Rinker on Collectibles: Passive Collectors

As an expert, a relative term no matter to whom it is applied in the antiques and collectibles trade, I often am asked questions which I cannot answer.  How much money is spent annually on antiques and collectibles, how much does the average collector spend per year, how many collectors are there, and what percentage of Americans collect are four examples.  In the past, several trade papers surveyed their readers and eBay’s former Collectibles Division commissioned studies.  This information was shared on a limited basis.  This data is out of date.  The answer to the above questions is that no one knows the answers.   Any answer is pure conjecture, a qualitative guesstimate.

In a recent Rinker on Collectibles column, I asked readers to share their hobby shop memories.  I received more than a dozen responses.  Glenn R. Novotny’s October 6, 2018, email ended: “I am what I call a ‘passive collector,’ meaning what I have is pretty much inherited.  It is always interesting to go into a restaurant like Cracker Barrel and see if anything they have hanging on the walls matches something in my garage, shed, or basement.  It occasionally does.”

“Passive collector” is a new concept.   It raises the basic question of whether a person must be aware that he/she is collecting in order to be a collector or can be a collector without realizing it.

Until this conundrum arose, I assumed collecting was a conscious act.  Although collecting is individually oriented, it unites individuals that do collect into a great whole – the collecting community.  Collecting is a bonding agent.  Collectors identify with each other.  While specialized collectors form their own subgroups, they think, act, and follow the same patterns that all collectors follow.

Rinker’s Rule of Ten states that it takes a minimum of 10 objects to make a collection.  This arose in response to individuals who confronted me with the blanket statement: “I do not collect.”  When this happens, my standard response is: “Do you have 10 similar objects that you have not used in over two years?  If yes, you are a collector.” In fairness, this rule muddies the definitions of saver, hoarder, and collector.  Its principal value is to provide an aggressive response to collecting naysayers.

Individuals who have 10 similar objects that they did not use in the last two years are not passive collectors.  The objects that belong to passive collectors are visible and often used, not stored away and neglected.

I grew up in the last decades of the Hand Me Down era.  Objects were passed from one person or generation to the next on an as needed basis.  When I was born in 1941, my parents purchased a new bassinet.  When I grew out of it, it was passed along to another nucleated family member.  It returned briefly to my family when my brother Richard was born, only to renew its journey when he no longer needed it.  Its journey ended with its return to me for use when Harry Junior was born in 1966.  It was the last time it was used.  By that time, my cousins wanted new over old.  A victim of that mindset myself, I bought a new bassinet for my daughter Paulanne.  My bassinet sits atop the artificial Christmas tree box in my Kentwood, Michigan, garage.  I do not have the heart to discard it.

When my cousins and I established our first independent residences, our parents contacted their parents and siblings to determine the availability of furniture and household goods they had in storage.  “New” was not an operative concept.  The assumption at the time was “old” was often better than new and a thrifty method to start adult life on a sound financial footing.

From the 1950s through the 1990s, I was part of a large family network.  When someone replaced an old but still useable item with a newer one, a phone chain was initiated to see if anyone in the family could use the older item before it was offered for sale, donated, or trashed.  I obtained my great grandparents Knoble’s bedroom suite when my Aunt Doris called and informed me that her children had no interest in it and that if I did not take it, she was going to get rid of it.

Thus far, I have focused on things passed down with a warm hand, that is to say, the owner still was living at the time of the transfer.  Cold hand acquisitions occurred the same way.  Again, having grown up in an era where objects associated with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and other family members were cherished for this fact alone, the standard practice of breaking up an estate was to allow the children, grandchildren, and relatives first dibs on objects they might use.

Although hard to understand in a time where everything has a price associated with it and an “I would rather have the money” attitude prevails, value almost never was a factor in the disposal process.  This does not mean there were not some knockdown, drag out fights over pieces.   There were plenty.  What made these fights different was that they were motivated by emotional memory or the size of the pile rather than money.

When I worked in the museum field from 1963 to the early 1980s, I was enamored by the period room concept.  As a result, I focused my collecting on acquiring objects from a specific time period and housing them in the same room.  My Vera Cruz [PA] Elementary School “Bachelor Pad” had a Victorian bedroom, Hopalong Cassidy bedroom, 1950s turquoise, copper, and chrome living room and kitchen, a Pennsylvania German dining room and reading area, a Northwest contemporary master bedroom, a 1920s Hotel tiled bathroom, a Mid-Century Modern sitting room, and a 1920s Gymnasium workout room.  I traveled from one era to another on a daily basis.

My personal lifestyle differed significantly from what I encountered when doing walk-through appraisals.  In the field, it was common to visit a home that contained furniture and accessories representing three to five generations of objects.  The material found in these mix and match homes often was inherited from a number of former families.  I never tired of the owners sharing the stories of how the pieces were acquired.

At first, many of these pieces were acquired because they filled an immediate need or were an upgrade to something already owned.  The plan often was to use the inherited pieces until the individual was in a position to replace them with a new piece.

This happened far less than intended.  These inherited pieces became old friends, an integral part of the family.  New memories merged with the old until a single memory emerged.  The idea of replacing them vanished.

These mix and match homeowners were and are the passive collectors to which Glenn Novotny referred.  They exist in large numbers, numbers far larger than most can imagine.  They are not confined geographically or by social status.   They are found everywhere—urban, small town, and rural America.

If you visit Linda’s and my home in Michigan, you will find that we live a mix and match life.  What may appear to be a period room at first glance actually houses a number of non-period appropriate objects.  When Linda sold her home in Wyoming and moved into the Vera Cruz Elementary School apartment, she moved into “my” home and put her objects in storage.  I promised her that if and when the time came to sell The School, we would buy a home, blend our things, and make it “ours” rather than mine or hers.  While our choice of what we included was a conscious one and impacted by what we collect, we opted for a mix and match rather than a one room for your things and one room for my things approach.

Linda and I represent the tail-end of the Hand Me Down generations.  The passive collector generations are not far behind.  The My Kids Do Not Want It era is in full swing.  In Linda’s and my case, our children’s plea to get rid of things before we die continues to fall on deaf ears.  Get rid of our fondest memories?  Are our children out of their mind?


Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

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