Stand Me Up Against the Wall and Shoot

In 1991, I bought the former Vera Cruz (Pennsylvania) elementary school, a 14,000-plus-square-foot building with six classrooms, an all-purpose room with a stage, a kitchen designed to feed more than 100 students, two offices, and three storage rooms. The building serves as the headquarters for Rinker Enterprises, my antiques and collectibles research and educational center, and home for the Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles. In the latter half of 1999, I converted two classrooms and the hallway into a bachelor’s apartment. I celebrated Christmas here. I met Linda in May 2003 and married her in November. In 2004 we converted a third classroom and the faculty room into additional living and storage space.

Harry RinkerIn August 2009, I made the difficult decision of listing our home/school for sale. Linda is the provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at Western Connecticut State University (WestConn) in Danbury, Conn. When Linda accepted the position, she planned to serve for two years. We kept our Vera Cruz residence, planning to return when Linda’s term was finished. Linda remains at WestConn and is likely to do so for several more years.

Deciding to leave Pennsylvania has proven to be a difficult decision. It is our ancestral home. Linda and I descend from Pennsylvania German families who arrived prior to the American Revolution. Linda spent her entire life in Pennsylvania until her job at WestConn. I was born in Baltimore (too long a story to go into) but was back in Bethlehem, Pa, by age 5. Except for a three-year stint, 1966-1969, to attend Washington University in St. Louis, I also have been a Pennsylvania resident.

Younger adults today think little of moving about freely. Home is where they are at any given moment. Linda and I take a different approach. We are rooted. We will be retiring to Pennsylvania. Forget Connecticut or a retirement in the Carolinas, Florida, or Arizona. Pennsylvania is unser heimatsplatz, the only place on the face of the earth we call home.

Although I liked living in a former elementary school building, it was not the first home I owned nor is it likely to be the last. I am not wedded to it. There will be a divorce.

The difficulty rests with the building’s contents: my hundreds of collections. I am very attached to all of them. My goal is to sell the building so that I can pay my debts and still retain everything inside. At the moment, this appears possible.

I dread the standard question: “What are you going to do with all your things?” I tell individuals that good friends should know better than to ask.

For the moment, I am packing everything into boxes, selling nothing. Several of my collections already are in Connecticut. I am planning to bring others. There is no way I can move everything, especially my reference library and files.

I am not ready to face the decision of what is going to happen to my things. I will let you know what I decide when I do. This is the best I can offer at the moment.

During our packing, Linda keeps mumbling, “we have so much.” She is correct. We do have a lot. Once I suggested that if I/we purchased another item, I/we should be stood up against the wall and shot. Assemble the firing squad. There is no way I can stop buying. I plan to buy things to add to my collections until my death. I will end my life having the fullest room of stuff ever assembled in a skilled care center. There will be a narrow aisle to get to my bed. I am not planning any room for the monitors and drip bags.

Linda loves the figurines, nutcrackers, ornaments, räuchmänner (smoking men), and other wooden items made in Germany’s Erzgebirge region. In early December 2009, we made our fourth visit to the region, spending two nights in Seiffen and two nights in Annaberg-Buchholz. In the past, we took two empty suitcases and two empty over-the-shoulder carry bags to transport our purchases back to the U.S. This year, due in part to the weak dollar against the Euro, we only took one empty suitcase (the largest we own) and one over-the-shoulder carry bag. We flew to Germany believing that one empty suitcase would more than suffice. The over-the-shoulder bag was in reserve.

Collectors abhor empty space. If it exists, it has to be eliminated. When we returned, the suitcase and the over-the-shoulder bag were filled, but not to overflowing. What prevented us from buying more?

Packing the contents of our home/school played a major role. We spent more time debating whether we wanted an object than previously. Note the use of “wanted.” This is not about needed. We did not need anything we bought, at least not within the traditional meaning of the word. Collecting is not about need. It is about desire.

Several times Linda and I found ourselves lamenting the fact that 90 percent of what we had purchased is stored in our Connecticut basement and how much this served as a deterrent to adding to our collections. Just the opposite was true in our Pennsylvania home. Ninety percent of our purchases were on display. We simply could not find time in our work-holiday schedules to unpack the boxes that were transported from Pennsylvania.

While I am used to objects being boxed and stored for years, even decades, Linda is not. The collections we have created as a couple have always been on display. There was plenty of shelf and cabinet space in Pennsylvania to make this possible. Shelf and cabinet space is limited in our Connecticut home. We have tough decisions to make when we do start unpacking. Some collections are going to have to remain in boxes until our next move.

The grandchildren also had a profound impact on our buying. When we first visited the Erzgebirge, there were no grandchildren. We spent our money on ourselves. We now have five grandchildren with a sixth on the way. Alas, Linda cannot buy for one without buying for the others. I do not share this belief, but keep my thoughts to myself. This is not an age when you give a grandchild a $20 present and get away with it. Parents have a bad habit of measuring love based on how much you spend on their kids. Spending more on a gift for one grandchild than another also is a big no-no. Some parents keep score to the penny.

Ask A WorthologistEach year the Erzgebirge objects we love have increased in price. Even though sticker prices have risen less than 5 percent a year, the cost has nearly doubled in three years because of the declining value of the dollar. Collecting is fun when it is affordable. It becomes less fun as the average unit cost rises.

In order to demand higher prices, the objects we buy have been accessorized. They are more elaborate, containing a wealth of added decorative elements. They are bigger in size. This year we encountered limited editions for the first time. Wentz & Kuhn offered a 5,555 figure commemorative. A limited edition German Post mailman smoking man was available. Each was priced at double the asking price for similar non-limited edition pieces. “What a racket,” I thought. “Have they forgotten about the Beanie Baby bubble burst already?”

Most of the stores in Annaberg-Buchholz and Seiffen are cooperatives. If you can locate the individual maker and buy direct, you save five to 10 percent. We have located well over 50 percent of the individual craftsmen during our visits. This year we located five additional individuals. While you only save a little, the fun is in the hunt.

Linda and I returned home with plenty of things we wanted, but did not need. They are on display. In fact, Linda purchased several items for her office. She could have used some of the examples in storage. However, since they were bought for our home, they need to remain in our home. Office decorations have to be purchased as office decorations. Linda is starting to think like a collector. Her conversion is nearing completion.

We have more than we need. I have lived with this realization for decades. Linda is a more recent convert. As a result, our visits to the Erzgebirge should end. Forget it! I do not believe this for one second. In fact, we have reservations to return to Seiffen the third Advent weekend in December 2010. The only question remaining is how many empty suitcases will we take with us?

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his 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: http://www.harryrinker.com.

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. 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. 2009

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  1. Lisa Mull says:

    Hi Harry:
    Loved your retrospective! Glad you found love and an understanding soulmate.

    Also glad you aren’t breaking up your collections yet. Too bad my spouse doesn’t like what he calls “clutter”. I call it “life-blood.” My home office is your skilled home center. It’s the only room in the (4 bedroom) house that is all mine, and I’m very happy to dance around piles and trip over boxes, because it’s MY BELOVED STUFF.

    I did so enjoy your article. Much to relate to, and I liked getting to know you a little better. Hang onto your Linda; she sounds like a keeper!

    All the best in the new year!