Several months ago, I asked readers to e-mail me suggestions for future “Rinker on Collectibles” columns. As “Rinker on Collectibles” approaches its 26th anniversary, finding topics about which I have not written is becoming difficult. Realizing that many readers were not around when the column began in 1986 and the decades that followed, I still remain loath to revise or reissue previous columns. I prefer to explore new issues and insights.
Bob Dresser of Wheaton, Ill., did e-mail me with several suggestions, one of which was: “What will the antiques and collectibles market look like in the future with regard to the passing of the European Age of economic power to China and other Asian countries?” Like many column ideas, I put this in the back of my mind and thought about it until I felt comfortable enough to share my ideas.
First, neither I nor my children will live to see the center of world economic power transfer from the English-speaking to the Asian language-speaking world. Economic shifts take decades, often centuries. It took more than 400 years for economic power to shift from Portugal/Spain to the Netherlands to France to England to the United States. Although America’s rise to a super economic power began in the last quarter of the 19th century, it did not reach fulfillment until the post-World War II era.
This is not to discount the growing importance of Asian economic powers, especially China. China owns large quantities of America’s debt and is making inroads into its industrial and service businesses. However, China and India, like Japan before them, are experiencing problems with their economic growth. Capitalism is a great leveler. Further, the economic world has grown interdependent. The 2008 Great Recession impacted the global economy. The European debt crisis is having a similar effect.
Second, American collectors, especially those involved with antiques, continue to view Europe as the cultural origin of all things American. “England” is the answer most Americans will give when asked to identify America’s cultural and artistic roots. Few realize the design route began in Italy, spread to France, and then to England. Although the English influence far outweighs that of any other country, American collectors also exhibit a love for high-end German and French objects. Europeans, not Americans, remain design leaders in utilitarian/functional and artistic products.
Thinking globally (not nationally), English is a language that inextricably binds the United Kingdom to Canada, the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. Even with the growing importance of Spanish, English still dominates the academic and business environment. Most Europeans under the age of 40 understand and speak English. English is taught as the “second language” throughout the world.
[Author’s Aside: At this point, I probably have offended the Germans, Spanish-speaking countries, Scandinavians and other nations who feel they have had some impact on American culture. They did. America is the land of diversity. Yet, first and foremost, it is Eurocentric.]
Third, America is experiencing a massive growth in its Hispanic population. Will the Hispanic community remain as an independent community preserving its cultural identity or will it be absorbed in two or three generations into the greater American community, much as America absorbed the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century?
My money is on absorption for two reasons. First, the Hispanic community is not unified. Like the earlier immigrant communities, the Hispanic community is comprised of individuals from dozens of different countries. Those of Mexican origin do not identify with those from South America who do not identify with those from Cuba or Puerto Rico who do not identify with those from Spanish-speaking Europe. Intermarriage will become the great bonding agent.
Second, like all other immigrant groups, Hispanics come to America in pursuit of the American dream. They do not want a life different from the Eurocentric Americans. They want the same life. Like their immigrant forbearers, it will take them three to four generations to achieve it.
In the 21st century, American diversity means mixed cultural marriages. The census now allows individuals to check more than one heritage box. Like many young Europeans who now identify themselves as members of the EU instead of the country in which they were born, third-generation Hispanics will think of themselves as Americans with little or no national affiliate equivalent to that of their grandparents.
As the second decade of the 21st century progresses, the antiques and collectibles community retains its white, Eurocentric focus. Even in the Southwest, the influence of Mexican material in antiques and collectibles flea markets, malls, shops and shows is minimal. While there are Asian and Hispanic collectors, only a fraction focus on objects associated with their ethnic origin. The American dream is about things common to every American.
Further, Asian and European antiques are flowing over the rims, back to their countries of origin. Foreign collectors now realize the quantity of objects relating to their cultural heritage that American collectors captured during the past 100 years, brought home as trophies and passed from one generation of American collectors to the next. As collecting interest has waned among younger American collectors for this material, it has increased in Europe and Asia.
Fourth, global collectors, many driven by investment potential, are buying high-end antiques and collectibles. A close analysis of what they are buying shows that more than three-quarters of the items are European or related to their homeland. The number of American items is minimal. The world as a whole still values the “superiority” of European fine and decorative arts.
Fifth, Bob Dresser raises a key point. What sectors of the antiques and collectibles marketplace are the strongest recipients of Asian disposable income? This is not easy to answer. Quantitative data is non-existent. The trade papers are silent about Asian buyers and what they are buying. If such information appears in foreign antiques and collectibles periodicals, copies and translations are not available in the United States. Auction houses protect buyer confidentiality. Asian buyers also prefer to maintain a low profile, often working through agents rather than directly participating in the buying process. Finally, Internet buying also fosters anonymity.
Hence, the information available is more rumor than fact. In the first decade of the 21st century, Japanese collectors were touted as major buyers in a wide range of antiques and collectibles from impressionist paintings to golf collectibles to Raggedy Ann and Andy. Chinese buyers were purchasing high-end ivory artifacts from carvings to netsuke.
The November 2012 National Geographic magazine contained Bryan Christy’s “Ivory Worship,” an article exploring the illegal ivory trade and its role in supporting a desire on the part of Filipino, Chinese and other Asians to own ivory carvings ranging from the religious to the secular. Although the article focused primarily on the creation of modern pieces, it touched upon the role antique pieces play in the marketplace. Assuming the validity of the information found in Christy’s article, most antique ivory pieces that appear in the American secondary market are likely to find their way to Asia.
What does all this mean to the average American collector? The answer is absolutely nothing. The normalcy of collecting is safe for another 50 years or longer. Bob Dresser need have no concern that the growing economic power of Asia is going to change the American antiques and collectibles secondary market during his lifetime. Will he sleep better at night knowing this? I hope so.
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