Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018

Rethinking the Past

It is 2018. Depending on how you count, 17 or 18 years have passed since the beginning of the 21st century. The first 18 years of the 20th century witnessed several monumental changes including manned flight, the arrival of the automobile, and the beginning of World War I. The same is true for the first 18 years of the 21st century. The 2008-2009 recession is one example.

Babies born in the first years of the 21st century are graduating from high school. Those born after 1990 grew up in the 21st century. The 20th century is rapidly becoming the distant past. The Teens no longer mean 1910s but 2010s.

Age shapes how one views the past. Individuals often view the past as the time before their memory began. Hence, the past begins around 1943-1944 for me. For my granddaughter Sofia, the past begins around 2011-2012. The past is a relative term.

As a historian by training, the past plays an important role in my life, especially given my interest in how the past causes different generations to view antiquities, antiques, and collectibles. While this viewpoint is personal and not universal, I work hard to identify the common threads applicable to all generations.

I recently read Ben Allison’s article entitled “8 Antique Investing Trends for the Next Decade.” (See: www.antiquesage.com/8-antique-investing-trends-next-decade/). Allison bills himself as the Antique Sage. Although several of his “trends” piqued my curiosity, it was his fifth trend—18th century antiques will become the new 17th century antiques—that created the musing that follows.

Allison’s explanation reads: “Right now, high quality antiques from the late 18th century – the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s—are still reasonably available in the marketplace. But those antiques are currently at least 220 years old. And, as the 21st century rolls on, the 18th century will disappear further and further into the mists of the past.

“In effect, the 18th century – along with all the wonderful Rococo, Neoclassical and Georgian antiques from that time – will soon be seen as distant from us, temporarily speaking, as the 17th century does. Progressively fewer of these beautiful, old, 18th century antiques will be accessible to collectors over the decade. As supplies dwindle [and] the recognition of this trend increase[s], prices will predictably rise.”

With the exception of high-end pieces, Allison’s assumption about values rising for common and above average 18th century pieces, especially American pieces, is false. The low and middle end of the market for 18th century American material is flat or falling depending on which collectibles subcategory is studied. Allison’s conclusion is based on the assumption that 21st century antiques buyers will be influenced by the same passion and interests of 20th century antique buyers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When lecturing on American furniture design styles, I start with the Queen Anne period. I ignore the seventeenth century styles. Most examples are in museums. Those which are not are only of interest to a minute group of collectors and museum curators. When I last taught American furniture design, I carefully considered ignoring the Queen Anne period. I did not but will in the future. In fact, I might ignore the 18th century in its entirety. Post World War II Modernist furniture would be the beneficiary of the extra available time. This is the hot market among 21st century collectors. In 2018, the studio furniture movement is focused on 21st century artisans as opposed to early 20th century artisans. The ability of museum exhibits and personnel to influence what collectors collect waned considerably in the 20th century.

Allison’s point raises a much more interesting concept. How far back does an object have to date before it loses its relevance to the vast majority of collectors? After giving this matter a great deal of thought, the conservative answer is somewhere between 1850 and 1870. For renegades such as myself, the “right answer” appears to be 1890 to 1910.

[Author’s Aside: I am not suggesting that there are no American collectors for pre-1850 or pre-1890 American objects. There are. “How many are there?” is the critical question. The number decreases every year. The reasons are many and of no importance here.]

In 2018, America will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its entrance into World War I. America’s historical societies and museums mounted exhibitions exploring various aspects of the event. However, the American public appears to have taken a “who gives a damn” attitude. In the past 100th anniversaries were celebrated. Today, more often than not, they are ignored. Has the increasing number of individuals living to be 100 caused 100 to become a ho-hum number?

In an era of large and nucleated families, the past was defined in terms of grandparents and occasionally great grandparents. This is no longer true in the 21st century. The interaction between grandparent and grandchildren no longer enjoys the same level of intensity as in the past. Grandparents no longer live down the street. A grandchild is lucky if the grandparents are within less than an hour’s drive time.

The breaking of this link has enormous consequences, especially in respect to collecting. Grandchildren have little personal involvement and connection with their grandparent’s things. Far more serious is that family stories are lost. An oral history tradition requires contact time. Where older generations found these stories interesting and compelling, today’s digital age grandchildren could care less. Far too often, Grandma and Grandpa’s role is that of Mr. and Mrs. Money Bags.

The above leads to a foreshortening of the time required to create a past. A hundred years is too generous a timeframe. The past is rapidly become anything older than sixty years. Whether I like it or not, my childhood and early adulthood are the past to my children and grandchildren.

The Monday, January 8, 2017, “Grand Rapids Free Press,” contained an article entitled “Millennial Living.” Point 4 was headlined “More Michiganders are never getting married.” The article noted: “the share of never-married rose significantly for adults 35 and older over the past decade. In 2006, for instance, 6 percent of Michigan residents aged 55 to 64 had never married. By 2016, the percentage for that age group had almost doubled to 11 percent. In other groups: “Ages 35-44 went from 17 percent to 24 percent; Ages 45-54 went from 11 percent to 16 percent.” The percentages were highest for members of the African-American and Hispanic communities.” The past quickly loses meaning to the last member of a family line. Further, for most, the only future about which they care is their own.

Some of these unmarried individuals will cohabit and have children. The number percentage is less than those of married couples. There is no past without children to preserve it, another “who gives a damn” attitude of the 21st century.

I am not obsessed with the past. I am a significant part of it. What fascinates or “wonders me,” as my Pennsylvania German ancestors would say, about the past is that it is not a fixed entity. It has a continuous fluid-like motion. It is always changing. It is never at rest.

A desire to save, study, and respect the past plays a critical role in the antiques and collectibles marketplace. As all collectors learn, it is impossible to save all the past. A collector must be selective. The date where that selectivity ends continues to move forward.

When I began “Rinker on Collectibles” in 1986, my goal was to focus on the blossoming 20th century collectibles as opposed to the antiques market. Although I touted a 1900 starting date, I tried hard not to write about anything made before 1920. In two more years, 1920 will be a hundred years ago. The 1920s is the distant past. Is it time to restrict my column to things made after 1945 or even 1963?

What do you think? Email your thoughts to harrylrinker@aol.com.  

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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