Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2016

Top Ten Changes in the Last Five Years (2011-2016) - Part I

Shortly after “Rinker on Collectibles” turned 20 in 2006, I wrote two columns entitled “Top 10 Changes in the Last 20 Years.” Following “Rinker on Collectibles’” 25th birthday, I wrote a three-column series entitled “Top 10 Changes in the Last Five Years.” “Rinker on Collectibles” celebrated its 30th birthday on December 19, 2016. This is Part I of a second three-column series entitled “Top 10 Changes in the Last Five Years (2011-2016).”

[Author’s Aside: The first two series are posted in the URL “RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES SPECIAL SERIES COLUMNS” on www.harryrinker.com. Before making my list of topics, I reviewed the first “Top 10 Changes in the Last Five Years” series. I was surprised to find little overlap with my current topic notes. I was tempted to repeat “The Accelerating Loss of Friends” but chose to accept this as a given that need not be repeated.] 10. Decreasing prestige associated with owning antiques and collectibles.

Through the first three-quarters of the 20th century, individuals took pride in preserving and using family heirlooms. A typical family home was a mixture of furniture and decorative and utilitarian accessories from multiple fraternal and maternal generations. Saving and re-using was an integral part of the “waste not, want not” and family pride era.

Advanced collectors created period rooms filled with matching furniture and decorative accessories. Most collectors displayed their collections in a cabinet or open hutch that blended with contemporary pieces, often in a Colonial Revival style. Collections were small in size. A collection exceeding 200 pieces was unusual.

Owning antiques was prestigious, an indication of a person’s social achievement, sophistication, and appreciation and preservation of history. The initial preference was for objects of European origin, based on the assumption that European goods were superior in design, quality, and manufacture. As the 20th century progressed, more and more collectors focused on objects of American origin.

By the mid-20th century, the concept of connoisseurship, the ability to pass critical judgments on art and decorative accessories, was entrenched in the American mindset. Those who owned “fine” antiques developed a sense of elitist superiority.

The development of the secondary collectibles market in the early 1970s associated with collecting large quantities of post-1920 (quickly changed to post-1945) objects and the fun that that approach generated were the initial cannon shots that challenged the views of the antiques traditionalists. Collections of 1,000 or more objects were common. By the turn of the 21st century, the prestige of collecting antiques and even mid-20th collectibles waned.

In 2016, antiques and collectibles no longer play a significant role in defining a person’s social status or position in a community, nor serve as an indication of good taste. Baby Boomers, the last of the traditionalist collectors, are aging. Their focus is on divesting rather than acquiring. Heirs tell a collector to sell his/her collection(s) while he/she is alive so they (the heirs) do not have to deal with it (them) after the collector dies. The heirs want money not things.

Antiques and collectibles are absent or reduced to a minor role in contemporary interior decorating magazines. Country magazines are more into handcrafted decorations than maintaining an historic look. The decluttering movement considers the preservation of the past abhorrent. If an object is not useful, get rid of it. There is no value in memories or nostalgia. White paint has become the enemy of older furniture. Repurposing is destructive not creative.

Collectors are becoming more and more isolated. Antiques and collectibles collectors are returning to the closet. Instead of being praised for their preservation and research efforts, collectors are viewed as hoarders, spendthrifts, and a tad crazy. Many face the prospect that when they finally dispose of their collections, no one will want them. The unbridled optimism of the traditionalist collectors that their collections would grow in value and importance has been shattered.

“Where have all the antiques gone, long time passing? / Where have all the antiques gone, long time ago / Where have all the antiques gone? New youth has renounced them, every one / Oh when will they every learn, oh when will they every learn.” (with apologies to Peter, Paul, and Mary)

9. Slow and often painful recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession.

When the dust settled following the upheaval caused by the 2008-2009 Great Recession, economic and other experts predicted that a full recovery would take 15 years or longer. What they failed to emphasize is that the recovery would result in changes that make it impossible to return to the pre-2008 era lifestyle. Change was in the wind long before the 2008-2009 Great Recession. The rapidity of change accelerated in the post-2009 period.

Recovery was not universal. Large portions of the middle class, especially blue collar workers, continue to struggle. The value of a college education now has more to do with student loan debt than the ability to find a high paying job. The 2008-2009 Recession solidified America’s shift from an industrial to a digital service economy.

As 2016 ends, consumer confidence continues to climb slowly, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at record levels, unemployment is at its lowest point in years, inflation is modest, and a businessman will be the nation’s new president. The general mood should be euphoric. Yet, a subtle malaise continues. Forget holiday spending. Conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. Americans have adopted a “wait and see” approach.

The impact of the 2008-2009 Great Recession on the antiques and collectibles trade produced mixed results. In the good news department, the secondary antiques and collectibles market has reached bottom. Prices have stopped falling. Sellers accepted reality and adjusted their asking prices downward. Simply put, antiques and collectibles are available at bargain prices. Affordability has returned to the marketplace.

The bad news is that potential buyers have learned to ask the dreaded question: “Do I really need this?’ Far too often, buyers answer “no.” The average “unit sale” number continues to decline, albeit more slowly than five years earlier.

As in the general economy, recovery has been slower in some collecting categories than in others. It is apparent that some collecting categories will never recover, even though objects in those collecting category sell for 10 to 25 cents on the dollar compared to 2010 prices.

8. The end of an era – the passing of the 20th century traditional collector

The traditional mid-20th century antiques and collectibles collector is fading from the scene. The collector base for many collecting categories continues to age. The ability to attract new collectors that share the same passion and enthusiasm of the traditionalists is minimal. As the traditionalists pass away or decide to divest, their collections re-enter the marketplace. Auctions, flea marks, malls, shops, shows, and other sale venues are flooded with common (average) and hard-to-find items. Even at reduced prices, the sell through rate is below 20 percent.

The traditionalist support base is eroding. Many collectors’ clubs have disappeared or are grasping for breath. Membership continues to drop. The Golden Age of the printed general and specialized price guides is over. Schiffer Books’ new titles are reference/checklist focused. Many do not include prices. KP/Krause Publications, an imprint of F+W Media, now is more selective in the guides that it publishes. Attempts to sell antiques and collectibles titles as eBooks has met with strong resistance.

The decline of trade periodicals has been checked. Survivors include “AntiqueWeek,” “Maine Antique Digest,” and the stronger regional periodicals. Others, such as “Antique Trader,” still are struggling. Several specialized periodicals disappeared during the past five years.

If there is a new traditionalist collector, one with which Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z (Entitled Generation) can identify, the concept is undefined at the moment. This is a frightening prospect. Collecting is alive and well. The challenge is to convince collectors that they are not individualists but part of a greater whole. Is the concept of “general” collecting community still possible? The next five years are critical.

As with the previous Top 10 List, I initially planned two columns. Once I made my topic list, I realized this was not possible. Although there a few “high-end” histories written about collectors, I know of no general history of the antiques and collectibles industry nor of any writer working on one. The “Rinker on Collectibles” text columns serve as a chronicle of the trade’s journey from the mid-1980s to the present. As such, I opt for length over brevity when interpreting a point.

Now that my readers see where I am heading, I welcome their recommendations of additional trends I should consider. Email me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

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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