I received the following e-mail from Shawn, who reads “Rinker on Collectibles” on WorthPoint: “As a collector, I have been frustrated by sellers’ unrealistic prices more and more in recent years. As eBay has shifted to more “Buy It Now” listings, it gives sellers more opportunity to stick to ‘but, it’s my price.’
“I have been watching a tea set for more than a year. The seller is asking $419. A well-known collector with lots of knowledge in that area tells me he would pay $125. But, the seller says she had it appraised for $350 several years ago, so she wants $350—never mind that values have fallen as the economy crashed. This is just one example.
“Some folks have told me that if I truly want it, I should just buy it. But that is ridiculous. I do not mind paying a ‘I must have it’ premium, but I cannot (and would be stupid) to overpay by hundreds. So I do not buy.”
Congratulations, Shawn. You have more will power than most. I have been an “I must have it” victim on multiple occasions. I am not alone. It is a sad day when desire overrides common sense.
I learned early in my buying career to track objects. As spring antiques shows returned for fall appearances, I noticed the same objects that I had seen in spring booths reappeared in fall booths. They often were in the exact location in the display. I was not naïve or gullible to believe the dealer’s claim that: “I sold the one I had in the spring and was lucky to find another. I bought it and am delighted to offer it for sale again.” When I checked the price, it always was identical to that asked for the object six months earlier. The price tag had an aged quality. Few dealers rotate merchandise. They continue to display the same object, trusting the good Lord to send them a buyer. Perhaps, “sucker” is a better word choice.
Once I understood this, I studied other sale venues from flea markets to antiques malls. The same thing occurred. An object remained in the same location in an antiques mall booth for months, even years. Given this, the buyer has no incentive to buy. While there are multiple possibilities to explain why the object has not sold, the most obvious is that it is overpriced.
[Author’s Aside #1: Unsold object longevity can be determined several ways: (1) spotting the object’s shape in a dust silhouette on a shelf after picking it up for inspection; (2) the object is covered with dust [be careful; dust also hides defects]; (3) the sale tag is dirty and discolored from exposure; and (4) the writing on the sale tag is starting to fade or has faded.]
I have tracked objects as long as two year before I have approached the owner and made a counteroffer. I lost count of the number of times the seller said no, holding on to the belief that ultimately he will find a buyer willing to pay the price he asks. Any money is better than no money is a maxim that is only reluctantly applied by antiques and collectibles dealers.
As an appraiser and one who often is asked to evaluate appraisals done by others, I discovered long ago that there are unscrupulous appraisers who provide values they know will make their clients happy rather than realistic prices that disappoint. A number of these individuals serve as hosts or experts on the current crop of antiques and collectibles cable reality television shows.
When an owner of an object, whether collector or dealer, hears or sees a value that pleases him, that number becomes a benchmark in his mind. This becomes the minimum value an object is worth. Anything less is unacceptable. Any offer below that number is an insult.
The result is a hodgepodge of overpriced and overvalued merchandise that constitutes the inventory of a dealer when he (or God acting on his behalf) reaches the decision to go out of business. I love going to an auction of a dealer’s inventory. Merchandise usually sells for 10 to 20 percent of the sticker price. Had the dealer been willing to accept reasonable offers and/or adjusted his pricing to reflect existing economic market trends, the dealer would have sold his inventory while still breathing
[Author’s Aside #2: While I have no firm proof, many dealers feel an object is priced correctly only if it does not sell. If it does sell, the dealer becomes suspicious, often convinced, that he undervalued the object. Although this logic makes absolutely no sense, it remains a staple in the trade.]
There are no minimum or maximum values in the antiques and collectible trade. All objects have no value except for the brief instance when they are sold. Value is what someone is willing to pay. The dealer selling the teapot thinks someone will pay at least $350 and has every right to ask it. He also has the right to die with it, which is likely to happen in this instance.
There is a group of dealers identified as nostalgia merchants. Nostalgia merchants prey on individuals desiring to recapture their childhood memories. These individuals are not collectors. A memory is triggered. The buyer wants to relive it immediately. Instant gratification is required. Patience, comparison shopping and common sense are cast to the wind. The person pays whatever the dealer asks.
I first encountered this while talking with a dealer who specialized in 1950s and 1960s cap guns. The prices asked on his sales list were double to triple those I encountered in the field. When I asked if he actually received these values, he assured me that he did. When I asked why, he informed me that he was selling to a one-time—not a repeat—customer. The person who came to him was willing to pay whatever it took to buy back his childhood treasure immediately.
This “I must have it price” is the modern equivalent of the old “buy it now, you may never see it again” price. Until the 1980s, collectors had limited buying opportunities. Antiques shows occurred twice a year; three times if an area was fortunate. A day’s drive through the countryside to visit shops happened four to six times a year. Collectors and others were so delighted to find something they sought that they bought it immediately. While bargaining was practiced, the practice was minimal.
In the 2010s, buying opportunities abound. Antiques malls and the Internet provide a daily fix. Buyers understand that most objects were mass-produced and the survival rate is high. Even if the buyer wants it immediately, the Internet offers the opportunity for immediate comparison shopping. There is no longer any need to overpay.
As Shawn demonstrated, the “I must have it” price is now a personal price. The sophistication of today’s buyers allows the buyer, not the seller, to determine the “I must have it price.” The price on the dealer’s sale tag is no longer a starting point, let alone absolute. Rather, today’s buyer places it in context with what he is willing to pay—and not one penny more. If the seller is not ready to come down to the buyer’s price, no sale occurs.
In fairness, Shawn showed that desire can cloud the process. He was willing to consider an “I must have it now” premium. Once again, control of the process remained with Shawn. He determined what the “I must have it now” price was. The only role the dealer had in the transaction was to accept or reject Shawn’s offer.
As a collector, Shawn recognized that the balance of power in the sales equation has shifted in favor of the buyer. While an advocate of a win-win buying scenario, I am a realist. Power in today’s antiques and collectibles market rests with the buyer with cash, not the dealer with the merchandise.
In these tough economic times, with no signs of relief on the horizon, dealers need to ignore what they paid or for what someone appraised their objects and do what it takes to sell them. Cash, any cash, is better than no cash. Any sale is better than no sale.
Buyers are voting with their pocketbook. A shut pocketbook is a vote of no confidence, something the antiques and collectibles trade can ill afford.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
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