RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1564
Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2016
Top Ten Changes in the Last Five Years (2011-2016) - Part IIThis is the second column of a three-part series analyzing the Top Ten changes that occurred between 2011 and 2016 in the antiques and collectibles field. Many changes began prior to 2011 but solidified at some point during the past five years. Changes analyzed in the 25th Year Series, such as the increasing loss of friends along with trendiness and market unpredictability, continued. The ten changes I chose are “new” in respect to the magnitude of their impact.
I ranked the Top Ten changes in order of importance and am presenting in reverse order. ROC #1562, the previous column in this series, covered: No. 10 – Decreasing prestige associated with owning antiques and collectibles; No. 9 – Slow and often painful recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession; and, No. 8 – The end of an era – the passing of the 20th century traditional collector. This column focuses on the next four changes.
7. Shifting importance within sale venues
In the early 1980s, I visited Fresno, California, to see first-hand a new sales venue called an antiques mall. Antiques malls swept through the industry in the 1980s and early 1990s. In September 1995, eBay arrived, establishing the online auction as one of the earliest Digital Age sale sources. Live online bidding, storefront websites, and stand-alone store websites followed.
More than 20 years have passed without the creation of a new sale venue that has impacted the antiques and collectibles trade to the degree of the antiques mall and eBay. The Golden Age of the Antiques Mall has passed. The growth rate of new malls has slowed to a crawl. The Golden Age of eBay’s impact on antiques and collectibles is waning. eBay is no longer small seller friendly. The unreserved auction which drew buyers to eBay has been replaced by a “Buy It Now” approach. Once the home to bargains and competitive bidding, eBay is now a full priced and then some website for antiques and collectibles.
While Heritage Galleries in Dallas might be third on the income list of American auction galleries, it is Number One in terms of the variety, quality, and amount of merchandise sold. Although starting to succumb to the temptation to turn down lower priced lots, it still offers material for the buyer with limited funds. Like other national and regional auction houses, Heritage is creating satellite offices. The big are getting bigger, meaning less room for the little guy and new startups. More and more regional and national auction houses are abandoning printed catalogs, choosing instead to rely on internet catalog postings.
Fueled by an aging dealer base that cannot be replaced, unwillingness of show dealers to pay deposits a year ahead, and rising site rental, insurance, and advertising costs, the cancellation of shows continues. There are customers during the first few hours. Empty aisles appear around mid-afternoon. The show promoter base is aging. Replacing them will be difficult. Young people do not want to work that hard and do not see positive long-term growth.
Thanks to the internet, one on one sales are growing. Tracking these sales is difficult, especially because buyers and sellers prefer anonymity. Do not trust any rumors about what sold privately and the amount of the sale.
Estate sales is the growth area taking advantage of the “I just want you to get rid of the stuff” mindset. Commissions now range from 40 to 50 percent. I have documented a few instances when the commission reached 65 percent. Although most estate sale companies are individually owned, “super” companies averaging more than 200 sale per year are emerging.
Finally, some auction houses and estate sale companies are experimenting with selling everything via the Internet. Results are mixed. There is no way buyers, especially collectors, can track the myriad number of sales.
6. Growing specialization
In the mid-2000s, eBay identified over 30,000 separate antiques and collectibles collecting categories. The number continues to grow. The age of the “generalist” collector is over, the result of an object abundance and the high unit cost of top-end pieces.
General collecting categories, such as ceramics, now break down into dozens of subcategories, hundreds of secondary subcategories, and thousands of third tier subcategories. The result is that it is (1) hard to determine the correct collecting category and level to which an object belongs and (2) those objects which can be assigned to more than one sub-level within a collecting category have a different financial value to each level’s potential buyers. “What is an object worth?” is no longer an easy question to answer.
Specialization isolates the collector. The collector is no longer part of a great whole, a point that is reinforced by a number of the trends I am analyzing in this series. A community of collectors, even a small one, has been a driving force in sustaining collecting within a collecting category for over 100 years. The loss of community prevents the passion and enthusiasm for a specific class of objects from being transferred from one generation to another.
5. Growth sectors: International and Regional
Although the antiques and collectibles market is global, it is filled with contradictions. There are objects that sell only in the country in which they were made and/or distributed. Yet, the Modernist and brand name markets are worldwide. Design and name are the keys. Country of manufacture is a secondary value.
Foreign buyers divide into two basic groups; (1) those buying back their country’s heritage and (2) those buying for speculative purposes. Both groups are highly dependent upon the current exchange rate and shifting trends in the global financial markets. Chinese buyers, the darlings of the market for the past five years, are withdrawing from the market, especially for American and European fine and decorative arts. Where are the Russian oligarchs when they are needed?
As the dollar strengthens, American sale venues from auctions to shows will witness fewer foreign buyers. With American collector interest diminishing in antique and 20th century European objects, a strong dollar will not impact as much as European sellers would like.
Five years ago, I would have argued that regional value was diminishing in importance compared to national and international value. The reverse is true in 2016. Regionalism is one of the hottest secondary antiques and collectibles market segments. The buyers are not individuals with generational regional roots but newcomers who use objects to identify with their new surroundings. Strong sales of regional objects on eBay confirm this trend.
The critical question is: how long will the trend last? The trend began following 9/11 when Americas turned inward and looked backward to find comfort. Fifteen years have passed, a long time for a “feeling” to continue. Trump’s nationalistic “Make America Great” slogan promises to strengthen the regionalism market further. Assuming a strong regional market continues into the 2020s, the 250th anniversary American Revolution celebrations will continue to fuel the regional marketplace.
4. Shifting buyer base
More antiques and collectibles are bought for decorating and reuse than for collecting purposes. The percentage has increased for the last five years and shows no promise of reversing. It makes little difference if the decorator is professional or amateur or the reuser is buying to help save the environment or looking for something cheaper than new.
Decorating and reuse trends follow the pathway of never ending change. The magazines that set the fashionable tastes for these buyers are never content with “same old, same old.” What is in today is more than likely out tomorrow. Antiques and collectibles sellers are at wit’s end when it comes to deciding what objects to carry in inventory.
There are clear generational shifts in collecting emphasis. The shifts begin when each generation reaches their 30s and continues through the generation’s late 50s. As a result, multiple shifts happen simultaneously. In 2016, determining the potential collecting appeal of an object requires the seller to determine in which generation the strongest buyers are found.
Collectors lock into a fixed collecting mindset in their 30s, earlier for the Baby Boomer generations. Once locked, the mindset does not change. Thus, collectors find it difficult to accept and adjust to secondary antiques and collectibles market collecting shifts. The Age of the Millennials is ascending.
The Age of Aquarius is below the horizon. Analyzing and the interpreting the antiques and collectibles market from a new perspective is difficult, especially for older individuals. How can a person who never used a PlayStation or X-Box understand the generations that did and still do? In ten years, one might ask the same question but substitute a Galaxy Google for a PlayStation and X-Box. In my own defense, I now have an android phone.
[Author’s Aside: Once I finish this series, I plan to devote an entire column to analyzing and interpreting the immediate and long-term impact of Millennials on the trade.]
The final column in this series will reveal my Top Three choices. Can you guess what they are?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.