Antiques & Collectibles
RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #664 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 1999
My first column in this two part series covered antiques and collectibles research facilities, i.e., locations where information is available. This column recommends research procedures to follow once you have determined which facility you will visit.
The ideal situation is to walk over to your own personal library and begin your research. Realistically, most collectors and dealers do not own an in-depth research library. They prefer to spend their money on a collectible rather than a reference book or document. I fully understand.
The telephone Yellow Pages’ slogan, let your fingers do the walking, applies. Before driving to a research facility, pick up the telephone and call the librarian. Make certain they have the research sources you need.
I often do long distance research. If my questions are limited and I believe the information is easily found, I obtain the telephone number of the closest public library or historical society and call the reference librarian. I ask if they would be willing to check their records for me to see if they can find the answers I am seeking. Information about the history of the manufacturer and whether or not any catalogs exist are my two most popular requests.
If the librarian is willing to do research, I explain my needs. I take no offense if he asks me to put my request in writing. In fact, if he does not make such a request, I always ask if I can fax a hard copy of my request. I provide a telephone number where I can be reached if questions develop and encourage the librarian to reverse the charges.
Early in my conversation, I mention that I do not need the information immediately, even if I do, but would be happy to arrange a time to call back, usually later in the day or early the next day, to learn what progress has been made. The more pressure you exert, the less likely this approach is to work.
Many libraries now charge to make photocopies and send or fax them. The cost is always minimal. The price has never exceeded $1.00 per page. Given the amount of time I save, it is a small price to pay.
When researching an object, take it with you whenever possible. If it is too large, fragile to move, or too valuable, take along a picture or pictures. I have received excellent research suggestions from other researchers in the room who simply could not resist coming over and seeing what I had. This is especially important if you have a “whatsit,” i.e., an object that you are trying to identify. Many individuals in the field lack the vocabulary to properly describe an object. Do you know what a cuneiform shape is? Pictures are a great help.
Your first research goal is to determine exactly what you have. This is easier said than done. Form (what the object is, e.g., biscuit jar, chair, sheet music, etc.), shape (what the object looks like), and general “what it is made out of” classification (ceramic, glass, metal, textile, wood, etc.) is not difficult. Identifying the specific type of ceramic, glass, metal, textile, wood, etc., requires much greater skill.
Heavily illustrated books, whether price guides or just plain reference texts, help. One often has to use the Superman reading method, i.e., flip through them one page at a time. A pox on those books lacking an easy to use format or detailed index.
I begin the research process by assuming that I will not find information about the exact object I am researching. This forces me to look for comparables right from the start. It also increases my delight if I do find the exact object.
My staff and I are trained to think of objects in terms of collecting categories. When looking at any object, the first thing we do is try to identify all the possible collecting categories into which an object fits. This creates alternate research avenues. For example, information about a 1949 Chesapeake and Ohio railroad calendar featuring an image of Chessie the Cat and her kittens might be found in books on advertising characters, calendars, cats, paper ephemera, or railroad collectibles.
Once I have answered the “what is it” question, I proceed to research the questions that breathe life into an object. Because of my history of technology background, I focus on learning how the object was made and used. In most cases, I already know the basic answers. I am looking for details associated with this particular object that I did not encounter previously.
Most researchers begin by seeking information about the manufacturer. When taking this route, pay close attention to the operating dates of the manufacturer, what products and lines were made during what period, and who the principal designers and distributors were. Make a note of any library, historical society, or private collector that owns one or more of the company’s trade catalogs. These are invaluable resources.
Always check to see if the manufacturer is still in business. When checking, consider the possibility of a name change due to an acquisition or merger. If the company has ceased operations within the past few decades, some of its employees may still be alive. Consider placing an advertisement in the local paper asking them to contact you.
When I cannot identify a specific manufacturer, I concentrate on trying to determine the time period when the object was made. I consider a variety of factors such as shape, decorative motif and technique, and color tone. Once I have assigned a date, I draw up a list of six to twelve manufacturers who worked during that period making products similar to the one I am researching. I then begin the process of leafing through the reference books looking for comparable examples. Once in awhile I get lucky and am able to attribute the piece to a specific manufacturer.
I maintain an extensive library of marks books. However, one needs to be aware, especially with the latest wave of late 1990s reproductions, copycats, fantasies, and fakes, that marks can be easily copied. The quality of the piece has to match the expectations associated with the mark found on it.
Collectibles collectors and dealers are basically trusting individuals. They rarely question the reliability of the information they find. This especially applies to pricing information. As much as I wish it were not the case, a skeptical attitude is wise until information has been confirmed by a second source. Beware. Misinformation is often copied from one source to another. Errors perpetuate themselves in the collectibles business.
The less thorough the information, the more skeptical I am about it. Weak caption illustrations, e.g., those missing vital information such as size or markings, set off my mental alarms. Minimum front matter, especially historical information, is another alarm bell. The absence of a detailed bibliography causes concern. Finally, I always make it a point to read the author’s credentials, when I am lucky enough to find them provided.
Make photocopies of the research you do. When the object leaves your possession, pass the information along to the next owner. It makes no sense to make the new owner repeat the research process.
This advice applies doubly to those individuals researching an object for the purpose of selling it. Collectibles no longer sell themselves. The seller now must play an active role in the selling process. There is an old mercantile adage--sell the sizzle, not the steak. The more one knows about an object, the more sizzle it has. An excited collector, one who is in a position to tout his collection, is a positive asset.
Finally, if you have uncovered new information in your research, consider sharing it with the rest of the field. Write an article for a trade periodical. Pass the information along to someone who is preparing a new or revised edition of a reference book. Send it to the editor of the appropriate collectors’ club newsletter. Who knows? There may even be enough for a book.