Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2017

Is Collecting an Endangered Species?

The Call for a National Sympoisum

For the past three decades, collectors have been faced with a serious challenge. How do I convince others to love and collect what I love and collect? The long-term survival of a collecting category is measured by the ability of older collectors to attract new generations of collectors. Historically, this responsibility fell to collectors’ clubs and collecting category champions. In the last two decades, many collectors’ clubs have vanished from the scene or watched their numbers shrink. Collecting category champions have aged to the point where most have withdrawn from the field.

In the digital age, collecting has become increasingly specialized. Rather than creating greater interaction, the digital age has resulted in increasing isolation. Group dynamics are limited to a series of “friends” who interact only in cyberspace. Face to face, touchy-feely is becoming obsolete. Objects are now two-dimensional images rather than something to possess, hold, and cherish.

In June 2017, Dordy Fontinel, owner of Dordy Fontinel Show Management, and I started an email dialogue and phone exchange sharing our observations about what is happening in the antiques and collectibles field. In one of the early exchanges, Dordy lamented the lack of interest in traditional antiques in general by young buyers. She noted in a June 3, 2017 email referencing a 2014 Antique Summit held in Richmond, Virginia: “During the summit, a market person from a Pennsylvania auction house who was 26 years old stood up and said: ‘The problem is that people your age are trying to sell what you like to people my age; and, we don’t like it.’ The room was silent.” In an August 16, 2017 email, Dordy informed me: “I recently sent out a survey to my dealers and a separate one to the 11,000 customers on my email list. I have spent most of the past 3 days responding to the surveys. It is very depressing. Most dealers are quitting or cutting back by 80%. Customers are clueless for the most part and don’t understand why shows are smaller and disappearing, yet admit they attend mostly for the entertainment and have no interest in buying any more.” The key point is that Dordy’s concerns are not focused on a single collecting category but “antiques,” one of the major market elements along with collectibles, desirables, and reusables that define the antiques and collectibles marketplace.

Twelve years have passed since the 2005 Neuwirth Research study of the antiques and collectibles industry commissioned by eBay’s Collectibles Division. It is worth reviewing its results and using them as measures against what is happening now.

eBay’s definition of “Collectibles” lumped a wide variety of collecting under one roof – antiques, collectibles, coins, stamps, and contemporary collectibles products (desirables). Hence, the data need careful interpretation.

The eBay data revealed that just over 60% of Americans collect something. In a 2006 “Rinker on Collectibles” column (#1016), I suggested the number was even higher, offering 75% as my estimate. I was convinced America was a nation of collectors and the world’s leader. Collecting was embedded in the American spirit. I now question this. During the past decade, Americans’ commitment to collecting has shrunk dramatically. Although I have no evidence except a gut feeling, I believe the current percentage of Americans committed to collecting has shrunk to less than 40 percent.

The 2005 survey also reported there were over 30,000 separate, identifiable collecting categories on the internet. At the time, Rinker Enterprises, Inc., my antiques and collectibles education and research center, tracked approximately 1,500 categories. I expressed concern about the increasing subcategory fragmentation within collecting categories and indicated the fragmentation was more detrimental than helpful. The passage of time has proven me correct.

Collectors are collection focused. Their world is determined by how they define their collection. The narrower the collecting interest, the less interest in the general collecting category of which it is a part. Interest and identification with the general market segment (antiques, collectibles, desirables, or reusable) in which their general collecting category falls is minimal to non-existent. While this always has been a problem within the trade, it has reached epic proportions in the digital age.

My professional antiques and collectibles career has been collecting category focused. I tracked trends within collecting categories, watching them rise, ebb, and occasionally fall. I was convinced that collecting as a concept was sacrosanct and not subject to question. In the past several years, I identified a number of “endangered collecting categories,” categories for which the number of collectors and collector interest was diminishing to the point where the collecting categories were likely to reach extinction in the next few decades. To my regret, the list of categories continues to increase. Try as I might, I am unable to develop arguments or methods to stem the tide.

Six months ago, I started to question whether my focus was incorrect. Was the problem bigger than trying to save or revive an existing collecting category or categories? The more I thought about this, the answer became obvious. It is not collecting categories that are endangered, it is the concept of collecting itself. Aware that collecting as a concept was under attack, I never dreamed that the attack might succeed. I now am scared that it will.

Early in “Rinker on Collectibles” I wrote a column entitled “Rinker’s Rule of 10” in which I argued that one needed a minimum of 10 similar objects to have a collection – a tongue in cheek approach. The 1980s was the beginning of an era when a small antique or collectible collection included 50 to 100 objects, medium size collections more than 250 examples, and a large collection exceeded 500. By the 1990s, a large collection numbered in the thousands. Collections containing over 5,000 objects were more common than many realize. With the dawn of the 21st century, new collectors suddenly were content with much smaller collections. In 2017, with some exceptions, a collection consisting of more than 500 objects is huge.

The decline of collecting does not mean that antiques and collectibles do not have appeal. Individuals continue to buy them but nor for the purpose of collecting them. Nostalgia buyers, those wishing to buy back a favorite childhood memory, always have been part of the antiques and collectibles trade. These individuals are “one-time” buyers. They exit the market as soon as their demand has been fulfilled. Art, an addicted auction buyer who lives in San Antonio, wrote in an August 29, 2017, email: “Strange as it may be, we just sold a hand crank Pfaff sewing machine for $245 on our Etsy store to a girl who used a similar machine, that her mother had purchased in 1970, to make her wedding dress in the 1990s. She is going to give the machine to her daughter.” Hopefully, she asked her daughter if she wants it. Individual nostalgia memories are difficult to impossible to pass down.

In 2017, the key question is not what young people collect but whether they collect at all. Again, until recently, I firmly believed they did collect, albeit not traditional antiques and collectibles. The more I try to identify what younger generations collect, the more I struggle to find viable answers.

This column concludes with a call for a national symposium, targeted for the fall of 2018, to explore the future of collecting. Dordy Fontinel, who organized “The Antique Summit,” has offered her assistance. The location has not been determined. It is my hope that leading members of the trade such as auctioneers, collectors’ clubs, publishers, show promoters, and others will step forward with financial support. Volunteers are needed to help with the planning and implementation. Once the format is determined, a call for papers/presenters will be issued. For the moment, I will serve as the contact person and can be reached at harrylrinker@aol.com.

This symposium is not about saving a collecting category. It will be about saving an industry.

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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