This is the final column of a three-part series analyzing the Top Ten changes that occurred during the last five years in the antiques and collectibles field. I ranked the Top Ten Changes in order of importance and am presenting them in reverse order starting with No. 10 and ending with No. 1. Part One of the series covered: No. 10 – The Accelerating Loss of Friends; No. 9 – Changes in Price Divides within Collecting Categories; No. 8 – Consolidation Counter Revolution. Part Two of the series included No. 7 – Power Shifts in the Auction Community; No. 6 – Reality Antiques and Collectibles Cable and Network TV Shows; No. 5 – Endangered Collecting Categories; and No. 4 – Decline of Traditional Collectors. This column focuses on the top three changes on my list.
3. Great Recession
America’s Great Recession, which began in December 2007, suffered a severe downturn in September 2008, and “officially” ended in June or July 2009, is part of a continuing global financial crisis. Although the American Dow Jones Index once again is approaching the 1,300 threshold and the Consumer Confidence Index continues to show gradual upward movement, the Great Recession has not ended for many lower- and middle-class Americans. Times are tough. Relief is more distant than immediate.
The Great Recession is a misnomer. Economic analysts now refer to the economic period from 2008 to the present as the Little Depression, Lesser Depression or Long Recession—far more accurate descriptors. The economic crisis is in its fifth year. What are some of the lessons it has already taught us?
First, that economic recovery is a long-term process; anywhere from 10 to 15 years. The possibility that recovery will not happen is inconceivable. It always has in the past. Perseverance and patience are essential to survival. The haunting question is: “How will life change when the recovery occurs?”
Second, individuals and nations no longer control their economic destiny. Global forces, often beyond America’s influence, impact America’s economic strength. The agents of destruction are numerous. Depending where in the economic hierarchy a person resides, they range from large corporate banks threatening to foreclose on a mortgage or denying a much-needed loan to European countries such as Greece and Italy being unable to control their debt levels.
Third, the prosperity enjoyed by future generations is unlikely to match that of their parents and grandparents. Individuals are reallocating how they spend their money. Necessities such as shelter, food and clothing require a greater portion of the household budget than ever before. The rising price of gasoline offsets or surpasses most earning increases. The ability of the average American to keep abreast, let alone get ahead, of inflation has lessened.
These shifts have impacted the antiques and collectibles trade. Individuals have less and less discretionary income, a prime driver in the antiques and collectibles market strength. The materialistic lifestyle of the end of the 20th century is being replaced by a minimalist lifestyle. The trade thrives when people create piles. Young adults prefer new and are willing to buy less rather than increase their purchasing power by buying “cheaper than new” antiques and collectibles. The economic crisis has forced individuals to look forward rather than backward. The antiques and collectibles trade does best when the focus is backward.
Historically, once an economic crisis passed, the antiques and collectibles marketplace returned to its traditionalist past. In the last five years, the market has experienced a metamorphosis. The change remains incomplete. When it ends, a new entity will evolve. There will be no return to the past.
2. Trendiness and Market Unpredictability
The rules which governed the 20th-century antiques and collectibles marketplace are in chaos. The ability of auctioneers, dealers and others in the trade to influence what new buyers will collect has diminished. In collecting categories such as Pink Slag glass, it has vanished. As per the English ballad that was played when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, the world has turned upside down.
External forces, ranging from editors at country, fashion and interior decorating magazines to celebrity pronouncements and tastes, create temporary collecting crazes that last from a few months to years. Change is worshipped. If nothing changes, growth stagnates.
Collecting trends that last decades are over. Japanese buyers triggered collecting market crazes in guitars, phonographs and Raggedy Ann and Andy in the past decade. The withdrawal of these buyers collapsed markets.
Speculation in contemporary collectibles did not end with the 1999 collapse of the Beanie Babies secondary market. It continues in areas such as limited edition prints, especially sports-theme prints.
What sells well at one antiques and collectibles flea market or show often does not sell well at the next. Dealers have less confidence than ever deciding what merchandise to offer. As a result, dealers no longer invest heavily in inventory, one more trend resulting in a slowing down of market sales.
In the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, this unpredictability was limited to merchandise sold at antiques and collectibles flea markets, malls and shows. It now extends to auctions and Internet sales. The sell-through rate on Internet auction and storefront sites is declining. An Oregon bookseller indicated that he maintains 15,000 book listings on Abe Books in order to ensure a sale rate of between 10 and 15 books per week.
Finally, when discussing market sale trends with dealers and others, we talk in terms of what sold for collecting, decorating (amateur, as well as professional) and reuse purposes rather than about the sale strength of individual collecting categories. Surviving as a generalist seller, even when specializing in a general category such as ceramics or glass, is extremely difficult.
1. Ascendance of the Digital Age
In a recent conversation with Oregon dealers Debbie and Randy Coe, Randy remarked: “Today’s antiques and collectibles dealer has to sell on the computer to survive.” Randy’s advice is on point. Today’s young buyers are members of the digital generation. They do not remember life before the personal computer. The Digital Age is the 21st century revolution.
The personal computer is only part of a digital hardware revolution that includes the iPad and iPhone, PlayStation and Wii. Although the tendency is to focus on hardware, the digital revolution also includes software programs such as communication facilitators like Skype and FaceTime, correspondence tools like e-mail and texting, and social networking sites Facebook, LinkedIn and their rivals.
I attended a Town Hall Budget and Priorities Meeting last week at Davenport University, where Linda is the executive vice president of Academic Affairs and provost, and where I serve as an adjunct professor. The purchase of Blackboard Mobile, which allows students to interact with their professors via their iPhones, was a high priority. After the Town Hall meeting, I sought help in creating a Wimba Classroom so that I could teach a session of my Professional Writing class over the computer while traveling.
Although the Digital Age’s influence on the antiques and collectibles marketplace is still in its infancy, its impact on the trade grows daily. The Internet bidder has become the most important bidder at auction. There are more auction house catalogs online than in hardcopy. Internet storefronts on eBay, GoAntiques, TIAS, Ruby Lane and others flourish. Many dealers have their own storefront website. Collectors clubs and private individuals have established information websites for hundreds of collecting categories.
Thanks to websites such as Artfact, iGuide and WorthPoint, the Internet is in the final stages of replacing the printed price guide. As a subscriber to AntiqueWeek, I receive e-mail notifications from its advertisers. AntiqueWeek and other trade publications are online as well as in hard copy. Antiques social media websites, such as iAntique Online and antiques and collectibles blogs grow. The post-2005 antiques and collectibles Internet information explosion relegates the 1980-2000 print explosion to a mere drop of water in the vast ocean of antiques and collectibles knowledge.
The Digital Age’s biggest contribution to the antiques and collectibles field is completing the transition from regional and national markets to a global marketplace. Information is instantaneous. Change is measured in nanoseconds. Keeping current is a never-ending task.
What do you think of my Top Ten choices? What did I miss? Which deserve further elaboration? E-mail your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com. 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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