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One Man’s Guidelines for Buying Contemporary Arts and Crafts

by Harry Rinker (08/16/10).

This past July, Linda and I attended the 53rd Guilford (Conn.) Craft Expo, a juried craft show sponsored by the Guilford Art Center. Approximately 175 artists displayed their wares. The Expo’s Web site promotion typifies hundreds of similar events across the United States:

“Craft Expo is known for its one-of-a-kind work of the highest quality: Ceramics, Glass, Leather, Metal, Metal Jewelry, Non-Metal Jewelry, Non-Wearable Fiber, Painting, Printmaking & Drawing, Wearable Fiber and Wood. Items range from decorative to functional and traditional to contemporary. All work presented at Expo is handmade by the artists, all of whom have been accepted in the show by a panel of professional peers, thereby ensuring only the highest quality in workmanship, design, and materials.”

I attend arts and crafts shows reluctantly. I see far more that I dislike than like. While admitting that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, my eye is selective. I admire pieces that (1) are aesthetically pleasing, (2) offer a new design approach or enrich an existing one, and (3) demonstrate superior workmanship. Pieces created to appeal to popular taste with their knocked-out, cookie-cutter appearance offend. No college education is needed to separate the reproductions, copycats, and knock-offs from quality pieces. Crap always smells no matter how it is disguised and marketed.

There is a difference between the craftsman and artisan. The craftsman utilizes established forms and patterns. He mimics the past, staying within traditional bounds. While he may do it more competently than those who came before, the end product falls within a linear evolutionary path. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the quality of workmanship at arts and crafts shows and lose sight of the fact that the form and design of a piece are not innovative.

The artisan expands upon existing forms and patterns, often creating entirely new designs. His pieces have a sense of proportion and appeal that goes beyond the ordinary. They exhibit universal permanence. Acknowledgment of their greatness rests not with one but many. Borrowing a collector’s term, the pieces sing. It is a unique song, a siren’s wail that pierces the innermost being of those privileged to hear it.

Arts and crafts shows tout the one-of-a-kind nature of their products. However, many are not. There is more duplication than appears on the surface. An artisan selling wearable textiles tells a client, “If this does not fit, I can make an identical one in your size.” The ceramist sells a dinnerware service where each plate is an exact copy of its counterpart. The argument that the design is hand-painted and thus there are subtle design differences is not valid. The maker tried his best to make each piece identical. If the design varies, it is a flaw, not an intention.

Jewelry artisans have “signature” pieces. They create a template. Although production runs may be limited, production proceeds until there are no buyers left.

Merchandise at arts and crafts shows is not cheap. In fact, it is expensive. The high-ticket prices are meant to convey an air of exclusivity. The lure is that the owner has purchased a unique object, one he will not find duplicated at the homes of friends and others in his social circle.

Sales also rely on the cult of personality. The artisan sells himself/herself as much as the product. Most offer flyers or sheets that provide biographical information, a personal artistic statement, pictures of wares, and contact information. The seller tries to establish a bond with the customer, the goal being a second or third purchase based as much on loyalty to him as to his product.

Given the above, it is easy to understand why Linda is hesitant to attend an arts and crafts show with me. She has become accustomed to my shaking my head “no” far more often than “yes” when she looks at something with that I-would-love-to-buy-this look. I appreciate the trust she places in my eye. I want Linda to wear and have the best.

Linda and I have several contemporary arts and crafts collections. Most readers are familiar with Linda’s love of jewelry. While Linda likes the antique and vintage jewelry I buy her, she also delights in wearing pieces from her contemporary jewelry artisan collection, several pieces of which were purchased at arts and crafts fairs.

In sharing the criteria Linda and I use to select a jewelry piece to add to her collection, it needs to be understood that the same principles apply to any arts and crafts category whether ceramics, glass, metal, textiles, or wood. The criteria order is not important. The final buy or not-to-buy decision is based on a subjective “feeling” that is a combination of all of them.

An artisan is the poorest judge of his own work. He has a vested personal interest in each piece. The artisan is its creator. It becomes his child. In his heart, he cannot value one piece above another. Hence, we must rely on our eyes and mind to make the judgment call.

A jewelry display has to catch our eye. We do not even stop to look at comme ci, comme ça presentations. It is a mistake to assume there is a masterpiece present in every booth. Ours is a hunt for the most exquisite treasures.

We visit an arts and crafts show prepared to leave without making a purchase. This is more difficult than it sounds. Many individuals feel they have to buy something in order to justify the time and energy spent attending the show. When they return home, they look at what they purchased and often ask, “What were we thinking?”

When Linda and I do find a presentation that entices us, we look for the pieces that stand out from the rest. These pieces are not necessarily the showiest or most expensive. Rather, they are the most aesthetically pleasing, exhibiting the best proportions, design, and use of material. If we do not find such pieces, we continue our hunt.

Collecting involves passion. Great pieces evoke this emotion and more. The piece must excite—the faster the heartbeat, the more intriguing the piece. It has to make us want to pick it up, hold it and admire it.

An object is inanimate. It is the stories behind it that makes it come alive. The ability to meet and talk with the individual who created the piece is critical. If the person selling is not the person who created the piece, we tend not to buy. Theoretically, this should not matter. If the piece is aesthetically pleasing, who made it should not be an issue. Yet, it is. The personal connection is a value added feature.

We do not buy contemporary jewelry as an investment. The chances of recovering what we paid through resale on the secondary market are slim. Knowing this, I cannot resist using my skills to lessen the risk. As a result, we ask the maker to provide us with a list of galleries that carry his work, a list of juried shows in which he has participated, and a list of exhibits, publications and museums in which his work is found. While we occasionally make a purchase from someone who is new in the field, the majority of the pieces we purchase are from regionally and nationally recognized artisans.

An artisan’s jewelry divides into two groups: (1) signature pieces; pieces at which a collector can look and say, “That is by ‘X,’” and (2) experimental pieces that indicate a possible new direction. Purchasing a signature piece is the safest route, and the one we most often take.

Finally, we talk about how the new piece will enhance Linda’s existing collection. I insist that Linda wear her jewelry. Each new piece has to expand her choice selection. Nothing is gained by owning two similar pieces, even if each is done by a different artisan.

If you have not visited a juried arts and crafts show, I encourage you do to so. Just like entering the antiques and collectibles waters, take time to look and compare before you start buying. The choices are endless.

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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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9 Responses to “One Man’s Guidelines for Buying Contemporary Arts and Crafts”

  1. Noelle says:

    Oh my goodness…. and I thought that MY husband was a pain to go shopping with. At least he doesn’t overanalyze everything that I want to buy!! The worst thing he usually says is “where are you going to put it?”.

  2. KathyM says:

    Have you ever “made” anything in your life? It appears you just buy stuff. Making takes time and effort, it also puts you, as the maker, out there for criticism. I would assume as a writer of a public column you would understand from these feedbacks what criticism is about. (Just in case you don’t this is a criticism of the content of this column – ridiculous!)

    • Carolyn M. says:

      What a joy it must be to go shopping with Harry Rinker. I think I would leave him at home and enjoy myself. Can’t we buy something without analysing it first. Give me a break. I do not like anyone ruining my day like that, since I own my own business and do not get to shop very often I want to have fun. Life is to short to have a hawk sitting on your shoulder. I feel sorry for his wife.

  3. Bill G. says:

    Whatever happened to buying what you like? What a pain to have to analyze everything to the nth degree, worrying about worth, uniqueness, artist history and if he/she is represented by other galleries, etc. etc. etc. What a complete and utter bore.

  4. Clyde Tullis says:

    Much of what you say is very true. Reproduction of form is unavoidable when taken in the context of 1000′s of years of human history. Reproduction of ones own work with variations is a necessity For ones development as well as income generation as craftsperson or artisan. This is evident in the fine arts as well. Artist have always worked in series, taking like images or forms and using the in multiple works. Picaso?
    Harry if you don’t already have a piece of Harold O’Connor’s in your collection you should. http://www.haroldoconnor.com

  5. Fran says:

    I surprised Linda will even go to a craft show with you! Tell her I’ll meet her next year for Guilford, and we can shop together.

    When I buy jewelry at a craft show, I ask myself:
    Is it beautiful? Do I love it for me (or whoever the intended recipient is)? Is it well made? Is it priced fairly? Can I afford it? When I put it on, do I still love it? (Does it lay properly? Is the size right?)

    As for the history or “romance” of the piece, it is not just derived from the creator. At Guilford especially, you are in one of the most beautiful town squares in America, surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings (more colonial homes than any other city in America.) The weather this year was wonderful. People uniformly seemed to enjoy the show–lots of smiles and goodwill in my memories of being there. All of this contributes to the buyer’s story of the piece.

  6. Annoyed Reader says:

    your article is contradictory; are you looking for unique pieces or for establish artists with references to boot?

    Why are you writing about craft fairs considering you’re a collector of antiques writer?

    You must think your wife is pretty stupid, too.

    oh, and all the above questions are rhetorical.

    Stick to your field and your boring radio show next time.

  7. BicWood says:

    Mr. Rinkler;

    I notice you said, “Crap always smells no matter how it is disguised and marketed.” Arrogance and overinflated ego also smell (a smell similar to crap) and are abundant in your article. A collector can collect because they love and appreciate the medium, the work, etc. or they can collect because they are saying “LOOK AT ME! I AM A COLLECTOR AND AREN’T I SMART AND SOPHISTICATED.” You seem to be the second type.

    Has it ever occurred to you how much of the maker’s time you waste as you stroke your ego while using your “skills” to “lessen the risk”? (I am guessing this often occurs without you actually purchasing anything from the target of your risk lessening – just wasting their time.)

    You might keep in mind that makers must learn a skill and earn their way while collectors just need to send money. Of course, some makers will be significantly better than others but collectors are often only differentiated by how much they spend.

    As for your wife, why does she put up with your “shaking my head “no”” and your insisting that she wear her jewelry – no two pieces alike, now. She needs a good divorce attorney or at least some friends to tell her this is not the 1950s and she can be her own person.

  8. Tamara says:

    Mr. Rinker – I hope you never come to an arts and crafts fair that I am showing at. What a snobby attitude you have, and if you came into my booth, I would be totally turned off by you and respectfully ask you to leave.
    Of course – as an artisan/craftsperson, I make duplicates of my work – when we find an item that sells – we duplicate it so that we can afford to continue supporting ourselves.
    Of course we make originals – but the time and the effort – not to mention the cost – and the buyers that can afford the originals – don’t put food on the table. Besides – the expensive originals are in galleries – not at craft fairs. The “Little People” – the “Appreciative” everyday customers that buy our smaller, inexpensive, duplicated pieces are the ones that keep us in business – and as artisans – we appreciate them very much. If anyone came into my booth – and asked for a list my juried shows and galleries before they would buy one of my pieces they would be escorted out the door post haste – how phony can you get. You don’t deserve to own one of my pieces.
    By the way – don’t go out in a thunderstorm without an umbrella – you might drown with your nose stuck so far up in the air. And now – I must get back to making duplicates, so I can pay the hydro bill for my last kiln firing.

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