RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #662 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 1999
There are two key questions associated with every object: (1) what is it and (2) how much is it worth? It is difficult, often impossible, to answer the second question without answering the first.
Misidentification of collectibles is a major problem. Examples abound at flea markets, antiques malls, auction and direct sale sites on the Internet, and even in antiques shops. In the vast majority of cases, the misidentification is not deliberate but the result of ignorance, lack of research skills, and/or the unavailability of research materials.
I recently was asked to authenticate a Beanie Baby being offered at auction on the Internet. The person did some research and concluded he had one of the first issues. He provided me with his checklist. Everything matched. However, one important piece of information was missing. The first Beanie Babies had a black and white tush tag. The example I was asked to authenticate had the second tush tag version that was red and white. Instead of being worth big bucks, the Beanie Baby’s value was under twenty dollars.
Individuals selling collectibles must make a commitment to properly research and identify what they sell. I am a strong advocate of the position that responsibility rests with the seller, not the buyer to properly identify items offered for sale. I tell students at my Institute for the Study of Antiques and Collectibles (5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049) “Don’t Sell What You Don’t Know.”
Identifying the correct collecting category or categories to which an object belongs, for example, is a piece of glass cranberry, pigeon blood, or just red colored glass, is merely the first of many questions that must be researched. Additional questions include: (a) who made the object; (b) how was it made; (c) how was it marketed and used; (d) why was it saved; and, (e) what does it say about the person who saved it? The answers to these questions make the object come alive.
Researching a collectible is fun. Many individuals have told me they find more enjoyment doing research than they do buying and selling. They love to learn.
Sellers rarely assign a value to the time they spend researching. If they did, they would find it all but impossible to recover the cost as part of an object’s final selling price. Collectibles education is cumulative. Smart buyers and sellers make a commitment to invest in research now with the expectation that it will pay dividends in the future. I can attest that it does.
Numerous e-mails from individuals who tried to research a collectible on the Internet and failed is the primary reason that I am writing this column. The tone of most e-mails is “how dare the Internet not have the information I am seeking.” I have designated these individuals silver platter researchers. They want the information they seek handed to them—NOW!
While it is true there is a wealth of information on the Internet, there are two others truths as well. First, there is a wealth of misinformation on the Internet. There is no screening agency for information offered on the Internet. Second, there are tremendous gaps in the information. Rather than turning to the Internet as my first research source, I use it either as my last or as confirmation for information I found elsewhere.
For the moment, a well-maintained antiques and collectibles reference library is the most reliable research source. The ideal situation is to create your own research library. This is expensive, even when the library is highly specialized. It costs well over five to seven thousand dollars per year to keep a general collectibles library current. Few in the trade can afford this expenditure.
The key is to locate the best collectibles research libraries in your area. Begin by checking your public library. Books about antiques and collectibles fall into the “most requested” category. As a result, public libraries usually devote a fairly large section to this category. I know of several communities, e.g., Medford, Oregon, where local antiques and collectibles clubs provide funds and work with their public library to continually build and strengthen the antiques and collectibles section. See if this applies to a library in your area.
Do not even bother to check out the libraries at your local community colleges, colleges, or universities. Most devote little to no space to collectibles titles. The academic community as a whole looks down their noises at what they consider to be “amateur” researchers. Viewing us as scholars on their level is beyond their realm of comprehension. Having once had a foot in the academic camp, I assure you that many collectibles titles I have read written by “amateur” researchers put a significant number of scholarly PhD dissertations and university press titles to shame. What galls many of these ivory tower purists is these insignificant, inconsequential collectibles titles usually outsell their magna opuses by five-, ten-, and even fifty-to-one. Who said there is no justice in the world?
Collectibles researchers often overlook two obvious library resources in their community, the libraries of their local art museum and historical society. Large art museums maintain excellent research libraries. If the collection is comprehensive, it includes a wealth of twentieth century material. Art libraries acquire the titles required to research this material. The lack of titles that are largely price guide driven is the major weakness of art museum libraries. Art museum purists consider value a non-discussible issue. Full auction catalog runs, with prices realized, from most major U.S. and some foreign houses are one of the strengths of most art museum libraries. Since price information occurs after the fact, it is seen as acceptable in this situation.
Spend time becoming familiar with the research libraries at your local and state historical societies. It is a mistake to assume they focus primarily on local documents and genealogical information. Most have extensive artifact collections. As a result, their libraries include titles useful in identifying objects. Again, they shy away from price guide titles, but not to the same extent as art museums.
If this column’s emphasis was antiques, I would tout the research library of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware. It is without peer. I was first introduced to the library in 1963 and have been using it ever since. My only regret is that it is not closer to my office.
There is an equivalent library in the collectibles field, albeit nowhere near as well known or acknowledged. If your travels ever take you to Rochester, New York, set aside a few hours and visit the Strong Museum. Resist the temptation to tour the exhibits and check out the library instead. It is wonderful. It is the only library to which I would entrust my research library and files should I ever decide to donate rather than sell them. This in spite of the fact that I can count the number of visits I have made on one hand. Alas, my travels rarely take me in that direction.
I have been pleased within the past decade to see the growth of antiques mall reference libraries. Many antiques mall owners are working with their dealers to create a major reference library. By pooling financial resources, these libraries can grow at a far more rapid rate than a private one. The vast majority are restricted to the mall’s dealers. However, I have encountered a few that allow public access.
Most individuals are reluctant to open their collectibles research libraries to others. Their libraries are private, not public institutions. The same is true for business libraries in the trade. The Antique Trader in Dubuque (IA), AntiqueWeek in Knightstown (IN), and many other trade papers have excellent research libraries, usually resulting from review copies they receive. I do not allow outside researchers to use the Rinker Enterprises library. Even when researchers offer to pay an access fee, I usually say no. Most private and business libraries are organized for internal use and not public access. No fee is enough to cover the disruption. If you ever are given access to one of these libraries, see it as a privilege. Providing a copy of your final findings to the library is considered a common courtesy.
This is a two-part “Rinker on Collectibles” column. This column emphasized research facilities. Next time, I will focus on research techniques.