcester, S.D. He ended up buying the museum, which he rehabbed for residential living. He and Lauretta lived there for a while.
At the turn of the new century, Preston and Lauretta came back to Georgia and moved to Newnan — to be near Sprayberry’s Barbecue, according to one source. He bought several buildings in Warm Springs and opened up a little village of attractions: a motorcycle museum called Art in Motion, a wax museum and a pub to serve the bikers who love going up and down the twisty hills of Ga. 190.
A visitor to his museums put him in touch with the folks behind the History Channel’s “American Pickers” show. They came to Warm Springs last year.
Now Preston has emptied out Art in Motion and hauled those motorcycles to Atlanta, where they will go under the hammer.
Time to sell out
“When you’re doing something this long, it’s in your blood, just like racing,” said Steve Hudson, of S&M Auto Repair, who works on Preston’s cars. “People like him don’t quit. They die.”
On a sunny, cool day in February Hudson was pulling the brakes off of a 1947 Frazer, the doors of his Newnan garage open to the chilly afternoon breeze. It’s one of many vintage vehicles he’s tuned up for Preston.
In a few days the dusty sedan — a rarity built by Kaiser with push-button door openers — would be spotless, the heavy, chromed bumpers gleaming like Lancelot’s armor.
But Hudson worried whether Preston’s future is as shiny. “I don’t think he can quit,” said Hudson. “I don’t think there is a school or therapy you can go to, to get off buying antiques. They don’t have one.”
Not that a relapse would kill him. Preston’s wife Lauretta, on the other hand, might. She’s seen him chase after ancient slot machines and Mobil gas station signs for more than five decades, and she’s heard him promise to slow down several times.
This time, he says, he means it. “You’ve heard me say my wife wants me to stop,” said Preston, stopping in for a visit with old friend and fellow collector Joe Crain. Crain owns an oil and gas delivery service and, until recently, a collection of 80 jukeboxes. “This time I’m the one saying it.”
Curious to see how Preston will react when faced with a store full of antiques, we peruse a two-story antiques shop in Newnan one day.
“This doesn’t do anything for me,” he said, looking at old photographs, Depression glass and hand-carved walking sticks.
“See this wagon?” he said, pointing to a poster from “Gone With the Wind” showing Rhett and Scarlett piloting a buggy during the burning of Atlanta. “I have that wagon. I can’t prove it, but I’m sure it’s that one.” It also came from the Volney Phifer farm.
Before he leaves, there’s one more item Preston should look at: a smoothing iron. For $15. No thank you, he says.
Photo: Preston’s 1957 BMW Isetta 300 Moto Coupe Deluxe dates back to 1952 when Italian refrigerator manufacturer, Renzo Rivotta, ventured into the microcar market.
The last waltz
If this is the last waltz, it’s more like a tarantella, because before Preston slows down, he must go full tilt. He is rushing to put out his brochure, struggling to get his collections polished up and posed.
He should have plenty of customers. “He has contacts all over the world,” said Crain.
He’s sold arcade machines to magician David Copperfield, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Dubble Bubble magnate Bruce Weiner.
Crain thinks it will be difficult for the picker to step away from the chase. But it can be done. “Like Preston, I finally got an ultimatum,” said Crain, whose wife encouraged him to offload his collection, which Preston auctioned for him.
“It’s like you got to cut a hand off. But sometimes you do."
When Preston is done, he will be truly retired. He plans to have fun and “spend my money foolishly.” But that should take some getting used to. Preston doesn’t like to waste a penny.
Preston and Lauretta were newlyweds when they went for a visit to the Biltmore, the grand 250-room estate in Asheville, N.C. that offers tours for visitors.
They waited in line, but when they got to the gate they found out it would cost $12 each to get in. They looked at each other and decided that was too extravagant, so they turned around and came back to Georgia.
This time they’re going back to the Biltmore. And they’re going in.
ABOUT THE STORY
I love a good, weird collection and Preston Evans certainly has one. I spent time with Preston and his wife, Lauretta, in Newnan as they prepared for auction, sorting and staging his cars, motorcycles, arcade machines and the like. I agree with his friend Joe Crain, who said Preston’s unique ability is being able to tally in his head a collection’s value. “Preston’s already added it up in head, what the whole room full is worth, while you’re still getting your pencil out,” said Crain.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1983. He has been a feature writer for most of his AJC career, covering music, the Olympics and Billy Graham’s last crusade. Emerson is married to Maureen Downey, who covers education for the AJC.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.
Preston Evans Retirement Auction
May 27-29, in Newnan. buildings 24 and 27 on 1st Street. Friday, May 27, $10 admission. Saturday and Sunday, May 28-29, a $25 program, buys admission to both auctions. $10 admission to Thursday, May 26, preview of motorcycles. No reserve. For more information, 678-296-3326 www.prestonopportunities.com.