Rinker on Collectibles: City Prices vs. Country Prices

In a previous column discussing the current state of the antiques and collectibles market, I wrote: “Merchandise is priced to sell. Prices are the lowest I have seen in 10 years. In a few instances, price points have returned to those of the early to mid-1980s . . .” In response, I received an e-mail from Nick Ryan in Australia stating: “I would image the location of your markets would have the same impact on prices as it does here in Australia, with ‘city’ venues charging more for goods than their country equivalents. Of course city venues command a higher price for hire of location and other overheads being higher.”

Nick’s is not the first letter or e-mail I have received from abroad. “Rinker on Collectibles” is read globally. I take pride in keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of antiques and collectibles internationally, something that is far easier to do in 2011 thanks to a cadre of foreign trade periodicals, friends and the Internet. Each month I read “Antiques & Collectables for Pleasure and Profit,” an Australian periodical, within days of its arrival. No trip to Europe is complete until I acquire copies of the latest antiques and collectibles magazines and newspapers from the country/countries I visit.

Upon first consideration, Nick’s suggestion that city prices are higher than country prices appears reasonable. Growing up in Hellertown, Penn., I constantly was told “everything costs more in the big city.” The list was endless—clothing, health care, housing, insurance, meals, etc. Big cities and their wealthy suburbs still head all the “Most Expensive to (fill in the blank)” lists.

In the antiques and collectibles field, major auction houses are located in big cities—Boston, Chicago, Dallas and New York in the United States; Geneva, London and Paris in Europe. The same applies to antiques shops, antiques shows and art galleries. The high end of the business has an urban/metropolitan flair. Conceding this, it is time to move on.

Based upon my recent field experiences, I am going to take exception to Nick’s assertion. Depending on what you are buying and where you are looking, prices in the city can be considerably lower than in the country.

The Chicago Antique Market—in at the Randolph Street Market—located on the west end of downtown, is a case in point. Booth rent ranges from $75 to $350, depending on the size of a booth. The Ann Arbor Antiques (Mich.) Market charges between $90 and $295. A single booth at Zurko’s Midwest Promotions Grayslake (Ill.) cost $75 outdoors and $145 indoors. The cost differential to set up in the city is not significantly greater than the countryside. Although I did not do a similar cost analysis for antiques malls or mid-size antiques shows booth rental, I suspect the same applies.

Admittedly, booth rent is only one of the many costs in selling. Lodging and meals are cost considerations. Thanks to Internet sites such as Expedia and Pricepoint, it is possible to obtain city rates that are competitive with and sometimes cheaper than those in the countryside. The Holiday Inn Express just outside of Hellertown quotes single night rates ranging from $119 to $156. With a little effort and luck, it is possible to find rooms in even the largest city for $150 to $200 per night.

My wife Linda and I eat out a great deal. There is no price difference between the steaks on the menu at The Chop House in Grand Rapids and the better Chicago steak houses. The McDonald’s $1 menu is not limited to the countryside. I know this because I am cheap. When it comes to saving a buck, I am a pro. I would rather spend my money buying an antique or collectible than on something that provides only momentary pleasure.

After my quick walk through the Randolph Street Market on May 28, 2011, Sally Schwartz, the show manager, asked for my initial impressions. “I cannot believe how reasonable the prices are. Your dealers came to sell,” I said.

Sally responded: “The competition is fierce. Dealers have to price their material competitively. If they do not, they will not do business. Our customers know the market. They will not buy if the price is not right.”

The Great Recession taught antiques mall owners and managers such as Rick and Dan at the Little Antique Mall in Lincoln City, Ore. and show promoters like Chris Palmer of Palmer Wirfs & Associates the importance of encouraging dealers to focus on affordability and sell through rather than the one big kill. Sally obviously practices this as well.

The Chicago Antique Market was an eye opener. I had avoided big city antiques and collectibles antiques malls and street markets based upon the established belief that city prices are higher. I never took Linda to the SoHo Antique and Flea Market in New York, even though she constantly suggested we go and I keep hearing snippets from individuals who attended about the great bargains there.

I know better. I attended Stella’s New York Pier Show several times. Every time I went, I found plenty to buy at prices I was willing to pay. My mistake was viewing the show as atypical rather than typical.

As a small-town boy, I have an inherent prejudice toward the big city. Grand Rapids is a big city to me. I become uneasy when the metropolitan population exceeds 25,000. The problem is that I look at big cities as a whole rather than neighborhoods and suburbs.

Bindy Bitterman’s Eureka Antiques and Collectibles in Evanston, Ill., is an excellent example of the small, hidden treasures shop found in metropolitan areas. Specialized shops focusing on a single collectible such as comic books or toys favor the big cities. In the past, I have been more willing to meet their proprietors on the show circuit or buy via advertisements in trade periodicals than to visit their intercity shops. These general and specialized shops are located in metropolitan areas where overhead costs are manageable. Their prices are among the lowest found.

Competition and the need to turn merchandise in order to survive keep prices low. The more I examine city versus country prices, the more convinced I become that these factors weigh heavier on city than country dealers. This premise is still in the observation stage, and I plan to keep testing it.

I visited several countryside antiques malls and antiques shops during the past five months that I have lived in Michigan. My overall impression is that merchandise was priced to sell in these venues as well. However, I also remember stepping into several booths, examining the prices and thinking: “These are book prices. This stuff will never sell.”

As an author and editor of more than 20 antique and collectibles price guide titles, one might conveniently assume I would be a strong defender and supporter of price guide prices. I am not. Price-guide prices are not absolutes. They are guides. Dealers who rely on them as absolutes are fools. While I have only the highest respect for the general price-guide work of editors such as Kyle Husfloen, Terry and Ralph Kovel and Sharon and Bob Huxford, I have little respect for those price-guide authors who used their guides to manipulate market prices. When a price guide is a market prop, it is worthless. Price-guide prices need to be field and date checked. The price guide is unreliable if its prices do not agree with field prices. In today’s trendy market, relying on an outdated guide is fraught with danger.

Countryside dealers rely more heavily than their city counterparts on price guide data. They are more top-dollar driven and will keep a piece in inventory long beyond a reasonable time limit. I have seen the same piece in the same location in booths and cases in countryside antiques malls for years. Low overhead does not always result in good business practices.

I want to thank Nick for stimulating my gray cells, as Hercule Poirot would say. There is a distinct city-versus-country aspect—different from regional variations—to the American antiques and collectibles market. I would like to know your thoughts. E-mail them to me at harrylrinker@aol.com.


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

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth


  • I’ve been in the antiques business full time now for almost 35 years now, and I find that one can buy better items at a much better price in the big city than in the country. The reason being that we see better quality merchandise and therefore know it’s true value. Often the smaller dealers out of the cities, when they find the better pieces will price them higher as to them it is a rarity. When I started in the business in the UK, and later on here in the US, I would agree that you could buy better out of the big cities, but no more. I think the fact that the volume of merchandise as well as the quality has decreased that now there is no doubt that buying in the city is more reasonable. Plus as you mention, we have more competition and greater turnover so we are able to buy & sell at better prices

  • Harry,

    All your reasoning is correct. I hate going into small town antique shops and seeing the same stuff year after year. On the other hand dealers that attend shows are in competition with each other, and buyers are getting to the point where they expect their purchase to be on their terms. Personally I check book prices so I can refer to them when some knowledge, mark my items well under them, and still have to drop the price generally to make a sale.

    We live in Raleigh, NC. We have a lot of regular customers at the Liberty and Cameron shows. We do not do the Raleigh Antique Show. It costs a fortune to set up, the dealers are high end and pricy, and people come to look for fun rather than spend money. Last year with my husband out of work we went to several out of State fairs. We have the same mind set as you; we’d rather eat and sleep cheap so we can spend our money on things we love. Even traveling at the low end, doing our own cooking etc., we lost our shirt at those shows. We are still looking for additional outlets but the picking is shrinking. (What happened with the Happiest show that started up again last year? Never heard the outcome, and haven’t heard anything about it for this year.)

    I just spoke with a dealer that has been in the business for years that lives half the year in Chicago and the other half in Florida. She told me the Chicago show isn’t any good anymore, that the long time dealers are dropping out like flies, or are planning to. They have to cut their prices so low to make a sale and are doing so poorly it’s not worth all the hard work it takes to do a show. Another dealer told me the same thing regarding Roanoke, VA. We did the show in Charlotte, NC a few times but they were having so much trouble with thief from insiders (not other dealers), we stopped doing it.

    I grew up in Grand Rapids, which use to be the neatest home base for antiquing. I have loved the hunt from a young age, but it wasn’t until doing shows the last decade that I got a true appreciation of what hard work this business is for dealers. I know many that have gone out of business in the last year and know twice that number that is thinking of doing so. I can’t imagine life without antique shows. True, a collector can add items they once only dreamed of by shopping online, but where is the fun? The people? The smells? And the action? We live in a world where most people do at least part of their work on computers. Now we have to play on them too? If buyers don’t mind their Ps and Qs, they will wake up one day and find there are no antique shows to attend whether it is in the country or the city. Dealers are just trying to keep their bills paid like everyone else. They are not making a killing.

    Bangles & Beads

  • I own an antique mall in a small town so I have alot of opportunity to purchase items in the country and I feel I can buy really well. Things are priced reasonably. There are alot of things that don’t sell well in my area so about 10 years ago we started traveling to antique shows in Atlanta, VA, TX, FL, etc and I am always told how reasonable my prices are. I sell extremely well at these shows even with the economy like it is. I definately prefer country buying and big city selling.

  • Nick Ryan

    G’day to you Harry & Anthony, great responses to an interesting topic, maybe it is a bit different here in Australia. Here follows an insight into our country style auctions that I am more familiar with as opposed to the city auctions, I am not talking high end auctions here but general run of the mill bread & butter auctions.

    I regularly help a good friend of mine, an auctioneer and valuer assess, set up, catalogue and display many varied estate sale items, then on sale day I describe and display the items as we move around the sale area, at 6’2″ I am able to give everybody a good view and description of the various items, usually expanding on the brochures information if required.

    The majority of our sales are for deceased estates & held on site and we always try to maximise the sale prices for the estate. We advertise in many publications especially specialist magazines when there are specific items like one recent sale which included over 100 old wood planes. Our customers travel 2 and 3 hours or more for the sales. And never leave empty handed.

    We always have a local group like the Lions Club providing a sausage sizzle. Our auctions are always good humoured and are actually great fun to attend. The bidding can also get serious ! However we still very rarely match the city auction’s prices. Our overheads are always low, we do not pay for our venue, we pay for advertising and staff which is funded from the estate sale and depends on the location, size & security requirements. We never charged a sellers premium, and we only charge either GST (Goods & Services Tax, 10%) or a buyers premium(again 10%)but NEVER both.

    There are always many bargains to be had especially to the knowledgeable bidder and items can always be had much lower than city prices. We do not use price guides and very rarely have reserves on items except at the estates request or at our suggestion. I often consult eBay to get a good guide to selling prices but again these prices can be very fickle.

    So guys, I think I am talking of a very different auction to the type you are referring to, but at the end of the day they are all auctions. I know many of our items end up in Sydney auction houses at far greater prices. You may ask why we don’t send the odd valuable to a specialist sale in Sydney, well we sometimes do but generally the added expenses of doing this wipes out the difference between the 2 sale prices so we prefer to keep those extra nice pieces as attractions to each individual auction (commission sales are between 20%-25%).

    Our last estate sale had over 500 lots and over 100 registered bidders, we made a total of Au$88,000.00 on the day.

    I would just like to add the cost of fuel to the overheads, we are currently paying $1.80 per liter for diesel here in the country, slightly less and more competitive prices can be found in the city. You did not mention fuel costs when transporting antiques across to your various sales but I note that your fuel costs are a lot lower than here in Australia.

    Thank you for an interesting and stimulating response, I wish there were more responses from Australia, or anywhere for that matter. Harry do you have counters so you can monitor the number of readers of your newsletters as opposed to who you send them out to? I hope this information has been of some use to you guys across the pond.

    Kind regards, Nick

Ready to invest in WorthPoint? →

Securities offered through North Capital Private Securities, Member FINRA/SIPC