ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1014 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc.
Globalization of Collecting – Part I:
Understanding the Collecting Community
I recently did a presentation entitled “Globalization of Collecting” at eBay Live! in Las Vegas. Prior to the presentation, I was asked by several attendees, who had a scheduling conflict or were leaving eBay Live! early, where they could obtain a copy of my speech.
When I do a presentation, I use an outline rather than read a prepared text. I like the flexibility and fun of seeing where my presentation takes me.
I have written about the globalization of collecting previously. Regular readers may find me covering familiar ground. The column and those that follow on the subject represent the culmination of my thoughts about the process as it stands today. We live in a global world. There is no escaping its consequences.
Understanding the breadth and history of the collecting community is the key that unlocks the door to understanding the current impact and long-term potential of the global collecting community. Although the American experience will be my primary focal point, the concepts I am about to discuss apply to other countries as well.
The situation is a bit more complex in continental Europe where nationalism is being challenged by a growing sense of membership in a European community, thanks in large part to the impact of the EU. I have friends in Europe who no longer refer to themselves by their country of origin but rather as “Europeans.”
I divide the collecting community into four parts: (1) local collectors, (2) regional collectors, (3) national collectors, and (4) global collectors. All four communities exist in today’s marketplace. Throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century, local and regional collectors dominated the collecting marketplace. Beginning in the mid-1970s, national collectors challenged the local and regional collectors for market dominance. National collectors won the battle as the century ended. Today global collectors have issued their challenge to the national collectors. We are a long way, perhaps several decades, from global collectors replacing national collectors as the dominant market force. Yet, if one studies the previous transition from local and regional collectors to national collectors, one finds many parallels in the current trends marking the transition from national collectors to global collectors.
The local collector is an individual whose principal focus is on the objects made in or associated with his community. In many cases, the collector and his extended family are rooted in the locality. Rooting is not required. There are individuals who move into a community, absorb its spirit, and actively collect the items associated with it.
When I began studying the antiques and collectibles trade in the 1960s, I was told: “take an object back to its place of origin and double its value.” The concept argues that the local collector will pay the maximum price for an object, driven in large part by his desire to see that the object does not leave his community. Local pride effected value.
If you question this concept, just go to eBay and study the prices realized for local scenic postcards. Although not universally applicable, I like the rule that the smaller the town, the higher the potential value. Postcard collectors should go to church every Sunday and light a candle or two to thank God for eBay. EBay doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled the value of their local scenic postcards.
Through the late 1960s, the local collector was a major player in the marketplace. These collectors often were the heart and soul of local historical societies and museums. They loved their city, town, village, township, etc. They were fiercely committed to preserving its history. In the twenty-first century, the importance of the local collector has abated significantly, even to the point of playing a minor role. As has been shown, the local collector’s impact still is strong in a few select categories, but when looking at the market as a whole, his role is minimal.
Regional collectors divide into two groups: (a) those whose collections focus on a state or larger geographic region, e.g., Massachusetts or New England and (b) those whose collections focus on a regional ethnic group, e.g., Pennsylvania German or Scandinavian. Once again, pride plays a dominant role in creating this focus.
Regional pride is strong in America. Just talk with anyone from New England, the South, the Midwest, or west of the Rocky Mountains. I sometimes joke about isolating New England from the rest of the collecting community because of its strong preference for traditional antiques from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While collecting post World War II objects is deeply entrenched in the rest of the country, New England as a whole continues to resist.
In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early part of the twentieth century many objects were only sold regionally. As a result, collecting memory is regional. Massachusetts and Connecticut shelf clocks are one example. Red Wing stoneware and Rosemeade Pottery are others.
Regional and local collectors are heavily influenced by memory in addition to pride. These collectors feel most comfortable with the objects with which they grew up. Peer and social pressure also reinforce their collecting selection.
The national collector is a product of the post-1945 period. Television laid the groundwork. It allowed product advertising on a national level. Admittedly, several pre-1945 magazines already did this. However, it was television that changed how products were marketed following World War II.
The Cold War reinforced the nationalism created through television advertising. America became a world power after 1945. Those of us who grew up in the Cold War era watched America go from being part of the Big Four to the Big Two to policeman to the world. American nationalism shifted from an isolationist to a worldwide perspective.
Most national collectors like to focus on things American. Like local and regional collectors, they take pride in the fact that their collections are American based. Initially, the emphasis was on things made in America. Again, there are exceptions, e.g., European ceramics and glass. As the concept evolved, national collectors shifted their focus slightly to objects designed in America.
Today, with most products sold in America manufactured abroad, national collectors are satisfied with the concept of “sold in America.” One can apply this “sold in America” concept to the antiques sector to understand American collectors’ interest in a wide range of foreign-made antiques, ranging from English Staffordshire to French art glass.
“Sold in America” is another concept that emphasizes the importance of memory in driving what is collected. Memory and comfortableness go hand in hand. Collectors tend to collect what makes them feel good.
The technological revolution in hardware, e.g., cell phones and computers, and software, e.g., Internet and Skype, at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century has fostered a growing awareness that there is a global community of collectors whose collecting focus is identical. The technological revolution allowed worldwide collectors to talk with each other. Collectors are rapidly coming to the conclusion that their collections are no longer complete until they include examples from outside their native country.
The worldwide collector focuses on collecting category and not country of origin. Thanks to the technological revolution the number of collecting categories now numbers in the tens of thousands and continues to grow rapidly. As collecting becomes more narrowly focused, the windows of opportunity to find worldwide collectors increases.
There is a downside. As the growth of global collecting is encouraged by ever advancing technology, objects are beginning to divide into two distinct groups: (1) those that can only be sold in their country of origin and (2) those that have worldwide appeal.
Americans are the principal force driving the globalization of collecting. My next “Rinker on Collectibles” text column explains why.
Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out www.harryrinker.com.
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 and is archived on the Internet at www.goldenbroadcasters.com.
HOW TO THINK LIKE A COLLECTOR (Emmis Books, 2005; $14.95), Harry’s new book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via www.harryrinker.com.