Fighting Against the Misuse of the Rare, the One-of-a-Kind and the Antique

This ring, made from a piece of silverware, may be rare, if you are considering it only as a piece of jewelry, made by a specific person. But the pattern was mass-produced and there may be hundreds or thousands of these rings out there. You just don’t know.

How can you tell a true antique dealer with years of experience from someone who is just trying to make a buck under the antique dealer label? One tip-off is how often they use the words “rare,” “one-of-a-kind” or stating that everything in the shop is an “antique.”

I remember reading an article by Harry Rinker in a 2007 that included some wisdom that struck me, so much so that I have incorporated it into my list of things to consider when buying; whether for my myself or for my store. He said that anything made from 1950 on is not rare, although I can’t remember the phrase, exactly, to directly quote him.

It is a real pet peeve of mine when people use “rare,” “one-of-a-kind” and “antique” to describe an item for no other reason than to use the terms. I guess it is possible that they really don’t know what they have, what decade or era it is from and are clueless in general, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I also see these terms used all the time in an online forum relating to antiques and collectibles I frequent. Many times, the customer has been fed these terms by an appraiser, sometimes it is a friend or their own online research.

The terms “rare” and “one-of-a-kind” are should be used very conservatively and only when one is beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt-positive that this is accurate information. This is generally not something that your 8-to-5 seller can say with all certainty. Even with my decades of experience and study, and attending as many auctions, shops and sales as I do, I can’t recall the last time I used these three phrases to describe and object, other than for a one-of-a-kind item I personally created (thus, I know it’s one of a kind).

Author’s Note: In the Tariff Act of 1930, the U.S. Customs defined an antique as an object that was made before 1830, when mass production became commonplace. In 1966, the standard of 100 years old was adopted as the defining characteristic to determine if an object was an antique and its import would be duty-free. Before this standard was implemented, importers often claimed all types of objects as “antiques” to avoid the tax. On Dec. 8, 1993, Title VI of the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (Pub. L. 103-182, 107 Stat. 2057), also known as the Customs Modernization or “Mod Act,” became effective. These provisions amended many sections of the Tariff Act of 1930 and related laws. One key change to the Act concerns restoration. “Provided they retain their original character, the heading includes antique articles that have been repaired or restored. For example, the heading includes antique furniture incorporating parts of modern manufacture. However, if the essential character is changed, or more than 50 percent of the item has been repaired or restored, the item is no longer considered an antique and is subject to duty.”

A vintage photograph date 1909 of a female dentist performing a tooth extraction in her office. The photo is described as “rare.” Is the photo rare, or is the female dentist in 1909 rare?

The word antique is batted around more than the birdie in a game of badminton. It is used and abused and in this age of mass-reproduced “antique” items that it misleads the novice collector and buyer. There are other words that can be used and are probably more appropriate in most circumstances; vintage and retro are two quite nice descriptive words. If an item is really a “collectible,” that too is a suitable word to describe an item.

OK Michelle, what set you off on this tangent of terminology? Why, thank you for asking; it has been building for awhile. What pushed me over the edge, though, was “A Rare, One of a Kind, Antique Elephant Figurine” that popped up on to my Facebook page from a supposedly reputable antique shop site.

Curious person that I am—and one always open to learning new things—I went to the page to see this magnificent specimen. For the love of Mike, it was a 1970s ceramic elephant figurine of unmarked origin. It was cute, but that is where it began and ended. Of course, I left a comment for the seller stating that her description was way off base and the war of the words began.

Part of what I love about my chosen profession as an antique dealer is educating people. I believe that it is part of my job to educate new collectors and the new generation of buyers. I admit to not knowing it all, but I do know quite a bit and I am always striving to learn more.

If we continue to sit on our laurels and let misinformation like this continue, we are not doing the industry any justice what so ever. We are perpetuating the lies and misinformation online but it’s being told and sold to people in antique shops.

I searched for “rare” in the antiques category on eBay and had 30,025 items show up in the search results. This included a “rare” Wallace Silver-plate Charger; photocopies of “rare” vintage and antique photographs (the quantity of five or more is a giveaway); and “rare” 1970 Gorham Snowflake ornaments (three others on eBay). Anyway, you can see where I am going with this (and I only looked at one page of the search results). Granted, there may be some very rare items up for sale, but overuse of this term can lead new collectors to not trust anyone. The same thing happened with Depression and carnival glass because of all the reproductions being sold as “antique.”

The listing says “This is a huge white enamelware pot with original lid. It has two great big handles on the kettle and a big handle on the lid. One of a kind!” If it was mass-produced, it’s not one of a kind.

Now, for a “one of a kind” search, I only hit on 420 results—most of which are works of art. But there was some furniture, too, all without provenance. If you have a one-of-a-kind piece, at the very least offer up some provenance. I did recently do an appraisal on a moondial crafted by the customer’s father. He had only created five of these award-winning pieces, and besides being functional, they were absolute works of art. She wanted to sell one, and she had lots of provenance on the piece (official a one-of-five-of-a-kind) but I could not give her an appraisal value because nothing like it had been sold on the open market. I anxiously await the auction results.

I do not mean to be catty or hateful with this article; I just want to draw attention to a matter that has become epidemic in the sale of antiques, collectibles, vintage, retro and memorabilia items. Know who you are buying from and get a written certification or rarity. Do your homework and please correct people if you see these terms being misused.

Happy shopping!

Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.

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  1. Terry Mangum says:

    I have an auction company and get calls all the time about “antiques” people would like to sell. Usually, after a few questions, I learn what they have is definitely NOT an antique. Recently someone called about their antique furniture they were interested in selling. When I asked how old they thought the items were, the lady replied, “Oh, these items are old. Very old. Seems like we bought them right after we got married 35 years ago.” When asked if they were old then, she responded, “No, we only bought new things back then!”

  2. Randy S. says:

    While most antique and collectible collectors and dealers will agree with Michelle Staley and her comments about rare and antique being over used, you should also be aware that vehicles are considered antiques when they are over 25 years old. Also and obviously, photographs from the early 1900’s are NOT rare and never will be, there being many out there BUT quite obviously the seller of the rare photograph in question refers to the female dentist from this era and yes, it would be rare to have a photograph like that one. Just as there are many other rare photographs with the rarity being the subject matter or the photographer.

  3. tinfoilhat says:

    And if you search under “OOAK” you will find even more things purporting to be one of a kind.

  4. Upstate New York says:

    It is a real pet peeve of mine to receive a piece of mail from Worthpoint.Com (which I love) that has the teaser paragraph (in particular “misuse of the rare….” and to trip over errors such as “She says that she see”? “customers has being misinformed?”. Should I now think of your company as you think of the misuse of “rare”?
    Do you have an Editor or a Proof Reader? If not, I would like to apply for the position.

    • john moore says:

      Thanks-you, thank-you We share the same pet peeve. Rare, antique and words that denote age are commonly misused and only demonstrate ignorance by the vast users of the word….especially on Ebay Some one once told me that rare on Ebay is defined as no longer available at Target… Humorous but too close to the truth. When young people use the word old I always inquire what they consider old. It puts us on a better level of understanding,..Thanks for helping to vent my pet peeve

    • Gregory Watkins says:

      Please do not blame Michelle for the typos in the tease for her article in the WorthPoint Insider. That is my fault. While preparing the newsletter for distribution, my computer crashed. When I got it back up, many of the changes I made did not save, and I failed to check to make sure the version I sent out was the final version.

      I do appreciate that WorthPoint readers keeping us honest, so if you spot more mistakes, please let us know.

      – Editor

  5. Nick Ryan says:

    Hi, it peeves me as well, I believe in most cases it is individual ignorance, I see it mainly on eBay and if the vendor took the time to look at other listings he would see that he has listed his “one of a Kind” etc alongside many other identical items. I just wish they would do their research before listing.

    Nick

  6. I too agree that these words are misused and frustrating, however it will never be stopped because the folks that use it are employing every key word they can to draw more traffic to the item. This is why the buyer needs to be informed and aware. Honest sellers will filter through all the trash talkers in time. Hopefully the frustrated customers will not buy from people that don’t represent things as they should be.

    I also agree that anyone that publishes on a blog or submits for a stand up publication like Worth-Point should have items edited. This CAN be corrected unlike the misuse of terms in the article above.

    I know a very good editor that was so put out by all the mistakes found on the web and started a sideline business from it. http://www.smewritingservices.com and others like her are out there. Spell check will not cut it for grammar, punctuation and all the other things that make reading and writing an important communication tool.

  7. Peeved in PA says:

    Brava, Michelle! This has been a peeve of mine for a long time. “Rare” is the most overused, misused word on ebay. I do not believe that people are using it because they don’t know the difference, but because they think it will increase views of their item and the price it will realize.

  8. Don Wagner says:

    Don’t forget the much-abused term ‘unique’. I have seen eBay sellers use this to describe newly made stuff from China and they have several listings running at the same time for the exact same item (which doesn’t exactly make them too smart in the first place).

    We had a new auctioneer in our area who was big on advertising “once in a lifetime chance to own this or that one of a kind” items. He sure didn’t last long. Hard to stay in business when every customer you ever have swears they will never come back.

  9. I see that this article has hit a nerve with a lot of folks. We need to take a stand against the use of the words and contact sellers, especially on eBay, to correct their use of these words.

    As for the grammatical errors yes I do send my articles to an editor at WorthPoint and he makes corrections, I am an antique dealer not a journalist, this sometimes includes rewording my sentence structure so that it flows better and makes it more enjoyable for you to read.

    It appears that some of my sentences were restructured and something went wrong along the way. I have contacted him to go back over the article and re-edit it.

    Thank you all for your comments and I always welcome suggestions for future articles.

  10. Lisa Mull says:

    Ah, Michelle, et al:

    THANK YOU for bringing up this topic. I am able to gloss over the “rare,” “OOAK,” and so on, now, but when I was a newbie on eBay, it was tantalizing. I actually believed people knew what they were talking about. I feel sorry for those people who still believe those terms.

    To add to the list of pet peeves (which actually border on outright lies, and therefore, there has to be some illegality involved), I add, calling something by a popular name, not because it is (it isn’t), but because seeing the name triggers a salivating response. Copies of roses are COPIES, not roses (my apologies, Bill).

    I found some items labeled “Talavera”, but the seller told me they weren’t marked, just that she had “sold some other items like it that were Talavera.” If she knew her stuff, then she would know that that did not make her item Talavera! I think I will label myself an expert in Mexican pottery, since I toured a Talavera factory in Puebla and wrote an article about it. In 1980. That’s current, isn’t it? Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m an expert!

    “Catty or hateful”?! How about “realistic” and “alert” and “responsible”? Those adverbs are far more appropriate for your article.

    Thanks, Michelle. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re refreshing, and you give me hope.

    Lisa
    Lisa’s Bits & Collectibles

  11. Seeing “Antique Sewing Machine” in a header and opening the item only to find an early 1970’s plastic machine annoys me to no end!! Thanks for the article…too bad the people who would REALLY benefit from it will never see it!!

  12. Denise says:

    Yes, “rare” is way overused, as is “unique,” which usually describes some mass-produced item. Some sellers just don’t seem to realize that just because the seller hasn’t seen it before doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there, or even hard to find!

    The worst use of “antique” I’ve recently run across was an eBay auction for “2 rare spools of thread.” I collect (and sell) vintage and antique sewing notions, so clicked to see what was being offered.

    What I found were 2 small spools of polyester thread dating from the 1980s. They were offered at $65, plus shipping!

    I sent a note to the seller, gently telling her that these were barely (if at all) vintage, and could not be called antique. (I told her the definitions of both terms, as they are commonly used by dealers and collectors.) I also pointed out that the this type of thread can still be bought today, for very little.

    She replied that the thread had belonged to her grandmother and certainly were antique – they were “at least 25 years old!”

    She absolutely insisted that items from the 1980s are commonly called antiques and these spools of thread were “very rare.”

    I noticed shortly after that she lowered her price a bit – to $50!

    • Don Wagner says:

      You hit the nail on the head with this one.

      Selling antiques remains one of the few professions where you can hit the ground running – no subject matter expertise or communication skills are required, not even the basic ability to piece together words into a sentence which describes what you are selling.

      Oh, and don’t get me started on the many flea market “professionals” who consider personal hygiene to be completely optional …

  13. I love it when I hit a nerve. It lets me know that I am not just being a little overly sensitive on an issue. I came across an eBay listing yesterday where the seller had 3 Dollar Store dolls listed as ‘antique’ and ‘rare’ the rational was that they were found in a trunk so hey, they have to be old. I sent him a comment correcting his description but we all know where my comment went.

  14. Bruce Bates says:

    Michelle, et al,

    I am in the process of putting together an alternative way for sellers of “Rare” and “One-of-a-Kind” items to auction their merchandise online in a more exclusive venue. One specifically devoted to truly “Rare” and “One-of-a-Kind” items. I would greatly appreciate your feedback on our venture as we are rapidly putting the finishing touches on our website as I type this.

    Any thoughts you would be willing to share with us on how to create a better experience for both buyers and sellers of “Rare” and “One-of-a-Kind” items would be greatly appreciated. My web address is http://TreasureHunt.com, and our tagline is “Online Auctions of Rare and One-of-a-Kind Items.”

  15. Dennis Gray says:

    Expecting 100% accuracy and honesty on ebay is almost as wishful as expecting it in politics. It aint happenin. Expecting it in an “antique” dealer is another matter. I collect miniature oil lamps. Most of what I buy is 40 to 60 years old. Some is actually over 100. Some came off the boat from China last week. I have some idea which is which. I disagree with the word “vintage” though.Vintage is “a year or period of origin.” A dealere will often mark a peice as “vintage” implying that it is old. It may be vintage, but it is vintage 2012 not vintage old. Retro is a good word. I like that for new items that look like old. Great article.