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Rinker on Collectibles: Why Is the Antiques Trade So Reluctant to Change?

by Harry Rinker (03/25/14).

In response to a Rinker on Collectibles Q & A column, Audrey Bell, owner of Gallery 18 Ltd., New London, Prince Edward Island, Canada, sent me an e-mail which read: in a “Q& A column you say, ‘Given the increasing role played by Internet searches for individuals wishing to sell antiques and collectibles, a specialized dealer who does not have a website is at a decided disadvantage in today’s world.’ This comment … is worth further examination … It would be interesting to know why some dealers choose not to embrace the Internet. Have they made a deliberate decision to conduct and cultivate business in what might be called a more traditional manner? Or, are they simply intimidated by the technology and feel they are too old at the game to attempt or bother learning something new?

“There is a line they use here on Prince Edward Island to describe change. It goes like this … ‘the hardest thing to change on PEI … is anything!’ Perhaps it is also true for some in the antiques trade.”

Audrey’s e-mail raises two key issues: (1) the reluctance of many in the trade to become involved with the digital age; and (2) a hesitancy to embrace change—technological or otherwise. Change is inevitable. The older one becomes the more the truth of this statement is evident.

Embracing chance is uncomfortable, upsetting and requires a mindset shift that is difficult and often runs counter to long held beliefs. Just the other day, I thought about the lyrics of the Gospel song “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion,” whose origins date back into the early 1870s. The common lyrics are:

Give me that old-time religion,
Give me that old-time religion,
Give me that old-time religion,
It’s good enough for me.

The song came to mind as I considered the tenets of the Lutheran faith with which I grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s. God was a judgmental and vengeful deity. Hell was a place to be feared. Diversity was acknowledged but rarely practiced. There were no women pastors. Lutheran pastors preached the preservation of traditional social mores and strong family values. Divorce made one a social outcast. Most other Protestant faiths touted the same principles. The Catholic Church was even more conservative. When examined from today’s social and religious perspectives, these views are archaic. Young adults today embrace these changes with total acceptance. They have no understanding of the leap of faith older members were required to make to put aside the absolute truths they were taught as children and young adults.

This story demonstrates that change can be fundamental—questioned by those who remember the past and unquestioned by newcomers or novices. The sneaky thing about change is that it usually occurs gradually. Those impacted by the change are completely unaware it happened until it is so firmly in place that it is impossible to reverse.

The person facing change has four options: (1) embrace it; (2) resist it; (3) ignore it; or (4) walk away from it and move on to something else. Evidence of all four approaches is found in the antiques and collectibles trade.

The antiques and collectibles trade is resistant to change. Participants respect and love the status quo. In many cases, individuals have devoted years, if not decades, to understanding the inner workings and intricacies of the trade. Once they achieve this level of sophistication, they are slow to embrace any deviation from the status quo.

There are multiple reasons. First, the trade consists of an older clientele; individuals who are set in their ways and prefer to keep things as they are. Before you disagree, do the following: Visit an antiques show and pay attention to the average age of the dealers and the clients. The majority of the dealers are 50 or older, with the average dealer age in the late 50s or early 60s. The attendees also are old. For every person in their 30s, there will be 10 people in their 50s or older. Also, consider the average age of collectors’ club members. In many collectors’ clubs, the average age exceeds 55. Do not be fooled by the exceptions. They are atypical.

Second, individualism rather than unity prevails in the trade. This is not a judgmental statement. It is fact. The antiques and collectibles trade encourages individuals to establish their own business ethics and practices. There is no professional dealer organization to impose and enforce any codes for the trade as a whole. Some show promoters have attempted to do this. Their efforts have met with limited success.

Some antiques and collectibles trade entities, such as national and state auctioneers associations and some appraiser associations, have a code of conduct. However, these are dues-based groups. Those who do not wish to join are not obligated to following the codes. For example, Michigan does not license auctioneers. Membership in the Michigan Auctioneers Association is voluntary. Less than half those who conduct auctions within the state on a regular basis are members. Less than half of the members of the Michigan Auctioneer Association belong to the National Auctioneers Association.

Individualism is the antiques and collectibles trade’s strength and its weakness. The primary problem is that it creates the opportunity for an “I know best” and “no one will tell me how to run my business” mentality. My license plate reads: NOITAL. For those who believe I acquired it as a joke, think again. Being surrounded by individuals who are convinced they know everything is one of the joys of being involved in the antiques and collectibles business, especially when they are serious and you are laughing.

No one is willing to change if they are convinced that it is their way or the highway. As a result, the antiques and collectibles roadmap is a jumble of confusing intersections. Those who think the highway is straight are deceiving themselves.

Third, the antiques and collectibles trade is as much about people as it is objects. Many collectors and dealers thrive on individual interaction. The handshake is equated to the need to touch an object. Historically, the antiques and collectibles trade has been a “Look ’em in the eye” business. Although it is possible to do this digitally, the real thing is preferred.

The antiques and collectibles field continues to preserve sale venues that promote direct contact between buyer and seller—auctions, collectors’ clubs, flea markets, malls, shops and shows. Although the digital age may diminish the importance of these marketplaces, it will not replace them. Instead, these sale venues will find ways to incorporate the Internet. It is not a question of one or the other. Instead, the emphasis is on adapting new technologies to fit into trade practices.

It still is possible to become involved in the antiques and collectibles trade and totally ignore the digital age. Those making this conscious decision will find it harder and harder to survive. Tenacity is one of the characteristics of rugged individuals. For this reason, there always will be some who shun modern technology.

Technology illiteracy continues to shrink among those involved in the antiques and collectibles trade. Even those who resist will be forced to deal with the digital age once they acquire a smart phone or tablet. I purchased an Android phone and a tablet on July 4, 2013. I am slowly learning to use their myriad of features on my new smartphone. I still have not powered my tablet, although I did buy an attachable keyboard so I could 10-finger type once I decide to use it. I have set a goal of learning to use the tablet by June 1 of this year.

I am a member of a new generation of seventysomethings who are not content to retire. I have no retirement plans. I cannot throw a switch and turn off my mind. If I wish to remain active in the antiques and collectibles trade, I have to keep up as best I can with advances within the digital age.

I have had my own website for more than 20 years. I plan a major revision this summer. I should not have waited this long. The change should have occurred 10 years ago. Why did I not change it? The idiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies. Perhaps, this is all that is needed to explain why the antiques and collectibles trade is reluctant to change.


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 Website.

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. 2014

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