Visiting antiques and collectibles estate sales, flea markets, malls, shops, and shows was never a problem in the past. I always was on the hunt for something. Further, I had no problem passing on objects in which I had no collecting interest at the time or were priced higher than I was willing to pay. Although difficult to prove based on the number of objects I acquired during my career, I was and still am a discriminating buyer.
Since the 2008-2009 recession and the approach of Millennials and Generation Z toward the collecting and preserving of antiques and collectibles, my visits to these antiques and collectibles sale venues have become much more problematic. The issue is not whether or not I have too much stuff. A collector never has too much.
In previous columns, I have talked about the mystical voices that collectors hear when they are in the field. In the past, these subtle whispers included “look over here,” “come hold me,” “take me home with you,” and “I want to be loved by you.” I responded to these sirens’ calls on a regular basis. Because of these voices, I found numerous objects I never would have noticed in my journeys down the aisles of flea markets, malls, shops, and shows.
A decade ago, another type of mystical voice, far more urgent and depressing than its sister sirens’ calls, joined the chorus. It is a distressful, pleading voice saying “save me” and on occasion extends to “if you do not save me, no one will.” It is a desperate cry for help from objects whose collecting, decorative, desirability, and reuse value has diminished or disappeared. These former treasures sense shot-term abandonment.
Affordability is not the issue. Most are priced under $25, with the vast majority priced at $10 or less. These numbers are within the impulse buy range of most antiques and collectibles shoppers. All that is required is for someone to see the object, fall in love with it, and buy it. No one does. As collectors and shoppers walk by, their eyes may view an object but their minds do not see/register it. The object is a non-entity – unloved and unwanted. Its long-term significance has vanished. Its future is more likely the landfill than a home.
I have learned to steel myself and ignore the “save me” whispers. I kid myself into thinking someone surely will come along and save the object. It does not have to be me. A brief momentary doubt occurs immediately after I walk away. I know I am never going back to see how fate dealt with the object. My action is regrettable, but it is the best approach to keep my sanity.
Failing to respond to the siren’s “save me” voice becomes a mental nightmare when the object was once a highly desirable antique or collectible, often priced over a hundred dollars and now has a price tag of $15 or less. The nightmare turns into a pounding headache when the object was something that I coveted decades earlier and could not afford. I can now. A devil’s voice in my head keeps repeating: “Do not throw good money after bad. The object will never regain its former value. If no one wants it now, what makes you think someone will want it in the future?” Ultimately, the devil’s voice drowns out the “save me” plea. In my mind, I know the devil is right. My heart is another matter.
Generalist collectors are not troubled by the desire to have/save one of everything. They know this is impossible. The specialized collector is another matter. During my career, I met dozens of specialized collectors whose goal was to build a collection that included one of every known example of a particular collecting category. Many of these collections numbered in the hundreds and a few in the thousands of objects. They were/are monuments to a collector’s persistence and a total lack of concern about what he/she spent/spends to achieve the goal.
Prior to my career in the antiques and collectibles field, I spent 14 years (1963-1977) as a historic site, historical society, and museum professional and another six years (1978 to 1984) as a consultant to historical societies and museums. One of the first lessons a museum professional learns is that it is impossible to save everything.
A historic site, historical society, or museum builds a collection that allows it to fulfill its mission statement. In the mid-20th century through the 1980s, historical sites, historical societies, and museums were not as fussy about what they accepted as they are today. By the early 1980s, most institutions realized they were object rich and cash poor. Further, new generations of professionals and attendees began questioning the relevance of these objects in terms of the mission statement and began questioning why they were saved.
Local historical societies found the vast majority of the objects they accepted had little to do with their mission. The local historical society’s dilemma of what makes an object local was the problem. If a local collector built a collection totally unrelated to the history of the area, was a prominent member of the local society and/or community, and wanted to leave the collection to the society (almost always with the stipulation that it be put on permanent display), did this imbue the collection with “local significance” to require it be saved?
[Author’s Aside: In mid-June 2019, I was invited to deliver a lecture at the McFaddin Wade House, a historic home in Beaumont, Texas. The Beaux-Arts Colonial style house was built in 1905-1906 for Colonel W. C. Averill and his wife Di, the sister of W. P. H. McFaddin. Within six months, brother and sister traded houses. W. P.H. and Ida Caldwell McFaddin moved into the house in January 1907. In 1919, the McFaddin’s daughter Mamie married Carroll Ward. The couple moved in with her parents. When Mamie McFaddin Ward died, her will decreed her home was to become a historic house museum, every item in the house at the time of her death was to be preserved, no additional items were ever to be added to the collection, and left a sizeable trust to guarantee the house and its contents would be preserved in perpetuity.
I can attest to the fact that Mamie McFaddin Ward’s will was executed, with the exception of perishable items, as she requested. Behind the house stands a new air conditioned, humidity-controlled warehouse where everything, including her used golf balls and undergarments, are cataloged and archivally preserved.
I share this story to show that it is possible to save everything if one has enough money to do so.]
Mamie McFaddin Ward aside, it is time to return to reality. It is time to rephrase the “is everything from the past worth saving?” question. The correct question is, “what and how much from the past is worth saving?” The answer is not as much as most individuals, especially collectors, think.
This presents the collector with a dilemma. The collector builds a collection based in part on the premise that what he/she collects is worth saving. The collector devotes countless hours to acquiring, researching, and displaying his/her collection. The collection achieves a level of importance in the collector’s eyes that is totally removed from reality.
Two assumptions, each of which is false, develop. First, every collector believes a new collector or group of collectors will come along who feel as strongly about the objects collected as he/she does. Second, a situation will arise whereby a single individual will acquire or institution accept his/her collection and preserve, display, and add to it. It is far better if a collector dies believing the myths than having to face the fallacies.
Most collectors are too close timewise to their collections. They take an immediate instead of a long-term view. As I grow older, I gain an increased understanding how time impacts memory and objects. When I visit historical societies, historic sites, and museums whose collections span centuries, I now pay more attention to what is in their collections (saved) and what is not (not saved). I also count the number of similar objects to get a sense of the quantity of any one thing that needs to be saved. What I realize is that the vast majority of what collectors are saving now will not be saved in the long-term future. Not only will there be no room to save everything but no interest.
Return to the present. What does all this mean to me or any collector? The answer is clear. As Clark Gable as Rhett Butler so forcibly proclaimed in “Gone with the Wind, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. I am going to collect what I want, when I want it, and enjoy it as long as I desire to keep it. I am not collecting for the future. I am collecting for the present me. If “everything” is what I want, then I will make every effort to save it. To heck with the devil’s rational voice. It is time to ignore it.
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 email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.