Rinker on Collectibles: Who Defines the High End within a Collecting Category?

A scene from Christie’s auction room in London, 1808, as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann’s “Microcosm of London.” Are the high-end items at this sale the same as the high-end items sold in this room 10 years later? What was 25 years later, or 50, even?

I divide the objects in a collecting category into six groups—junk, common, above average, hard to find, upper echelon and masterpiece/ultimate units. When assigning percentages to each of the divisions, the results are: junk (50 percent) is objects in too bad a condition to be considered collectible; common (35 percent); above average (10 percent); hard to find (4.5 percent); upper echelon (0.035 percent); and masterpiece/ultimate units (0.015 percent). Most collectors ignore the junk. If you choose to do this, double the percentages of the other categories.

The high end of a market consists of one-half a percent or less of the objects in a collecting category. Depending on the size of a collecting category, there are five to 10 masterpiece/ultimate units and 15 to 30 upper-echelon pieces. To be considered an advanced collector, an individual needs to own one or two masterpiece/ultimate units and six to 10 upper echelon pieces. The high end is the best of the best.

Author’s Aside: In the 20st century, tracking antiques and collectibles categories involved following between 1,000 and 1,250 collecting categories. Prior to its demise in 2006, eBay’s Collectibles division estimated there were more than 30,000 identifiable collecting categories. Today, this number is conservative. Major collecting categories—for example toy trains—break down into dozens, perhaps even more than 100, sub-collecting categories, each of which has a clearly identifiable collecting logic.

As a result, it is difficult to generalize about the high end of the antiques and collectibles market. The logical first question is: upon what collecting category or sub-collecting category is the focus of the analysis?

Having stated this reservation, there are common threads that connect and apply to every collecting category. I have devoted my antiques and collectibles career to identifying and writing about them. The principals that follow are universal.

Money is the most logical high-end identifier. The general public and most collectors consider those objects that sell for the most money to be the high end. The very best deserves the highest price. This argument is valid only so long as the same objects continually command top dollar. Experience has shown that this is not the case. Record prices within a collecting category, based upon object value, change on a regular basis. Value loyalty is fickle.

Edvard Munch’s iconic masterpiece “The Scream” sold for $119,922,500 in May of 2012, setting a new world record for any work of art at auction. How long will it take before a new group of world-record prices are set? It’s going to happen.

The same applies to a record price set for an object. When a second or third example of the object appears, a new record price is not guaranteed. First, the collector/buyer who paid the record price for the first object is no longer a buyer in the marketplace. Second, those who competed for the previous example may have shifted their focus to another object or group of objects or no longer view the first object with the same degree of respect as when it first appeared on the market. Third, when a second or third example appears, especially at auction, and fails to achieve or exceed the record price set earlier, collectors rethink and restructure the importance of the object within the value hierarchy of the collecting category.

It is possible to assemble a Top Five or Top 10 list of the most expensive objects within any collecting category at any given moment. Such a list is transitory. It is subject to change when another object within the collecting category sells for a higher value. In many collecting categories, the list’s validity is measured in months not years.

Scarcity’s role in defining the high end is minimal. It is a mistake to assume that the fewer examples of an object available, the more valuable the object must be. Such an approach ignores the role desirability plays in value. The high end consists of the most desirable, not the scarcest.

The 1933 Rockola World’s Fair “Jigsaw” pinball machine is considered the most collectible 1930s vintage pinball machine.

For example, the 1933 Rockola World’s Fair “Jigsaw” pinball machine is considered the most collectible 1930s vintage pinball machine. While scarce, there are dozens of examples available. The Rockola World’s Fair “Jigsaw” machine is not the most expensive machine from its era. Even restored, it might not make a Top Five most valuable list. Yet, collectors of 1930s vintage pinball machines consider it a masterpiece unit. NOTE: The general coin-op pinball collecting category has been subdivided into a narrower “1930s vintage pinball machine” subcategory.

Generation factors play a major role in determining the high end of any collecting category. There is a major difference between how those in their 30s and those in their 70s or 80s view the high end of a collecting category. The 70- and 80-year-olds remember seeing, living with or playing with the objects. Memory impacts value, especially if the collector has no financial limitations.

Those in their 30s have no or limited personal memories associated with the objects. Their primary concern is the object’s “investment” potential; that is to say, if they buy it for X and resell it in a relatively short time for 2X or more. When deciding to buy, they analyze the “risk” element involved. What is the probability that the secondary market will fall rather than increase in the decade(s) ahead? Objects are commodities rather than historical documents.

Since antiques and collectibles prices in the 21st century are trendy, there is every reason to assume the high end is as well. A short-term perspective of the high end is a distortion. A minimum of 30 years is necessary for an adequate analysis of trends within the high end of a collecting category. The 30-Year Rule is no problem when dealing with broad general collecting categories. It is a problem when analyzing some of the new specialized sub-collecting categories.

The date when the object was made is not the correct starting point for analyzing the secondary high end collecting marketplace. Rinker’s 30-Year Rule states: for the first 30 years of anything’s life, all its value is speculative. In order to analyze high-end trends within a collecting category, it is necessary to first establish a stable and predictable market.

If one analyzed the high end of the market for movie cowboy Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia in 1995, the results would be very different from a 2013 analysis.

The first opportunity to analyzing high-end trends for my extensive collection of Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia occurred in the mid-1980s. If one analyzed the high end of the market in 1995, the results would be very different than a 2013 analysis. The Hoppy high-end market peaked in the mid to late 1990s. In 2013, high-end values have dropped as much as 75 percent. Further, the 2013 list of Hopalong Cassidy high-end pieces differs significantly from the 1995 list. Value from crossover collectors is now more important than from Hoppy collectors.

Any high-end list is subjective. There is no quantitative formula that can be applied. If one assembles a group of 10 of the top collectors in any collecting category and locks them in a room without food or drink until they can universally agree on what constitutes the Top 10 high-end objects in that collecting category, they will die of starvation. If they did reach a consensus, the validity of their results would last only as it took one in the group to complain he/she was coerced into agreeing so that group could leave the room. Passion and individuality are two distinguishing characteristics of collectors. Agreement is atypical. Personal opinions verging on the point of righteous truth prevail. Never tell a collector that he or she is incorrect.

In summary, there is no one factor that determines the high end within a collecting category. Further, the weight of one factor versus that of another differs from collecting category to collecting category. Like value, the high end is momentary and transitory. It changes constantly. Often the shifts are subtle, but the astute observer can identify them.

This “Rinker on Collectibles” column has focused exclusively on defining forces found within the antiques and collectibles trade. This inward approach is dangerous. Outside forces ranging from changes in the global economy to shifting trends within the decorating, fashion and/or investment communities impact the antiques and collectibles marketplace. In today’s global age, American collectors must be careful to avoid viewing things only from an American perspective.

What are your thoughts regarding what and who defines the high end of a collecting category? E-mail me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

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“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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