This is the third in a series of columns focusing on what motivates a collector to stop collecting. I have identified five primary reasons—personal, financial, availability, contemporary material and issues arising from the collecting process. Earlier columns covered five subcategories within the personal area—age/retirement, divorce, pressure from spouse and/or children, emotional issues and death—and two of the four subcategories in the financial area—financial necessity and recouping funds. Affordability and an irreversible decline in a collection’s value are the other two financial subcategories.
Affordability has multiple meanings to the collector. Collecting is fun when the collector has adequate discretionary income to purchase anything his heart desires. Few are this lucky. Most collect on a budget. I buy using the “God wants me to own it” method—a three-part method consisting of (1) finding the object in fine or better condition, (2) priced at or below what I am willing to pay, and (3) money in my pocket. Few things distress a collector more than finding an object that meets the first two criteria but not the third.
Collectors take no pleasure from just looking. Pleasure comes from the buy. When “look but do not touch” relates to the inability to buy, the collector’s heart is torn asunder. When discretionary income is tight, collectors do not attend antiques and collectibles shows and take a vacation from eBay and other Internet buying opportunities.
Affordability also relates to the unit cost to buy objects for a collection. When the unit cost is low, buying is fun. The collection grows. The average price per unit rises within a collecting category as it becomes more popular or trendy. Collecting categories price themselves out of the market when the unit price increases beyond the average collector’s willingness and capability of paying. Graniteware is an excellent example.
There are collecting categories where the starting unit price is above $500. I was tempted to use $1,000, but $500 is ceiling enough given the current recession. A general rule in the trade is the higher the average unit price, the fewer new collectors a collecting category will attract.
Advanced collectors own the low-end and middle market objects within their category. They need the upper echelon and masterpiece (ultimate) units to complete their collection. These are expensive. In many cases, collectors can afford the low-end and middle examples but not the high-end pieces.
Collecting is a continuing process. When a collector can no longer add to his collection on a regular basis, he stops and turns to another, more affordable collecting category. It is a rare collector that can kick the collecting habit “cold turkey.”
The value of objects in many traditional categories, for examples cast iron toys, TV cowboy collectibles and cut glass, are in decline. In the past, collectors held on to their collections believing interest would eventually return. Alas, this is not going to happen. There are dozens of endangered collecting categories where neither interest nor value will ever recycle.
A Feb. 8, 2010, e-mail from DD notes: “My mother collected Depression glass in the 1970s when it was poplar and expensive. I have now inherited her collection. I tried to sell some pieces, but there seems to be no interest right now. I would hate to sell it for less than she paid over 30 years ago. I have already been victimized by an auctioneer who took some pieces, then sold them for literally pennies . . . When I put pieces out for tag sales, no one even looks at them. This gives me the impression that the Depression glass market is depressed itself.”
Depressed is too gentle an assessment. The secondary market for low-end and middle range Depression glass is in the toilet. It is depressing. Even worse, the prices received today will seem generous compared to what the same pieces will bring 10 to 15 years from now.
Collectors are prepared to die with their collections rather than sell them for less than (a) they think they are worth or (b) they paid. Heirs who keep the collections in hopes of a recovering market are deceiving themselves. The auctioneer who sold DD’s mother’s Depression glass did not victimize her. He sold the Depression glass at its market value at that moment.
Collectors do not understand the “some money is better than no money” concept. They have values in their head that depart significantly from market reality. Collectors have every right to live in a dream world. Collecting has a dream-like quality. It is my ardent wish that every collector never have to face reality.
Availability, the third primary category in my “why collectors stop collecting” list, has two subcategories—market flooding and the increasing difficulty of the hunt. Prior to the Internet, collectors could only speculate about the survival rate of objects within a collecting category. The Internet eliminated speculation and provided cold, hard numbers. To the surprise of most, if not all, collectors, the survival rate of objects is far higher than they imagined, even in their wildest dreams. America’s attics, basements, closets, garages and sheds are loaded. As more and more objects flood Internet auction sites, such as eBay and storefront Web sites, scarcity within all collecting categories has to be redefined. The end result is that almost all antiques and collectibles are common.
The law of supply and demand applies to the antiques and collectibles trade. Today, supply exceeds demand for almost every collecting category. High-end objects are the exception. However, the number of objects designated as high-end, often tied to value, has decreased in almost every collecting category. Further, the supply has become so great in some categories that all demand has been eliminated. Collectors do not want what everyone else has. Bragging rights come from owning examples others do not. Although collectors are loath to admit it, there is an elitist aspect to what they do.
With the large amount of material available on the Internet, the logical assumption is that the hunt has become easier. The opposite is true. Search engines are becoming less and less effective. As more material floods on to the Internet, the search increases in complexity. Asking the right question or inserting the correct search pattern is not enough. Final results usually number in the hundreds. The object or information sought is more likely to be on page 5 than page 1.
Collectors often talk about the “old days” on eBay, when a search almost always resulted in one or two pages of objects. As eBay broadened it search engine to incorporate material from its power sellers, especially those offering new and discounted merchandise, the search results grew to the point where 50 percent or more of the listings are worthless.
Internet search engines sell position. Bought positions often occupy the first page results. Many of these are for companies who charge for access to their data. The Internet becomes less “free” with each passing day.
The hunt also has become more difficult in the field. Dealers stock what they can sell. As the number of collectors in a collecting category decreases, demand for objects in that category lessens. Dealers get the message—there is no sense stocking “x,” it does not sell.
As more and more dealers specialize (it is impossible to be a generalist dealer in today’s antiques and collectible environment), they have little to no interest in stocking high-end material from other collecting categories, no matter how desirable it may be. If they acquire it, they are far more likely to pass it along to another dealer who specializes in that collecting category or put it in an Internet storefront.
Just as the collector base is aging in many collecting categories, so are the dealers who specialize in that category. In the 1980s, you would find dozens of specialized Depression glass dealers set up at a flea market. In 2010, the presence of one falls into the miracle class. Specialized dealers in many collecting categories are dying faster than their collectors. Tales of collectors going to a show and finding a favorite dealer MIA (missing in action) are increasing.
Finally, the auction hunt also is becoming less productive. Historically, collectors relied on major collections turning around every 20 to 30 years. Collectors are living and holding on to their collections longer. A decade or more can pass before a specialized collection featuring high-end pieces appears on the market. While old-time collectors hunt for a lifetime, they maintain their enthusiasm by hunting continuously. Gaps, delays and other problems with the hunt discourage them. The 2010 hunt is far different from the hunt 20 years ago.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? I would like to know your thoughts about why people stop collecting. The stack of e-mail responses from my readers continues to climb. Again, my thanks to those who have e-mailed. If you did not, please do. Send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Stop Collecting, Rinker on Collectibles, 22 Stillwater Circle, Brookfield, CT 06804.
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 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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