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Rinker on Collectibles: But, It’s Museum Quality

by Harry Rinker (11/07/11).

Two previous “Rinker on Collectibles” columns dealt with “but, it’s _____” phrases, such as “but, it’s old” and “but, it’s real,” commonly heard in the antiques and collectibles trade. I asked readers to identify phrases I missed. A broad smile crossed my face when I read the e-mail calling my attention to: “But, it’s museum quality.”

Before creating Rinker Enterprises, my antiques and collectibles education and research center, I spent more than 15 years in the museum field serving as director of archival research for Historic Bethlehem (Pa.), executive director of The Hugh Moore Park National Canal Museum (Easton, Pa.), executive director of The Historical Society of York County (Pa.), and executive director of The Montgomery County (Pa.) Federation of Historical Societies. I actively recruited objects for the collections of all these organizations. Did the object meet the museum or society’s mission statement was the primary consideration in deciding whether to add the object to the collection. Condition played a role, but not always a primary one.

Almost 40 years have passed since my museum career ended. I cite this as a caveat for what follows, since my museum memories are distant ones. I have no memory of discussing the concept of “museum quality” with my colleagues in that field. Although I was not involved in the prestige museum world, I doubt if it was different there. Having visited the open storage study collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I was surprised to see so many common, ordinary decorative art pieces were included in the collections. Clearly, museum quality does not mean the best of the best even at the finest museum.

Since museum quality is a commonly used term in the trade, it seemed logical to assume a dictionary definition exists. According to wordnik.com, “Sorry, no definitions exist.” According to a Jan. 14, 2006, posting on Ship Modeling Forum: “It all depends on you ask. It’s a term that is bandied about these days, but like the old saying goes, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ ‘Museum Quality’ is a subjective appraisal with no official definition within the museum community.”

A museum is a building where objects, such as works of art or historical items, are kept, studied, and/or displayed. An object or museum piece is one example housed in the museum. It is false logic to assume that because an object is included in a museum collection, by definition of inclusion it becomes a museum quality object. It is only one of thousands of objects in the collection.

In attempting to define museum quality, two primary questions need answering. What museum sets the standard? The standards of the Art Institute of Chicago are different from those of the Cockroach Hall of Fame and Museum in Plano, Texas. If they were not, I would worry. Likewise, quality is subjective. Quality is an excellent measure used to judge similar objects. The qualities used to judge a painting differ from those used to judge an action figure. Quality is specific, not general focused.

Is there not a museum for every object? At first thought, this concept seems ludicrous. There must be millions of objects not found in museums. My response is similar to those individuals who say to me, “I have never seen one like this before”: Where have you looked? Between historic homes, historic sites, historical societies, museums (public and private / general and specialized), it is easier to find a collection that contains an example than one that does not. If you accept private collections as a museum type, the odds of finding an object in a “museum” increase astronomically.

At the high end of the antiques and collectibles marketplace, museum quality is equated with investment grade, another ambiguous term. The assumption is that the more valuable an object, the more likely a high-end museum will display it. In an era when individuals will spend $179,250 to acquire the green wool beret worn by John Wayne in “The Green Berets” or $5,200 for one of Marilyn Monroe’s bras, it clear that monetary value is the wrong criteria to judge any degree of quality, museum or otherwise.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, museum quality was equated with aesthetic quality. Albert Sack, in his “Fine Points of Furniture: Early American” (Crown Publishers, 1986), introduced the “good, better, best concept.” Using the elements of construction, craftsmanship, decoration, design and finish, Sack provided guidelines to rank pieces and explain why similar pieces of furniture from the same era varied in desirability and worth. Sack’s assumption was that only the best belonged in museums and the finest collections.

While Sack made a convincing case for applying his criteria to eighteenth and early 19th-century American furniture, his criteria fail when used to determine the quality of many decorative art objects and almost all collectibles. Is there a good, better, best Barbie, Matchbox car, or jigsaw puzzle? Finding a cadre of collectors to agree on a quality ranking scale is impossible.

In toy collecting, museum quality became equated with the best conditioned, often MIB (mint in the box), and most desirable example known. While this criteria works for toys made prior to 1940, it fails for post-World War II toys because of the high survival rate of mint examples. The heightened level of collector consciousness following 1980 resulted in collectors buying and preserving toys in off-the-assembly-line condition. Any played-with post-1980 toys are not collectible, quality or otherwise.

Museum quality factors in the decision to refinish or restore an object. Collectors and dealers tout museum quality finishes and paint. The implication is that a museum would not accept a piece that has been refinished, restored or repaired. When asked to express my opinion, my concern is about the scarcity of the form and its relevance to a museum’s collection. More than 95 percent of the time, I tell the person to restore and/or refinish the piece. Although I recommend an object be restored or refinished to as close to its period appearance as possible, I do not get upset if another course is chosen. The person who owns the object has the right to decide its destiny.

Frame shops advertise museum quality framing. In the course of my museum career and subsequent museum visits, I have encountered horrendous framing on documents, paintings and prints. There are times when the period frame does not do justice to the object it encloses.

Manufacturers, wholesalers and dealers in reproduction art, prints and sculpture tout the museum quality of their products. The implication is that a museum would be happy to replace the period piece with one of these copies. Do not bet on it.

Museum quality is a favorite term that appears in the literature of collector- and limited-edition material, such as bells, figurines, plates and ornaments. The value implication is simple: If a museum would display an object, it has a premium value above objects that would not be displayed. If this is the case, there are thousands of museum quality pieces selling on eBay for less than $5.

In summary, museum quality is a meaningless term. It is a marketing tool used to imply an extra inherent value in an antique, collectible or contemporary object. The person who falls for the ploy is a fool.

Those who continue to use this term should be admonished. It demonstrates ignorance; not knowledge. Like genuine, original and real, museum quality is a term whose disappearance would enhance the overall quality of our trade.

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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. 2011

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