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Rinker on Collectibles: Researching Antiques and Collectibles in the Digital Age

by Harry Rinker (01/14/13).

This is one of several columns I will write over the next several years focusing on researching antiques and collectibles in the digital age. Research techniques constantly change. Search methods that work today may not work tomorrow. When changes occur, there is no announcement. Users learn about it when the method they currently employ no longer works.

[Author’s Aside #1: I chose “change” rather than “advance” because change is not always an advance. Some changes complicate rather than simplify the search process, often requiring inordinate amounts of time to identify and learn the new system.]

In the 21st century, the past is measured in years rather than decades. When I dissolved Rinker Enterprises at the end of December 2010, its research library contained almost 10,000 reference books, thousands of catalogs from auction houses and manufacturers, and more than two dozen vertical file cabinets filled with 25 years’ worth of research clippings. When researching an object or question, I began by walking from my office to the library.

A recent “Rinker on Collectibles” Q and A column contained my response to a question about Winfield Pottery/China. If I had answered the question while still living in Vera Cruz, Pa., my research would have begun in the library. The reference books were organized by topic. I knew from memory that the library contained no specific reference book on Winfield. However, the picture that accompanied the e-mail strongly suggested a California connection. Hence, rather than start with Jo Cunningham’s “Collector’s Encyclopedia of American Dinnerware” (2005), I would have headed directly for Jack Chipman’s “Collectors Encyclopedia of California Pottery” (1998). Chipman’s book contains a chapter on Winfield Pottery/China.

If I wanted additional information, I would have picked up the latest edition of David Maloney’s “Maloney’s Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory” (2005) to obtain the names of auctioneers, collectors and dealers of California Pottery dinnerware so that I could call and ask more detailed questions. I also maintained my own expert database. Michael Lindsey at Laguna Pottery in Seattle was an option. Finally, if I wanted additional historical background, I would have contacted the reference librarians in Pasadena and Santa Monica to see what information they might provide.

That was then. This is now. I have assembled a modest antiques and collectibles library since the sale of the Rinker Enterprises, Inc., research library. I had wooden shelves installed along the walls of one of the storage rooms in Linda’s and my Kentwood, Mich., home to house the library. The walking distance from my desk to the books is about the same distance from my office to the library in Vera Cruz. It does not contain copies of Jo Cunningham’s or Jack Chipman’s books.

The truth is that I almost never make the walk, even when I know the library has a book with the information I need. Instead, I power up the computer and start searching the Internet. Without realizing it, I have become one of the digital age individuals with a blind faith that the Internet contains the information I need.

This supposition is an outright lie. The internet does not now contain all the information I need and never will in my lifetime. Further, while information found in printed antiques and collectibles reference books often needed to be verified, antiques and collectibles information available on the internet must always be questioned, verified, analyzed and interpreted.

[Author Aside #2: I currently am advising clients regarding the disposal of the personal property of an estate. The clients invited several auctioneers to inspect the estate and submit a sales proposal. The estate is an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles and heirlooms from around the globe. No regional auction house has the expertise in-house to catalog the estate in its entirety. The auctioneers approached recognize this.

While one auctioneer admitted this to my clients, he quickly added that thanks to the research information on the Internet and worldwide contact from the internet websites of which he is a member, he felt confident that there is nothing he could not properly catalog. Having seen the contents of the estate, I was surprised by the auctioneer’s arrogance. Blind faith would be the positive interpretation.

“Nothing” is a powerful word when used in this context. While it may be true that given a stop-at-nothing (I could not resist the double entendre) approach, every object in the house could be properly authenticated and cataloged, the research time required would far exceed the potential commission the auction house would receive from selling the material. The time and investment to take images of the thousands of objects in the house, organize them, prepare detailed captions, and send them to experts around the globe also would exceed the potential commission return. I cannot wait to review the sale proposals.]

I have learned when doing internet searches to set a time limit. My desire to persist until I solve a problem could easily result in my spending fruitless hours doing research. Research is fun and, surprisingly, addictive. Like many researchers, I am driven by the belief that the answer to every question exists somewhere. All the researcher has to do is persist until he/she finds it.

The Winfield Pottery/China search frustrated me. The information I found was minimal. Wikipedia was silent. Information that did appear was buried within websites. I tried several dozen search words and combinations. I was and remain convinced the information I need is somewhere on the Internet.

There is another alternative. The information does not exist on the Internet, at least not yet. My problem is twofold. First, I am having increasing difficulty accepting this. Second, frustrated, I fail to utilize my old research methods. Like so many members of the digital age, I want instant gratification. When I do not get it, I quit and move on to something else.

Hindsight is wonderful. It is a consequence of age. I know what to do and how to do it. But, I do nothing. I have become greedy. I want the same entitlements and privileges enjoyed by the current generation.

It is no fun having one foot in one generation and the other in another. It is downright uncomfortable. Yet, as Clint Eastwood as Gunny Sergeant Highway notes in “Heartbreak Ridge” (1986): Adapt, overcome and improvise.

Future “Rinker on Collectibles” columns will explore topics such as keyword search techniques, authenticating internet data and sources, and finding reliable and trustworthy websites. This column ends with a first look at efforts to make previously in-print antiques and collectibles references available online.

WorthPoint is spearheading an effort to scan antiques and collectibles reference books and make them available to internet researchers. The project is in its infancy. Initially, WorthPoint.com’s concentration is on assembling a marks library.

Krause Publications offers CDs and digital downloads of some of its antiques and collectibles titles. The list is selective and does not contain out-of-print titles.

Collector Books, which suspended publication of antiques and collectibles titles in the fall of 2010, has embarked upon a project to make close to 100 of its out-of-print titles available as eBooks. I checked the list. The cost per title appears to be close to the initial hardcover cost, somewhat of a surprise. I expected a cost per title of between $3 and $5. At these prices, I would rather search abebooks.com, amazon.com or eBay.com and buy a hardcover copy. I suspect I can beat the download price, even factoring in shipping costs.

The digital age is now. There is no escaping it. The only question is what impact we will allow it to have. For those who were adults before its arrival, the struggle with will never be concluded.

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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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