Column #1586

Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2017

Impact of Functionality on Secondary Market Value

Most antiques and collectibles began life as functional objects. Over time, many reached a point where their collectible value exceeded their secondary market functional (reuse) value. The 1990s shattered the myth that collecting value was sacrosanct. The 2008-2009 Great Recession resulted in a substantial decline and, in some cases, almost total loss, of the collectible value in multiple collecting categories.

During my career, I argued that no functional object ever loses its total value. One can always sit on a chair, sleep in a bed, eat from a plate, and drink out of a glass. In addition, as long as an object has conversation or decorative value, it maintains a modicum of value. The obvious conclusion is that no object, unless damaged, is worthless, albeit its worth may be less than ten dollars.

Recent events have caused me to rethink this assertion. The possibility now exists that an object whose functionality has disappeared may no longer have any appeal – collecting, decorative/conversation, or reuse. As a historian, I cringe at the prospect. I devote my life to studying and preserving objects from the past. Relegating an antique or collectible to the landfill is an anathema. Someone should save it.

[Author’s Aside #1: Intellectually, I know that I should not be that person. I have saved more than my fair share. There is no room for more stuff in my Kentwood home. I am too old, need my funds for my retirement, and should start downsizing rather than continuing to upsize. All of which does not help explain why I recently unloaded six boxes of 19th and 20th century glass and an ocarina collection (who does not need a collection of ocarinas) from the back of the car into my garage. There is no room in the basement.]

In mid-May 2017, I helped Barb Jersey select items from an estate to take to The Gallery in Old Town, her Lansing, Michigan, estate sale location. There was a collection of more than 15 glass bread plates, some with religious slogans such as “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” and others with an American historical theme. When I asked Barb about her ability to sell them, Barb responded: “I would be lucky to get a few dollars each.”

Throughout my career in the antiques and collectibles field, I have taken pride in my ability to understand what creates secondary market value for an object at any given moment. I do not accept the stock answer that “no one collects them any longer.” I want (need) to know why.

I was a youngster in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, the transitional period between the Depression and Modernist eras. The remnants of the Victorian Age lingered in the background. Vanished traditions remain as fond memories.

A plate of bread was a standard condiment on my family’s kitchen table. By the mid-1950s, a salad plate served a dual function—bread or salad plate. I do not remember my parents having a turn-of-the-century plate specifically designated for bread, albeit I did see them at the homes of my cousin’s grandparents and some of my great aunts and uncles.

[Author’s Aside #2: Between breakfast, dinner, and sandwiches for school, I ate a great deal of bread. Bread was in Group 6 and butter in Group 7 (I never ate margarine; I could not stand the taste). Bread and butter were part of the 1950s “Basic Seven Foods” that needed to appear daily on the table to ensure good nutrition. Occasionally supplemented by hot biscuits, the majority of the bread I ate was of the chemically enhanced variety, primarily Bond Bread. Why? The end labels were collectible. The Hopalong Cassidy labels were my favorite.]

If bread is served at the table today, it appears in a nondescript basket, just as it does at most restaurants. Baskets do not break and, even better, do not need washing. Excessive bread consumption now is considered unhealthy. A turn-of-the-20th century bread plate, glass or otherwise, no longer has any functionality. Cheaper than new is not a saving grace. If no one wants something, it has no value.

While assisting Barb and her staff with pricing pieces in advance of the opening day of her estate sale, a staff member showed me a 3” conical shaped glass with a “C” handle, and a round flat base. “How was this glass used,” the staff member asked. I examined the form and quickly developed a “damned if I know” look. I eliminated juice and liquor, although filled with a shot of Jack the quantity surely would increase a person’s mellowness. In jest, I said, “maybe a three o’clock coffee.” The staff member’s raised eyebrows suggested I was out of my mind.

I was not. In the course of my travels, I found Victorian dinnerware services that had as many as five different sized cups and saucers, each to be used at a specific hour of the day. Victorian dining etiquette had very specific rules for how much coffer and/or tea was acceptable at what time of the day. There are only a limited number of individuals today who can differentiate a four o’clock cup and saucer from a six o’clock cup and saucer. The latter is larger.

Early American Pattern Glass contained two forms—spooners (spoon holders) and celleries—whose functionality has vanished. When dining at Grandpa Prosser’s home on East Depot Street in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, in the early 1950s, the kitchen table was set with a plate accompanied by a knife and fork. A spooner holding mismatched spoons sat in the center of the table. If a person needed a spoon, he/she took one. Occasionally, there was a glass container holding celery. It was identical to the spooner but stood about two inches higher. When collecting pattern glass was in vogue, form collectors assembled large celery and spooner collections. In the modern world of repurposing, pattern glass celeries and spooners have no practical purpose. The functionality of these objects is gone.

When doing research for my book on stemware patterns at Replacements, Ltd., I marveled at the number of glass forms found in many of the stemware patterns. Eight to twelve forms were common. Where is a claret when one is needed? When encountering modern stemware patterns, the number of available forms was limited to three or four.

My mother’s Depression era glass stemware service contained sherbets, a small stemmed glass dish used for desert. My mother never served sherbet at meals, formal or informal. The Rinkers ate rich, creamy ice cream, usually served in a saucer. The sherbets did appear at holiday meals filled with a canned fruit cocktail mix. The sugary syrup covering the water-saturated fruit, especially the cherries, evoke fond memories. If reused today, these sherbets most likely hold champagne. Even this function is under attack because of the modern use of flutes.

The list of functionless antiques and collectibles objects grows continuously. I started to make a list – flour sifters, egg beaters, counter top meat grinders, salts, match holders – and then stopped. The list threatened to run into multiple pages. The concept was depressing.

I have no love for the proposition that if an object has no use, it should be discarded. Yet, it explains why many antiques and collectibles are disappearing from the market place. For older collectors, memory generation is the only value these objects offer. When these older collectors touch or view an object, they are transported back in time. Even if the journey lasts only a few seconds, the trip is worthwhile.

A question arises as to how many of these functionless objects need to be saved. A study of historical sites, historical societies, and museums is likely to reveal that a sufficient number have already been saved. Perhaps it is okay to allow additional survivors to find their way to the landfill or the dollar antiques and collectibles outlets run by estate and garage sale liquidators.

I am not certain what I am going to do when Barb next calls for help. I do not need to acquire more boxes of goodies to store in the garage. Maybe, I should just not answer her calls. 

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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