Rinker on Collectibles: Age as Value
As I approach my 70th birthday, I find myself spending more and more time pondering the value of age. Am I worth as much or more to the antiques and collectibles business today as I was 20 or 30 years ago? Forget the trade, what about to myself, my community, the world as a whole? Thomas Hardy, an English novelist and poet, wrote: “The value of old age depends upon the person who reaches it.” I agree. Wisdom, worth and value are not synonymous with old age. Each individual is judged on his own merits.
Value is relative. I grew up in a black-and-white age; the good guys versus the bad guys. As I grew older, I discovered that shades of gray exist in far greater numbers than do the two primary colors. Rules are no longer as fixed as I earlier believed. While there are scientific truths, antiques and collectibles truths are subjective not objective.
As a youngster, I was taught to value age. My parents—good God-fearing folks—constantly reminded me to “respect my elders,” a concept unequivocally supported by Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16, Leviticus 19:3, Ephesians 6:1-4, and Colossians 3:20-21. I cannot pinpoint the exact day I came to the conclusion that some of my elders were dumber than horse manure, but suspect it was early in my teens. It is a concept that I tested throughout my life and discovered that it applied not only to my elders but also to some younger than me and, occasionally, to myself.
Respecting the past and things associated with the past were corollaries to the concept of respecting my elders, especially if the objects in questions were family heirlooms. My parents’ treasured items passed down through the family. I hold firm to this belief. My children profess to care. My grandchildren could not care less.
Age as value is an integral part of the antiques and collectibles business. From the late 19th century until the final two decades of the 20th century, age was a primary value consideration. Putting aside the philosophical question of how to define old, if an object was old, it had value. The mere fact that an object survived was sufficient to create value.
In a recent column, I wrote that age is no longer a major value consideration. John, a “Rinker on Collectibles” reader, e-mailed his strong objections to my assertion. Traditionally, I ignore my critics based on “I have had my say, they can have theirs.” I make exceptions on occasion and did so with John.
On July 26, 2011, I e-mailed John: “I have wrestled with the concept of age as a value added consideration for a long time. Is the fact that because something is old (survived) enough to create value? I hold that it does not. Does the number of years it survived impact value? Even here, the answer is no.
“While there certainly are cases where age does impact value, they are more atypical than typical in today’s marketplace.”
There are no absolutes in the antiques and collectibles business. There always are exceptions and plenty of them. However, it is possible to identify situations that are typical and those that are not. Given sufficient experience and analytical ability, it is possible to distinguish which is which.
John replied: “I guess we will have to agree to disagree, I go to at least three auctions a week. I sell out of three different antiques malls. I sell to other dealers . . .
“The number of years it [an object] survived impacts value by driving the price up by the fact that less have survived . . . pottery and glass are both great examples I see all the time. Once that piece of Tiffany is broken, the price of similar ones goes up because no more are being made.
“There are other considerations . . . The price of silver is high right now . . . Many things are being melted for scrap making older pieces even more valuable by their scarcity.”
John is confusing scarcity with age. They are two different entities. Scarcity relates to the number of examples that survive. In theory, if 10 examples of one object and 100 examples of another survive, the value for one of the 10 will be higher than the value for one of the 100 objects.
When tested, this theory fails more than it passes. First, a collector or buyer needs to exist for the object. “There is a collector for everything” is a myth. In the 2010s, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of older objects that have no value except for their continuing utilitarian function. Second, if there is a collector or decorator buyer, the object has to survive in a condition that attracted the interest of one of these buyers.
Five years ago, I still was touting a Big Three value theory—condition, desirability and scarcity. Other values such as age or regional were secondary or tertiary values. Today, the Big Three have evolved into the Big One. Desirability is the king of the hill. If there is no buyer, there is no value.
The Internet destroyed scarcity. While eBay shoulders much of the blame, it does not stand alone. EBay is only one Internet antiques and collectibles resale site. Today, there are hundreds of such sites. Within a decade, the number will be in the thousands. The end result is a growing number of instances whereby everyone who desires an example of an older object acquires one. When this occurs, scarcity as a concept disappears.
I can match every example of glass and china that John cites as gaining in value for each piece destroyed with dozens of examples where destruction has no impact whatsoever in the marketplace: an Adams Depression Glass light-pink salad plate; an Ashford pattern glass goblet; a Howdy Doody Welsh’s Grape Jelly drinking glass; a Homer Laughlin Fiesta orange salt shaker; and a copper lusterware creamer are just a few of my opening salvos.
When considering age as a value, one needs to be careful not confuse it with the tertiary values of first and oldest. First, collectors—those individuals who collect the first example of things—fascinate me. Volume 1, Number 1 is a value-added feature in comic books and magazines. Book collectors focus on first editions and first printings. However, do not confuse first with age. The first in any series, even contemporary objects, commands a premium among collectors. If collectors cannot identify the first, they settle for the oldest, for example antiquities. Oldest also impacts the value of coins, stamps, and sports memorabilia. It does not work with automobiles. Just ask an individual trying to sell a working Model T Ford.
In fairness to John, I have been racking my brain trying to identify a collecting category or objects within a collecting category where age is a primary secondary market value consideration. Every time I identify a possibility, another value consideration such as condition—forget desirability—overrides age.
Greg Martin/Heritage Auctions sold an 1836 Colt, ivory-gripped Texas, or Holster Model No. 5, Paterson Revolver for $977,500. It certainly was not the oldest Colt known. The revolver was old, but this was not the primary value factor. Scarcity was not either. Finest known, an older value that rears its head for ultimate unit/masterpieces, and investment, a “new-kid-on-the-block” value, were the values that drove the final price.
John is correct. We have to agree to disagree. Old is not enough. It is not even a starting point when determining value. I wish it was. If it was, perhaps I might find more solace in dealing with the approach of age. Then again, is 70 old?
John Barrymore (you have to be old to know who he is) said: “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” I have never regretted my career in the antiques and collectibles business. The never-ending task of trying to understand how this wonderful, crazy market works keeps me young.
As always, your thoughts on this topic are appreciated. E-mail them to me at email@example.com.
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