Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2017

Measuring the Strength of a Collecting Category

How many collectors are there for “x” (collecting category)? The answer involves more guesswork than reliable statistical data. Because collecting is global, the answer for many collecting categories requires so many qualifications that any number is questionable.

Why is this number so important? First, the number of collectors, open or hidden, is limited. There is a maximum number of collectors for every collecting category, no matter how specialized the category. Second, the number of collectors for a collecting category changes continually based on a wide range of factors – collectors’ age, desirability / trendiness, and memory. Many collecting categories suffer from the inability to replace older collectors with younger collectors. Third, there is a value correlation between the number of collectors and number of available objects in that category in the secondary marketplace. When the number of objects available for sale exceeds the number of collectors by a margin of five times or greater, the market is flooded. The times number takes into account the fact that some purchases are utilitarian or memory and not collector driven. Fourth, there is a wealth of fake news regarding the numbers of individuals who collect “x” thanks to the digital age. A website hit or inquiry does not indicate a committed collector. In the 2010s, committed collectors are an endangered species.

Prior to the digital age, it was much easier to measure the strength of a collecting category. The first method was to count the number of reference books published about that specific category. When a reference book, especially if it contained prices, was printed annually or semiannually, the collecting category was strong. When over five years passed without a new title being published, the collecting category was viewed as in serious decline, indicating collectors were aging and prices were declining. “Rinker’s Five Book Rule” is that the fifth book about a collecting category published within a four-year period indicates the collecting category has peaked. The 21st century decline in the publication of new and revised edition antiques and collectibles reference books negates this latter measure.

A collectors’ club with an increasing membership and an active program that included a newsletter, annual convention, and regional chapters was another strength indicator. My general rule was to take the number of club members and multiple it by five to obtain a good sense of the number of committed collectors for that collecting category.

Most collectors are closet collectors, individuals who prefer to keep their collecting habits and collections private. They collect on an individual basis and share their collecting interest with a small, select group of friends. They are not joiners.

A collectors’ club with a membership that exceeded 1,000 was the exception, not the rule. In the 1980s, the Hummel Collectors’ Club membership exceeded 30,000. That was then, this is now. The Hummel Collectors’ Club remains but is a shadow of its former self. Most collectors’ clubs had memberships ranging from 300 to 700 individuals. My study of collectors’ clubs over the years indicates there is a threshold membership number. Once reached, it is difficult to exceed.

Compared to the 1980s, the number of antiques and collectibles collectors’ clubs has decreased by two-thirds. My initial inclination was to write 75 percent but felt the number was too negative. Hence, collectors’ clubs are no longer a valid measuring tool unless you are a “bad” news junkie.

Noting the number of objects from a specific collecting category that appeared for sale in the field or at auction was another method of measuring a collecting category’s strength. The assumption was that dealers had no interest in offering something they could not sell. If this criteria were applied in 2017, the obvious conclusion would be that the vast majority of collecting categories are seriously endangered.

When eBay was primarily a sell through auction site in the 1990s, it was a good barometer of the strength of a collecting category. In 2017, eBay is primarily a “Buy It Now” dealer site and no longer a reliable indicator of a collecting category’s strength. eBay’s did not sell listings do have some value as a negative indicator.

The number of times information appeared about a specific collecting category in antiques and collectibles trade periodicals was another measure of a category’s strength. The major decline of trade periodicals in the late 1990s and 2000s made this approach unreliable.

Finally, one or more champions, equivalent to a White Knight who worked actively to promote a specific collecting category, was a good strength measure. These individuals, such as Gene Florence for Depression era glass and Richard O’Brien for toys, were Giants, maintaining collector interest in their favored collecting category for decades. The White Knight roundtable appears to have disbanded in the 2000s. Not only have the specific category White Knights disappeared, those who advocated for the general concept of collecting also vanished. Today’s antiques and collectibles television reality stars do not own a horse and any lance they own is pointed at a pocketbook.

Measuring the strength of a specific antiques and collectibles category in the digital age is extremely difficult. In May 2017, I engaged in a series of email exchanges with Darwin, who lives in Texas and is a strong advocate for Early American Pattern glass and other glass categories. Darwin objected to a comment I wrote about the immediate and long-term collecting future of glass, especially pattern glass. He argued his point by informing me that the Early American Pattern Glass page on Facebook had over 10 thousand members. As of August 16, 2016, the site had 11,061 members. On the surface, the number is impressive. The question is how many participate regularly. The answer is very few. Most individual postings are from individuals seeking pattern identification for a piece of pattern glass they inherited/purchased or individuals wishing to share pictures of pieces, mostly high-end, from their collection with other collectors. Contact is often a one-time basis.

As a counter to the over 11,000 Early American Pattern Glass Facebook numbers, a check of the Early American Pattern Glass Society’s website www.eapgs.com revealed the club’s membership was 447 as of August 16, 2017. Using my old five times formula for actual collectors, the number potential number is 2,235, a far too generous estimate given the current state of the Early American Pattern Glass market. Further, when I attempted to telephone several dealers at the numbers listed on the dealer URL, I received a message that the numbers were no longer in service.

Darwin argued that there were multiple Facebook pages for antiques and collectibles identification that exceeded 10,000 members. If there are, I could not find them. Darwin did provide me with a link to the R.S. Prussia Facebook group. It had 1,471 members as of August 17, 2017.

A Facebook page is not equivalent to a collectors’ club. Most Facebook pages prohibit buying and selling, a key component of the collectors’ club environment, especially at annual conventions. Forums on Facebook and other digital websites are an “on-off” experience. Ask a question, get an answer, and leave. Further, there is no indication of the qualifications of the person offering the answer. Many responses are best guesses by “instant” experts with no background or training in the field. Collectors’ clubs attracted some of the top collectors in any collecting category. Members are watchdogs for bad information. There are no information police on the internet.

How does one measure the strength of a collecting category in the digital age? The answer is observation and intuition. Field and auction information is a good starting point. Digital information is overwhelming. Each piece needs careful and considered interpretation.

The undeniable truth is that the antiques and collectibles collector base is fading in all collecting categories. The gain of a few new members by one of the remaining collectors’ clubs is only a temporary fix. The key is not measuring the strength of a specific collecting category but collecting as whole. This answer is starting to worry a great many individuals in the trade.

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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