Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018

Is the Internet Shaping the Antiques and Collectibles Vocabulary?

Benjamin Martell is an anomaly. He is a young antiques dealer who has been involved in the antiques and collectibles trade for six years. Not only has he survived, he is intensely curious about how the trade functions. From time to time, he shares his thoughts with me.

A January 30, 2018, email contained the following paragraph: “I am not sure if you use ‘Google Trends,’ but it can offer some good insights to where the market was at and where it is going in the future. I want to highlight the change in terms ‘antiques’ and vintage over the last 10 plus years. “Antique’ is still used a lot in the trade. Dealers should embrace ‘vintage’ instead of ‘antique’ to describe items….The use of the word ‘vintage’ has increased over the last 14 years while ‘antique’ has plummeted on Google. The base of searches is much larger now than in 2004 because a lot more people in the world are using the internet. Should the antiques trade start calling itself the ‘Vintage Goods and Collectibles Trade’? I know this does not exactly roll off the tongue. Younger people are obviously using ‘vintage’ more than ‘antique.’ The trade might be well served embracing the term. I am 35. My initial impression of antiques when I first became involved in buying and selling was old glassware, Victorian furniture, formal dinnerware or extremely expensive items like those featured on the Antiques Roadshow that are out of the price range of 95% of the regular buying public.”

Upon reading the above, my first reaction was to send Benjamin a copy of my 2006 “Rinker on Collectibles” Column #1008 entitled “Defining Vintage.” The column began:

“Mary Ann Weber’s e-mail was a short one: “What do you consider as ‘vintage’? I have had many different opinions, so I would like an opinion from an ‘expert’”.

I have been pondering the same question for over a year. As an eBay buyer, I encounter “vintage” on a regular basis—vintage this and vintage that. One thing is self-evident. Everyone uses the term differently. My initial conclusion is that “vintage” is a meaningless term when applied to antiques and collectibles.”

Twelve years have passed since I wrote ROC #1008. The digital age still was in its adolescence in 2006. It is now mature, albeit still young, brash, and unpredictable but no longer an entity to be dismissed or ignored. The impact of the digital age is global. Its vocabulary is becoming the primary communication tool for the under 40 generations.

In 2006, Millennials were still in middle or high school. Today, they are young adults. Their vocabulary differs significantly from that of their parents and grandparents. They look forward not backward. They have no problem discarding older vocabularies whose meaning is lost to them.

Antique, collectible, and vintage have different meanings in 2018 than they did in 2006. Those committed to the old definitions are not realistic. If older collectors and dealers wish to communicate with younger generations, they need to agree on a new common vocabulary that is contemporary with the times.

Who shapes and defines the antiques and collectibles field is at the core of the issue. Throughout much of the 20th century, those involved in the antiques and collectibles trade determined its course and future. Individuals who came into the trade as appraisers, collectors, dealers, or in other areas were expected to accept the field’s terminology as sacrosanct.

This changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Outside forces began to impact the direction in which the antiques and collectibles trade evolved. Lifestyle gurus like Martha Stewart, shifting decorating trends, and coverage by the mass media were in the first wave. eBay and the internet, world economic fluctuations, globalization, and generational changes followed.

The antiques and collectibles trade lost its ability to dictate the future. Instead, the trade found itself responding to one change after another. Adaptation and assimilation became more difficult when multiple changes occurred simultaneously. The antiques and collectibles trade never spoke with a unified voice. The laissez faire, individualist approach of its participants and the narrowness of many of its collectors prevented participants from identifying common concerns that could bind them together. The Depression Glass collector never felt he/she had anything in common with the Hopalong Cassidy collector. The antiques and collectibles trade is fragmentated. This will never change.

I did an eBay search for “vintage.” At 9:30 PM on Sunday, May 6, I received 20,352,870 results. I next searched “rare,” a pet peeve of mine when used to identify the status of an antique or collectible. I received 4,809,436 hits, only 23.63 percent of the number of vintage hit. While I find both sets of numbers astonishing, it is clear I need to pay more attention to the term vintage.

Before going further and for my own amusement, I did an eBay search for “antique.” Antique had 5,062,574 hits, 24.874 percent of the vintage total. The point Benjamin raised appears to be well founded.

[Author’s Aside: No attempt was made to check out each of the above listings to see how the terms antique, vintage, and rare were used. There is no need. Whether used correctly or incorrectly, the chances for error in all three cases are equal. The numbers speak for themselves.]

The first “Rinker on Collectibles” column was devoted to defining the terms antique and collectible. During the past 32 years, I have written several “Rinker on Collectibles” columns updating these definitions. The most recent was my 2013 Column #1400 entitled “An Antique is Anything Made Before 1980.”

Since I wrote that column, the definition of what is and is not an antique has continued to deteriorate. More and more antiques show venues, even high-end ones, are admitting dealers who sell high-end contemporary furniture, ceramics, glass, and other studio crafted products. The implication is that the creation of antiques can be instantaneous. Gone is the concept that an antique has to stand a test of time.

The antiques and collectibles trade is in a state of confusion. Although the internet is not solely to blame, it plays a major part. The internet has no vocabulary police. Everyone is free to use whatever term makes sense. Most internet writers are followers rather than leaders. It is easier to adopt a universally used term than the correct one as defined by past usage.

Whether the antiques and collectibles trade, especially the old traditionalists, like it or not, vintage is the “in” term. Benjamin is correct in his assertion that if the antiques and collectibles trade wishes to establish a viable communication with the younger generations, it has to resort to using vintage.

The trade also has to accept another truth. It is impossible to define what vintage means. The meaning floats from person to person and object to object. More often than not, those who use vintage have no understanding of its meaning. Instead of increasing preciseness, the internet fosters ambiguity.

The rise of vintage is the tip of the iceberg. Words such as contemporary and modern are gaining a strong foothold. Modern and Modernism are two very different concepts within the trade. However, those who sell and buy on the internet see little difference.

When I taught writing, I constantly reminded my students to be precise and concise. The goal was to eliminate any confusion or misunderstanding. The internet is not academe. It is the new Wild West where everything goes. Law and order is in abeyance. The Indians not the chiefs are in charge.

Those who have followed “Rinker on Collectibles” will read the above and think, this is more vintage Harry. Hopefully, they know what that means. I most certainly do not.   

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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