Rinker on Collectibles: A 21st-Century Perspective on Collector Value

A “View of the Erie Canal” Historical Staffordshire Creamer, circa 1824, sold for $600 in an Internet auction on May 18, 2008. Wonder who bought it; a collector of Staffordshire, a collector of the Erie Canal or some other collector for some other reason.

The antiques and collectibles trade utilizes three basic monetary values—collector, decorator and reuse. Each value is complex, breaking into four or more subcategories. Antiques and collectibles value is relative—not just in terms of time, place, and the desires and prejudices of the participants involved in the buy-sell process, but also in respect to the primary and subcategory values being considered.

Author’s Aside: Family value is an emotional/sentimental value. Its monetary value is minimal. There are exceptions, but they are atypical.

During the 20th century, collector value was the dominant monetary value. Although decorator value challenged collector value’s king-of-the-hill position, it was never victorious. The arrival of the 21st century heralded a hierarchical shift within antiques and collectibles monetary value. Decorative value replaced collector value as king-of-the-hill. The Great Recession of 2008-09 enhanced and strengthened decorator value as the primary value in determining the monetary worth of an object.

Generational focus, as well as technological and demographic shifts, also contributed to the decline of collector value. While the Millennial generation collects, its members do not collect the same objects as previous generations. Reverence for past objects is no longer a foregone conclusion. Instead, Millennials constantly question the relevance of saving “that old stuff.” Collections are smaller in number, and collecting focus is measured in years rather than decades.

The Internet’s social media role has divided rather than united. The golden age of the collectors’ clubs—during which each club had its own publication, annual convention and private trading among members—has passed. Relationships between collectors are more one-on-one as opposed to interacting in a larger group. Skype is an example of a communication technology that is functional but not group friendly.

Smaller, more mobile families mean less daily contact with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. The family link is broken. Even ties to childhood objects are tenuous. The Millennials are trendy and fashion conscious. Childhood and family memories are shelved and forgotten when they become passé.

Although collector value is no longer the primary antiques and collectibles monetary value, it still plays a key role. Collector value is the perceived worth of an object assigned by a collector who does not own an example of that object and wishes to acquire one. Note the two key points. First, the collector does not own an example. Once an example is in the collector’s collection, the value assigned by the collector to the next example encountered is much lower, especially if the collector is considering purchasing a duplicate. Second, the collector must desire the object. The object must meet the collector’s condition and price expectations. Many collectors do not want an example of every object within a collecting category. Collectors are selective. They know what they want and rarely deviate from their acquisition plan.

There are four types of collector value: (1) collecting-category focused; (2) regional, (3) topical, and (4) historic. Normally, when collector value is being discussed, the focus is on collecting category value. A value hierarchy exists in each collecting category. Traditionally, this value hierarchy was availability driven. Commonly found objects had the least value and masterpiece/ultimate units the highest value. In the 21st century, the degree of desirability among collectors within a specific collecting category is more important than scarcity.

Few antiques and collectibles have value only within one specific collecting category. Their value is multi-faceted, with value dependent on their desirability ranking within each collecting category. For example, consider a dark (cobalt) blue American historical-view transfer Staffordshire pitcher featuring images of New York’s Erie Canal aqueducts at Little Falls and Rochester. Among the pitcher’s potential collectors are an American historical view collector, a dark (cobalt) blue collector, a New York collector, an Erie Canal collector, a canal collector, a Little Falls collector, and a Rochester collector. Each collector has a different perceived value of the worth of the pitcher. Without much effort, it is possible to identify four to six collector values for an antique and more than half a dozen for a collectible.

When discussing collector value, the assumption is value is collecting-category driven. This is supported by the fact that general antiques and collectibles price guides are organized by collecting categories and that reference titles focus on one specific collecting category. Such an approach fails to take into account the role played by regional, topical and historic value.

Regional value played a major role in the mid-20th century, only to fall on hard times as the century ended. It currently is enjoying a renaissance. The old trade adage of “take an object back to its place of origin and double its value” is once again worth considering.

Regional value divides into four parts: (1) local—a specific city, town, or township; (2) narrow geographic area often associated with a specific cultural group; (3) state; and (4) multi-state. I grew up in Hellertown, Pa., and have a modest collection of memorabilia related to the community. I also am Pennsylvania German—my kinship alliances stopping at the Pennsylvania border, even though some of my ancestors immigrated to other states. Collecting state art, mainly artwork done only by artists who live or once lived within a state, is one of the hot art collecting subcategories. Multi-state regionalism is demonstrated by those who consider themselves New Englanders or Southerners. Regional identity is not universal. I am a Pennsylvanian instead of a Mid-Atlantic person. Michiganders and Missourians are from the Midwest but do not feel the kinship experienced by the New Englander or Southerner.

Over the past several months, I have spoken with more than half a dozen auctioneers. Strong sale prices for regional material have been a universal theme. While oak furniture may sell for 20 cents on the dollar based on auction prices from 10 years ago, regional objects are realizing more than ever.

Who is buying this regional material? In the past, the buyers were members of families whose roots were generations deep in the region. Today, it is new immigrants into the region. They have become fascinated with the region’s history and wish to create a linkage by owning a piece of the region’s past.

While topical collecting—focusing on one object form or pattern—has lost much of its luster, it still survives. Typical topical collections included cup plates, cups and saucers, eye cups, teapots, shoes planters, salt and pepper shakers, and cold water pitchers and wash bowls (toilet sets). Animal, vegetable and fruit theme collections belong in this category. In the past, collections often numbered in the hundreds of pieces. Topical collecting continues, but the collection sizes now are smaller. Topical collecting is heavily dependent on Country and other “Look” periodicals promoting the theme. For the moment, these publications are silent. This will not last forever.

Historic value is based upon the object having value because it is associated with a famous person or event. How “famous” is defined is the critical issue. Name association is not enough. If no one has ever heard of the person, “famous” is a non-factor.

The “person on the street” test applies. Stop 100 people on the street and ask if they recognize the person or event. One or two correct answers are insufficient to establish historical value. A minimum of 20 out of 100 is necessary.

Historic value is driven by primarily media (movies, radio, and television), military, political and sport. It also is generational-dependent. As the generation who remembers dies, value diminishes.

In conclusion, antiques and collectibles collector value is not a single entity. Its value is subjective. Its definition changes based upon circumstances.

Further “Rinker on Collectibles” columns will explore decorator and reuse value in the 21st century. Meanwhile, if you would like to share your thoughts about collector value, e-mail me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

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 Web site.

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.

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