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Discover Mid-America — November 2007

‘Time of transition in the antiques and collectibles world’

by Bruce Rodgers

Harry Rinker may not be a household name in every home in America, but if you’re into antiques on some level — a collector, dealer or casual buyer — there’s a very good chance the Rinker name is a familiar one.

Some consider him overly opinionated. Others appreciate the fact that he does not soft-pedal the challenges facing the antiques and collectibles trade. Regardless, there’s no question that Rinker is knowledgeable, so much so that most everyone recognizes him as a leading expert.

Rinker has authored and edited over 20 books; he writes a weekly syndicated column “Rinker on Collectibles,” hosts a radio call-in show, has appeared on HGTV and the Discovery Channel and he’s a frequent television guest, having appeared on Oprah, Martha Stewart Living, Today, and Good Morning America. As a principal in Rinker Enterprises, he leads a firm described on his website (www.harryrinker.com) as “specializing in providing appraisal, consulting, editorial, educational, media, personal appearance, research and writing services in the antiques and collectibles field.”

His latest book is SELL, KEEP, OR TOSS? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, and Appraise Personal Property (House of Collectibles, $16.95). The title very much describes the practical essence of this book, particularly to family members wanting to “ease the difficult personal, financial and familial decisions involved in clearing out a house.”

Harry Rinker is not shy in delivering what he thinks as Discover Mid-America found out when we asked him the following questions via email.

DMA: In your new book SELL, KEEP, OR TOSS?, you state that you are “one of the last generalists in the antiques and collectibles field.” Why are you one of the last?

Rinker: When I assumed the editorship of Warman’s Antiques and Their Prices in 1981, the major price guides of the time covered less than three hundred collecting categories. I expanded the categories in that title to closer to five hundred.

When I introduced Warman’s Americana and Collectibles in the late 1980s, I added another 500 categories to the list. I launched “Rinker on Collectibles” to help convince the collecting public that collectibles deserved equal footing with antiques

Harry Rinker may not be a household name in every home, but to antique collectors it is definitely a familiar one. (photo courtesy of Harry Rinker)

When asked about Rinker Enterprises, I tell people I try to keep track of 1,200 to 1,500 collecting categories. What this means is that I try to keep abreast of what is collected, how value is determined, and what are the long-term prospects. My goal always has been to be able to talk intelligently with a collector in any one of these categories.

When I attended the 2006 eBay Live! Convention, the Collectibles Division (no longer an entity within eBay) estimated that there were over 30,000 niche-collecting categories and that the number was increasing by several hundred each month.

It is virtually impossible for anyone to come into the trade in the 21st century and learn it all. Those of us who are the last of the generalists entered the trade in the 1960s and 1970s. We loved the trade as a whole. We used a broad, not a narrow brush stroke. We grew up in the period of the late 1940s through the 1950s. We do not have to research these periods. We remember them.

Why did you pick 1963 to use as a definition of an “antique” when selling household goods?

The definition of what is and is not an antique hinges on a date where a comparison of life in America three years before that date against three years after that date results in significant changes. Compare a picture of yourself in 1960 verses 1966. You dress differently. You have a different hairstyle. Life’s issues were different.

America in 1966 was very different from America in 1960. The key is the Kennedy assassination. Every generation has a question you can ask to determine how “old” it is.

Where were you when you heard JFK was shot? The key is how old are you now to answer the question. This November will mark the 44th anniversary of the assassination and likely anyone under fifty cannot answer the question. All the twentysomething, thirtysometing, and fortysomething collectors have only read about JFK in a history book. They do not think the 1920s and 1930s are old. They think the 1950s and 1960s are old.

The post-1963 beatnik, hippie and psychedelic periods, also known as the social cause age, were totally different. Polyester and avocado, golden harvest and rust were the order of the day.

The next great change occurs in 1980s, when yuppies and dinks regained control. In 2007, we are far closer in our dress and thoughts to the 1950s-early 1960s than we are to the 1960s.

“Decorative Value” is one of the three basic values mentioned by you in your new book. Is there any way to determine how long a particular decorating trend will last?

“Country” is the one universal decorating look that goes on forever. However, even it is subject to change. Country swings between the formal and informal (primitive). It is as subject to change by its proponents as is any other decorating style.

There was a time when I thought the Victorian Look enjoyed the same universal status as the Country Look. When the Victorian craze ended in the mid-1990s, I changed my mind.

Decorators need change to survive. They foster and create it, otherwise they would not have new product to sell.

Today, we live first in a trendy society and second in an eclectic one. Few trends last longer than two to three years. Nothing is measured in decades any longer. The same applies to “hot’ collecting categories.

Today’s decorators tout all looks. They also have no trouble mixing and matching. The problem is the customer. If they want to be hip and current, what look should they use?

I believe America will never again experience a single look that sweeps across the whole country and sends all other looks to the background.

You state that the era of “blue ship antiques and collectibles is over” with certain collecting categories in decline and not likely to experience a “renaissance.” Why? Is it generational memory and the disappearance of the collector with a more intimate connection to the object?

Collecting is about memory. When there are none or even fading memories, a collecting category is in danger of extinction.

The exception to the rule are “investment” categories, those collecting categories where auctioneers and key dealers have convinced individuals, most of whom have no interest in collecting, to invest in objects as though they were tangible goods. Autographs, mechanical banks, comic books, certain toy categories, sporting memorabilia (especially baseball) and early American furniture are a few examples. However, the troublesome question remains of whether or not today’s values will be sustained 20, 50 or 75 years into the future.

Anyone with a sense of historical perspective knows there is no long-term value guarantee in this business. .

There are one-generation collectibles, objects whose value will all but disappear when the generation who grew up with them dies. Who cares about Eddie Cantor or Tom Mix collectibles in the 21st century? The fading collector interest in the memorabilia of the 1950s television cowboy heroes is another example.

Finally, if today’s young collectors look backward, it usually is no further than the objects associated with their parents. They care little about the distant past. Peer pressure to collect the past is over. The trade needs to develop new and innovative motivations to entice younger collectors to collect the antiques from the nineteenth and first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Is there any way to tell when a price guide is more self-serving to the particular author/collector/dealer than an honest reflection of the market?

All price guide prices should be field tested, i.e., the prices should be compared to what identical objects sold for on eBay and other Internet sales venues as well as asking prices at antiques malls, shops and shows.

Although price guides should report the market, they are more often used to set it. As a result, sale through also must be considered along with field pricing for a true evaluation of a price guide’s accuracy.

Many price guides, especially the specialized guides, are market manipulative, an attempt to sustain market prices under attack or drive prices up to new levels. Most publishers, Schiffer Publishing is the best example, do not field test the prices in the books they publish. They simply print what the author submits.

I get concerned when a price guide author has been collecting or involved in the category for less than ten years. Further, when more than 75 percent of the illustrations in the book are from his or her personal collection or inventory, I seriously question the pricing motivation.

The lack of extensive front material, a bibliography, an index, and, most importantly, a detailed author biography are other triggers that cause me to take a second look at the value information presented.

A true picture price guide should serve as a checklist. When I see more examples in the field that are not pictured in the price guide than I do those that are, I become highly suspicious.

You state that an object has no value if there is no buyer and that “old is no longer a value consideration.” So is the buyer the ultimate determinate of value of an object?

There are no fixed values in the antiques and collectibles trade. Value is momentary, dependent on the person, time, place and circumstances.

Further, value is immediate, not long-term. The object has no value prior to its purchase and immediately after it is sold. It has value only when money changes hands.

The buyer is just one of the keys to value, albeit a critical one. Anyone who says an object is worth “x” should be prepared to suggest one or more sales venues where that price can be obtained. There is too much price speculation and not enough price reality in the trade.

The three critical value considerations today are condition, scarcity and desirability. Historically, scarcity ranged supreme. In the late twentieth century, condition was No. 1. Today, desirability is king of the hill. If no one desires an object, its condition and scarcity do not matter.

The “hunt” has been displaced by an increased focus on buying, according to your book. Is this a major factor in hurting the retail end of the antiques trade?

Today’s trendy antiques and collectibles buyers are an impatient bunch. While the phrase “instant gratification” may be overstating the situation, buyers no longer want to spend years finding what they want. This is especially true for those buying into a “hot” decorating craze or reuse.

There are dozens of reasons why the retail end of the antiques trade is in trouble. The change in hunting patterns is just one of them.

The continual emphasis on traditional collecting categories rather than adjusting inventory to give buyers what they want is high on the list of reasons why the trade is suffering. Change is occurring at a brisk pace. Adaptation is lagging far behind.

The ability to preserve the antiques and collectibles trade as it existed at the end of twentieth century is a myth. It is impossible.

Why does the value of an object’s local and regional value lessen if it was distributed and sold nationally?

First, local and regional collectors are an aging community. They tend to be fifty and older, not in their early twenties.

Second, today’s population is transient. Fewer and fewer individuals are spending their entire life — youth, adulthood and old age — in one community. America is on the move. It is not just the young. It is seniors as well.

Third, objects sold nationally tend to be produced in extremely large numbers. It is a necessity for national marketing. As a result, their survival rate is high.

Finally, local and regional collectors focus on things associated with and made in their area. As more and more American jobs flee to Mexico and offshore, America produces less and less products.

The key is to look at when the manufacturing in many American-based collecting categories, e.g., Heisey Glass, Roseville, etc., stopped. If it ended by 1970, the individuals who worked in that plant are either retirement age or dead.

According to your book, “The value of a generation’s memorabilia and household furnishing reaches its collecting value peak when the average age of that generation is between 50 and 62years of age.” What is the basis of that statement?

There is little to no quantitative data available for the antiques and collectibles field. As a result, most analysis is subjective. Whether or not it is true depends on how others view its validity based upon their personal experiences in the field.

The pricing references in the database at Rinker Enterprises, Inc., date back into the 1930s. The earliest price guide, the first edition of Warman’s Antiques and Their Prices, dates from 1948. The Kovels published their first price guide in the 1970s.

A run of these and other price guides allows one to track a collecting category over an extended period of time.

There are actually three questions raised: (1) when are prices at their peak, (2) when do collectors stop collecting and (3) when do collectors start selling.

Nostalgia, a love for one’s childhood past, appears to begin when a person reaches his mid-40s. This also corresponds with a period when individuals have some discretionary income.

Value peaks when the number of buyers in any collecting category is at its maximum. Using collectors’ club membership numbers is another good way of confirming this. When the average age of a collectors’ club member reaches the late fifties, membership begins a slow, steady decline. The Matchbox Collectors Club is a case in point.

Collectors stop collecting when they start thinking about retirement. Age 62 is an average point. Admittedly, individuals are retiring later and later. However, their homes and collections are often fairly complete by their mid- to late-50s. There is little left to buy but the scarce items.

Collectors think about selling in their early to mid-70s, the period when downsizing starts to be a consideration.

It does not take a genius to see the problem here. Instead of selling when their favorite collecting category was at its market peak, they sell 20 years too late. I have encountered this phenomenon so often that I consider it a classic

Some dealers would dispute your statement that most buyers on eBay are “end users.” Their argument would be that eBay attracts dealers looking to resell objects. How do you respond?

Put ten people in the antiques and collectibles trade in the same room and get ten different opinions, all of which are right.

When analyzing eBay prices, I look at several factors — number of bidders, number of unsold lots, number of times the same item appears, etc.

Is it possible to buy merchandise for resale in an antiques mall, shop or show on eBay? You bet it is. However, if the seller lists the object properly, the chances of this happening decrease significantly.

Feedback is another indication of whether an eBay object is bought by an end user or dealer for resale. One has to be careful here. There are some end users, i.e., individuals who buy for personal use, who have feedbacks in the high hundreds and even above one thousand. I am one of the latter.

And, if eBay does not attract re-sellers, why, as you state, are sale results better at auctions and referencing book prices than on eBay?

“Wouldn’t it be lovely” if there was one sales venue in the trade where one could achieve a maximum sales price for everything. Alas, this is the ideal, not reality.

eBay’s main auction flaw is that it ends an auction at a specific time point, even though there may be individuals who want to keep bidding. The final sales price on eBay is not from the last person standing but the person smart enough to be the last bidder when the clock ticks down.

Auction fever is a reality at live auctions. The bidding process is addictive. No one likes to lose something they want.

Far too many individuals think price guide prices are absolute rather than suggestive. As a result, they allow such values to cloud their best judgment.

If the secondary market has stabilized because eBay has matured, why are antique mall/shop owners and dealers still complaining about loss of business to eBay?

They are complaining primarily because their dealers refuse to adjust their prices downward to correspond with secondary market price reality.

In many cases, dealers paid far too much for their inventory. Dealers believe they have an inherent, God-given right to make a profit. Selling at a loss is abhorrent.

eBay offers the opportunity of an immediate sale, assuming of course that the seller allows the price to float in the eBay market environment. A seller can dispose of an object that has languished in an antiques mall, shop or show in a matter of days. Further, the sale is generally anonymous. Fellow dealers do not know what the seller receives. There is no “well you really did badly on that one” recrimination.

eBay has brought down the prices for the common and ordinary. It also increased the list of what is common and ordinary exponentially.

The market in many collecting categories is flooded. Antiques mall, shop and show dealers can no longer sell enough inventory to cover their expenses and repurchase, let alone make a profit.

A few big-city antiques malls have succeeded in attracting a younger dealer/customer clientele mostly by concentrating on ’50, ‘60s and ‘70s furniture and collectibles. This seems to be happening without a major decorating trend.

Modernism, especially post-1945 modernism, is one of the few bright spots in the trade. Modernism shows are growing. Specialized Modernism malls, such as the Broadway Antiques Mall in Chicago (now with a branch in New York), continue to do well.

Young collectors who see value in brand name and industrial designer fuel the Modernism trend. They want objects that are functional but also aesthetically pleasing. Call it a quality lifestyle.

Modernism’s appeal is toward a less cluttered, more open, clean, functional environment. This is a look, one heavily touted at the moment on cable channels such as HGTV.

Modernism also is about decorating. Young collectors want to live with their things. If they create collections, they often number fewer than fifty objects.

What can antiques malls and shops do to grow and retain this younger demographic?

The answer is simple. Learn what the younger generation, whether collectors, decorators, re-users, want and give it to them.

Visit a Barnes and Noble, Borders or other large bookstore and review the decorating and living magazines. Sell into the hot looks. Go to Target and Wal-Mart and look at what is selling. Sell in support of customer buying trends.

Stress affordability. Far, far too many antiques and collectibles collecting categories have priced themselves outside the pocketbook of the average consumer.

Sponsor young collector nights. Teach people how to collect and, most importantly, the joys of collecting.

Think outside the box in terms of merchandising. How about a section in a mall entitled “Great Wedding Gifts”?

How can antiques/collectibles-related publications help grow the antiques market?

Antiques and collectibles trade periodicals, e.g., newspapers, magazines, etc., are stuck in a rut. The traditional article deals with the history of an object or collecting category with an occasional analysis of pricing. Simply put, trade periodicals are collector focused.

Further, far too many trade periodicals are nothing more than vehicles for the press releases of their advertisers. There is more hype content than quality information.

If trade papers want to reach a wider audience, they are going to have to start running sections on how to decorate, live with and use antiques and collectibles. In other words, address the needs and concerns of the individuals who are buying.

Finally, the trade papers need to become more consumer oriented. They need to report the bad along with the good. They need to be as pro-active toward buyers as they are toward their advertisers. Most readers have no problem spotting a self-serving story, whether a collector or dealer touting his favorite collecting category or an auctioneer demanding a highly positive review of a less than successful auction.

What’s your prognosis for the future in the world of antiques?

It is a time of transition in the antiques and collectibles world.

The good news is that there will always be antiques and collectibles. The bad news is that collecting categories will change and many traditional categories will disappear.

It has been several decades since the traditional antiques sector has had one or more White Knights. The media focus has been on the mid- to-late twentieth century collectible. Just look at the book titles from Collector Books, House of Collectible, KP/Krause Publications and Schiffer Books. One can count the antiques titles on one hand. Why are there so few antiques titles? The answer is simple. They do not sell.

The burden is clearly on the collectors of traditional antiques to tout and promote their favorite collecting category to the next generation of collectors. If they remain passive, their favorite collecting category will disappear.

Finally, many collecting categories, especially in the antiques sector, are dividing into two distinct groups: (1) the few high-end masterpiece and upper echelon pieces that sell and (2) the common ordinary that do not. The high-end pieces have reached price points where new collectors cannot afford them. The middle-and low-end pieces no longer carry any ownership status. Hence, they have little appeal.

Affordability is the key to the long-term survival of many antiques collecting categories. Unfortunately, collector and dealer greed is preventing a much-needed downward adjustment in value.

What few ask, but deserves to be asked, is: “who is the winner?” Is it the auctioneer, dealers and other sellers along the way who made a profit, or the owner who has paid so much for an object that he has no hope of recovering his purchase price in his lifetime?

It does not require genius to know the correct answer.

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