The Computer: Friend or Foe for Antiques Enthusiasts

I have lived through two information revolutions in the antiques and collectibles field. The first occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The number of regional antiques and collectibles trade papers tripled. Several regional papers, e.g., the Tri-State Trader, assumed national importance. Antiques and collectibles publishers expanded their titles to include specialized price guides focused on a single collecting category. When the 20th century ended, it seemed as though there was at least one specialized price guide for every collecting category. Lightning balls had three. There were holes, but you had to look to find them.

TRIVIA QUIZ: The Tri-StateTrader evolved into what current trade publication?

The computer is responsible for the second information revolution. Some will argue that the computer is only hardware and that software and the Internet are the true revolutionary tools. While true, I still turn on my computer to utilize both, thus my vote is for the computer. I live in the computer age, not the Internet age.

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There is no question the computer is in the process of revolutionizing the antiques and collectibles trade. I used “in the process” because the revolution is in its early stages. Miniaturization of technology, worldwide access, and new entrepreneurial schemes are daily occurrences. More and more handheld devices are capable of Internet access. While I conceded defeat and purchased a mobile phone, I continue to hold out against the Blackberry, iPod, and the like. I eventually will yield, but still take pride in my stubborn committal to the “old fashion way” for the moment.

I remember (using this phrase makes it sound like so long ago) when I was thrilled to have dial-up access to the Internet. Now my decision to stay at a bed and breakfast, hotel or motel is contingent upon whether or not it has free wireless Internet access. To hell with the high-end hotels that charge an access fee. Once again, I have resisted purchasing an Internet access card through my telephone provider. I am holding out for access via satellite at a reasonable cost.

Entrepreneurial innovations are happening so fast that I cannot keep up with them. Dana Morykan, who proofs much of what I write about antiques and collectibles, suggested I checkout the website www.budson.com/uk and www.swoopo.com. I did. You should as well. Hopefully no one from Christie’s or Sotheby’s will. Heaven help the trade if they do.

Like December 7, 1941, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated as a “date that will live in infamy,” Christie’s and Sotheby’s deserve the same attribution as companies for introducing the buyer’s penalty to the antiques and collectibles field. The buyer’s penalty, more commonly know as the buyer’s premium, is an additional fee charged to successful bidders for the right to purchase objects at auction. The only salvation, assuming it is one, is that the only person who pays this fee is the final bidder.

This is not true on budson.com/uk and swoopo.com. Every bid on swoopo.com costs seventy-five cents. Every bid on Budson costs one pound fifty. Everyone pays to bid—win or lose. As bad as this may sound, it gets worse. Swoopo.com raises bids in fifteen-cent increments. Do the math. Swoopo makes $5 for each $1 bid. Budson is even worse. Its bids are raised one penny at a time. Budson makes 150 pounds for each pound increase in the bid.

Bid increases are limited to fifteen cents and one penny. Even if you are willing to bid hundreds of dollars more, you only can increase your bid by the pre-specified amount. The possibility exists that you could bid hundreds of times in a single auction before winning. The final cost to bid could easily exceed the value of the purchased object. What a racket. If criminal elements tried a stunt like this, a Federal prosecutor and task force would be appointed.

Can it get even worse? You bet. Budson and Swoopo have last-man-standing software, i.e., the auction is not over until only one bidder remains. There is no fixed end time as there is for an eBay auction. Each new bid revives the bidding process. Swoopo uses a 20-second countdown, i.e. when the announced closing time is reached, the auction continues and does not close until 20 seconds pass without a bid.

If you think this bid approach never will be tried in the antiques and collectibles trade, think again. Some auction house or auctioneer is going to try it, whether Internet-driven or in a gallery. It will fail only if the antiques and collectibles buying community make a pact never to participate in such a scheme. The buyer’s penalty survived because of greed, i.e., the inability of buyers to sit on their hands and paddles when it was first introduced. If everyone had refused to bid at those early auctions, there would be no buyer’s penalty today.

The computer has impacted the antiques and collectibles trade positively and negatively, a trend that will continue into the future. Budson and Swoopo are examples of the negative influence. The use of the computer as a fourth bidder for a live auction is a positive example.

Historically, an auction had two groups of bidders: those in attendance and those in the book. Book bids are those left behind by individuals who previewed the auction but could not be present at the time of the actual sale. The mobile phone gave rise to a third set of bidders. Phone banks grew from two to three phones to more than 20 at major auction houses. The computer established a fourth set of bidders; individuals who followed the auction live on a web platform and actively bid as the auction progressed. Service providers such as liveauctioneers.com, proxibid.com, and artfact.com (Artfact Live!), and others work with leading auction houses around the world.

As the computer offers increasingly more information and services in the antiques and collectibles field, time became the enemy. If I spent 24 hours a day on the computer, there is no way I could stay current with the wealth of new technology and information flooding the Internet. I spend most of my day and night on the computer, either researching or writing.

The tragedy is that I am spending less and less time consulting print resources, from reference books to antiques and collectibles periodicals. What was once a necessity has become a luxury. Why do I have the feeling I am missing so much?

My field research also is suffering. It is too easy to turn to the computer. Cyberspace data is replacing human data. Intelligence agencies rediscovered the value of onsite human resources thanks to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Statistical data is only one measure of what is happening in the antiques and collectibles trade. Human perception and assessment are others and every bit as valid as the former.

Fifteen years ago, more or less, I was in Dallas with Jim and Yvonne Tucker conducting a series of antiques and collectibles seminars. I told the attendees that if they were 50 or older, there was no need for them to buy a computer. They could continue to do business in the traditional manner until they were ready to retire. It was bad advice, very bad advice. Five years later I sang a very different tune, telling seminar participants that using a computer was critical to survival.

I am typing this column on a computer. I will send it electronically to Dana for proofing. She will send it electronically to those who will publish it, including several websites, among which is harryrinker.com. Print publications who receive it will insert it into their page format on a computer and send the finished pages electronically to the printer.

This is the computer age; and, I am happy to be part of it. I just have to make certain it is not my only life.

TRIVA QUIZ ANSWER: AntiqueWeek. The Tri-State Trader began in 1968. The switch to AntiqueWeek occurred in the early 1980s.

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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 “WHATCHA GOT?” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on http://www.gcnlive.com 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 letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also 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. 2009

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