Reality in the antiques market

“ROC Column Ideas” is a thick file consisting of numerous notes, newspaper clippings, internet articles, press releases, and a host of other materials designed to stimulate ideas for future “Rinker on Collectibles” text columns.  An internet report about a discovery by John Hopkins University researchers is an example.  Their study, published in “Current Biology,” indicates that “When humans become experts on something, whether clothes, houses, cars, and so on, their brains develop mechanisms to rapidly process visual value information….That all happens incredibly quickly, or to be precise, in just 80 milliseconds, less than a tenth of a second, after seeing something.”  (See:  www.cnbc.com/2018/02/08/johns-hopkins-finds-how-quickly-brain-processes-value-of-information.html)  This has broad implications in understanding how individuals involved with antiques and collectibles think and react.  I plan to read the full “Current Biology” article in the weeks ahead.  When I am done, I suspect there will be enough insights for a full “Rinker on Collectibles” column.  The antiques and collectibles field does not exist in a vacuum.

The “ROC Column Idea” file contains many ideas that are worthy of reflection and comment but not capable of expanding into a full column.  Rather than allowing them to lie dormant, I plan to combine several in an occasional “A Collection of Short Subjects” column.

Eric Bradley, Public Relations Director for Heritage Auctions, is a frequent telephone interview guest on WHATCHA GOT?, my syndicated antiques and collectibles call-in radio show.  Over the years, Eric has edited a number of KP [Krause Publications] titles, his most recent being the “Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles 2018 Price Guide.”

During a recent WHATCHA GOT?, appearance, Eric and I were talking about value changes in the antiques and collectibles field during the past decade.  Commenting on individuals who approach Heritage Auction about auctioning their collections, Erie noted:  “When someone thinks they have the Hope diamond, all they really have is hope.”

Informing an antiques and/or collectibles collector or heir(s) that the collection(s) assembled over a lifetime no longer has the resale market value assumed by the collector or heir(s) remains one of the hardest and most disagreeable tasks I perform.  This challenge is not recent.  I first encountered it in the mid-1990s.

No one likes being the bad guy.  Auctioneers, appraisers, dealers, and estate sale professionals know that when something is not sold at a price expected, the collector immediately questions the competence and expertise of the selling agent.  The antiques and collectibles trade is filled with many such “no win” situations.  An auctioneer once asked me whether he should accept a consignment of a collection of over 500 pattern glass goblets.  I offered two pieces of advice.  First, do not accept the collection.  Second, recommend that the seller contact his biggest rival, suggesting that there is no one better to sell the collection and achieve the best prices.   All is fair in love, war, and the antiques and collectibles business.

When I began collecting American Historical canal-theme Staffordshire ceramics in the 1970s, every dealer assured me that I was investing in my retirement fund.  Had I sold in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this would have proven true.  I did not.  I still have the collection.  The good news, but only from a personal point of view, is that after seven and one-half years in storage in the basement of Linda’s and my Kentwood home, the collection will finally see the light of day.  Three new bookshelves now grace my basement office.   They will house my goodies and not books.  I want to enjoy the American Historical View collection and a few other collections before facing the reality that it is time to dispose of them.

Realism and collecting are anathema.  Collectors fall in love with what they collect.  Love is emotional, not rational.  There is an implied faith assumed by collectors that what they love can only increase in value.  It is almost religious in overtone.  Questioning it is equivalent to questioning the will of God.   This faith leads to an eternal conviction by collectors that they do own the equivalent of the Hope diamond.  Hope springs eternal in the human breast – Alexander Pope.

I spent the last two years eliminating the chaos and instilling order to the collections of antiques and collectibles that I moved to Kentwood.  The ordering process is over 95 percent complete.  I have started to catalog the objects, preparing detailed descriptions to assist Linda or those who will be responsible for disposing of the objects if I do not.

The two biggest tasks I face are identifying the ideal sale venue and assigning a realistic sale value.  I rejected preparing a replacement insurance appraisal.  These values would only create false hopes.  I do not own the Hope diamond.  Although my collections contain a few diamonds in the rough, I have no hope or expectation that their sale will generate the monetary return I once hoped they might.

During our WHATCHA GOT? interview, Eric and I also discussed how a large collection or several large collections entering the market at the same time impact the immediate and short-term financial values within a collecting category.  Eric cited the example of a large coin collection that was auctioned in 2017.   First, it depleted the buying reserves of many major collectors to the point where prices at auctions that followed fell significantly.  Second, it reordered value priorities within coin collecting.  Some coins that were expected to do well did not.  Collectors thinking about selling are hesitating.  Those considering buying are waiting until “the market settles.”

The amount of money available to support any collecting category, even fine arts, is limited.  In many cases, the amount of capital available is shrinking as older collectors no longer buy with the same enthusiasm and passion as they did in the past and new collectors do not enter the marketplace to replace those leaving it.  Time has demonstrated that few collecting categories can sustain the same membership level over multiple generations.

When evaluating whether I wanted to end “Rinker on Collectibles” on its 25th or 30th anniversary, a desire to observe and report on what would happened when several major collections in key collecting categories entered the market in a short period of time was instrumental in my decision to keep writing.  The average age of collectors for hundreds of collecting categories has exceeded 50.   In some instances, it is above 60. When these collectors turn 70, their collections will re-enter the market, either through a desire to sell during the latter years of their life or death.

After the 2008-2009 Great Recession, auctioneers started to demand the right to cherry pick collections that collectors or heirs wished to sell.  Their claim was based on the fact that in most collections 30% of the pieces represent 75% of the value.  These auctioneers understood that interest in common and above average pieces in many collecting categories was minimal and not likely to increase.  In 2018, many objects that were auctioned individually prior to 2008 are now sold in lots ranging from five to fifteen examples in order to reach a minimum bid of $300.   I recently acquired a lot of three early 20th century jelly molds – two made of tin and one of ceramic—for $30.  Twenty years ago, each one would have sold for this amount or more.  A second lot of almost a dozen early 20th century tin jelly molds brought $10.

When buyers and their money withdraw from a collecting category, the impact on the secondary value market for objects in the collecting category has catastrophic potential.  The belief that every collecting category will experience a rebirth of collector interest is a myth.  The landfill and reuse are becoming more viable alternatives than anyone is willing to admit.

Collectors mistakenly assume that the auctioneers, dealers, and other sale venues used to assemble collections will be available to them when the collectors wish to sell.  Individuals die.  Businesses change ownership, take a new direction, or close.  What is now will not be the same in 30 or 40 years.

Having passed the halfway point of my 70s, I cannot help thinking that reality has become much harsher than previously thought.  Although an optimist at heart, I sense a growing pessimism in my thinking.  I plan to fight it.  The good news is that I am not ready to abandon ship any time soon.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.