Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018

Are Antiques and Collectibles Evergreen?

Evergreen trees are symbolic of perpetual life because they retain their needles throughout the year. The concept applies to more than trees.

For a writer, evergreen content is something that is lasting and sustainable. It remains fresh and relevant long after it is first published. It is a concept that is always in the back of my mind when selecting a topic for a “Rinker on Collectibles” column.

I have written 812 “Rinker on Collectibles” text columns to date. Most “Rinker on Collectibles” columns focus on timely and contemporary issues in the trade. As I look back over my “Rinker on Collectibles” archives, I do encounter columns that are as relevant today as when I wrote them, often decades ago. When I retire “Rinker on Collectibles,” I plan to collect 156 of these evergreen columns and offer them to my editors on “a second time around” basis. Do not misinterpret the pervious sentence. “Rinker on Collectibles” is alive and well and hopefully will remain so for several more years.

During a recent conversation with J. E. “Rik” Alvarez, author of a number of reference books about Transformers, he noted: “Transformers are an evergreen collectible.” His comment prompted me to consider the question of whether evergreen antiques and collectibles do exit.

The deep, abiding love collectors feel toward their favorite objects is without question. Their passion, enthusiasm, and unquestionable devotion is more than ample proof. The difficulty is that this love is often so intense that it clouds reality. The possibility that someone could not love what the collector loves is unfathomable. The assumption that future generations will share the same commitment is sacrosanct. Where would this business be without dreamers?

I was known as the “Beanie Meanie” during the Beanie Baby craze. I was the “this too shall pass” naysayer. My opinions were a perfect foil for radio and television hosts seeking controversy for ratings’ sake. At the height of the craze, I was a member of a television panel that was examining the Beanie Baby collecting phenomenon. In addition to me, the panel consisted of one of the leading Beanie Baby price guide authors, a Beanie Bay newsletter editor, and a crazed collector. They believed Beanie Babies would be their life focus until they died.

My comments about the history of manipulated primary and secondary markets, the track record for speculative collectibles bubbles, and that the hoarding of collectibles has never proven lucrative fell on deaf ears. They were Beanie Baby gurus. Their heart told them they were right. The secondary market at the time proved them right. What is true today is not necessarily true tomorrow.

The remark I most remember from the conversation was a claim by one of the panelists that Beanie Babies were the new Hummel figurines. I was too stunned to reply. By the 1990s, the secondary Hummel market was in a state of collapse. Hummel collectors who exited in the early 1980s did benefit from boom market prices. Those who stayed the course watched the value of their treasures plummet. There still are a few who believe that someday the market will turn around. There is no rainbow connection in the antiques and collectibles secondary market. “The lovers, the dreamers, and me” exist only in Muppet movies.

When I began buying American Historical View English Staffordshire in the late 1960s, I was assured by dealers and other collectors that I was creating a retirement fund. Values had risen for almost three-quarters of a century. No dealer raised the possibility that values would decrease. At the time, American Historical View Staffordshire, especially cobalt blue pieces, were a “blue chip” antique. No one identified them as evergreen. Reflecting back to that era, it is clear that blue chip and evergreen were synonymous.

[Author’s Aside #1: Over a decade ago, I argued the age of “blue chip antiques” ended with the arrival of a trend-driven secondary market. The use of “blue chip,” so prevalent in the mid-20th century antiques marketplace, has disappeared. The trade is better for it.]

If there are evergreen antiques and collectibles, what criteria identifies them? Time is critical. The object or objects must stand the test of time. Two generations are not enough. First, the generation who first encountered the object(s) has to die. Second, the children of that generation who were exposed to the object(s) in their parent’s house has to die. Even three generations may not be sufficient. Evergreen is measured in centuries not decades.

More than century have passed since the popularization of the concept of collecting antiques. The practice started in the 1880s and was in full swing by 1900. If a century is essential to determining evergreen status, it is possible to compare the 2015-2020 antiques market with its historic 1915-1920 counterpart. Such a comparison reveals almost no evergreen collecting categories and very few objects. If asked for a list, I would be hard pressed to create one. The differences far exceed the similarities between the two secondary antiques marketplaces.

A hundred years ago, there was no collectibles secondary market. In the 1920s and 1930s, individuals started to collect glassware, with early American, carnival, and pattern glass dominating the market, cast iron and pressed steel toys, and smalls ranging from match holders to open salts. In 2018, these collecting categories are gasping for breath. Their relevancy has passed.

Collectibles came into their own when collectors turned their attention to post-1945 collecting categories. Many collecting categories survived long enough to celebrate a 50th collecting anniversary. Most will not be around to blow out the candles on a 75th birthday cake. The lyrics of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” could easily be changed to apply to most antiques and collectibles collecting categories.

In a recent conversation with Eric Bradley, Public Relations Director for Heritage Auctions, I asked why he included a section on Beatles memorabilia but not Elvis memorabilia in the “Antique Trader Antiques and Collectibles 2018 Price Guide.” He agreed with my premise that Elvis was dead, especially in terms of his mass-produced licensed collectibles.

[Author’s Aside #2: I ran this idea by my Tuesday morning coffee klatch. One member who recently visited Graceland in Memphis suggested I re-examine my premise. There still is a strong cadre of fans of Elvis’s music. However, these fans do not collect period Elvis memorabilia. They buy contemporary souvenirs. Period Elvis memorabilia ended the day he died on August 16, 1977.]

Beatles memorabilia has not stood the century test of time. The same is true of Marilyn Monroe. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are exceptions rather than the rule. Citing these individuals poses the question of whether evergreen status is more easily assigned to an individual or group than specific collecting categories or events. The golden age of Spanish American War and President William McKinley is long past. Antique that I am, I am old enough to remember it. Few under age 65 do.

I seriously question the concept that any antique or collectible can achieve evergreen status. Such an assertion calls into question a commonly held belief in the antiques and collectibles trade that the high-end of any collecting category always will survive. There will always be collectors for the best of the best.

No, there will not. Evergreen is not about money. Evergreen is about long-term survival and relevance. When a collecting category collapses, the expectation that its high-end will survive is false. If there is no desirability, low-end or high-end, value is lost.

I am in my mid-70s. One hundred years does not seem as long a period of time as it did when I was young. The mathematician inside me notes that thus far I have lived only a little over three quarters of a century. The old antiques and collectibles sellers’ adage that: “The first $20.00 is the easiest; it is the last $20.00 that kills you” applies. The first 75 years were relatively easy. While I would like the next 25 years to be the same, I am a realist. At this point in life, easy is a luxury.

I have no qualms nor find fault with those who view the antiques and collectibles they love with jaded eyes and minds. It is an integral part of the mystique of collecting. Passion should overwhelm reality. Every collector has the right and maybe even duty to think his/her category is evergreen. It is my fondest wish that they never find out it is not. Time is the enemy. Until its bell tolls, there is nothing wrong with dreaming.  

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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