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Rinker on Collectibles: The Academic Historian vs. The Collector

by Harry Rinker (04/26/13).

On March 28, 2013, I presented a scholarly paper entitled “Celebrity Bounce” as a member of the Collecting and Collectibles: Collectors, Collections, and Value panels at the Popular Culture Association / American Cultural Association 43rd Annual Conference held at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC. This is the second paper I presented at a PCA/ACA Annual Conference. In 2010, my topic was “Endangered Collecting Categories.”

For those readers unfamiliar with “celebrity bounce,” a pricing variable in the antiques and collectibles field, it is a rapid increase in a period of days or weeks in the value of objects within a specific antiques and collectibles collecting category triggered by a specific event. The most famous celebrity bounce occurred in the 12 months following the tragic death of Princess Diana. Normally, a celebrity bounces lasts between 30 and 90 days.

The panel consisted of three additional speakers: (1) Mark Benbow, who spoke on “Learning to Love the Antiquarians: The Collector Community as a Museum Resource;” (2) Bill Beverly whose topic was “The Digital Bible: Problems of Definition in Producing the Definitive Price Guide;” and, (3) Kimberly Hobegger, who shared her experiences visiting Spanish wineries in a paper entitled “The Collections of Spain’s Iconic Wineries.” Benbow’s presentation chronicled his involvement with local Washington, D.C., breweriana collectors in creating an exhibit on Prohibition at the Woodrow Wilson House museum. Beverly’s topic, far narrower than I expected, focused on the issues involved in creating a digital online price guide for beer cans. He contrasted the information available in printed guides with the expanded information found in the online guide.

Before proceeding, I need to clarify my position, or, more correctly, state my bias. I am an academically trained historian, having devoted more than five years of graduate study to American history prior to 1865, European history from 1550 to 1815, the history of science, and the history of technology. My goal was to teach at a university. Instead of a university classroom, a 15-year career in the museum field, followed by a 35-year career in the antiques and collectibles field, resulted in my teaching adults the intricacies of the antiques and collectibles trade through my writing, lectures and teaching institute. While doing this, I constantly drew upon the academic research and other skills I learned at Lehigh University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Delaware.

There are many reasons I cast aside the academic life for the independence and more creative thinking that is an essential part of the antiques and collectibles community. The ivory tower, better than thou, almost religious attitude of the academic historians, especially those who are researchers first and teachers second, was one of them. I found the “average person” far more interesting and open to new ideas than the effete academic.

As my antiques and collectibles career progressed, I gained more and more respect for the amateur historian collector whose research qualities matched and often exceeded that of the academic historian. At first, I viewed these amateurs only as savers of objects that the academic historians eventually would interpret. I was trained by the opposition. I quickly found these amateur historian collectors had insights into the objects far beyond the imagination of the academic trained scholars. Collectors also had a greater breadth of understanding of their subject, the result of spending not a few months or years researching a topic but devoting a lifetime to studying the subtleties of a collecting category and its objects.

In the discussion following the panel members’ presentations, the panel was asked to discuss the relationship between the academic historian and the collector. Mark Benbow responded first. He argued that “antiquarians,” who he equates with collectors, do not have the ability to put their objects into cultural, economic, historical, political and social context. He lamented that an “antiquarian” from whom he borrowed material actually tried to influence the presentation and interpretation of their objects in “his” exhibit.

As he spoke, the hairs on the back of my neck rose. My head shook from side to side. I became more furious by the minute. How dare he impugn the members of the collecting community? His remarks were biased and prejudicial. Do a few academic initials behind a person’s name give him/her the right to look down on those who do not have them? The academic tower is filled with pseudo-gods.

The use of the word “antiquarian,” popularly associated in the public and most academic’s minds with an aged scholar secluded in a room or tower, instead of collector immediately establishes Benbow’s bias. The Free Dictionary defines antiquarian as “one who studies, collectors or deals in antiques; of or relating to antiquarians or the study or collecting of antiques; and, dealing in or having to do with old or rare books.”

Realizing that citing Wikipedia is contrary to academic de rigueur (note that I can use highfalutin terms when necessary), the following is relevant to understanding how suggesting that antiquarians and collectors are synonymous is false logic. “An antiquarian or antiquary (from the Latin antiquaries, meaning pertaining to ancient times) is an aficionado or student of antiquities or things of the past. More specifically, the term is used for those who study history with particular attention to ancient artefacts (sic.), archaeological and historic sites, or historic archives and manuscripts. The essence of antiquarianism is a focus on the empirical evidence of the past….”

Except for rare book dealers, I know of no collectors, especially breweriana aficionados, who view themselves in this fashion.

The crux of Benbow’s claim to academic superiority is a historian’s ability to place objects into their proper context as opposed to the collector’s inability to do so. Academic historians view objects in a supplemental, illustrative content and not as primary sources. Written and printed documents are the primary sources that historians rely upon. These are alive in the academic historian’s mind. Objects are inanimate.

Collectors know that objects are historical documents, as important as the written and printed material from any era. A single object is imbued with stories that it takes weeks or months to research and describe. I would love to teach a university course, especially at the graduate level, entitled “The Object as a Historical Document.” All my attempts to approach history departments at “accredited” universities have failed.

Collectors can and do have the ability to place their objects in numerous contexts from cultural to social. Advanced collections contain a wealth of supplement material such as advertising and sale catalogs. Collectors never view an object in isolation. Collectors are in constant contact with individuals who collect categories that crossover by date, mercantile competitiveness, economics, geographies, and other contextual concepts.

Collectors also exhibit an attribute sorely lacking in most academics—passion. Academics are so focused on discovering the truth that they forget truth is relative. Facts are only facts. Interpretation by its very nature is subjective.

Collectors also wonder, far more so than academics, and especially those academics focused solely on teaching. The ability to see connections is one aspect of wondering. Collectors are extremely good at this.

I have written this column in shades of black and white. I am aware there are multiple shades of gray, multiple exceptions to the generalities I propose. Not all academics share Mark Benbow’s fixed mindset. Not all collectors, especially those who collect something because it is currently in fashion, understand the broader context of the objects they own. But, to label collectors as bumbling antiquarians is a misnomer. Collector is a label that deserves honor and respect.

The prejudices that exist between the ivory tower elites and the amateurs in the field—any field, not just antiques and collectibles—are indisputable. Charles Darwin was not academically trained. Prejudice creates blinders. I question if academic historians have the ability to cast them aside.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s 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.

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. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. 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. 2013

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