RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1206 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

Ten Signposts to Identify Endangered Collecting Categories

Endangered Collecting Category:  A category that is collected by such a small number of individuals that it is in danger of becoming extinct.

There are endangered collecting categories.  Those who are unwilling to acknowledge should consider the Borg’s signature phrase—Resistance is futile.  Dozens of 2010 collecting categories will not be collected in 2050.  By the 2100, that number will exceed 100.  Collecting without Avon bottles, collector edition bells, figurines, plates, scale model vehicles, and lusterware (copper, pink, and silver) is easy to imagine.  Collecting without cast iron toys, Depression glass, Fiesta, Hummels, 18th and 19th century English soft-paste ceramics, and Playboy is more difficult.

Endangered collecting categories are not new.  The concept has existed for centuries.  Collectors failed to recognize this phenomenon in the past because the categories disappeared gradually.  The process took centuries, driven by a growing lack of merchandise in the secondary marketplace and changing collecting tastes.  Today the disappearing process can and often does take place within the lifetime of a single generation of collectors.

The following is a checklist of 10 signposts to determine if a collecting category is approaching or has reached endangered status.  If five or fewer of the signposts apply, the collecting category is nearing endangerment.  If eight or more apply, the collecting category is endangered.  It is critical that a person using these signposts not allow personal feelings to cloud their application.

SIGNPOST 1:  The average age of collectors exceeds 60.  An average age of 55-60 is a warning.  New collectors must be attracted to the collecting category to keep it viable.

Why not 65 instead of 60?  Value within any collecting category reaches its peak when the first generation of collectors is between the ages of 45 and 60.  The ability to replace collectors who die or lose interest steadily declines once the average age exceeds 60.

SIGNPOST 2.  It is possible to count the number of major collectors on two hands and/or the number of collectors is 50 or less.  The pool becomes smaller and smaller.  Death is only one of the enemies.  Reduced living space, less and less contact between key collectors (the social aspect), and decreased discretionary income are others.

A collecting category’s vitality depends on everyone knowing the players.  Everyone means collectors within the category as well as major collectors from spin-off and other collecting categories.

SIGNPOST 3.  A collectors’ club or clubs disappearance.  This is happening with alarming frequency, not just for 19th century focused collecting categories but for 20th century based collecting categories as well.  I included the addresses for collectors’ clubs in the category heads for the price guides that I edited and authored.  The decline in the number of collectors’ clubs began in the mid-1990s.  Recently, I tried to confirm the existence of a Roseville collectors’ club.  I did not find one.  I failed to locate a Roseville discussion group on eBay.  I did find a Roseville Web site, but this is a far cry from the connections a collectors’ club offers through its newsletter or journal, annual convention, and other social networking opportunities.  There was a time when it appeared as though there was a collectors’ club for almost every collecting category.  It is not true in 2010.

SIGNPOST 4.  Objects from the collecting category are no longer available or found in limited quantities at antiques malls, shops, and shows.  This is a Catch-22 situation.  Dealers will not offer merchandise if it does not sell.  Merchandise does not have a chance to sell if it is not offered.  This is just one of a growing number of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-do-not situations developing in the antiques and collectibles trade.

Enthusiasm is essential to the survival of any collecting category.  Collector enthusiasm is a given.  Collectors love their things.  Dealer enthusiasm is the key.  Dealers sell the sizzle as well the as merchandise.  Their role as collecting category champion is more important than that of the collector.  When dealer enthusiasm disappears, sales flatten.

SIGNPOST 5.  The sell-through rate on eBay drops below 20 percent.  While there are many antique collecting categories where eBay is not the principal sale source, eBay is the primary sale source for mass-produced objects manufactured since the last decade of the 19th century.  It is responsible for the explosion of collecting categories.  More than 90 percent of these collecting categories focused on 20th century objects.

Supply now exceeds demand in thousands of collecting categories.  In hundreds of collecting categories, collector/buyer fulfillment has reached 100 percent.  As a result, there are no buyers for new material listed for sale from the collecting category no matter how cheap the initial bid request is.

“There is a price at which an object will not sell” is one of the marketing principles that evolved from the 1988-1990 recession.  “An antique or collectible can reach a point where there are no longer buyers” is a 21st century marketing principle.  Its application will only broaden.

SIGNPOST 6.  Nothing is able to check the steady decline in value.  Value decline affects only the middle and low-end items initially.  In 2010, many collecting categories are experiencing a major decline in value at the high end.  Historically, the high end was immune from price decline.  Now there are hundreds of collecting categories where high-end prices have peaked and are in decline.

Likewise, there are some categories such as baseball cards, gold coins, Gold and Silver Age comic books, and firearms where the high end continues to set record prices.  Investors appear blind to the speculative bubble on whose surface these prices rest.  There is always a day of reckoning.

SIGNPOST 7.  Objects disappear or are sold in lots at auction.  Major collectors refuse to sell their collections in a declining market.  They pray for a price reversal.  It will not happen.  When these collectors die, their heirs are more willing to accept whatever an auction brings.

It is hard to watch 18th, 19th, and early to mid-20th century objects that once sold by the piece now being offered in lots.  Lot sizes of two or three are in the past.  Today lots include four to 10 examples.  The local auctioneer’s goal is to exceed an average of $100.00 to $200.00 per lot.  Christie’s and Sotheby’s have raised their lot minimums to over $3,000.00.

SIGNPOST 8.  No new specialized price guide or reference book on the collecting category has appeared within the last five years.  Five years suggests endangerment.  Fifteen years is the kiss of death.  Ten years is the divide.

Reference books, with or without price guides, are checklists.  They are an essential tool of the new collector.  They are critical to keeping collecting interest alive.

Check the 2010 Spring-Summer lists for Collector Books, House of Collectibles, KP (Krause Publications) and Schiffer Publications.  Compare the title count to 2005.  The 2010 number is greatly reduced.  Antiques and collectibles price guides and reference books are tough sells in the electronic/Internet age.

SIGNPOST 9.  Trade periodicals provide little to no coverage of the collecting category.  Trade periodical editors are not the saviors for any collecting category.  Their job is to publish articles their readers want.  The periodicals focus on what is hot.  What is not is ignored.  Little wonder the readership of the Magazine Antiques is decreasing.

SIGNPOST 10.  The collecting category disappears, is grouped with other collecting categories, or is totally ignored in general antiques and/or collectibles price guides.  The number of antiques and collectibles categories has grown so large that it is impossible to list all of them in a general price guide, even one limiting its coverage to antiques or collectibles.  Many of the specialized general price guides, for example toys, are experiencing a similar problem.

Information fuels interest.  When information about a collecting category is no longer readily available, the collecting category is approaching endangerment.  When information vanishes, the collecting category is endangered.

Apply these signposts to the collecting categories you collect.  Then again, maybe you should not.  It breaks my heart to see grown people cry.

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 on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

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, $16.95), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via www.harryrinker.com.

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