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Rinker on Collectibles: Top Ten Changes in the Last Five Years – Part II

by Harry Rinker (02/14/12).

This is the second column of a three-part series analyzing the Top Ten changes that occurred during the last five years in the antiques and collectibles field (read Part One here). While the changes surfaced within the last five years, many continue. Further, the pace of change is accelerating. The next five years promise to bring new, even greater change.

I have ranked the Top Changes in order of importance and am presenting them in reverse order starting with No. 10 and ending with No. 1. The previous column in the series covered: No. 10 – The Accelerating Loss of Friends; No. 9 – Changes in Price Divides within Collecting Categories; and No. 8 – Consolidation Counter Revolution. This column focuses on the next four changes.

7. Power Shifts in the Auction Community

New York, New York may be a wonderful town, but its role as the central focus of the American antiques and collectibles auction market has lost much of its luster. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are now high-end focused. Both are refusing most objects unless they exceed a $5,000-bid threshold. Christie’s East and Sotheby’s Arcade, the two firms’ middle range auction outlets, are distant memories. The number of specialized sale categories within each house has been reduced, both willing to allow strong regional auction houses to step in and fill the void.

Heritage Auctions of Dallas, Texas, bills itself as “the largest collectibles auctioneer and third-largest auction house in the world.” There is ample reason for this Texas bravado. Building on its dominance in numismatics, it has branched out into art and antiques, comics & comic arts, entertainment and music memorabilia, historical, illustration art, jewelry and timepieces, luxury accessories, movie posters, natural history, rare books, sports, western art and wine. Heritage’s alliance with Greg Martin Auctions expands Heritage’s scope to include antique arms and armor. In addition to adding new specialized categories, Heritage has opened offices in Beverly Hills and New York. The firm is adept at using the internet for auction and promotion purposes.

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers returned to the Chicago scene in 2003. The firm’s website claims $40 million in annual sales. In 2010, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers opened a branch in Naples, Fla. and, in 2011, in Palm Beach, Fla. and Milwaukee, A regional office in New Orleans is scheduled for 2012.

Several regional houses, such as Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati and Pook and Pook in Downingtown, Pa., have shown major growth over the past five years. Auction houses specializing in one specific collecting category, such as McMasters Harris (dolls; Newark, Ohio) and Michael Strawser Auctions (majolica; Wolcottville, Ind.), continue to thrive.

Expect the growing importance of American-owned major and regional auction houses to continue throughout the 2010s.

6. Reality Antiques and Collectibles Cable and Network TV Shows

“Think positive” or “stay positive” is oft-heard advice in today’s antiques and collectibles marketplace. I remind myself of this each time someone asks me what I think about the current crop of existing and proposed antiques and collectibles cable and network television reality shows. I subscribe to the maxim that “any publicity is better than no publicity.” My faith in this principle is sorely tested. I am concerned about the perceptions the general public has formed about the business and ethics practices of members of the antiques and collectibles community.

“American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars,” “Storage Wars” and the countless spinoffs are a far cry from Home & Garden Television’s “Appraisal Fair” and “Collector Inspector,” which I hosted. Entertainment, not education, is the force driving these shows. I see no humor in someone being taken to the cleaners or snookered out of being paid fairly for an object so that the TV show buyer/host can gain kudos by using his expertise to turn a handsome profit.

The proliferation of antiques and collectibles reality cable and TV shows has created a Spaghetti Western landscape of the good, the bad and the ugly. The bad and the ugly far outnumber the good.

I am not certain who watches these shows. I most certainly do not. As a former mathematics major, I am aware that these shows defy the odds of probability that this quality of material arrives in each show venue on a weekly basis. I do not believe in this miracle, and neither should my readers.

Every time I think the antiques and collectibles reality show craze is ending, another new show is announced. My hope is that the antiques and collectibles reality TV shows so proliferate cable and network stations that viewer boredom will reach a point where Peter Finch’s character of Howard Beale’s plea of “I am mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” in “Network” (1976) echoes throughout the land. As a realist, I am aware that the odds are great that antiques and collectibles reality cable and network TV shows still will air as the 2020s dawn.

5. Endangered Collecting Categories

I introduced this concept to the trade in early 2010 in “Rinker on Collectibles” Column #1206, entitled “Ten Signposts to Identify Endangered Collecting Categories.” I have instructed Dana Morykan to post the column on harryrinker.com to complement the two columns that I wrote when “Rinker on Collectibles” celebrated its 20th anniversary in December 2006.

The concept is simple. There are established collecting categories where (1) the collector base is reaching an average age in excess of 65 and (2) insufficient new collectors are being attracted to keep the collecting category viable. The old concept that collector interest in every collecting category will recycle over time is a myth.

Although individuals in the trade accept this premise when applied to collectibles (how many collectors are there for Eddie Cantor memorabilia in 2012?), antiques aficionados remain in denial. The reality is that the number of endangered antiques categories is growing at an alarming pace.

“The children and grandchildren do not want my (you fill in the blank)” is a common collector’s lament. Alas, it is not limited to collectors. It is a plaintive cry of most parents and grandparents. The generation gap between young and old collectors has become a chasm that widens with each passing year.

An e-mail from Carol Rice serves as the transition between my fifth and fourth change: “one of the main changes to the field … is the smaller number of people who are interested in collecting, and especially the changes in the buying interest in china and glass. Living styles and entertaining are so much more causal now, and things that need more care, or are more formal, are much less-often purchased. There was a time when people would buy china and glassware not just to collect it, but to use it. Now they just buy things that add to the décor of their homes.”

4. Decline of Traditional Collectors

Decorator value has replaced collector value as the primary value that motivates people to buy antiques and collectibles. While the argument continues whether the actual number of collectors has increased or decreased, one truth is not disputable—the number of collectors for the traditional categories that filled the pages of 20th century, printed antiques and collectibles price guides is decreasing.

There is no need for statistical proof. Attendance at any antiques show or other venue reveals the preponderance of gray haired buyers and sellers. Dealers of objects in traditional collecting categories readily admit their inability to attract younger customers, even after they have substantially lowered prices.

Pockets of resistance exist in New England, the Midwest and Plains states, but it is only a matter of time before these bastions fall. The number of 40- to 50-dealer antiques shows diminishes each year. Auctioneers lot objects once sold individually.

Time proved more of an enemy than 20th century collectors imagined. Most traditional collectors are content to die owning their collections rather than suffer the agony and humility of defeat watching their cherished treasures selling for below their purchase price.

Long forgotten is the fact that collecting was once a hobby. Reflecting on the current state of affairs, perhaps collecting always has been a hobby and nothing more—a point worth pondering.

The final column in this series will reveal the Top Three of my Top Ten Changes list. Can you guess what they are?

POSTSCRIPT: Since writing the first column in the series, Nick Ryan of Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia, sent me an e-mail informing me that Alan Carter has announced that his “2012 Alan Carter Antiques & Collectables Price Guide” will be his last. Alan spent 28 years chronicling the antiques and collectibles market in Australia. His writings and musings played a key role in my understanding what was happening in the trade “down under.” Alan’s loss is another the global antiques and collectibles community can ill afford.

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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. 2012

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3 Responses to “Rinker on Collectibles: Top Ten Changes in the Last Five Years – Part II”

  1. Terry Mangum says:

    “Long forgotten is the fact that collecting was once a hobby….perhaps collecting always has been a hobby and nothing more.”
    Well said Harry. More people should appreciate their collections for the journey it took them on, rather than for what the net monetary value might be at the end of the day.

  2. Pat W. says:

    Harry, As a dealer I know you are right and it is truly depressing for those of us who constantly strive to find affordable items to sell. Please consider writing an article that is positive and enumerates the benefits of being in the business. Also, please tell us what, if anything, IS selling.
    Thanks so much for all the wonderful information you have provided for so long.

  3. lauren says:

    Excellent articles, Harry. I agree with you completely, having been a collector since the 1970s. I cannot believe the changes I have seen over the years. It was a lot more fun back in the 70s and 80s, when the hunt was still exciting.

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