Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - NOVEMBER 2018

Honey, I shrunk the house (but not the collection)

I don't rely on the income I make as a dealer to pay for more than the occasional and incidental expense; most months, I'm not making a profit after I factor out the case rent at the antique mall. But there's value for me just in getting rid of stuff still hanging over from my parents' estate and the excess from my own collections.

This solid sterling creamer and sugar is part of an antique coffee and tea set that includes a rare solid silver tray from my parents' estate. People don't entertain like that any more and I'm having trouble even finding an auction house to accept it for consignment! But I'll be danged if I'll give up on it, melt it down, or give it away! I'll figure something out!

Part of the problem is the inventory I carry, mostly decorative glass and porcelain, which few seem to be buying these days. And that brings me to my main point, which is that making a profit in this business is difficult not just because dealers can't figure out how to make it work but also because of cultural shifts that are bigger than we are.


The term "downsizing" was popular as far back as the 1980s, but then it was used in the business world as a euphemism for job cuts. In the ensuing decades, however, it has become a "cool" term among consumers talking about reducing their own living quarters and possessions.
Downsizing has become especially trendy among the over-50 crowd, in which demographic I include myself. We are swinging back from an opposite extreme in which we spent years, if not decades, filling our once large living spaces with "stuff" that now our kids don't want and we don't know what to do with, especially as we seek to move into smaller, more manageable living spaces.

Older customers are still 'shopping'

A recurring comment I hear about my own merchandise has become a sort of blah-bah-blah refrain in my head: "You have such pretty things!....But I already have more of this stuff than I know what to do with. I'm downsizing, don't cha know."
So why then, one might wonder, are these older customers still out "looking?" Well, they're still consuming even though they're not buying. For them, strolling amid the secondary market is about just enjoying the "eye candy." They shop in the way one might enjoy browsing through a museum.

Form over function becomes function over form

While my parents and theirs bought antiques they could use, they weren't fixated on function. Yes, my parents' collection of Jadeite Fire King was their daily tableware, and dad cooked meals in his old cast iron pans over his antique cast iron stove. But mom and dad also bought many things that were lovely to look at whether or not they could cook in them, eat off them, or make something useful from them.

They bought a fully functioning antique spinning wheel because they liked the way it looked in their house, not because Mom expected to spin raw wool on it. Dad bought a sterling silver tea and coffee set, including a solid sterling tray, not because he expected to entertain like the Victorians but just because he liked looking at it.

In today's secondary market, most buying customers are under 50, and they have flipped the relationship of form to function. They have little or no patience for stuff they can't use in their daily lives, either for day-to-day tasks or recreation. At the flea market, they walk out with armloads (not an exaggeration) of cooking pots and pans, bed linens, clothing � oh, yes, and toys for their kids and grandkids.

What's a dealer to do?

Few people under 50 are "collectors" in the way we once thought of things as "collectibles." But certain categories of antiques and vintage items remain functionally attractive to younger buyers, including jewelry (costume and/or high-end), functional furniture (today's preference being modernistic styles such as Art Deco or mid-20th century), rugged toys that kids can actually play with, trunks and other storage containers, quilts and bedspreads, old tools, and old radios and other vintage technology in working condition.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at