Collecting with The History Chaser: Mitch Baker
Out there, nestled deep in the woodlands of River Vale, New Jersey are a wealth of buried artifacts and worn imprints of lost history. As kids we’ve daydreamed about the intrigue of the wilderness trek, reimagining the adventures of Indiana Jones or Tom Sawyer from our own eyes. Budding from childhood curiosity, Mitch Baker began on a venture that would develop into a lifetime passion for collecting. His wares culminate in everything from rare Americana to the signatures of contemporary cultural icons and leaders of several generations.
Baker’s hometown of River Vale, formerly Harrington Township, has jaded history dating back to the 18th century colonial times. It was the site of the tragic Baylor Massacre of 1778, an atrocity of the Revolutionary War that is among one of the town’s latent discoveries, uncovered only half a century ago. Dotted with lakes and intersecting the Hackensack River overlooking undeveloped woods to the southwest, it is the ideal environment for a young person to become acquainted with the ‘great outdoors.’
Baker recounts his first notable excursion as a simple ride through the woods turned into an unanticipated find. He identified an unnaturally circular rock formation. Tenacity coupled with curiosity would drive him to return to the spot and begin a six-month excavation on a hunch – one which ended in the fruition of uncovering old legacies to inspire his anew. This formation ended up being a dilapidated well, within which housed medicine bottles, calendars and antique coinage which was authenticated to the 1800’s. This inspired his interest in collecting and antiquing, this newfound desire to house “one-of-a-kind items that no one else had. An active adventure of learning [about history].”
While much of the east has been in a perpetual state of renovation, further out in the northern reaches of rural New Jersey you can still find untouched barns, estates, storerooms, roadside monuments and such locations that withhold forgotten memorabilia. Since it remained a small community, Baker’s passion was recognized by the community and soon enough people began to consult with him to appraise their family heirlooms. Trinkets that have appeared to be one man’s trash often revealed themselves to be Baker’s treasure with the help of an especially trained eye. Imagine yourself happening upon a discarded banjo collecting dust by the side of the road, only to later discover its’ brand valuation is in the thousands (similar to finding an abandoned Taylor or Martin acoustic in a ditch, for some of my fellow stringed-instrument enthusiasts). For Baker, anecdotes like these are not only reality but a regular occurrence. And while a roadside lottery is definitely the stuff of envy, it’s not about the money for Baker, but rather tradition.
Baker’s mother nurtured his interest in collecting from young, not only mentoring the craft but also providing example in leading her own antique store in Westwood, New Jersey. Growing up surrounded by antiques lead him to find great sentimental association with items rather than merely an exchange of monetary value. Some of the items in his own display are anchor points to his own life history, which now spans over four decades of collecting.
In all of this time, between appraising, living abroad and developing multiple business ventures, Baker impressed upon me the importance of communal bonds through networking. Networking is essential in the retention of customers, quality assurance, circulation and authentication of antiques and a wellspring of unforeseeable opportunity. The most fascinating example of this was a chance connection buried in his past come full circle recently. Fourteen years ago he happened to meet a man in a diner one evening in New York. Dressed in cameras and craftsman’s garb, he was recognized immediately by a kindred spirit. After a lengthy conversation, this fellow entrepreneur offered to drive Baker over to his private collection on a luxurious 14-acre estate. They became acquainted and the man confided in Baker about health concerns in his family that caused a financial burden. Baker provided him some money, and was allowed to pick out 10 of his favorite items from the exclusive collection. Fourteen years later, the man’s daughter contacted Baker, letting him know that her father had passed and that he was mentioned in the will. In this will remained Baker’s business card with a note demanding to “call Mitch.” Thanks to that far-reaching connection, Baker was able to appraise and sell a majority of their collection and profit upon many high-profile items, bolstering his business even further.
Today, Baker takes great pride in his collection of authenticated signatures, not merely for their exclusivity but because of the icons and celebrity figures it has given him the chance to brush shoulders with. Among such signatures are Artemus Pyle, drummer of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd band, baseball icons Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, as well as documents recovered containing the original signature of former presidents, notably including Abraham Lincoln.
He continues to run his passion for collecting through his company, Team Baker, whose headquarters and gallery is located at 74 Godwin Ave, Midland Park, NJ. While you may find walls lined with memorabilia of the Kennedys and shirt-boxes stacked with colonial swords and the secret letters of Houdini, the most valuable commodity that Baker has amassed over time is the integrity of his business. While it has proven lucrative at times, Baker provides for his family through alternative means and cites his primary drive as being a desire to help people find what it is they’re looking for, even if they may not know what they have. A sense of communal happiness is the most enduring reward for this collector, and while he has spent a lifetime of searching, you can be confident that he had already found the heart of what he was looking for in that old well which provided the initial spark all those years ago.