America's premier collectors offer advice in their newest book, ''The Label Made Me Buy It''

By Alexandra Jacobs
November 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Who woulda thunk that such a nice, modestly dressed, seventysomething couple (who live in Cleveland, no less) could be this label conscious?

Yet here you have Ralph and Terry Kovel, America’s preeminent authorities on antiques. They have written more than 75 books (”We’re not a mom-and-pop!” interjects Ralph. ”We have 14 people [working on] these!”), including an oft-consulted annual price guide that has made them immensely wealthy. They regularly trample through fancy Victorian furniture and emerald bracelets. Yet in their newest collaboration, The Label Made Me Buy It — a history of American tags, seals, and packages — they confess a terrible weakness for those little stickers one peels off bananas.

Obviously, collecting is personal. But the Kovels love to share. According to Terry, ”Madonna collects what you’d expect: Victorian erotic pictures.” ”Oprah [Shaker furniture]! Rosie O’Donnell [Barbie dolls and vintage lunch boxes]!” exclaims Ralph. ”These are heavy-duty collectors. And that exercise guy — what the heck’s his name?” Richard Simmons? ”Yeah, he collects dalmatians,” says Terry. Ralph: ”He’s got the damn things all over his house!” ”Including four live ones,” adds Terry. ”That, and some pictures of him,” mutters Ralph. ”We did a taping of him and the dalmatians,” explains Terry — in addition to frequent radio and TV appearances, the pair cowrite a column for House Beautiful — ”and I was seated here and he was seated there.” Right above him, says Terry, was a small picture of Richard showing a great deal of skin. ”In his younger days,” she notes helpfully. A beat. ”He would not let us go until Ralph sat on his lap.”

Well, all right, then! Now for the pressing issues of the day. Like, what’s the deal with Beanie Babies? ”Some things have a life of their own,” says Terry. People ”think they’re a commodity you can buy and sell, like oil futures or something.” Princess Di artifacts? ”Even the early memorabilia has not gone up the way we thought it would.”

There’s a lot out there on what you should save and what you shouldn’t save, Terry cautions. ”You know what you save? You save the paper cups that are being thrown away at the exit, because nobody else is saving them.” ”You save everything,” says Ralph.

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