Fighting Against the Misuse of the Rare, the One-of-a-Kind and the Antique

This ring, made from a piece of silverware, may be rare, if you are considering it only as a piece of jewelry, made by a specific person. But the pattern was mass-produced and there may be hundreds or thousands of these rings out there. You just don’t know.

How can you tell a true antique dealer with years of experience from someone who is just trying to make a buck under the antique dealer label? One tip-off is how often they use the words “rare,” “one-of-a-kind” or stating that everything in the shop is an “antique.”

I remember reading an article by Harry Rinker in a 2007 that included some wisdom that struck me, so much so that I have incorporated it into my list of things to consider when buying; whether for my myself or for my store. He said that anything made from 1950 on is not rare, although I can’t remember the phrase, exactly, to directly quote him.

It is a real pet peeve of mine when people use “rare,” “one-of-a-kind” and “antique” to describe an item for no other reason than to use the terms. I guess it is possible that they really don’t know what they have, what decade or era it is from and are clueless in general, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I also see these terms used all the time in an online forum relating to antiques and collectibles I frequent. Many times, the customer has been fed these terms by an appraiser, sometimes it is a friend or their own online research.

The terms “rare” and “one-of-a-kind” are should be used very conservatively and only when one is beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt-positive that this is accurate information. This is generally not something that your 8-to-5 seller can say with all certainty. Even with my decades of experience and study, and attending as many auctions, shops and sales as I do, I can’t recall the last time I used these three phrases to describe and object, other than for a one-of-a-kind item I personally created (thus, I know it’s one of a kind).

Author’s Note: In the Tariff Act of 1930, the U.S. Customs defined an antique as an object that was made before 1830, when mass production became commonplace. In 1966, the standard of 100 years old was adopted as the defining characteristic to determine if an object was an antique and its import would be duty-free. Before this standard was implemented, importers often claimed all types of objects as “antiques” to avoid the tax. On Dec. 8, 1993, Title VI of the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (Pub. L. 103-182, 107 Stat. 2057), also known as the Customs Modernization or “Mod Act,” became effective. These provisions amended many sections of the Tariff Act of 1930 and related laws. One key change to the Act concerns restoration. “Provided they retain their original character, the heading includes antique articles that have been repaired or restored. For example, the heading includes antique furniture incorporating parts of modern manufacture. However, if the essential character is changed, or more than 50 percent of the item has been repaired or restored, the item is no longer considered an antique and is subject to duty.”

A vintage photograph date 1909 of a female dentist performing a tooth extraction in her office. The photo is described as “rare.” Is the photo rare, or is the female dentist in 1909 rare?

The word antique is batted around more than the birdie in a game of badminton. It is used and abused and in this age of mass-reproduced “antique” items that it misleads the novice collector and buyer. There are other words that can be used and are probably more appropriate in most circumstances; vintage and retro are two quite nice descriptive words. If an item is really a “collectible,” that too is a suitable word to describe an item.

OK Michelle, what set you off on this tangent of terminology? Why, thank you for asking; it has been building for awhile. What pushed me over the edge, though, was “A Rare, One of a Kind, Antique Elephant Figurine” that popped up on to my Facebook page from a supposedly reputable antique shop site.

Curious person that I am—and one always open to learning new things—I went to the page to see this magnificent specimen. For the love of Mike, it was a 1970s ceramic elephant figurine of unmarked origin. It was cute, but that is where it began and ended. Of course, I left a comment for the seller stating that her description was way off base and the war of the words began.

Part of what I love about my chosen profession as an antique dealer is educating people. I believe that it is part of my job to educate new collectors and the new generation of buyers. I admit to not knowing it all, but I do know quite a bit and I am always striving to learn more.

If we continue to sit on our laurels and let misinformation like this continue, we are not doing the industry any justice what so ever. We are perpetuating the lies and misinformation online but it’s being told and sold to people in antique shops.

I searched for “rare” in the antiques category on eBay and had 30,025 items show up in the search results. This included a “rare” Wallace Silver-plate Charger; photocopies of “rare” vintage and antique photographs (the quantity of five or more is a giveaway); and “rare” 1970 Gorham Snowflake ornaments (three others on eBay). Anyway, you can see where I am going with this (and I only looked at one page of the search results). Granted, there may be some very rare items up for sale, but overuse of this term can lead new collectors to not trust anyone. The same thing happened with Depression and carnival glass because of all the reproductions being sold as “antique.”

The listing says “This is a huge white enamelware pot with original lid. It has two great big handles on the kettle and a big handle on the lid. One of a kind!” If it was mass-produced, it’s not one of a kind.

Now, for a “one of a kind” search, I only hit on 420 results—most of which are works of art. But there was some furniture, too, all without provenance. If you have a one-of-a-kind piece, at the very least offer up some provenance. I did recently do an appraisal on a moondial crafted by the customer’s father. He had only created five of these award-winning pieces, and besides being functional, they were absolute works of art. She wanted to sell one, and she had lots of provenance on the piece (official a one-of-five-of-a-kind) but I could not give her an appraisal value because nothing like it had been sold on the open market. I anxiously await the auction results.

I do not mean to be catty or hateful with this article; I just want to draw attention to a matter that has become epidemic in the sale of antiques, collectibles, vintage, retro and memorabilia items. Know who you are buying from and get a written certification or rarity. Do your homework and please correct people if you see these terms being misused.

Happy shopping!

Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.


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