Rinker on Collectibles: Money, Money, Money—the Obsession with Monetary Value

This pewter flagon looks fairly utilitarian and would seem like a perfect container from which to serve beer or wine. Now consider that it was made by John Christopher Heyne is features a $24,000 price tag. What would you do with it now that you know its value?

When I began my career researching antiques and collectibles in the 1970s, the single question that dominated the collector’s and general public’s mindset was: “What is my object worth?” In 2013, it still is the most frequently asked question. Focusing exclusively on this question turns antiques and collectibles into commodities, stripping them of their stories, personalities and historical, social and cultural worth.

When valuing objects at appraisal clinics, I encounter damaged objects. The damage is often visible at arm’s length. When assessing the object, I call attention to the damage. I inform the owner that the damage is factored into the value that I am about to give. “But, what would it be worth if it wasn’t damaged?” Although prepared for this question, as I have heard it often enough, I still am continually caught off guard. “The answer is irrelevant,” I explain. “The object is damaged. Even if you restore or repair it, you will never recover its undamaged value. Value is based on the condition of the object as I see it, not what it might have been.”

A similar situation occurs when I am forced to tell individuals that they have a reproduction (exact copy), copycat (stylistic copy) or fake. “What would its value be if it was a period piece?” My response always is the same. “It is not a period piece. The question is moot.”

Money, money, money—the stories continue. Individuals who purchase an item or items at a garage sale, estate/tag sale or auction are another class of people who appear at appraisal clinics. They are not seeking confirmation that they spent their money wisely. Rather, they want me to provide them with a value that confirms they “stole” the item, thus affirming their belief that they possess some supernatural power to spot bargains that others, more skilled than they, have missed. I hate confirming they did. I know what will happen next. Bargain hunting, more correctly termed bottom feeding, is a numbers game. Hunters often lose more than they win. I can tell by the smile on the individuals’ faces that they will embark on a buying spree the following weekend, returning home with a box or trunk load of objects they are convinced are worth double, triple or more than what they paid for them. They soon learn that junk is and always will be junk.

Bad purchases are the tuition antiques and collectibles dealers pay to learn the business. For some, the cost exceeds that of a college education. The collector and dealer skill sets required to survive in the trade are learned; they are not a gift from God or whomever.

The Heyne flagon is one of my appraisal clinic stories. While conducting a $2-per-object appraisal clinic at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., in the 1980s, an individual presented me with a pewter communion flagon from a Lancaster County (Pa.) church. In the early 20th century, when the church replaced their old communion set with a new one, some members of the church council received a piece of the old set as a memento.

“What do you use this for,” I asked.

“Normally, it sits on the shelf above the living room fireplace,” the owner replied. “When the family has summer picnics, we fill it with beer and use it as a pitcher.” The utilitarian use made perfect sense. A flagon is a type of pitcher used to serve liquids, usually beer or wine.

John Christopher Heyne is an 18th-century Pennsylvania pewterer. His pieces are eagerly sought by collectors of early American pewter. I appraised the flagon between $20,000 and $25,000. If there had been an “Antiques Roadshow” at the time, it would have been a featured piece. The owner was shocked.

A few years later, I saw the owner. “How is your Heyne flagon? Are you still using it at the family picnics?” “No,” he replied. “It is stored in a bank vault.” A cloud of morbidity crept over my soul. “I should never have told him,” I thought. The flagon was much more fun and practical when it was full of beer.

As with most stories, there is a sequel. The family of the owner eventually sold the Heyne communion flagon at auction. If my memory is correct, it brought over $40,000. The family sold too soon. Within a decade, a Heyne communion flagon broke $100,000.

When assisting individuals preparing to downsize, the first thing I am asked to do is appraise their objects. I refuse. I tell them that the first thing they must do is make a list of those objects that mean the most to them. This list becomes the starting point for the objects they will take to their new abode.

The reason I do not value the objects is simple. If I did, they would select the objects with the highest monetary value to take with them, not necessarily the objects that mean the most to them. Monetary worth distorts how individuals view objects.

The same holds true when I am evaluating objects for estate planning. Today, parents are pressured by their children to treat everyone equally. Hence, if one child is going to receive an object valued at $5,000 and the second one at $500, the second child expects an extra $4,500 to be put on his side of the balance sheet to preserve equality. Money, money, money—it is the root of all evil.

There is no law—political, moral, ethical or religious—that states every child has to be treated equally. “Jeder nach seinen Fahigkeiten, jeden nach seinen Bedurfhnissen!” advocated Karl Marx in 1875 (From each according to his ability, to each according to his need). Not a Marxist or Socialist, I subscribe to a simpler premise: “each according to their due.” In terms of children, grandchildren and friends, some are due far more than others. Each should be happy with what they receive and be joyous for what the others are given. In reality, this will not happen. But, I will be dead and, hence, not in a position to give a damn or be subjected to criticism from those who think they were shortchanged.

True collectors do not think of the objects in their collection from a monetary point of view. My favorite comment to individuals when asked how I view the value of my collections is to explain that “when I buy an object, the first thing I do is go in the bathroom and flush the toilet to remind me of what I just did with my money.” This glib statement guided me through most of my collecting career. My initial goal was to die owning my collections.

Time and circumstances changed this. I am approaching 72, the age I identified in previous “Rinker on Collectibles” columns when collectors start to think about getting rid of their stuff. I resolved then that this would never happen to me.

I no longer have sufficient space to store my collections. I have lost the desire to add too many of them. Worse yet, I have started to think about other (I refuse to use “better”) things upon which I would rather spend the money. I have started to sell some things. The major auctions will occur in fall 2013.

The continuing decline of old-time collectors who approached collecting with the same philosophy that I did is another motivating factor to cut back. Far too many younger collectors are monetary/investment focused. I cannot identify with them. I do not have the financial wherewithal to compete with them. My collecting tastes have reached a price point where I can no longer afford to be a player.

I have avoided the traditional monetary clichés such as: (1) an antique or collectible has no value until it is sold; (2) value is in the eye of the beholder; (3) monetary value is only one of many values and not the most important; and (4) value is trendy. I have written about these in previous “Rinker on Collectibles” columns.

In summary, obsessing about the monetary value of objects is part and parcel of the antiques and collectibles community’s mindset. It is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east each morning. It is what is. It is human nature, something that will never change.

This said, it does not mean that I have to like it. I do not. At least once a day, I am tempted to give away everything I own just to prove the point that it was never about the money. But, this would be a waste of money; contrary to every value held by a person of Pennsylvania German ancestry such as myself.

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. 2013

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