Rinker on Collectibles: Antiques and Collectibles in the Digital Age

The origin of the World Wide Web began in 1980 when Tim Benners-Lee, an independent contractor for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, built ENQUIRE, a database platform that allowed individuals and software models to use hypertext, a program that linked separate pages to one another.

By Christmas 1990, Benners-Lee perfected Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) 0.9, Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), a Web browser (World Wide Web), HTTP server software and several other programs, all of which made the World Wide Web available to users across the globe. The initial participants were university science departments, primarily physics and scientific labs such as Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The first International WWW Conference was held in May 1994. The commercialization of the WWW occurred between 1996 and 1998.

Although I should, I do not remember when I obtained my first e-mail address, signed up for Internet access or registered my first domain name. It occurred sometime in the mid-1990s; that much I am certain. If true, it was less than 20 years ago. We have come a long way, baby—with apologies to the 1968 Virginia Slims advertising slogan.

As “Rinker on Collectibles” approaches its 25th anniversary, I am reflecting more and more on developments that have impacted the antiques and collectibles trade during the last quarter century, attempting to understand their historical evolution, analyzing their present-day relevance, and contemplating—even trying to predict—the role they will play in the future. A recent conversation with Lenore Dailey, a dealer who supplies the Victorian era jewelry I gift to my wife Linda, about how she plans to use her individual website versus her participation in a storefront website opened my little gray-cell floodgates (if you do not understand the analogy, read a few Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot novels), putting the role played by the digital age under my investigative magnifying glass.

It is hard to remember and difficult to imagine life without the World Wide Web. While aware there are pockets of resistance among my fellow senior citizens and individuals and countries to whom access still is unaffordable, the future is the digital age. Adapt or die, this time with apologies to New Hampshire.

The 15 years of the commercial World Wide Web have been a roller coaster ride, especially in the antiques and collectibles trade. The list of failed antiques and collectibles ventures numbers more than a hundred. Longevity often was measured in months rather than years. My regret is that I did not keep a list of these failed enterprises. Who remembers Kaladen.com or eAppraisals.com?

When measured in human terms, maturity occurs in the late teens or early 20s. Infant and juvenile (adolescent) stages precede maturity. Digital maturity occurs much faster. EBay’s maturity took less than 10 years, Facebook even less.

Lenore is in the process of building a website. When I asked how she planned to use it, her response was: “for information purposes.”

“Do you not plan to list your inventory for sale?”

“No. My website will introduce viewers to my services and be an archive for some of the pieces I have sold in the past. This will familiarize customers with the type and quality of merchandise I carry. I am going to use an Internet storefront site for my shop.”

I needed to think about this. My reaction was Lenore was making a mistake. I cited Jane Clarke’s Morning Glory Antiques as a classic example of a website that educates, sells and archives material. Dozens of sellers have developed sophisticated websites that attract a growing customer base and sales.

My website—harryrinker.com—also is designed to educate, sell books and other services, and archive material. Although well-designed and filled with information, it generates little new business. Book sales are abysmal. The problem is twofold: traffic and “free” users. Visitation is modest, largely because I do little to no promotion. All the information on the website is free. When individuals are used to receiving material for free, they resist, even refuse, to pay for it.

Further, is the website as a concept outdated? In this Social Media Age, it makes more sense to spend time developing a page on Facebook, writing a blog and learning to Tweet. While virgin territory to me, it is the playground of my Davenport University students and grandchildren. It is time for Opa (Grandpa) to get with the program.

I agree with Lenore’s decision to open a shop on one of the storefront sites. I applaud GoAntiques, Ruby Lane and TIAS for their survival. For the past 15 years, they have been beset by rivals, most of which disappeared in less than a year. In the digital age, it is essential to join those with staying power.

I am aware that I did not include eBay on the storefront list. There are antiques and collectibles dealers who have storefronts on eBay and who are doing well. However, eBay has essentially turned its back on the antiques and collectibles community. The community is too small a percentage of the large eBay pie for eBay to pay attention.

The movement of collectors’ clubs and price guide sources to the Internet continues apace. Specialization is the key to digital social networking. Collectors prefer interaction with those who share their interest. The internet allows information to be posted as soon as it is available and e-mails and conversations to take place immediately as opposed to once a year at an annual convention. Collectors’ club websites are becoming more sophisticated. The Glass Insulators Collectors’ reference page is the website I cite as a prototype.

The Golden Age of the printed price guide, general and specialized, is past. The age of the printed antiques and collectibles price guide is nearing its demise. Price guides are going digital. WorthPoint has proven its ability to survive in the general sector. Artfact is one of several specialized fine art digital price guides that have proven themselves. WorthPoint now has an app (application) that allows it to be downloaded to iPhones. The site also recognizes that its long-term success depends on developing an education component, a situation that storefront sites, such as Ruby Lane also practice.

My Davenport University online teaching experience last summer and the use of digital resources in my in-seat teaching this past semester has opened my eyes to the untapped digital opportunities still available on the internet.

Websites such as iAntiqueOnline show the potential but also the problems of developing viable social networking within the antiques and collectibles community. Collectors and others in the trade clearly like to share and converse. The eagerness for information has increased not decreased because of the internet. The difficult remains how to develop a platform that allows this to happen and generates a profit for those who build and maintain it.

The antiques and collectibles trade needs its own version of YouTube. However, one in which the information is vetted rather than free flowing. The amount of antiques and collectible misinformation has increased exponentially as a result of the World Wide Web.

While I have Skype loaded on my computer, I fail to use it effectively. I plan to change this in 2012. I will launch a monthly Skype chat in spring 2012. Having utilized chat rooms in online courses, I quickly learned the disadvantages outweigh the advantages when typing is involved. The 10-finger typist controls the chat. The host is often five to 10 questions behind, especially if he/she is not a 10-finger typist. Besides, I like to see the faces of the individuals with whom I am talking. Skype allows that.

Finally, the World Wide Web is an educational tool. This past semester, my Davenport University students read several articles arguing that the internet has negatively impacted how people read and ultimately think. There is no question the Internet has changed how we acquire, absorb, and retain information. Those who pride themselves as educators within the antiques and collectibles trade need to study these concerns and utilize the new methodologies.

The digital age of antiques and collectibles education is in its infancy. One of my goals in the decade ahead is to help it achieve its maturity.


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.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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