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Buying into the Hype: Trophy Antiques and Collectibles

by Harry Rinker (07/05/10).

Picasso's "Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust)" sold for 106.5 million last May, the most ever paid for a Picasso.

Picasso's "Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust)" sold for 106.5 million last May, the most ever paid for a Picasso.

The concept of a trophy wife is an ancient one. Bathsheba and Cleopatra are examples. A 1950 issue of The Economist magazine called attention to the practice of victorious warriors marrying beautiful women captured in battle. Monarchs often married wives where the trophy rested more in political alliances and land acquisition than physical beauty. Charles (who needs all the help he can muster) and Diana offer a contemporary example.

By the 1990s, trophy wife was a term used to describe the marriage of a financially successful man to a woman whose beauty and desirability enhanced his status among male competitors. The trophy wife was equivalent to a Lamborghini, Patek Philip or New York Park Avenue penthouse. Billionaire J. Howard Marshall’s marriage to Playboy Playmate’s Anna Nicole Smith added a pejorative connotation to the phrase.

Reading the media hype preceding Christie’s International, Phillips de Pury & Co. and Sotheby’s June 2010 London sales of impressionist and modern art, I found several references to the top lots being offered for sale as potential trophies. Applying this trophy concept to fine arts, antiques and collectibles is new. If it becomes acceptable trade speak, it will solidify the idea that desirability at the high-end of any collecting category rests on financial as much or more than aesthetic beauty. Unlike the trophy wife, whose beauty fades over time, the implied assumption is that trophy art’s financial beauty will not. This is a dangerous and possibly false assumption.

Who or what decides if a piece of art is a trophy? At the moment, the answer is money. Which is the trophy—the $106.5-million Picasso painting sold on May 2010 in New York or the $51.2-million Picasso “Portrait d’Angel Fernándezo de Soto” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation sold in London on June 23, 2010, by Christie’s International? If they are both trophies, how is the $55 million dollar difference explained?

Picasso's “Portrait d’Angel Fernándezo de Soto” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation sold in London on June 23, 2010, sold for $51.2 million.

Picasso's “Portrait d’Angel Fernándezo de Soto” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation sold in London on June 23, 2010, sold for $51.2 million.

In the midst of the Great Recession (do not try telling me and millions of others that it is over), staggering prices are being paid for high-end pieces, many of which set auction or private treaty sale records. Individuals are cashing out of their intangible investments such as bonds and stocks and buying tangibles. Fine art, antiques and collectibles as tangibles are one area into which this available capital is flowing.

Coins, comic books, non-sport and sport trading cards (a.k.a., bubble gum cards) and stamps have developed a grading and encapsulated system; the goal is to create a universal standard through which these commodities can be traded worldwide. Attempts to do this for other fine art, antiques and collectibles have failed or met with limited success.

The determination of trophy status is and always will be subjective. The amount paid is driven by the opinion of someone—a person whose expertise and motive needs to be constantly scrutinized in the present and future. There is no one who is above suspicion, even the buyer. If the buyer’s goal is to buy status in buying a piece of trophy art, antique or collectible, his judgment is clouded from the onset. Advice from experts within the field, investment pundits or auction house personnel is tainted, too, if for no other reason than they profit from the acceptance of their advice.

I was extremely pleased with the balance shown by the media reports of the June 2010 London art sales. In addition to reporting the lots that sold, they called attention to the large number of lots that did not sell. Prior to the actual auction, many of these unsold lots were hyped by the auction houses as trophy pieces. Given the high percentage of lots that did not sell, I am more pleased by those who did not bid and saved their money to buy another day than I am by those who bought into the hype.

When I describe the top five to 10 pieces within a collecting category, I refer to them as masterpiece or ultimate units. A top-notch collection contains at least half of them. Collectors define their importance in terms of desirability and not money, although a connection can be made.

A pair of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

A pair of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Because of collectors’ declining importance in determining the significance of what is and is not being sold in the antiques and collectibles marketplace, it is time to accept two truths, no matter how painful: (1) the concept of trophy antiques and collectibles has been around far longer than most are willing to admit; and (2) those who buy these items are not collectors in the true sense. Although a reputed pair of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” were sold in an MGM auction in 1950, the concept that a pair was a trophy was established on May 24, 2000, when Christie’s East sold a pair for $660,000 to David Elkouby and his partners, who owned several Hollywood memorabilia stores. They have not surfaced since.

Is trophy the best word to describe these slippers? My first thought is yes. They are trophies. The slippers are one of the movies’ greatest props. While researching the slippers, I found a reference to them as “Genre: Fantasy.” It is hard to dispute the fantasy attribution. There is a sense of unreality to them. Since I have no desire to create two new collecting concepts of trophy and fantasy, trophy is fine for now.

Once again, the question becomes how do you define a trophy antique or collectible? Like the Picasso paintings, the object can be assigned to a specific collecting category or sub-category. A trophy piece should stand alone.

In the past, I have railed against those who tout the one-of-a-kind over a mass produced object. Painters, even Picasso, had their bad days. I have seen more than my fair share of handmade junk; crap that belongs in the landfill rather than a museum or collection. Each piece stands and falls on its own merit in my eyes.

Perhaps this is why I am having so much trouble dealing with the possibility that the only way to define a trophy antique or collectible is its uniqueness. Ideally, it is a one-of-a-kind item. But, the ruby slippers were not one-of-a-kind, they were five-or-six-or-more of a kind—a pair or pairs for dancing, a pair or pairs for close-ups, or a pair or pairs of identical slippers worn by one of the witches. Is size alone enough to differentiate which is which? Trophy clearly requires limitability.

Michael Jackson’s Swarovski crystal-studded glove worn during his 1984 Victory tour sold for $190,000 to Wanda Kelley of Los Angeles.

Michael Jackson’s Swarovski crystal-studded glove worn during his 1984 Victory tour sold for $190,000 to Wanda Kelley of Los Angeles.

I briefly considered equating trophy with icon status. In June 2010, Michael Jackson’s Swarovski crystal-studded glove worn during his 1984 Victory tour sold for $190,000 to Wanda Kelley of Los Angeles. Who is Wanda Kelley? Her claim to fame is her statement: “Let’s just say I wasn’t walking out of here without that glove.” Is this glove a trophy icon? For $190,000, one would hope so. Fate decrees otherwise. In November 2009, Michael Jackson’s white glove worn when he first performed his moonwalk for the 1983 Motown 25 television special sold for $350,000. Apparently lead crystals do not a trophy icon make. Further, the auction company touted the white glove as the Holy Grail of Michael Jackson collectibles. Trophy, icon, Holy Grail—what is next?

The last week of June 2010 witnessed a number of hard-to-understand-the-price-paid sales. Julien’s Auctions sold a set of three Marilyn Monroe X-rays revealing a lovely set of ribs (not what you thought I was going to comment upon, was it?) from a 1953 Cedars of Lebanon Hospital visit for $45,000, an Elvis Presley shirt worn during a 1956 appearance on “the Milton Berle Show” for $61,200, and a pair of Michael Jackson’s stage-worn loafers for $90,000, hopefully fumigated and polished before being sold. None of these items are trophies. In fact, they make you wonder if the buyers who acquired them were in the right mind.

It is far easier to agree upon which objects are not trophies as opposed to deciding which are. When I hear trophy, I immediately think of the shelves and boxes full of sports trophies I encounter doing home appraisals. What were once valuable are now junk. The moment of glory and memories associated with them vanished. This my greatest concern with assigning trophy status to fine art, antique and collectible objects. The concept is not permanent. There is no guarantee the next owner, let alone future generations will assign it the same value.

Let’s stay with the tried and true. These so-called trophies are nothing more than the high-end used goods sold in the antiques and collectibles marketplace. We are first, foremost and always will be nothing more than recyclers of other people’s stuff.

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

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4 Responses to “Buying into the Hype: Trophy Antiques and Collectibles”

  1. Jacqueline says:

    A genuine trophy Bride or Groom would be defined as the individual who has a proven track record. The talent of individuals who are in a profession or career track where they have earned substantial acclaim, financial income, and all of which will increase in time as they are on the rise and not on the down side of their career. A trophy bride is not limited to superficial beauty which as you describe fades as time goes on. Citing this concept as a parallel to the trophy antique- I would say they do exist. However they would have to be in the genre of perhaps an orphaned copyright that was acquired and made into a movie that broke box office records. Perhaps a Tesla patent that has never been marketed correctly would be another genre of trophy antique. Rare but probably there is a permanent place in the market for such defined items.

  2. Nick Ryan says:

    Harry, good article, but you missed out one other vital word . . . . DESIRE, when someone desires to own say an article of clothing that has been worn by someone famous the price matters not as others also have the desire. Yes they are trophies and some never see the light of day again, if that item is kept secret, as often people are embarrassed by the silly prices they pay, who is to know as they go through the deceased’s estate what that glove is? And trash it becomes.

    Man has always had a desire for trophies, right back to stone age man in fact. Man will never lose that DESIRE.

    Regards, Nick

  3. Jacqueline says:

    Harry, I am a big fan of yours. You have achieved outstanding recognition in your field. You deserve a place of honor in this business. The issue presented here begs your validation. The various professional peers who reply in this format may help the evolution of the market to vote it up or down- What is a trophy antique and is there a definitive niche for such a rare entity? I sold women’s purses in a high end retail store. The Dooney Burke and the Coach bags were symbols for executive women. The cost was $100-600 range. I saw women who could not afford these bags buy them and pay on credit cards for these bags because they were a symbol of extraordinary success- the trophy bride syndrome accessory. So what I saw in the market was that these bags were simultaneously a symbol of success -and a symbol of “false success”. The psychology of the buyers is what is driving these so called ” trophy antique” deals. Some sellers are con-artists ready to exploit the seekers of false symbols of prosperity.

  4. I just want to comment on how beautifully written your article is! I always question what is value and remind people that no matter how important you think you are, we all end up as box lots in life. Thank you for your information and prose, Gina

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