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Rinker on Collectibles: Maintaining a Sense of Wonder – Part I

by Harry Rinker (11/30/10).

When I finished my undergraduate degree at Lehigh University in January 1963, I immediately began graduate studies at the University of Delaware. My plan at the time was to earn a PhD in major in history and become a university professor. During the spring 1963 semester, I received permission to take an Art History course with the Winterthur fellows. Two conflicting sirens’ songs—teaching and the antiques and collectibles field—that have lured me in opposing directions for nearly 50 years.

I seesawed back and forth in the 1960s and 1970s. I spent three years (1963-1966) as a Danforth Teaching Fellow in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis. While there, I did a special studies course under the direction of Charles Buckley, director of the St. Louis Art Museum. I served as director of archival research for Historic Bethlehem (Pa.) from 1966-68 and executive director of the Hugh Moore Park (a historic canal park) in Easton (Pa.) from 1968-70. I also taught history at Northampton (Pa.) Area Community College.

I returned to the University of Delaware in 1971 to work on a PhD in the History of Science and History of Technology, finishing my course work and qualifying examinations in 1972. Instead of finishing my dissertation, I accepted the position of executive director of the Historical Society of York County (1972-77). I also took several courses at York College. My dual academic teaching/museum career ended in 1981 when I founded Rinker Enterprises.

I have devoted 40 years to the study of antiques and collectibles and sharing the results with those who love the objects and the field as much as I do. Although I left the academic classroom, I never stopped teaching. I view “Rinker on Collectibles,” the books I have edited and authored, lectures, workshops, personal appearances and media appearances as forms of teaching. Antiques and collectibles allowed me the opportunity to answer both sirens’ songs.

The antiques and collectibles siren song remained the dominant of the two until my wife Linda accepted the position of provost and vice president of academic affairs at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Conn., in June 2006. Western’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative and Professional Writing program tempted me. I enrolled and finished my studies in January 2010.

I re-entered the academic world in fall 2009, teaching one section of English composition at Norwalk (Conn.) Community College. Much of my professional success resulted from my writing, and I wanted to share that joy and excitement with a new generation. I taught another section of English composition at NCC in the spring 2010 semester and added a section of Public Speaking at Lincoln College of New England. Currently (the fall 2010 semester), I am teaching eight courses—two sections of English composition at NCC, three sections of Public Speaking and one section of English composition at LCNE, and one section of English composition at Southern Connecticut State University. There is no question I am overcommitted, and I know this only adds up to seven courses.

“Wunderkammer of Knowledge: Exploring the hidden spirit behind science, art, creativity and rational thought,” an honors course at Western Connecticut State University, is the eighth. I am one of seven faculty members that are team-teaching the course. The goal is to teach students how to wonder. There is no limit as to what they are to wonder. Just wonder.

An extensive local history collection comprising newspaper clippings and other memorabilia relating to the greater Danbury area is housed in the archive located in Western’s library. Students were assigned to cull through the collection until they found a topic that “wondered” (my apologies to my Pennsylvania German ancestors and friends) them.

One of my students chose to write about the building of the Danbury Mall, a large shopping center complex built on the grounds of the former Danbury State Fairgrounds in the mid-1980s. The Danbury Fair, established in the late 1860s, survived until 1981. In one of the classes, students presented a five-minute summary of their project. My student provided a detailed account of the controversy surrounding the building of the mall and its impact on the merchants in downtown Danbury.

When the class was over, the student asked me how he did. I told him I was very disappointed.

“Where’s the wonder?” I asked. “All you presented were facts. Didn’t they start you thinking?” The student looked puzzled.

After some discussion and guidance, the student finally decided that the controversy could be viewed in broad terms by wondering about the meaning of progress.

I find it impossible to look at an antique, collectible, or any object without wondering about it. There are the basic questions—who made it, how was it made, why was it made, how was it used, how was it marketed, and why did it survive? Answering these questions involves research; research which often leads in dozens of different directions. In some cases, answers are never found, thus creating a perpetual state of wondering.

Most individuals involved in the antiques and collectibles trade do not see objects as sources of wonder. Objects are intangible goods where secondary market resale value is the prime consideration. “What is my object worth?” is the question I am most often asked. The trickster is that value is momentary. Objects only have monetary value when a sale occurs. Before and after, they are worthless.

Recently, I have found myself wondering whether it is possible to become jaded through too much familiarity and contact with an object. Can objects lose their allure? How long can an appraiser, auctioneer, collector or dealer maintain his passion and enthusiasm? What happens when there is no longer a desire to pick up and touch an object? Can wonder be lost?

Several personal events have triggered my concerns. I celebrated my 69th birthday on Oct. 1. Collectors start slowing down in the early to mid-60s. They start thinking about disposing of their collections in their early 70s, a point I am approaching far too rapidly.

My home/office, the former Vera Cruz (Pa.) Elementary School, is listed for sale. I am facing the question that no collector ever wants to consider: what are you going to do with your stuff? Linda’s and my move to Grand Rapids, Mich., is compounding the problem. What I retain is contingent on the space available in the home or apartment we find there. My Vera Cruz home/office is more than 14,000 square feet and full. Our new home is likely to be 2,500 square feet or smaller. The fact that I have to get rid of things is depressing. How can I sacrifice even one object? I love them all.

I bought many of the objects I own because they wondered me. Boxes and shelves are filled with objects I plan to research when I have the time. Now, this may never happen.

Is it possible to wonder without owning? While the answer is yes, I found it a far easier task when I possessed the object. Space considerations have curtailed my buying for the past several years. I also am finding it increasingly difficult to find objects that “turn me on.”

One of the wonderful things about the antiques and collectibles business is that when the situation looks bleakest, something happens that turns it around. On Nov. 12, the Western honors class spent the day in New York. After a morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the class spent the afternoon at the Museum of Natural History. Museums are tough environments—see but do not touch, admire but cannot buy. The day ended with the class attending a performance of “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Something happened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that re-awoke my passion and enthusiasm for objects. I will let you wonder what it was until you read my next Rinker on Collectibles column.

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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. 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. 2010

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One Response to “Rinker on Collectibles: Maintaining a Sense of Wonder – Part I”

  1. Deidre says:

    I love that you decided to go back to teaching. I think interacting with younger people is a great way to stay young and engaged in the world.

    I’ve read your books so I know you already know this but as for your collections, you can only keep the best possible versions of things you have, a whole lot of culling is in your future. The rest get to be someone else’s treasure. I think there are a lot of people in your situation which is why I’m helping people downsize their space/collections as they age. Exploring other people’s collections and belongings, help them see what they have and what they need to get rid off, that’s where I find my wonder!

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