Rinker on Collectibles: An Antique is Anything Made Before 1980

The Rubik’s Cube. Harry Rinker posits that anything made in 1980 or before qualifies as an antique. Agree or disagree?

Shortly after I wrote “Rinker on Collectibles” Column #942 entitled “An Antique Is Anything Made before 1963” in April 2005, I received an e-mail from Bruce Chaney of Roanoke, Ind., that read: “You are the reason that we go into so many ‘antique’ shops and malls and see nothing but secondhand furniture and junk! So many of the younger generation have no idea what an antique truly is now.

“If you consider post-WWII items as antique, you should keep your opinions to yourself, for you certainly are not knowledgeable, but quite ignorant.”

If Bruce had difficulty with the 1963 date, what follows should drive him over the edge.

As 2013 nears its end, a viable working definition for an antique is anything made before 1980. This is not a statement I make lightly. I have been thinking about and testing the concept for several years. I am convinced the argument is valid.

Let’s begin by doing the mathematics. 1980 is 34 years ago. At first glance, this hardly seems to be enough time for anything to become antique. Even I was skeptical when the definition first occurred to me.

The traditionalist position that an object must be 100 years old to qualify as an antique fell by the wayside in the 1980s. Some antiques and collectibles theorists replaced 100 years with 50 years. When applying the 50-year rule, my previous definition of an antique as something made before 1963 appears correct.

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For those older than 55, it seems like yesterday. For those younger than 55, it is ancient history. Memory is one of the elements that must be considered in developing the definition of antique.

The day after the 50th anniversary, I listened to a television reporter describe the individuals whose memories of that day were solicited for viewing on the evening news as “people of a certain age.” The age of political correctness has plummeted off a cliff. I am one of those “people of a certain age.” How much simpler and with greater clarity would have been the words “individuals over the age of 55.” What the reporter was trying to avoid was saying “old people.” I am one of those as well. Clearly, 1963 was a lifetime ago for the reporter. The 1960s are in high school and college history books. Contemporary America is a 21st-century concept.

Rinker’s 30-year rule—for the first 30 years of anything’s life, all its value is speculative—was one of the hardest obstacles to overcome in shifting the date forward from 1963 to 1980. Although I have been considering shrinking the time involved in the rule from 30 years to 25 or 20 years for more than decade, I resisted doing so. In the 21st century, the Internet can create a dependable, traceable and trustworthy secondary market for an object in 10 to 15 years. The Internet has shortened the speculative value period.

I am not a fan of a decade dating, although talking about objects from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and so forth is commonplace in the antiques and collectibles industry. My two previous dates for defining an antique were 1945 and 1963. Yet, 1980 is the correct date. I selected 1980 because it corresponds to the election of President Ronald Reagan and America’s shift from the libertine, social cause focus of the 1960s and 1970s to a more conservative approach, one that continues to dominate the American mindset in the mid-2010s.

In identifying a date that denotes a shift in the American lifestyle, another key component in defining an antique, I like to compare America five years earlier and five years later. In this case, what was life in America like in 1975 versus 1985?

Locate a picture of the same person taken in 1975 and in 1985. The differences will astonish you. Gone are the long hair, the polyester leisure clothing, and the bright psychedelic colors. In fact, if you compare the 1985 picture with a picture taken in the 1950s, the 1985 appearance, forgetting body aging, will appear closer in resemblance than that of the 1975 picture.

Reagan conservatism impacted the entire country. America needed time to recover from the “isms” of the 1960s and 1970s. The Cold War, which officially ended in 1991, was winding down. Reagan increased diplomatic, military and economic pressures on the Soviet Union.

When Reagan assumed the presidency some interest rates for loans exceeded 20 percent. By the beginning of his second term, the interest rate had fallen to as low as seven percent. A sense of relief was felt throughout the business community.

Reagan was “The Great Communicator.” He instilled a sense of confidence and determination in Americans. He healed the divides that separated many of its citizens.

Nineteen-eighty is the year when America became collecting conscious. “Old” things suddenly had monetary value. American mothers started to save rather than throw things out. The collectible market came out of the closet and spread like wildfire. By early 1990s, it was challenging antiques for king-of-the-hill status. The mid-1980s witnessed an explosion of antiques and collectibles periodicals, reference books and price guides.

However, the coming of age of the first part of the X Generation—those individuals born between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s—is the strongest argument for the 1980s date. This is the generation that spawned the Yuppies (young urban professionals) and Dinks (double income, no kids). Earlier generations looked to the past. Generation X and the Millennials (Generation Y) who followed look to the present and future. Their collecting interest focuses on what they had and grew up with, not what belonged to their parents or earlier ancestors. They are the color-television generation. The digital age begins when they are in their early to late 30s. They cannot answer the question: where were you when you heard President Kennedy was shot?

In 2014, objects from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s are ancient and objects from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are old. The hot collectibles decades are the 1980s and 1990s. A recent issue of AntiqueWeek contained an article on Jurassic Park memorabilia. Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” movie premiered in 1993.

Author’s Aside #1: I closely follow the subjects of articles and material featured in auction reports that appear in antiques and collectibles periodicals. They are a good barometer for determining what collecting categories are hot, in decline, in a state of slumber or vanishing.

I divide the “antiques” marketplace into three chronological sectors: (1) antiques; (2) collectibles; and (3) desirables. Antiques and collectibles have trustworthy secondary markets that can be tracked. Desirables are contemporary materials whose secondary market is speculative. If an antique is anything made before 1980, what are the date periods associated with collectibles and desirables?

Collectibles are objects that date between 1980 and 2000, a shorter time period than I normally assign to the collectibles market. The 2000 date is somewhat arbitrary. I will be the first person to admit that nothing magical happened on Jan. 1, 2000 or Jan. 1, 2001, depending on the date selected to mark the beginning of the 21st century. America on Jan. 1, 2000/2001 was no different in its mindset than it was in the 1990s. Trusting “The Force,” I know objects made after 2005 have not reached collectibles status.

A dilemma exists. I cannot identify any year after 1980 that serves as an indicator of a major attitude in the American mindset. Americans in 2014 think very much like Americans in the late 1980s. 1980 was 34 years ago. Using 1919/1920, 1945, 1963 and 1980 as the years that mark identifiable divides, the longest time between a shift in mindset was 25 years. The digital age has divides, but they are not sharp. Not everyone entered it at the same time. There is no one seminal event that defines it. I considered Sept. 1, 2001, but rejected the concept. The result is the definition of an antique as anything made before 1980 may apply far longer than definitions involving the earlier dates.

Accepting my definition of an antique will be difficult, if not impossible, for some individuals involved in the trade. Before rejecting my concept, think about it. If you do not like 1980, what date after 1963 would you pick? No fair picking an earlier date. E-mail your suggestions to: harrylrinker@aol.com

Author’s Aside #2: Why now? When “Rinker on Collectibles” reached Column #1300, 25 complete years, I considered retiring. I did not because of a desire to write about the impact of the digital age on the antiques and collectibles trade. Since then, I became aware of the overwhelming number of major collections in hundreds of collecting categories that will enter the market in the next decade. I want to write about this impact as well. Once I passed Column #1300, I set a goal of another 200 columns. Whether I achieve or surpass it is irrelevant. This is “Rinker on Collectibles” Column #1400, the halfway point. I wanted the column to be memorable. I trust it is.

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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  • Frankly, it’s a struggle adhering to the conservative mindset. All my life, the rule has been than an item must be 100 years old to be considered an antique. When I first became interested in and started collecting antiques, I couldn’t afford many items over 100 years old, so I started collecting what I could afford and slowly grew and suddenly I realized the market was changing and few of the items for sale fit the rule. That’s when I began to divide merchandise into categories . . . with the most recent being Retro and that probably covers most items from the 60’s forward. Vintage has become a catch-all term. Anything on which the paint is dry and someone will buy it is called vintage. I’d offer home furnishing, collecting and related service business have become increasingly difficult to produce a respectable income and much of what you see today is the result of necessity as much as anything making it a little easier to accept the change in attitude. Most of the conservative trueists (sp) tend to hoard the very fine true antiques for themselves for a variety of reasons which would be a subject for another interesting discussion.


    Dan Sullivan

  • Rob Atkinson

    Collectible? Sure. Retro? Vintage? OK. But don’t tell me that 20th c. mass manufactured items qualify as antiques. I’m a dealer myself, and for the most part I limit my stock to pieces that date before 1840…the hand craftsmanship, individuality, and quality of materials being paramount. Higher end pieces — studio made glass, pottery and furniture etc, from later periods might also qualify as antiques, but for the most part I’d draw the line at 1940. I understand that the market is changing, that younger collectors consider an Eames chair an antique and tend to collect 1950s-70s items, and even later pieces that satisfy a nostalgia for their childhood/youth. But if that’s what you’re connecting with, you are NOT an ‘antiques lover’. You are a retro style enthusiast and collector. Don’t get me wrong, I like modern styles, I’m in my mid 40s so I’m not an old curmudgeon, and my own apartment is modern with a number of midcentury design pieces (principally because I think thats what works best in my space). But I have a passion for antiques — the real thing — and I feel that this kind of approach debases the term.

  • While I’m only 48, I’ve been “observing” and collecting for a pretty good percentage of my life. I’ve only been a dealer for a relatively few years. The sign out front says “Antiques, Vintage Items and Collectibles”.

    I think 1980 is a good date for the vintage/collectibles trade. I’ve been using roughly that date for a while now. I have resisted the “primitives” trade, but I understand the bills must be made.

    One could argue this is a reflection of the accelerating pace of societal change. I’ve see a lot of the “retro” market to be a pushback to the increasingly disposable culture we’ve seen develop in my lifetime.

    Partly, to me, the dividing line we’ll see emerge is the advent of “The China Company” (and to a greater or lesser extent “The Japan Company” before that). If a manufacturer doesn’t have any more pride than to only mark country of origin, why should I differentiate between this one and that one. They’re all commodities. In the future, only the subject matter will matter, and that means they’ll never be more than a collectible.

  • Since your 2005 pronouncement that anything made before 1963 should be considered an antique didn’t take hold within the antiques and collectibles world, why do you think pushing the date up to 1980 will do any better? I think you might want to see what collector’s organizations have to say on the matter. For example, the United Federation of Doll Clubs generally considers 1930 the cutoff date for an “antique” doll. Dolls after that period are considered “modern,” but in competitive exhibits, many modern classifications often have a cutoff date of 1970 or 1980 (what many collectors consider “vintage.”) I suspect that other collector organizations have similar rules of their own. Personally I would prefer to see a movement toward better definition of the word “vintage” to give it some real meaning in the world of collectibles, and leave “antique” to mean stuff that your great-grandparents owned.

  • Isabelle Dodd

    As a vintage seller am I now obsolete? Or is vintage restricted to things made between 1980 and yesterday?

  • Steve

    I used to have some respect for you but over the last decade it’s been slipping. You finally killed it!

  • I think you guys are being too hard on Harry.

    I agree, as a matter of technical terminology, “antique” should mean something with significant age to it.

    However, I think the article is speaking more to public perception and market forces. That is, what is being sold in the typical “antique” store. We all know, there’s a lot of potpourri and wet paint in the stores right now.

    I also agree more acceptance of the term “vintage” would help clear the air somewhat. On a more positive note, at least some of the “primitives” type stores are beginning to self-describe as “home decor” or “accent” stores.

  • I think you just like to stir the pot, as they say. Controversial posts get people talking…
    I sell vintage and to me that means it is at least 20 years old. While that certainly includes the 1980’s, I rarely have anything from that decade in my inventory,The 1980’s are collectible for some people,the clothing the music, it definitely left its mark, but having lived it I can say I was glad when it ended.

    I prefer the 1930’s-1970’s each of these decades has a distinct style as well, and vintage sellers would never call it anything but what is really is;Vintage, Retro, Art Deco, Mid Century, etc and more, but NEVER Antique.

  • Pam

    Definitions don’t really matter for dealers. Most dealers can’t afford to be picky in what they carry these days–they must stock what sells. And what sells depends on your region, neighborhood, and even the season. I believe the reason for Harry and others to call newer items “antiques” has to do with the market more than anything. In many markets, items made between 1950-80 are hot right now. Many younger collectors couldn’t care less about a Victorian settee or a primitive 1800s cabinet. They want the stuff Grandma had–the Pyrex, Eames furniture, table lighters, 60s pop-culture.

    I personally plan to stick with the 100 year rule for “antique” and call anything 80s and older “vintage.” My shop sign says “Antiques & Vintage,” and I try to keep a balance between the two. But I try very hard not to stock anything newer than my birth year (1968)! Get any newer than that and you run the risk of being perceived as a secondhand shop rather than an antiques/vintage shop, and even then it’s sometimes a very fine line!

    • My own experience is that younger buyers are very comfortable with the word “vintage,” and not as comfortable with “antique” (which sounds stodgy and grandmotherish), so why would changing the definition of antique help with sales?

  • Oh it is all about America again isn’t it !! “Yet, 1980 is the correct date. I selected 1980 because it corresponds to the election of President Ronald Reagan and America’s shift from the libertine, ” The world of antiques DOES NOT revolve around America or you Harry.

    I am going by the dictionary definition of antique which is over 100 years old, I am happy for items to slowly & gracefully slide into their antiquity rather than have you advance them unfairly to your thinking. The way you are going, reducing this time-frame they will be antique as they leave the shelves!!!

    Your own countries customs laws state the following “For U.S. Customs and Border Protection purposes an antique must be over 100 years of age at the time of importation. Antiques classified under heading 9706 in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) are duty-free, provided the importer has proof of the goods’ age (i.e. the year of manufacture). Certain items, namely original artwork, pearls, semi-precious and precious stones, stamps, coins, and collector’s pieces (see 9705 for details) should be classified under other provisions of Chapter 97, (or 71 for stones) even if they are antiques.”

    Many other countries around the world have the same definition of an antique.

    Leave the definition of Antiques alone, or you will have us all paying extra duties. Thanks Harry.

  • Hi Pam, you must also be in America, In the UK for certain & the parts of Australia that I know, The word Antique most certainly applies to dealers – the very reason Antique is trying to be applied to the more modern decades in America is surely to increase the stock range available to the younger American and therefore sales base?

    It almost makes me feel the Americas have sold all of the real antiques and are attempting to bring the dates forward for that very reason. The worldwide definition is quite clear on what an antique is, to attempt to sell anything 30 or 40 years old as an antique might legally leave you open to objects sold NOT as described. This may then affect your reputation, I am glad you are sticking to the 100 year rule, lets face it every year more items slip into the world of “Antiques”.

  • I think this discussion depends a lot on what an item is. 50 year old antique furniture when furniture has been around since that first caveman carved out his log and piled on animal skins to make it more comfy? I don’t think so. The entire auto industry on the other hand is barely 100. As for electronics… Vintage is the term that bothers me more. Vintage ” a period in which something was made or was begun(Meriam Webster online)” Is never truly “incorrect but what vintage is it? 1910, 1984, or just last week. instead of redefining antique, can we ad a date or period to advertisements of vintage?

  • Why does any of this depend on what was/is occurring socially in the US at a particular point in time? A decade is 10 years. if a particular trend, whether political, social, or technological, continues beyond the ten year mark, we don’t then adjust the definition of a decade to accommodate. 10 years is 10 years no matter what happens during that time. Likewise, why can’t we just define “antique” as a specific age? My store’s shingle says “vintage” (which I guess some people here object to) because it allows me to sell not only antiques but also other old stuff that’s of interest to contemporary buyers. I feel it would be pretty disingenuous to call my store an antique shop when the bulk of my merchandise is somewhere between 20 and 50 years old. Is a new definition necessary to accommodate these items? I don’t think so.

    To base this around life in the US is also, as another reader has pointed out, pretty arrogant. Does that mean the word “antique” has different meaning in every country depending on the events of that culture?

  • Memorable???? I think it’s total drivel! Not only is Harry trying to change what in some cases is a legal definition, (as pointed out by Nick Ryan). And then what of all the other terms? Is “retro” now last seasons model of flat-screen tv? And his argument for this change is just ignorant and arrogant. The world, not even the world of antiques and collectables (unless it’s baseball cards or similar, that the rest of the world have little interest in), revolve around the US.

    An antique is an object manufactured at least 100 years ago, and as such is a moving target directly depend on the current date.

  • It’s been pointed out that the legal definition was established back when it embraced only those things traditionally deemed Antiques (i.e. the parameters I generally stick to, early 19th c and before.) Perhaps the definition, legal or generally understood, could stand revisiting.

  • Gregory Watkins

    According to Worthologist Fred Taylor:

    “There are some diehards who stick to the “one-hundred year” rule no matter what. That little bit of foolishness is brought to us by the U. S. Customs Service and has little or nothing to do with the real world, in keeping with a long standing governmental tradition that itself is now well beyond its own definition of “antique.” The Customs Service uses 100 years as the definition of an antique solely to determine if import duties must be paid. So, in fact, that definition is nothing more than a “revenue ruling” pertaining to imported artifacts and has nothing to do with the quality, collectability or value of an individual item. In my case, I have a reproduction of a Federal over mantle mirror dated on the glass as 1903. Does that mean that on Jan. 1, 2004 it suddenly became an antique?” (http://www.worthpoint.com/blog-entry/is-it-antique-whos-asking)

    So, based on this statement, the 100-year-rule is an arbitrary government determination used to collect revenue and has nothing to do with the individual item… just throwing that out there to move the conversation forward.

    • Exactly my thoughts. I also think Automobiles are their own discreet category and that needn’t muddy the issue.

  • There are different definitions for different classes of goods. Before there were any cars over 100 years old, it was established that a car over 25 years old could be called “antique”.

    None of the dictionary definitions I’ve found so far mention a specific time period. Most are worded like this…

    “A collectible object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its considerable age.”

    With the pace of change in society (US or otherwise), “considerable age” is itself a moving target.

    I generally agree that “antique” should be reserved for older items. “collectible” can easily be too new. Those silly robot hamsters last year were collectible. Personally, I’m fine with “vintage”, but I know it’s pretty murky too. Just the nature of the beast to a point.

  • Gregory, you answered your own question there mate, ” I have a reproduction of a Federal over mantle mirror dated on the glass as 1903. Does that mean that on Jan. 1, 2004 it suddenly became an antique?”

    It is a reproduction so depending on the year made it cannot possible become an antique until it is 100 years old.

    Dennis Gray, “The entire auto industry on the other hand is barely 100.” Smacks of the USA us,us,us,us, Regarding vehicles, please do your history before bringing vehicles into the foray, the first vehicles, steam driven, were in the period of 1769, Between 1832 and 1839 (the exact year is uncertain), Robert Anderson of Scotland invented the first electric carriage. Electric cars used rechargeable batteries that powered a small electric motor.

    As you see there were many vehicles ready to fill the 100 year “Rule” long before Henry Ford came along, Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not invent the automobile. It appears to me that the auto industry is almost 200 years old if you can manage to think outside the square that is the USA.

    • Nick,
      Thanks for the schooling, however I stand behind my statement. I did not say that automobiles were invented 100 years ago, but that the “industry” was that old. Not many of those earliest autos were commercially successful. Mass production on an assembly line began in 1902 by Ransom Olds. I would characterize efforts before this to be experiments, many simply attempts at motorizing existing carriages and such.

      • Dennis thanks for your response, there may not be many motor cars older than 100 years in the USA but go to England on the London to Brighton run, First run in 1896 it attracts nearly 500 cars every year and they MUST all be pre 1905, so there are a lot of antique cars out there older than your 1902 date that are most definitely NOT experiments, once again proof that the industry is a lot older than YOU think. There are many more in Europe.

        Step outside the square that is the USA and do your research please 🙂

        Regards, Nick

        • Nick,

          I bow to your expertise. If I am ever able to go to England I would love to see this run. It sounds like a great time.

          Still stuck in the USA

          • Hi Dennis, usually held 1st weekend in November annually, I think the Queen drove in it one year in the 70’s 🙂

            regards, Nick

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