RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES —
Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2017
Now You See It, Now You Do NotAlthough not a Woody Harrelson fan, I enjoyed watching the movies “Now You See Me” and “Now You See Me 2.” The stories center around four illusionists, known as The Horseman, and their quest to become members of The Eye, a secret society of magicians. The action is fast paced. The tricks, albeit explained, are aided in their deception by the cinematic camera. Two lessons conveyed by the film are (1) appearances are deceiving and (2) one misses more than one sees.
Among collecting truisms, a person never sees something until he/she is looking for it is a classic. I recently acquired a late nineteenth century, Fabrique de Geneve, 10-play, cylinder music box with a tambourine and five German silver bells. The music box was unrestored and in semi-playable condition. After doing research, I discovered one of the foremost music box restorers lived in central Florida. When Linda and I drove from our home in Kentwood, Michigan to our Altamonte Springs, Florida condo recently, I brought the box along, met with the restorer, and am excited about viewing and hearing the restored music box in a few months.
My brother, in every sense but blood, Hansmartin Hertlein, lives in nearby Casselberry, Florida. When I told him about my purchase, he had trouble understanding what I purchased. After arriving in Florida, I convinced him to accompany me to the home of the restorer. Once there, he had a chance to see my recently acquired box and several others. He was fascinated.
On our way back, Hansmartin mentioned he was unfamiliar with music boxes, having never really seen examples. Knowing that he visited the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, which has a music room filled with music boxes that are played at regular intervals during the day, I responded, “Surely, you remember seeing them at the Lightner.” He did not. He saw them but did not remember them because he was not looking for them.
I informed Hansmartin that the strongest secondary music box market is Europe, particularly the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. I referenced several visits I made to specialized horology shops in these countries and the astronomical prices, two to three time above those in the American market, on the music boxes that I saw. Once again, Hansmartin had a blank look on his face. In the course of his travels, he no doubt wandered by dozens of antique horology shops but never looked in the windows. The contents did not interest him.
When I asked my good friend Sandy Marrone, one of America’s premier sheet music dealers, to find me sheet music with jigsaw puzzle themed covers and/or songs about jigsaw puzzles, her immediate response was “they do not exist.” I assured her I thought they did and to keep her eyes open. She did, finding several within her own sheet music collection. My jigsaw puzzle sheet music collection is small, approximately 10 sheets. Sandy found all of them.
When visiting an antiques and collectibles auction, flea market, mall, shop, or show, there is no way one sees everything, although some deceive themselves into thinking they did. I lost count of the number of times I previewed an auction, watched a piece come up for bid, and thought to myself “I do not remember seeing that.” There is only so much the mind can absorb.
One of the many things I love about antiques and collectibles is that when I see something I have not encountered previously, remember I probably saw examples but failed to notice them, a hunt begins. It often takes less than a week to discover a wide range of identical or similar objects available on the internet. When in the field, the desired object now jumps out from the crowded mass of material in a case or booth.
Many collectors believe luck plays a major role in their colleting finds. No, it does not. The key is subliminal awareness. Without conscious effort, the object a collector seeks reveals itself. The collector has programmed his/her eyes to find it.
When asked what techniques I use to track the antiques and collectibles marketplace, I talk about running through a flea market, mall, or show before shopping it. As I walk quickly through the show, I focus on three questions: (1) what am I seeing that I saw before – a continuing trend, (2) what is missing – a declining trend, and (3) what has been moved from the floor or corner and put into a place of prominence – a hot trend. As the twenty-first century dawned, I added a fourth criteria – what specialty dealers are missing. I remember attending flea markets in the 1980s and early 1990s when there were dozens of specialized Depression Glass and Pattern Glass dealers. See how many you count during your next visit to a flea market, mall, shop, or show.
I recently had an email exchange with Darwin, a pattern glass collector who lives near Bowie, Texas. He described himself as “sooo Old School I have a huge book library on glass and I get ticked when young folks can’t find an ID on an item and I go straight to the book.” In one of our exchanges, he commented: “I believe that today people would love to collect nice items (Flow Blue, Elegant glass, cut glass, etc.) but it is just not available in any kind of quantity to satisfy a collector, that is why Pyrex and such is so Hot in the market now. Young people collect what they can find.”
I have given Darwin’s lament a great deal of thought. Although I disagree, he identified another “now you see it, now you do not” antiques and collectibles conundrum. A flea market, mall, shop, or show dealer’s goal is to display saleable merchandise. The same is true for an auction. The ideal object is one that generates multiple bids. After displaying objects that fail to attract customers, sellers will discontinue offering them. It makes no sense to take up sales space with objects no one wants.
[Author’s Aside: This runs counter to several established assumptions made by traditional sellers. First, there is a buyer for every object. Second, if the right buyer does not appear at present, he/she will in the future. Traditionalist dealers refuse to believe in the prospect that there are no longer buyers and never will be buyers in the future.]
I have watched the secondary market for cut glass, Elegant glass, and Flow Blue collapse. They are just three of more than 100 traditional antiques collecting categories that have fallen on hard times. Reality is painful on occasion.
I considered asking Darwin to conduct an experiment. Compile a group of commonly found cut glass, Elegant glass, and Flow Blue, rent a table at an antiques and collectibles flea market, post a sign that read “Your Choice. $10.00,” and see how many pieces sell. If Darwin is right, all the pieces will sell. My guess is the majority will not. Any auctioneer or estate sale manager will confirm my assumption.
Collecting is no longer a matter of availability and affordability. Collecting now focuses on one simple premise. Is the object desirable or not desirable? Historically, collectors and dealers determined desirability. Next decorators and fashion trendsetters became the dominant determiners. Today, the decision is personal. In this age of eclectic tastes, anything goes. But to paraphrase Orwell, all antiques and collectibles are equal but some antiques and collectibles are more equal than others.
The desire to see is at the heart of the “now you see it, now you do not” conundrum. In order for a collecting revival to happen, an event has to trigger a desire to see, seek, and buy. In the past, collecting, Country, and decorator magazines and periodicals, museum exhibits, media exposure, and/or a celebrity endorsement did the trick. Consider what Martha Stewart did for Jadite. That was then, this is now.
In the twenty-first century, the problem is bigger than individual collecting categories. It is the act of collecting itself. Fewer and fewer individuals collect. Now you see them, now you do not. This trend is not an illusion. The collectors are not hiding. They are disappearing. At this point, I trust I will not live long enough to see them become an endangered species.
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 email@example.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.