RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1020 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2006
Technology's Role, Current State of the Market, and Growth Opportunities
This is the fourth of a four-part series of Rinker on Collectibles columns focusing on the globalization of collecting. The three previous columns dealt with “Understanding the Collecting Community,” “America’s Role” in the globalization process, and “Understanding the Foreign Collecting Scene.”
The cell/mobile phone, the personal computer, and the Internet created a technological communication revolution in the 1990s. This revolution is far from over. Cable, telephone, and Internet companies continue to fight for the right to distribute their communication technology through the others’ network. What is new today is obsolete tomorrow.
The technological communication revolution accelerated the globalization of collecting. It did not cause it. When one looks back to the 1970s and 1980s, one finds evidence of a growing awareness of the importance and power of global collecting.
Christie’s and Sotheby’s arrival in New York in the late 1970s is the most obvious example. This British invasion proved highly successful. The fine arts, i.e., paintings, sculpture, etc., and high-end decorative arts markets led the way. Goods flowed freely across the ocean, albeit Americans still tended to buy more foreign examples than vice versa.
Toy collectors led the way in the globalization of collecting in collectibles. American toy collectors actively traveled abroad to purchase English and European toys at toy auctions and specialized shows. English and European collectors reciprocated. Collections on both sides of the Atlantic were highly diversified in respect to country of manufacture. The specialized toy literature, e.g., the magazine Antique Toy World, regularly ran stories about foreign auctions, collectors, and shows. Most importantly, toy collectors developed friendships that transcended national boundaries and worked actively to maintain these relationships.
The personal computer spawned the Internet. The Internet became and remains the principal method by which collectors with similar interest communicate globally. The American collector is the principal beneficiary because the universal language of the Internet is American or, for those who find my jingoism offensive, American English. While American English is the world’s second language, it is the Internet’s first language. The growing ethnic diversity within America provides no threat. The growing use of American English on the Internet continues unabated.
Until recently the cost of access was a major factor in limiting the Internet’s growth. Most countries had the required communication infrastructure and hardware/software accessibility. The per minute access cost, extremely high in many countries, was the problem. America became the world’s leader in providing daily unlimited access to the Internet at an affordable monthly cost. As the twenty-first century dawned, other countries followed suit. Today, Europe, much of the Far East and Asia including China, North, Central, and South America, and large sections of the Middle East have affordable daily unlimited access to the Internet.
Africa is the exception. While there are collectors of African art and artifacts outside Africa, in all the years I have been involved with collecting I have never heard anyone talk of an African collecting community other than a few collectors and institutions in South Africa. EBay is not there. Neither is anyone else with strong established collecting community roots. The ability to establish collecting roots is contingent on political stability, an income level that produces discretionary income, and a societal emphasis on preserving the past. For the moment, Africa remains far outside the globalization of collecting.
The high cost of voice communication among global collectors, especially American collectors calling abroad, has been a major deterrent in the use of household and cell/mobile phones. The arrival of Skype, eBay’s new Internet voice communication service, is in the process of changing this. Skype is free. Skype is more than computer to computer communication via voice. Skype rates, usually a few cents per minute, to call anyone worldwide on any phone are very affordable. I now pay less than five cents a minute to talk with my friends abroad rather than the thirty plus cents per minute I was paying my long-distance provider.
Again, Skype requires computer access, not a problem for the vast majority of the population in North America, Europe, and many other parts of the world. You can learn more about Skype on www.ebay.com.
Overcoming the cost factor is just the first step for Skype. The real revolution will come when instant translation service becomes available. This will allow a collector in the United States to call a collector in a foreign country and have them hear each other in their native language. A translation of the conversation will occur simultaneously. Futuristic pipedream?
Absolutely, not! The software exists. It just needs to be refined.
The globalization of collecting is no longer in its infancy. However, it is in the early stages of its maturing process. The process is strongest in countries where English is the principal language—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Europe is not far behind. In fact, in collecting post-1945 Modernism, one of the principal collecting categories that is fueling the globalization mindset, European collectors are light years ahead of American collectors in their appreciation and acceptance of objects reflecting this design style. As younger European collectors become more aware and enamored with post-1960 collectibles from movies, music, and television to clothing and accessories, look for the globalization of collecting to accelerate even faster.
Japan remains a distant entity to most American collectors. Many eBay sellers know the buying power of the Japanese, but few understand the market into which they are selling. The collecting market is as sophisticated in Japan as it is in the United States. Shows, shops, malls, trade periodicals, etc., all exist. The difficulty is that all the literature is in Japanese, a language most Americans cannot read. I am aware of one Hawaiian dealer who has gone to Japan and set up at shows. I plan to contact her and ask about her experiences.
Reports are beginning to flow from major auction houses about an influx of new buyers from Central and South America. Central and South American buyers have had a strong impact on Miami-based antiques shows for over a decade. I have met several dealers who reported that they shipped container loads of Colonial Revival mahogany furniture to Central and South America. During a brief visit to Ecuador in July 2004, I met with a few collectors. While furniture tastes were definitely European-focused, decorative accessories had a strong American flair. Clearly, there is a strong collecting community in Central and South America. They are lands of opportunity.
Arabic collectors, especially from Saudi Arabia, have been major players in the European auction scene for several decades. If my sources are correct, they buy heavily in the American antique and classic car, fine art and high-end decorative accessories, and jewelry markets. Those sellers who have contacts in this market have kept their sources very quiet. Contact between American and Arabic world collectors is minimal. Again, opportunities abound.
China, India, and the old Soviet Block Nations, especially Poland, are other areas ripe for collector to collector contact. EBay has made inroads into China. India is a mystery that I hope to explore in the immediate future. When eBay opened its Polish site, the traffic was so heavy the first day that the site crashed. Polish dealers are regulars at German flea markets. One can assume the flow of goods is not just east to west. Polish collectors also are heading west to take advantage of the ability to find goods to add to their collection.
In the twenty-first century, one needs to think globally. This is a major challenge for American collectors since the vast majority, i.e., ninety-five percent plus, think provincially.
I would welcome hearing from readers who have antiqued or have contacts with collectors in China, Central and South America, India, and/or Japan. E-mail your experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
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.