I buy antiques and collectibles based on a “God means me to own it” theory. The theory has three criteria, all of which have to be met, before I buy. First, the object has to be in the condition in which I wish to find it. This first criteria allows flexibility for older items that show signs of age, wear, and minor damage not visible at arm’s length. Not every object I own looks like it was just made. Second, the asking price is one that I am willing to pay. Third, I have the purchase money in my pocket. Credit cards and blank checks count. If an object does not meet all these requirements, I try my best to walk away.
In recent conversations with collectors, I heard a number of “I should have walked away” or “I wish I had walked away” stories. These ranged from laments involving auction fever to “I still do not understand why I bought it.” The antiques and collectibles trade is filled with woulda, coulda, and shoulda stories as my friend Norman Martinez constantly reminded me.
A recent “Rinker on Collectibles” column discussed the dilemma faced by older collectors who walked away in the past because an object was priced beyond their financial capacity at the time and now, often 30 to 40 years later, is not only affordable but considerably cheaper than when the collector first turned it down. The column considered the question of whether it makes sense to own an object for a few years knowing that its value is not likely to increase over the next decade and more likely to decline. It appears the best approach may be to let bygones be bygones. [Pun clearly intended.]
I am a collector to whom time is irrelevant. My earliest memories involve collecting. I expect my final memories to be the same. Collecting is a life force that is as essential to me as the blood in my body.
Over the years, I have walked away from more potential purchases than I completed. The more I thought of these decisions, the more I realized that most of them had nothing to do with my buying criteria. The decision to walk away was motivated by a host of other reasons. When I made a list of “walk away” reasons, I was surprised by its length. The balance of this column identifies and provides my insights into several of them.
The first is “I did not know what I was looking at.” The IRS definition of fair market value consists of three parts: (1) willing buyer and seller, (2) neither under compulsion to buy or sell, and (3) both equally knowledgeable. Few antiques and collectibles sales occur between equally knowledgeable parties. More often than not, the seller is far more knowledgeable than the buyer. In some cases, the opposite is true. The latter is the position I prefer when buying.
In the caveat emptor (the burden is on the buyer to know what h is buying and not on the seller to know what he is selling) antiques and collectibles world, I follow one simple premise—if I do not know, I do not buy. Not knowing occurs on multiple fronts: (1) unfamiliarity with the collecting category, especially the differences between common and scarce objects; (2) the value spread between high and low for the category as well as the specific object; (3) the availability of the object in the secondary market (just because I have never seen one before, does not mean there are not plenty of other examples); and (4) the resale value record of the object over time.
[Author’s Aside: “Walking away” does not necessarily mean “I am not going to buy the object.” “Walking away” also can mean (1) I need to take time to research the object or (2) I need more time to consider the purchase. I have returned to purchase objects from which I walked away—not often, but I have done it.]
Second, something does not feel right about the object. The simplified version of this approach is when in doubt, walk away. It applies to a great many things in life beside objects.
Over the years, I worked hard to develop what I call a “Collector’s Sixth Sense,” a gut reaction that an object is true to itself. I am not always able to analyze and describe why. At this point in my collecting career, I do not try. If instinct says do not buy, I do not. Like Luke Skywalker, I trust The Force.
Each time I ignored this feeling. I regretted it. When I inspected the object a second time after arriving home or shared my purchase with another collectors, the “did you not notice this” phrase reared its ugly head. No collector likes to admit he/she missed the obvious.
Third, later in my collecting career, I learned to walk away from pressure sellers. Dealers’ comments such as “a number of people have shown a strong interest in this piece” or “I am planning to pack out early” no longer have impact. When in this situation, I mentally recite the following checklist: (1) if there is one, there is another, (2) haste makes waste, and (3) do not be a dumb schmuck, remember your past mistakes. The last is the most effective of the three.
Fourth, I walk away if I do not have enough time to inspect the object. “I’ll take it” based on a quick first inspection is an invitation to disaster. When I inspect any object, I use a seven-point system – top, bottom, front, back, left side, right side, and inside. The faster each is done, the more likely a mistake will happen.
A collector’s eyes are a tricky commodity. They do not want to see imperfections. Instead, their eyes fill in the blanks. Eyes often have to be fooled see to beyond the surface image. Handling objects in non-normal ways forces the eyes to focus exactly on what they see as opposed to what the mind wants them to see.
When examining objects, I am very conscious of the light source. Bad lighting is a dealer’s friend. Sunlight is the buyer’s friend. If there is not good raking light for examination, I will ask the dealer if I can take the object to a place where there is. If he/she refuses, I walk away.
Fifth, objects must be courted. Love at first sight is not to be trusted. When I experience love instead of caution, I walk away to regain control over my emotions. Love blinds rather than clarifies.
Sixth, in recent years, I walk away more and more based upon a premise that I totally ignored in the past – do I really need the object. A better way to approach this is “do I have enough time left to enjoy the object to the full extent I wish.”
When I lived in the over 14,000 square foot former Vera Cruz [PA] Elementary School, space was not a problem. Living in a 2,800 square foot house, space is a problem. Further, I keep telling my wife Linda that we are maxed out in terms of living space. Downsizing not upsizing is the future.
Seventh, I used to, and to some extend still do, buy objects because of their research value. Recently, after a hard look in the mirror, I admitted to myself that there are not enough years left to research all the objects housed in the multiple “to research” boxes in my basement. Having celebrated my 77th birthday, I hear the “beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom,” with apologies to Cole Porter, much louder than before.
I reached the conclusion years ago that I own more objects (you insert whatever alternative word you wish) than God meant me to own. God does not control everything, in spite of some people’s opinions. My life has been and remains an abundance of riches but not in the monetary sense.
Will there come a point when I will walk away from all the objects I own? No! How I will manage this after I die remains questionable, but I am working on the answer.
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.
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.