Rinker on Collectibles: ‘Does It Matter If It’s Not Real?’

When I travel, I rely on USA Today for the latest news. When I picked up a copy of the USA Today Weekend, Jan. 25-27, edition this morning, I was immediately drawn to a front page headline reading “Celeb Liars, Fakers: Does it Matter If It’s Real.” Ann Oldenburg authored the article.

As the youngster reputedly said to Chicago “Black Sox” baseball player Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson outside the courtroom, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” stories about businesses and individuals deviating from the reality—also known as truth—are a constant source of news. Normally, they appear and vanish in a day or two.

The past two weeks have been different. First, instead of one or two stories, there are four—Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping, Manti Te’o’s not real dead girlfriend, Boyoncé’s lip syncing of the national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration and Dave Hester’s revelations about the manipulation on the television show “Storage Wars.” Oldenberg notes: “From sports heroes to superstar performers to reality TV, we’re deluged by deception. We’ve become obsessed with who-knew-what-when and did-she-or-didn’t-he debates, passionate about recent pop culture crimes and insistent about how important each is or isn’t.” The stories may change next week, but the principle will not.

In an increasingly sophisticated world, Americans are incredibly naïve. Perhaps this is a bit harsh. America is a nation built on trust. Its citizens accept unequivocally the premise that people are honest, not deceptive. Information is truthful as presented rather than manipulated to disguise a hidden meaning. Americans believe what they see is what they think they see. When it is not, they are surprised. Truthful reality does not create a happy world.

When I teach authenticating antiques and collectibles, the first rule my students learn is: “Assume everything is bad. Make it prove to you that it is not. Use the French system of justice, guilty until proven innocent.” The goal is to create a questioning mind, one of the primary keys to surviving in the antiques and collectibles business.

Dave Hester’s revelations about material being salted into storage lockers and pre-arranged bidding agreements on “Storage Wars” should not have surprised anyone. Reality television is entertainment. It most certainly is not reality. Oldenberg writes: “Re-enactments, suggestions by producers, and other forms of TV trickery, referred to as ‘scene enhancements’ and ‘soft scripting’ are meant to jack up drama. And while the genre uses the word ‘real,’ these shows are entertainment, not high-brow documentaries.” This is common sense.

As a former mathematics major, I am constantly calculating the probability of situations that I encounter. What is the probability of a person bringing an 18th-century, Philadelphia highboy to the “Antiques Roadshow” unannounced? What are the odds that day after day individuals walk into a pawn shop in Las Vegas with treasure after treasure and that there is an expert who is knowledgeable about that very object who can be reached and available in a matter of minutes or hours? The statistical answers are not grounded in reality. The “Antiques Roadshow,” “Storage Wars” and other reality shows recruit material in advance. If they did not, there would not be enough high-ticket items to hold viewer interest.

I appeared in78 half-hour episodes of HGTV’s “Collector Inspector.” Except for the first weeks of taping, I saw advanced tapes of every home that appeared on the show. Never once in the more than 240 homes taped was one single item salted into a home to increase the “discovery” value of segment. When the crew and I arrived at a home, I did a walk through to identify the objects that I wanted to feature in the segment. Often, these objects were moved to prime shooting locations. Since the focus of the show was on the ordinary—“I had one of those,” “I remember one of those,” “I wish I had one of those”—I was not pressured to find high-ticket items in every home. “Collector Inspector” was about the history and stories behind the objects as well as their value. It was first and foremost entertainment. Each minute of the show represented an hour of setting up, taping (often several times, including close-ups), and cutting and editing.

I take pride in the fact that I never lied or even stretched the truth for entertainment purposes about the objects that appeared on “Collector Inspector.” I kept the values conservative. 44 Blue, my production company, agreed that inflating values was deceptive and a disservice to the show’s viewers.

There are no enforceable ethical standards in the antiques and collectibles business. Individuals are responsible first to themselves and second to the clients they serve in respect to the ethics practiced. As in life, the antiques and collectibles business is plagued by individuals who hide the truth and/or commit the sin of omission, simply forgetting to mention a problem or difficulty. Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, is not an excuse for deception. Instead, it is a challenge to everyone involved in the antiques and collectibles trade to make certain that it never applies to any transaction or interaction that occurs.

In my world, the answer to the question, “Does it matter if it is real?” is YES! If it is not, the dealer/seller, television show distributor or individual is obligated to inform the buyer, viewer or public that this is the case. Truth counts. Once revealed, the person is free to act accordingly. Many will shrug their shoulders and not care. They love the entertainment value of reality TV or the decorative value of a reproduction, copycat, fantasy item or fake.

[Author’s Aside: “Real” is a meaningless word. If you are looking at something, it is real. In the antiques and collectibles field, period is the correct word to identify an object made during the period when it first appeared in the marketplace. Later copies are sold as reproductions, copycats or fantasy pieces. Fakes are deliberately made to deceive.]

When I first became involved in the antiques marketplace in the 1960s, authenticating standards were lax. Dealers often failed to mention restorations and repairs. Furniture was dated by the oldest piece rather than the newest piece of wood in its construction. Fantasy pieces, such as the butler’s tray coffee table, were passed as period pieces. Later reproductions and copycats often had 50 to 100 years added to their origins.

Standards are higher today, thanks to the growing sophistication of buyers. However, some dealers still are very generous with dating pieces and forgetful about mentioning work done to bring a piece back to “market standards.” Sellers continue to hide behind the general belief that it is the buyer’s responsibility to know what they are buying. This is unacceptable.

I teach English composition, professional writing and communications at Davenport University. In the first week of class, students are required to sign a plagiarism pledge stating that they understand the concept of plagiarism and will avoid its use. In online English 110 (advanced composition), students read several articles about plagiarism, participate in a discussion board session on the subject and submit all essays to turnitin.com, one of the many software programs that identifies improper or unacknowledged sources. DU’s emphasis on plagiarism resulted from today’s students’ inability to understand the incorrectness associated with cutting and pasting large blocks of material from internet and other sources, changing a few words and passing the finished product off as their own effort. Further, they have little to no qualms about stealing another person’s ideas.

I am not a fan of reality TV. I have never seen an episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “Jersey Shore” (even though I spent my childhood summers in Seaside Heights, N.J.), “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or “Real Housewives.” I have much better things to do with my time. Likewise, I have never watched a full episode of the “Antiques Roadshow,” “Pawn Stars,” “Storage Wars” or any of the other antiques and collectibles reality TV shows because they are primarily entertainment and divorced from reality. Occasionally, I watch a portion of one of the shows so that I am familiar with the format.

There is a connection between reality and truth. Unfortunately, in today’s age of diversity and civility, reality and truth often have an unwelcome harshness that many believe is best left unstated. My wife Linda constantly reminds me that my life would be better had I not said this or that, leaving individuals to live in a fantasy world comprised of what might be instead of what is. Over the years, I have made enemies in the antiques and collectibles trade and among my family and colleagues for speaking the truth as I see it, confronting reality head on.

So be it. I prefer to live by my horseshit rule—a 100-year-old piece of manure is not an antique, it is a 100-year-old piece of horseshit. If you do not want to know what I think, do not read “Rinker on Collectibles.”

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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. 2013

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing what I have been saying. Yes it matters if it is real. I also want to know the story and if something is not real there is no real story. Reality TV is an absolute farce I don’t care if you are talking about pawn shops, storage units or paranormal shows. They are all about ‘good TV’ and reality isn’t always exciting and ‘good TV’.

  2. Tom Carrier says:

    I personally know long time antique dealers who absolutely dislike the entire WorthPoint concept because it educates the consumer too well. They simply do not want the consumer to know what the value of their piece is so that they can get it very low and sell very high.

    So, for me, these reality show concepts have an education value beyond just entertainment. First, watching an episode tests my own powers of observation to see if I can spot an authentic, reproduction, fake or fantasy item and why before the expert does.

    Secondly, the show just might educate the uninitated viewer to at least turn to WorthPoint first to determine whether something should be sold for money, donated for the deducation, or given away to a nonprofit. Understanding why something has value has value, too.

    But Harry Rinker is right about the horseshit rule. Professional standards are always worth much more in the long run than the extra time, effort, or money it takes to be deliberately vague or deceptive.

    It is my hope that the long time antique dealers who continue to think otherwise will join the rest of us and live by the Rinker Rule, “If it’s horseshit, say it’s so”.

    Tom Carrier
    Worthologist

  3. I prefer to live by my horseshit rule—a 100-year-old piece of manure is not an antique, it is a 100-year-old piece of horseshit. If you do not want to know what I think, do not read “Rinker on Collectibles.”

    LOVE IT! This is exactly why I do want to know what you think. I have great respect for straight-shooters and none for those whose words are masked behind smoke and mirrors. Thanks Harry!

  4. Larry Quirk says:

    Unfortunately, in our times in this county the line between fantasy and reality is constantly blurred. Are the worlds created in video games real? Is the stock market real for the individual investor? Are sports records real or the result of drugs and looking the other way by the sports industry? The fakness of antiques is the least of our worries.