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Rinker on Collectibles: The Dangerous Decline of Collecting Checklists

by Harry Rinker (10/05/12).

The desire to collect is inherent in everyone. Once the desire is triggered, the collector assembles a collection. The initial acquisition period is accelerated. Once in love with a collecting category, the collector acquires everything he/she sees and can afford. As the period of initial enthusiasm wanes, the pace of acquisition slows. The collector becomes more selective and sophisticated.

The collector begins to structure his/her collection into subcategories. Secondary material, such as advertising items and manufacturers’ catalogs, are added to the collection. The collection expands beyond a display case or room. The collector develops an interest in the origin and the history of the objects and builds a reference library, at first focused on books devoted to the specific collecting category, but quickly expanding into books about the general category into which the collecting category falls, for example, ceramics, collectibles, glass, furniture or toys.

The collector also becomes fascinated with questions such as how many items were made, what variations exist, how many manufacturers were involved and how long did a particular object remain in production. These simple questions are complex.

Most manufacturers do not maintain company archives. Manufacturers focus on the future, not the past. For those companies that had the foresight to create and maintain archives, the information usually is lost when the company is sold or ceases operation. When a company faces economic issues, archive funding is one of the first budget cuts.

When I was the director of archival research at Historic Bethlehem (Pa.) from 1966 through 1968, I had the privilege of visiting the Bethlehem Steel Company archives on several occasions. A small dedicated group of employees built an extensive collection of documents, fine art, literature and photographs relating to the Bethlehem plant, the company’s affiliates, companies acquired by Bethlehem Steel and the industry as a whole. Bethlehem Steel no longer exists. The fate of its archives and collection is unknown. It was not donated as a unit to any archive or museum.

In August 2012, I received an e-mail question from a listener to WHATCHA GOT?, my antiques and collectibles call-in radio show, asking about a Corning Opelle Christmas ornament she owned. Unable to locate a list on the internet, I contacted Yvette Sterbenk at the Corning Museum of Glass, asking if she could provide me with a list of the Opelle ornaments Corning produced. A month later, I received an e-mail from Christine Gable, research consultant at the Corning Incorporated Archives, which read: “We’ve been dealing with this same issue for a few years now—trying to get a listing & the dates of all Opelle ornaments. We haven’t done too well, but you can have what we we’ve come up with.”

Author’s Aside #1: I will share that list with readers in a future Q and A with Harry Rinker column.

The Corning Opelle Christmas ornaments were made between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s—less than 25 years ago. If assembling a list of recently made objects presents this level of difficulty, imagine the task faced by a collector who wants to document what was made by a company 50, 75, 100 or 150 years ago. It is “Mission: Impossible.”

Author’s Aside #2: If I used this phrase in one of my classrooms, I would be staring into a sea of blank faces. The “Mission: Impossible” television series aired on CBS from September 1956 to March 1973, long before any of my students, even the adults, were born. Although the most recent movie in the “Mission: Impossible” series was released in 2011, my students do not match its targeted demographic audience.

Collecting is checklist driven. A checklist not only shows what is available, it also represents a challenge. Collecting ends if a checklist is completed. The good news is that checklists grow. Variants, prototypes and unproduced examples continue to be discovered.

New checklists trigger revivals of collecting categories. The search for something new is a key stimulant for the collector. Every collector knows that “I have never seen one before” means there is another. No manufacturer mass-produces one.

Historically, the two primary sources for collecting checklists were reference books and collectors’ clubs. The exponential growth of the interest in collecting antiques and collectibles in the late 1970s through the 1990s owes much to the publication of thousands of specialized reference books focusing on a single collecting category. Companies such as Books Americana, Collector Books, Hobby House, House of Collectibles, Krause, L-W Books, Schiffer Books and Wallace-Homestead produced pictorial price guides, guides that categorized and pictured objects.

The fact that the checklists were incomplete was inconsequential. Revised and subsequent editions enhanced the initial checklist. When I recruited books for Wallace-Homestead, I told authors: “The book you wanted to write in the first place will be the third edition. Meanwhile, get the first edition published.” The first reference book about a new collecting category inevitably led to the author being besieged with letters, later e-mails, informing him/her of missing objects and other information. The same held true for the second edition, but to a lesser degree.

The 1990s consolidation of antiques and collectibles book publishers, the 2008 Great Recession and the increasing role of the Internet has resulted in fewer and fewer hard and soft cover antiques and collectibles reference books being produced. The loss of these publications is having a negative impact on collecting. Future collectors not only are having difficulty finding out-of-print reference guides but all too often are completely unaware of their existence.

Several antiques and collectibles publishers offer online versions of their current publications. The difficulty is that none are publishing their archives on the Internet. WorthPoint is to be applauded for its efforts to provide Internet access to out-of-print reference titles. This is a work in progress. Its success depends upon the ability of future collectors to find and utilize these important resources.

The golden age of antiques and collectibles collectors’ clubs has passed. Rather than combine collectors into large groups, the Internet has defused them into smaller and smaller groups. A decline in the number of collecting checklists originating from collectors’ clubs is the result. Fortunately, several of these clubs have made their checklists available online. Once again, finding them takes time and patience.

There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of collecting category checklists on the internet. I encounter them when researching questions for a “Rinker on Collectibles” question and answer column. In almost all cases, they represent the dedicated work of a single individual.

The difficulties are (1) the sources of the information often are not cited and (2) no one checks the list for accuracy. Editors, not always with the greatest care, checked the material that appeared in the printed guides and a committee of members reviewed the checklists posted by collector clubs.

As the amount of information on the Internet grows, finding Internet collecting checklists is becoming increasingly difficult. I often encounter them on the third, fourth or fifth page of a search. How many take the time to drill down this deep? If the information is not on the first page of listings, most try another search approach.

Time and money are a factor. Who is willing to take the time to search the Internet and create a website that contains a list of antiques and collectibles checklist websites organized by collecting category? There is no financial gain. No one will pay to access the website. Consumers expect this information to be free.

The immediate impact of the demise of the specialized collecting checklist is minimal. My concern is the future, the next 10 to 20 years. The old maxim that “you cannot tell the players without a scorecard” applies. It is impossible to collect if a person has no idea what is available.

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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. 2012

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3 Responses to “Rinker on Collectibles: The Dangerous Decline of Collecting Checklists”

  1. Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:

    Harry:

    I sympathize and understand how companies important to a collectible can no longer help identify variants of what they produced.

    In my collectible world of presidential memorabilia, an issue of the top level series of official presidential cufflinks continues to baffle us. Originally the cufflink was produced without an ornamental wreath around the outer edge, probably as early as the Nixon Administration (70′s) and up through the Reagan Administration (80′s).

    Then an ornamental wreath was added. But when? The conventional wisdom has it added around the second Reagan Administration or so, about 1984. But, there is only anecdotal evidence of that.

    So, I contacted the company that produced the cufflinks, Balfour, and when they moved to Texas in the 70s all of the early records were thrown away along with all the prototypes and drawings. Didn’t need them.

    The question now may never be answered unless we dig through research material in several presidential libraries for the buying records of official cufflinks.

    Companies should realize the importance of their early records and save what they can. It is their history, to be sure, but it may be history to someone else as well.

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

  2. Interesting commentary. I myself researched many of the books of the ’70′s and found only a sentence, or at most, a paragraph on my area of interest: American Art Metal Jewel Boxes. Since nearly all relevant manufacturers were long out of business, I had to look for examples. Eventually, I discovered early 1900s Sears and Wards catalogs in microfiche. In those I was able to at least date many jewel boxes. From there I finally succumbed to purchasing wholesale jewelry catalogs. After years of research, I published a collector book of my own–THE JEWEL BOX BOOK. Surprisingly, there are many jewel box collectors,though not yet recognized as a group.

  3. Bradd Smith says:

    I have never made lists, I collect what I like and am in several category’s of interest. I am not planning on my collections ever being worth anything to anyone but me. In time I will sell it all and move on to something else. My interests change and so do my collections. I started out one day to buy a sake set and found out about the WW ll personal soldier cups etc. Now at over 3000 pieces it has slowed as they are getting hard to find and now it is on to another collection, mainly silver from the Victorian era. I suppose that there are as many reasons for collecting as there are things to collect and trying to put labels on groups is dangerous. Harry knows from years of experience, but I like both, buy low sell high and finding the “ONE”. I do not buy that a collection is forever, if someone had not decided to sell the items I have, well I would not have them and there is more and less expensive stuff as the economy continues it’s downward spiral. It is a great time to have money and the bug. Just remember if you screw up, all of your junk will not bail you out, it never has. Let’s face it, the old adage of one mans junk is another mans junk is just as true as the treasure variant.

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