RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #1666
Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2018
The Golden Age of Printed Antiques and Collectibles Reference Books 1975 to 2005When I assumed the editorship of “Warman’s Antiques and Their Prices” in 1981, owners Stanley and Katherine Greene presented me with two boxes of books. “They represent the Warman’s reference library,” the Greens told me. The books filled half of a 36-inch wide, five-shelf bookcase.
Although my collecting memories start at age five, I did not start assembling my own antiques reference library until the mid-1960s. Until the end of the 1970s, collectors built general rather than category specific antiques reference libraries. Few exceeded 100 titles. Collectors focusing on a single collecting category often could count the number of specific titles relating to that category on a single hand. It the number exceeded three, it was a bonus.
When WorthPoint.com acquired my Rinker Enterprises, Inc, reference library in 2011, it contained over 7,500 titles and included information on hundreds of specific collecting categories. I did not realize how integral a part these books played in my research and writing until I no longer had access to them.
[Author’s Aside #1: I am one of several individuals working with WorthPoint.com to create introductions / landing pages for major, secondary, and tertiary collecting categories. When completed, perhaps a decade or more from now, it will be the greatest antiques and collectibles dictionary of all times. There are times when I feel that I am a contemporary version of Gary Cooper’s Professor Bertram Potts character in the screwball movie comedy “Ball of Fire” (1941).
Thus far, I completed the introduction / landing pages for Ceramics – North American, Ceramics – European, and Glass. I currently am working on Ceramics – United Kingdom. Once done, I am moving on to costume jewelry and/or toys, games, and puzzles.
Each introduction / landing page contains a list of printed and online references. As I was researching printed titles, I quickly realized that the majority of the titles were published between 1975 and 2005. The annual volume of printed antiques and collectibles titles actually started to decline in the late 1990s.]
In the late 1960s, private individuals began to self-publish reference books on specific collecting categories. Marion Hartung’s “First Book of Carnival Glass: One Hundred Patterns” appeared in in 1968. Collector Books arrived on the scene in 1980. By the mid-1980s, there were over a dozen publishers specializing in antiques and collectibles titles. Antique Trader Books, Books Americana, Collector Books (Schroeder Publishing), Hobby House, House of Collectibles, L-W Book Sales, Wallace-Homestead, and Warman’s are a few examples. By the end of the 1990s, there was at least one book on almost every secondary antiques and collectibles category imaginable. When Collector Books went out of business in 2010, it claimed to have published over 1,500 titles on antiques and collectibles.
In 2019, Schiffer Publishing, and to some extent KP (Krause Publications), a division of F + W Media, are the two remaining antiques and collectibles publishers. Their title list grows smaller and smaller each year.
The Internet is a convenient culprit when assigning blame for the demise of the printed antiques and collectibles reference book. While the Internet is partially responsible, there are other reasons as well. First, antiques and collectibles book authors were motivated by love more than profit. Few became rich off their titles. The adage that fame is fleeting held a special meaning for them. Second, as collecting became increasingly specialized, the number of potential buyers for a narrowly focused book diminished. Sales were measured in hundreds, more often at the low end, than thousands. Third, list prices rose as print runs were reduced. Affordability became an issue. Fourth, interest in doing detailed research about object groups, especially among amateur writers, declined. In 2019, antiques and collectibles titles that focus on a narrow collecting category sell for $50.00 or more, especially if the book is printed in color, as most are.
[Author’s Aside #2: There is a similar rise and fall pattern in national and regional antiques and collectibles trade publications. It is not as dramatic as the curve for printed antiques and collectibles reference books, but it exists.]
Trained as a research historian, I favored antiques and collectibles reference books that contained a scholarly introduction that provided a detailed history of the company or category, accurate image captions, and a strong bibliography. I also appreciated the comprehensive nature of these titles.
I still remember my initial reaction when I saw my first picture price guide, a new form of reference book that premiered in the early 1980s. Most contained three to ten pages of text information followed by pages of nothing more than captioned pictures. Most captions were poorly written. The objects pictured were often from the author’s collection with a few additions from the collections of others. There was no attempt to provide a comprehensive and balanced presentation. There were exceptions. Reference books by Sharon and Bob Huxford for Collectors Books and William Heacock’s books for Glass Press are examples that come immediately to mind.
If prices were not provided in the caption, they were available in the back of the book. The pricing in many of these books was market manipulative. My field experiences quickly taught me to question all of them.
My approach has mellowed over the years. I now realize that the value of these books was primarily as object identification guides. When I began to ignore the short introductions and inadequate captions and use them to identify an object’s pattern or model, I found them very helpful.
As an example, when I encountered a piece of Roseville pottery and did not know its pattern, I went to my library and pulled down a copy of Sharon and Bob’s Huxford’s “Collectors Encyclopedia of Roseville Pottery.” I put the piece in front of me and started to go through the book page by page. Once I identified the pattern, it was easy to research the piece. At the very least, I could find comparable pieces if I could not make an exact match.
During the Golden Age of Printed Antiques and Collectibles Reference Books, some specific categories witnessed the release of only a single title. Two examples are Lee Feibinger’s “Collector’s Reference & Value Guide to the Lone Ranger,” published in 1997, and Jack Koch’s “Howdy Doody: Collector’s Reference and Trivia Guide: Identification & Values,” published in 1995. Koch’s book and Helen Greguire’s “The Collectors Encyclopedia of Granite Ware, Colors, Shapes & Values, Book 2” are on my Top Five list of the most market manipulative price guides ever published. That aside, these books continue to serve as key identification guides in their respective subjects.
Because of modern copyright laws, it will be decades if not a century before these indispensable pictorial identification guides from the Golden Age of Printed Antiques and Collectibles Reference Books will find their way to the internet. By the time this happens, I cannot help wondering if anyone will care.
I have lost track of the number of these books I bought back in the eight years since I sold the Rinker Enterprises, Inc., reference library. I do not want to know, especially if the number exceeds 100. What I do know is that there is no more room on the shelves I had built in our basement storage rooms in Kentwood, Michigan, for new reference titles. Under these circumstances, I should be glad the Golden Age is over. I am not. I miss it.
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 email@example.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.