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Ten Signposts to Identify Endangered Collecting Categories

by Harry Rinker (03/16/10).

en•dan•gered col•lect•ing cat•e•go•ry: [en-deyn-jerd kuh-lekt-ing kat-i-gawr-ee]

–noun

1. A category that is collected by such a small number of individuals that it is in danger of becoming extinct.

There are endangered collecting categories. Those who are unwilling to acknowledge this should consider the Borg’s signature phrase—Resistance is futile. Dozens of 2010 collecting categories will not be collected in 2050. By the 2100, that number will exceed 1,000. Collecting without Avon bottles, collector edition bells, figurines, plates, scale model vehicles and lusterware (copper, pink, and silver) is easy to imagine. Collecting without cast iron toys, Depression glass, Fiesta, Hummels, 18th- and 19th-century English soft-paste ceramics, and “Playboy” is more difficult.

Harry RinkerEndangered collecting categories are not new. The concept has existed for centuries. Collectors failed to recognize this phenomenon in the past because the categories disappeared gradually. The process took centuries, driven by a growing lack of merchandise in the secondary marketplace and changing collecting tastes. Today, the disappearing process can and often does take place within the lifetime of a single generation of collectors.

The following is a checklist of 10 signposts to determine if a collecting category is approaching or has reached endangered status. If five or fewer of the signposts apply, the collecting category is nearing endangerment. If eight or more apply, the collecting category is endangered. It is critical that a person using these signposts not allow personal feelings to cloud their application.

SIGNPOST 1: The average age of collectors exceeds 60. An average age of 55-60 is a warning. New collectors must be attracted to the collecting category to keep it viable.

Why not 65 instead of 60? Value within any collecting category reaches its peak when the first generation of collectors is between the ages of 45 and 60. The ability to replace collectors who die or lose interest steadily declines once the average age exceeds 60.

SIGNPOST 2: It is possible to count the number of major collectors on two hands and/or the number of collectors is 50 or fewer. The pool becomes smaller and smaller. Death is only one of the enemies. Reduced living space, less and less contact between key collectors (the social aspect), and decreased discretionary income are others.

A collecting category’s vitality depends on everyone knowing the players. Everyone means collectors within the category as well as major collectors from spin-off and other collecting categories.

SIGNPOST 3: A collectors’ club or clubs disappearance. This is happening with alarming frequency, not just for 19th-century-focused collecting categories but for 20th-century-based collecting categories as well. I included the addresses for collectors’ clubs in the category heads for the price guides that I edited and authored. The decline in the number of collectors’ clubs began in the mid-1990s. Recently, I tried to confirm the existence of a Roseville collectors’ club. I did not find one. I failed to locate a Roseville discussion group on eBay. I did find a Roseville Web site, but this is a far cry from the connections a collectors’ club offers through its newsletter or journal, annual convention and other social networking opportunities. There was a time when it appeared as though there was a collectors’ club for almost every collecting category. It is not true in 2010.

SIGNPOST 4: Objects from the collecting category are no longer available or found in limited quantities at antiques malls, shops and shows. This is a Catch-22 situation. Dealers will not offer merchandise if it does not sell. Merchandise does not have a chance to sell if it is not offered. This is just one of a growing number of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-do-not situations developing in the antiques and collectibles trade.

Enthusiasm is essential to the survival of any collecting category. Collector enthusiasm is a given. Collectors love their things. Dealer enthusiasm is the key. Dealers sell the sizzle as well the as merchandise. Their role as collecting category champion is more important than that of the collector. When dealer enthusiasm disappears, sales flatten.

SIGNPOST 5: The sell-through rate on eBay drops below 20 percent. While there are many antique collecting categories where eBay is not the principal sale source, eBay is the primary sale source for mass-produced objects manufactured since the last decade of the 19th century. It is responsible for the explosion of collecting categories. More than 90 percent of these collecting categories focused on 20th-century objects.

Supply now exceeds demand in thousands of collecting categories. In hundreds of collecting categories, collector/buyer fulfillment has reached 100 percent. As a result, there are no buyers for new material listed for sale from the collecting category, no matter how cheap the initial bid request is.

“There is a price at which an object will not sell” is one of the marketing principles that evolved from the 1988-1990 recession. “An antique or collectible can reach a point where there are no longer buyers” is a 21st-century marketing principle. Its application will only broaden.

SIGNPOST 6: Nothing is able to check the steady decline in value. Value decline affects only the middle and low-end items initially. In 2010, many collecting categories are experiencing a major decline in value at the high end. Historically, the high end was immune from price decline. Now there are hundreds of collecting categories where high-end prices have peaked and are in decline.

Likewise, there are some categories such as baseball cards, gold coins, Gold and Silver Age comic books, and firearms, where the high end continues to set record prices. Investors appear blind to the speculative bubble on whose surface these prices rest. There is always a day of reckoning.

SIGNPOST 7: Objects disappear or are sold in lots at auction. Major collectors refuse to sell their collections in a declining market. They pray for a price reversal. It will not happen. When these collectors die, their heirs are more willing to accept whatever an auction brings.

It is hard to watch 18th-, 19th-, and early-to-mid-20th-century objects that once sold by the piece now being offered in lots. Lot sizes of two or three are in the past. Today lots include four to 10 examples. The local auctioneer’s goal is to exceed an average of $100 to $200 per lot. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have raised their lot minimums to more than $3,000.

SIGNPOST 8: No new specialized price guide or reference book on the collecting category has appeared within the last five years. Five years suggests endangerment. Fifteen years is the kiss of death. Ten years is the divide.

Ask A WorthologistReference books, with or without price guides, are checklists. They are an essential tool of the new collector. They are critical to keeping collecting interest alive. Check the 2010 Spring-Summer lists for Collector Books, House of Collectibles, KP (Krause Publications) and Schiffer Publications. Compare the title count to 2005. The 2010 number is greatly reduced. Antiques and collectibles price guides and reference books are tough sells in the electronic/Internet age.

SIGNPOST 9: Trade periodicals provide little to no coverage of the collecting category. Trade periodical editors are not the saviors for any collecting category. Their job is to publish articles their readers want. The periodicals focus on what is hot. What is not is ignored. Little wonder the readership of the “Magazine Antiques” is decreasing.

SIGNPOST 10: The collecting category disappears, is grouped with other collecting categories, or is totally ignored in general antiques and/or collectibles price guides. The number of antiques and collectibles categories has grown so large that it is impossible to list all of them in a general price guide, even one limiting its coverage to antiques or collectibles. Many of the specialized general price guides—such as toys, for example—are experiencing a similar problem.

Information fuels interest. When information about a collecting category is no longer readily available, the collecting category is approaching endangerment. When information vanishes, the collecting category is endangered.

Apply these signposts to the collecting categories you collect. Then again, maybe you should not. It breaks my heart to see grown people cry.

—————————————

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. 2010

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11 Responses to “Ten Signposts to Identify Endangered Collecting Categories”

  1. Carol Miller says:

    By lustreware, do you mean tea leaf? I’ve been wondering what’s up with the prices now.

  2. I do agree that we face a major problem with collecting, especially in a bad economy. However, after a 20 yr. career in advertising, I think we need to come together and promote collecting in a new, refreshing, handmade “green” way. It is up to our industry to not only point out problems, but to come up with exciting, creative new solutions. I can donate some of my time and expertise to help…can others?

    • Bill Castle says:

      While any economic downturn limits the number of people that can afford to collect, in some ways it also fuels interest. People look back to “good old days”, when things were “simpler”. These days, they may also be looking for more things made in America, again with a tinge of nostalgia.

      I agree with the previous post. There is a great untapped potential in the “green” movement. After all, collecting is the ultimate form of recycling.

  3. Robert Crook says:

    Harry Rinker has written a provocative article, but I am not sure that anyone collects what they love for investment purposes. We all know that art and antiques are speculative “investments.”

    That said, I think Harry has touched upon a point that antique collectors tend to be elderly — and it has been that way for as long as I can remember (and I am 45). Children need to be introduced to old things at an early age and taught how to appreciate and value them. That means taking the kids to museums, and having grandpa and grandma show them some of the things in their own home that have sentimental and family history. Only then is there going to be new collectors of anything other than beanie babies and fad objects.

  4. Patrick says:

    I totally agree with your article. In my 37 years in this business, I’ve not seen such a drop in prices of “higher end”, i.e. rare, 100+ year old items and collectibles. While “junque” seems to be selling real true antiques have frozen like ice. In all my years of reselling, this is the first time, I just cannot figure out what the collectors want. I’ve had an 1889 artist signed Rookwood piece on ebay for less than $400.00 with NO BIDS??? Unheard of a few years back. I’m certain that the reproductions have hurt all of us, as not so honest dealers have “burned” the unknowing, newer buyers and that has really made newer collectors run from spending their money on antiques and collectibles that are real and have a historic value.
    Patrick

  5. Ruth says:

    I think besides the obvious, economic and Ebay factors. The trend toward minimalist decorating where clutter and displays of more than one or two select objects is discouraged. Young professionals with discretionary income are not looking to ” collect” like our parents or ourselves have for decades. They are looking for an ” accent piece” to display then discard when they change to look of a room.
    The young people of today tend to lack the appreciation for quality and lasting design. They have been raised on a steady diet of instant gratification and ” style” pushed buy the onslaught of TV ads swelling “new”. Perhaps in 50 years they will have a different view.

  6. I am an active seller. I started with antique toys and saw 10 years ago they started getting soft so I had to diversify my selling tactics. Now I sell anything I like. Mostly collectibles. I stopped hunting real 100 year old antiques about 5 years ago because I saw them declining in prices.

    It’s true the next generation needs the same passion as the current generation for collecting to continue thriving. There are some young folks interested in collecting but not enough unless more shows and education happens.

    It seems in the new age of technology less and less are interested or even understand what collecting is all about. Or even know what they are looking at if it’s older then they are. Similar thing happened last week when I was selling at a market. When I was explaining what trench art is I got a blank look from the guy. The current generation for the most part think collecting is something their grand parents did. Strange but true. I had to get with the program and start an online store just to add to setting up at shows to stay alive.

  7. I, too, have seen Empire and Victorian pieces waiting long for a buyer, however, many of my pieces have been sold to younger people than in the past. The last couple of shows I have done have seen many buyers under the age of 40. At the shop we have seen many people in their twenties and thirties coming in with the little they have wanting to find a “neat piece” that their friends don’t have in their living room. While it is true prices are down and serious collecting is shifting, I do believe the green market can and will help us in these times and the future. The teenagers and elementary children that come to my home are wide eyed at the art pottery and glass that is everywhere in my house. My thirty’s children even have put their requests in for pieces when I have to cut down on the size of my collections. There is yet hope!

  8. patsy dahlberg says:

    I am a fairly new seller but have been a collector since age 15. I try to add- on a tag line to all of my customers that buying antique and collectibles is a great way to help the american economy (keeping the dollars in america). My 84 year old father calls me a professional recycler. We are the original “green” professional.

  9. J.D. says:

    So sad to hear folks talk about this decline in interest in beautiful old things. I hope and pray it is not true but fear it is, until we drop our cell phones and iPhones and PDAs and rediscover classic and beautiful things that were built by hand a hundred years or more ago.

    We’re hoping everyone makes it through this unhappy time.

    JD

  10. zzyzx000 says:

    There should be no surprise that Price guides and catalogs are in decline, because they are not needed and are outdated before they can be punished. Smart people understand that an eBay Completed Listings search is the real price guide for the many millions of items sold there.

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