A Fascinating Look at a Modern Day Treasure Hunter

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Photographed by Cari Lutz. 

Out in the often uncharted, unusual sectors of Los Angeles, there’s at least one person whose exact occupation defies categorization. In his hunt for beautiful, odd pieces passed around at various flea markets, estate sales, and auctions; that have been sitting at the back of dusty warehouses for years and have found their way back out via Craiglist ads and fire sales, Barry “Baz” Burchell has unearthed some of the coolest, out-there pieces imaginable.

Though he may not have come up with the title himself, the best way to describe Baz would be a bonafide underground treasure hunter. Throughout Los Angeles, he’s carved a niche for himself as a curious seeker whose El Dorado consists of objects—objects that are of the time-worn and weathered variety, or the bizarre and eccentric, but always rare. Today, he’s like the connective tissue between buyers and sellers in LA, on the hunt for items clients tell him they’ve been looking for forever, as well as pieces that make his own heart beat a little faster. He’s got his own storage units of amazing furnishings and decor he’s selling, as well as a great knack for spotting unusual, unique pieces he just knows somebody will want. Intrigued by his underground status amongst those looking for pieces as well as his penchant for seeking out furnishings and decor, I set out to talk to him about his distinctive line of work. Learn below in the interview that ensued just how this calling became his full-time trade, the most surprising places he’s found the most incredible pieces (and the people he’s met along the way), as well as his favorite pieces he’d never, ever sell—not even for a million dollars.

All photos courtesy Baz Burchell. 

So how exactly did you get into this line of work?

I’ve done a lot of things, but I was always in the entertainment industry. When I came here from England twenty five years ago, I was working for film and television magazines that were like the equivalent of The Hollywood Reporter, or Variety. Then I moved into producing film festivals, and from there I did a little bit of everything—startup entertainment-based websites, production companies, television research, some documentary work. So I was here in LA doing a lot of entertainment-related stuff.

But I stopped doing that maybe about six years ago. Because I got bored of it. I moved around to different production companies, you know, and went to work for HBO and did a few more film festivals, but I was bouncing around, always kind of looking for what am I gonna do, where am I going to end up. And then that segued into what I’m doing now.

Which is...

[laughs] Well, that’s hard to define, but I think—even though I was always in entertainment, there’s a phrase in England called being a “barrow” boy, which is someone who buys and sells. I always had a bit of the “barrow” boy in me. One of my earliest memories in life was walking through the woods with my father and finding places where people would dump stuff. A refrigerator, some old furniture—you know, weird stuff. I remember going to the city municipal dump with him and being fascinated by what people were throwing away. I grew up around the flea markets, too, and every weekend we’d spend crawling through the Camden Flea Market watching people, listening to people, seeing the stuff.

I had these two sides to me. On the one hand, I was in the entertainment industry moving up the corporate path. But also in my blood I had, for some reason—I didn’t even know it at the time—but I loved old things. There’s nothing better than spending the entire weekend at Brick Lane or Portobello. And as much as I liked looking for individual pieces, I really liked watching the buyers and sellers and their interactions with each other.

Interesting—so what are you usually looking for when you get to a flea market? Do you have an idea of what you want that day, or do you just think, I’m just going to see whatever catches my eye today?

A little bit of all of the above. I don’t really know how to define myself. I buy and sell my own pieces, all day, every day. And I’m buying from lots of different venues. It could be at a flea market, but it could also be at an estate sale, an auction, an industrial warehouse—it really could be anywhere.

And I’m selling—on Craigslist, on Etsy, and on Apartment Therapy. That’s the main part of my business. And then through that business, a couple of other businesses have just kind of appeared. One is selling items for other people, and that’s completely by word of mouth. I’m totally under the radar—I don’t market myself, and I don’t advertise myself.

That’s what I’ve heard. Like someone would have to know who you are.

Well it’s really grown quite organically. One person has led to the next person and to the next. So, one strand of the business is now people are coming to me and saying, “Oh my god, you’ve got all this great stuff online. I love your taste, where did you find this—can you sell this stuff for me?” And they might have a storage unit full of stuff or they might have just one particular thing. They might have an amazing old neon sign, or they might have a movie prop, or something else in my sort of realm.

So that side of the business is growing. That’s one strand. And the other strand, and the one that’s more interesting, is that people want me to source things for them.

That’s what I’ve heard as well. Does the way it work is that someone comes to you and says, I’ve looked everywhere for x, and I can’t find x, can you help me find it?

Not really. The way it works a lot of the time is it’s the people who found me originally online often become long term clients. What happens is, they’ll find me on Craigslist for an old French wine rack or an amazing industrial table. We’ll make an appointment, and they’ll come to me since I don’t have a store, just two storage units and a warehouse in Los Feliz.

I’ll bring them to one of my storage units to look at the wine rack, and then they come in and see all my stuff and are amazed. They’ll say, oh, wow, look at that! Or, you do industrial stuff? Or, where did you get that twenty foot sign from? So we start talking, and then what invariably happens is I’ll sell them the wine rack, and then I’ll ask, “So what else are you looking for?”

And they’ll let me know they’ve been looking for some French bistro chairs. So I say, “Okay, I’ll find them for you.” And then they’ll go into my phone as Sarah—client. She bought French wine rack, is looking for French bistro chairs. After that, when I’m out and about, I’ll keep her in mind. Then, when I come across forty French bistro chairs, I’ll text her a picture and ask, “Hey, do you want these?” Usually they’re pretty surprised. She’ll text me back, “Oh my god, you found those, that’s exactly what I want!” And so from the initial sale of the wine rack—that person now becomes a client. And those clients are very varied.

So they’re not all interior designers?

Not at all—they’re very eclectic. I work with interior designers, set decorators, individual people, bars, hotels, restaurants, photographers. For example, there’s a guy the other day that wanted a bunch of movie props—he was working on a movie and needed police and prison and jail signs. There’s another girl who needed—it was kind of weird, she wanted crazy medical stuff, such as medical equipment, skeletons and prosthetic legs. It turned out she was opening up a Freaks Antiques store. Now she’s become one of my great clients, because whenever I find “freaky” stuff, I send it to her.

There’s a restaurant in Santa Barbara called The Lark. The owner has opened this incredible property where there’s a restaurant, a cafe, a wine bar, a pop up store—she’s a really amazing entrepreneur. She calls me her Craigslist boyfriend because that’s where she first found me. I sold her some chairs originally and I told her what I did, so she told me about the types of things she was looking for, and I started sending her these pictures of all these amazing pieces. The rest is history.

You had all these in stock? Or you were looking for them and thought, Oh, these would be perfect for her?

Right, so that’s what I do—I’m constantly out there in the world, looking for things and joining the dots. And all the time that I’m out there, I’m putting it into my memory.

So you have a Rolodex of people in your memory, and whenever you see an item you immediately hook it back?

Exactly, it’s two Rolodexes. It’s a Rolodex of the client and what they want, and if I can fit what I find into what they want. And then there’s a Rolodex of everything I’ve seen. So I’m like a sponge—I’m out there in the world all the time trying to access all the cool stuff. But the cool stuff I’m talking about is whatever I think is cool, so I buy and sell what I like, and if I think it’s great, and I love it, typically somebody else will like it. There’s very, very little that I’ve bought and I’ve thought, Oh my god, nobody wants this. I paid all this money for it and now I can’t sell it. Most of the time I know there’s a market for it, and I’m pretty good at following my intuition.

That’s incredibly interesting, actually, and completely what I was wondering what I came in. I had been curious as to how you define your role...

Oh, I mean nobody really knows what I am. And actually, a good client of mine I’ve worked with for the last two years who does house staging brought this up the other day. She and I were having a conversation and she mentioned that she still doesn’t know what I do. And then she told me, “Oh, you’re a treasure hunter!” So she was the one who came up with that title. And she told me, “Do you know what you should do? You should get a card!” I mean, honestly, I don’t even have a card...

You should have a card that says treasure hunter on it!

Exactly. She told me I should have a card that says, ‘Treasure Hunter—Baz’ and then my phone number on it. That’s all. I call my business Platform 9 Vintage because I’ve got an old, old railway station sign that says, “Platform 9.” And I love that sign—it was treasure that I found, so I thought, Okay, I’m Platform 9 Vintage. But really, I’m kind of a seeker of beautiful things, and I’m a hybrid buyer/seller/sourcer/decorator...

All those things.

Yes, that’s what I do. Clients come to me because they’ve seen something unusual, or interesting, or they’ve liked my eye. And so, what I do is, I search for things that I love. It’s that thing where if I think it’s beautiful or unique, I feel like somebody else will too. And I have to have a side of my brain that says, Is this going to sell? Is somebody else going to want this? Because if I send things to clients and they’re not special or not what they’re looking for, then I’m out of business.

But, there is a drawback. And the drawback is when you fall in love with something. It’s when you find something and you either can’t bring yourself to sell it, or you put a really high price on it. Sofas, ottomans, artwork, lamps—they come and go, and who cares. But, when you find certain signature pieces, it’s different. Money will come and go, but you’ll never get that one amazing object back again. And they may not be worth thousands or tens of thousands. They’re just like—you’ll never find them.

What’s an example of a piece that you could never part with?

Well, that’s an interesting story—this is the piece that actually got me started in the world I’m now in. My grandfather lived in the northeast of England. He was a coal miner, and after that he joined the army. And we would go and visit him when I was really small, and he had a shed in the backyard. You know, they were so poor, they lived in a little two up, two down. Coal miner, no money at all.

And there was this head he had with a carved wooden face, hanging on the back shed for years and years. It was a ship’s figure-head. I think my granddad got it while he was in the army, or maybe he was in China, or wherever he was stationed. But I always loved it. And, when he died, I was talking to my mom, and she asked if there was anything I wanted from granddad. I said, “You know, I loved that head,” and it ended up coming to me because nobody else wanted it. I’ve got it now in my place. And I wouldn’t sell it for a million dollars. It’s my most prized possession.

Other treasured pieces include an original Arne Jacobsen Swan chair and a large vintage hand-painted sign that came from the circus. It’s a beautiful psychedelic lion and it would be so striking in a kid’s bedroom or on the wall of a loft. There are also two rusty metal signs with a hand-painted picture of a cowboy on them which were found in the dark basement of an empty house. My theory is they were probably originally from an old hat store—but who knows for sure. I gave one to a girl friend and I kept one for myself.

What made you attach value to that particular piece, or do you not even know yourself? Is it like an intuitive feeling—like this is something I can’t let go of and I don’t know why?

Yeah...I don’t know exactly what it is, but everybody likes what they like. For some reason I like faces, I like mannequins, I like pictures of people, I like rust and flaking paint. I like hand-painted things, I like things that came out of factories that were really utilitarian, and they’ve developed this amazing patina over a long period of time. So part of why I love my grandfather’s head is that it’s been out in the wind and the rain and the elements, but it still retained this amazing beauty.

My own personal style is actually a very stripped down, kind of hybrid, European, shabby chic industrial style. I call it “Brussels Style.” It might be an old farmhouse table, with a deconstructed chair, mixed with an art nouveau armoire. So it’s always old, it’s always got patina, but it’s also quite sparse.

I am very curious as to what your day-to-day is like. When you get up in the morning, what do you start doing?

My day-to-day—well, I never really know what’s going to happen. The good thing is that I don’t work in an office. All the stuff is online, so I don’t have to go to a store. I just wait for someone to call me. They could call me about an art deco dresser, they could call me about an industrial table or some antique milliners hat molds, I never know if something I’m selling will find a buyer in two days or in a year. But there will always be a person that will come for it eventually. So, typically I’ll be out looking for treasure and joining the dots. I’ll be following my nose and hoping to get a lead on something special. For example, there’s a secret auction that I always used to go to that I would buy the most amazing pieces from, but little by little more and more people know about it, so it’s getting harder and harder for me to go there and buy.

So, I never know where I’m going. I might be going to some hoarder’s house clearance in Pasadena. I might be going to a new auction I’ve never heard about before. I might be in some dirty, dusty warehouse downtown. And those can be where you find the really fun stuff!

And how do you find out about that dusty warehouse? Do you Google warehouses and auctions to go to?

I mean, I do all of it. And I’ll tell you this—sometimes when you find stuff, it’s just luck. Just sheer luck. You’re in the right place at the right time. But the only way you’re going to find it is if you’re looking, so you gotta be looking all the time.

I mean, I’ve found some of the coolest pieces this way. For example, a guy who usually ships my pieces for me let me know he’s in Idaho, and that he’d be willing to bring anything down if I needed it from there since he comes to LA a lot, anyway.

So I looked on Craigslist in Idaho just to see what they have. I literally put “chairs” into the search engine, and this ad popped up for all these black, shiny chairs. There’s about forty five of them. And the ad says, “Old Chairs in a Storage Unit,” and they were cheap. And I was pretty sure I knew what they really were.

I call the guy, and I say, “Hey, I’m calling from LA, and I saw your old chairs. Do you know anything about them?” And it’s this old, grizzled guy, and he says, “Oh, yeah, I’m the Secretary of the Elks Club in this tiny little town”—I can’t remember the name of the town—“and we used to have these old chairs, but we’re getting rid of them and getting new chairs.” So I asked how much they are, and he said about twenty bucks.

I asked for a few more photographs to be sure, and he had to get his daughter to send me them because he couldn’t figure out how to upload a picture. I asked his daughter about the shine on the back of the chairs, and whether there was any water damage on them. She assured me, “Oh, no, it’s just the reflection.” So then I asked if there were any labels under them, and she told me there weren’t any. And so...

What could they be!?

I called the guy back and told him, “Okay, I want the chairs. What can you do them for?” And now he said fifteen bucks a chair. I sent him a check, my shipping guy loaded them up, brought them down from Idaho, and when I pulled the first chair out of the truck and turned it over, there was the label, it was an original Knoll Saarinen Side Chair!

I mean, this was a chair that was originally from the 50’s, and I now had forty five of them. I knew what it was—I had sent the photo to a lady at Knoll, and asked her, “Are these Knoll chairs?” And when she told me they definitely were, I let her know they had come from an Elk’s Lodge, of all places. She told me, “Yeah, they had pretty good taste in those days.”

So I put them on Craigslist and they sold within about three days. They went straight to a prop house in LA, where the buyer told me, “Oh my god, these would be perfect for Mad Men!” Or you know, shows like that. But to get forty five original Saarinens out of an Elk’s Lodge...in Idaho...for fifteen bucks a chair...that was just insane. I mean, literally insane!

That does sound like a great stroke of luck! And I imagine there’s a very select group of people that are going around doing this. Are there people that are more like competition, where you go to those estate sales and you’re like, “I’ve seen you before...”? They kind of play that up in the show Storage Wars where they all show up to the same auctions...

Well, yes those shows like Storage Wars, American Pickers, or even my favorite, The Antiques Roadshow—have been terrible for me [laughs]. Because now everybody thinks they’re a picker. I mean the competition out there for midcentury is crazy. So—yes, there’s competition. Yes, I see the same people in different places. There’s one guy who has a vintage store in LA—I definitely see him at every estate sale, and every place I go.

But I also have my own network of people who I know buy and sell. There’s quite a big network of people who do what I do, and there’s actually quite a lot of camaraderie between those people. But everyone’s got their own niche, so you’ve got to be a little protective of your secret sources, too.

Right, so you’re able to curate your own style all the time. I feel like—especially with design and especially with the people you see on our site—people kind of know what they like, but they don’t know how to define it. So they have to spend a long time just looking at things. There’s very much a process you have to go through where you know what you like, but you can’t define it until you see it.

Exactly. One thing I was going to tell you about my work. What I’ve realized, doing this, is that there’s something for everyone. It could be a neon motel sign. It could be a sixteen-foot-tall Statue of Liberty from a movie. It could be a set of Woodard Sculptura chairs. The point is—somebody wants it. And part of my job is figuring out first, do I like it? Second, is there a market for it? Will somebody else like it as much as I do? And that’s that’s how I try to connect my clients with amazing, unique pieces that it’d be nearly impossible to find anywhere else.

Check out more stunning, eccentric pieces from Baz on Instagram.

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