ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1018 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc.
Globalization of Collecting – Part III:
Understanding the Foreign Collecting Scene
This is the third of a four-part series of columns focusing on the globalization of collecting. The two previous columns dealt with “Understanding the Collecting Community” and “America’s Role” in the globalization process.
American collectors are provincially focused. While there are exceptions to this general rule, they are few and far between. American collectors focus primarily on objects sold in America, i.e., objects with which they were associated during their lifetime, and/or collecting categories deemed acceptable by their collecting piers.
Thanks to the Internet, especially eBay, American collectors are discovering the world of international collecting. More and more collectors are talking about adding items to their collections which they purchased from foreign buyers. Assume that in the mindset of the American collector, Canada is a foreign country.
If American collectors have traveled abroad, the countries they are most likely to have visited, in order of importance, are England, France, and Germany. While the purists in France and Germany would rail at classifying their countries as part of “the English-Speaking World,” the simple truth is that they are. You do not have to speak French or German to buy antiques and collectibles in France or Germany. All the dealers speak American English. Long gone are the days when the French and Germans spoke English with an English accent.
Americans traveling abroad are surprised to find a large number of similarities between how the antiques and collectibles trade operates in America and the country they are visiting. There are critical differences as well. It is best to examine the similarities first.
All countries have an active antiques show circuit. As in America, the antiques show circuit has a variety of levels. Flea markets provide the foundation. Not all flea markets contain only antiques and collectibles. The “swap meet” concept, a market that combines obsolete new goods, recyclable items from kitchenware to DVD tapes, hand craft products, and some antiques and collectibles thrives. In fact, the number and frequency of such markets is much higher in Europe and elsewhere than in the United States. The number and frequency of small, i.e., twenty-five to fifty dealers, antiques shows also appear higher. The high-end show circuit, focusing primarily on objects made prior to 1915, is very active. Antiques have a much more elitist quality abroad than they do in the United States.
The individual antiques shop plays a far more important role in the sale of antiques abroad than it does in the United States. Shops abound in major and mid-size cities. You can find shops in many of the small towns in England, but they are much scarcer in the small towns on the European Continent, Canada, and Australia. Again, antiques shops abroad tend to specialize in objects made prior to 1915.
One finds specialized shops in the big cities. Antiquarian book and print shops abound in far greater quantity than in the United States. In my travels, I have found shops specializing in Art Nouveau / Art Deco, furniture, jewelry, nautical items, and toy soldiers. In fairness, I also have begun to encounter shops specializing in comic books and post-1945 television and movie memorabilia.
There are stand-alone antiques malls abroad, but they are few and far between. I found more in the Netherlands than I did any other country. While the concept is in its infancy, I strongly suspect it will grow.
I did not touch on the legendary weekly Paris Flea Market and the British flea markets of Bermondsey Market, Camden Market and Camden Passage, Covent Garden Market, Old Spitalfields Market, and Portabello Road in Notting Hill in my early comments about flea markets abroad. These and similar flea markets in other countries belong in the “antiques mile” or antiques mall category. Their facilities are permanent. They contain a variety of antiques mall environments in addition to stand-alone shops.
Finally, I discovered that every country I visited has a variety of antiques and collectibles trade publications ranging from periodica6sl to reference books and price guides. Periodicals are found in magazine and newsprint format and cover a wide variety of markets, e.g., high-end, collectibles, and specialized. Most are subscription based and have websites. Reference books and price guides concentrate far more on antiques than collectibles topics. Occasionally I found an American reference or price guide for sale. In almost every instance, the title was devoted to a specific collectibles, i.e., post-1945, category.
Simply put, the American collector traveling abroad should and will feel very much at home when he or she goes shopping. Difference are most likely to be noticed when the American collector deals with his foreign counterpart.
Collecting is far more individualized abroad than in the United States. There are very few collectors’ clubs. Collecting abroad still is basically an “old boy” network. Once you have made an initial contact and are accepted into the collecting community, you will do fine. Finding the initial contact or introduction is the tricky part.
Foreign collectors define an antique very differently than American collectors. American collectors view two hundred years, even one hundred years as a very long time ago. These dates are “yesterday” to a foreign collector. Foreign collectors are used to anniversary events that are measured in terms of five hundred or one thousand years. In 1968 while doing research in East Germany, I attended the 1,000th anniversary celebration for the Dom in Meissen.
Antiques abroad tend to date prior to 1900. There still are plenty of pre-1830 purists, i.e., an antique is something made by hand and not by machine. Modern is viewed as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
The good news is that many younger collectors have discovered the post-1945 period. While the primary focus is on post-1945 modernist ceramics, furniture, glass, and metals, a larger and larger number of collectors are discovering movie, music, and television collectibles. As the majority of the world moves closer and closer to mimicking the American lifestyle, look for interest in post-1945 collectibles to increase among foreign collectors.
Foreign collectors and dealers use a far more liberal approach to dating objects than do Americans. Foreign dating is much more liberal in its attribution, often focusing on the oldest rather than the newest element in an object.
Foreign collectors also are much more forgiving when assigning condition grades and in their acceptance of repairs and reconstructions. My recommendation to American collectors is always grade down by two grades any condition report of a foreign antique and by one condition grade for any collectible. Further, continually question the integrity of any object, especially furniture. Insist on being told about every repair or reconstruction. Listen carefully to what any collector or dealer tells you and learn to “read between the lines.”
Finally, there are vocabulary problems. A fall-front desk to an English collector is a bureau. A bureau to an American collector is a chest of drawers. Jugendstil is German for Art Nouveau. The Carters, my good friends in Australia and publishers of the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit, have just published A Concise Dictionary of Antique Collecting. I cannot wait to add a copy to my reference library. I currently am trying to help them find an American distributor. As more and more collectors and dealers do business abroad, this is just the book they need to understand terms so everyone is speaking in a common language.
My final column in this series will examine the contribution technology is playing in the globalizing of collecting and examine the current state of the worldwide market.
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.