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  • **
    No Protection Help From The Feds

    Justice is blind and so are the four Federal Trade Commissioners who voted not to extend the 1973 Hobby Protection Act so that it would apply to all antiques and collectibles reproductions (exact copies), copycats (stylistic copies), and fantasies (forms, shapes, and patterns that did not exist historically but are similar in appearance to period pieces).  Rather, the Commissioners voted to retain the rules and regulations of the 1973 Hobby Protection Act in their present form, thus providing protection only to numismatic and political items.

    Last fall the Antiques and Collectibles Dealers Association [ACDA] (PO Box 2782, Huntersville, NC  28070), Antique & Collectors Reproduction News [A&CRN] (PO Box 12130, Des Moines, IA  50312), several trade papers, and numerous concerned individuals in the trade mounted a major letter writing campaign strongly urging the Federal Trade Commission to extend the Hobby Protection Act.  The Commission acknowledged receiving over 1,000 comments on the subject.

    The Commission’s July 7, 1998, press release stated: “Some comments related to products not covered by the Act and implementing rules, claiming that replicas of other types of antiques and collectibles were being passed off as genuine and urging expansion of the Act and rules.  The Commission declined to expand the rules citing the Act’s limited scope, the existence of other state and federal laws that provide remedies for these problems, and the availability of resources that educate and warn collectors on how to distinguish originals from reproductions.”

    Given the disorganized state of the antiques and collectibles field, the fact that over 1,000 individuals and organizations within the field felt compelled to write to the Federal Trade Commission is impressive.  Alas, what may be impressive within our field is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the volume of letters a major lobby group can generate.

    The Federal Trade Commissioners did not even schedule hearings.  The submission of over 1,000 letters certainly indicates a major problem exists.  Hearings would have revealed that the remedies noted in the Commission’s press release have not proven effective. I am extremely disappointed in the FTC’s failure to dig deeper.

    Many who wrote the Federal Trade Commission assumed their letters were just the opening shot in what was expected to be a prolonged battle.  The Federal Trade Commissioners’ failure to consider the matter further has taken away the battlefield.  The battle can still be waged, but only as individual skirmishes.  It is questionable if the antiques and collectibles field is capable of such guerrilla action.

    The three reasons cited by the Federal Trade Commissioners for not recommending extending the rules and regulations of the 1973 Hobby Protection Act must be addressed.  The most judicious method is in reverse order.

    I can almost hear Mark Chervenka, editor of A&CRN, and Tom Hoepf and Connie Swaim at AntiqueWeek bemoaning the fact that the Federal Trade Commissioners turned the great job they do of alerting the trade to reproductions, copycats, and fantasy items against them.  Would the Commissioners have acted differently if these trade watchdogs had done a poorer job?

    The Federal Trade Commissioners failed to understand that the “resources that educate and warn collectors” reach only a limited number of those individuals who fall victim to buying a reproduction, copycat, or fantasy item believing that it is older than it is.

    Only a very small percent of the general buying public is aware of the problem.  My guess is that the number is less than 5%.  Most individuals who buy antiques and collectibles, especially at flea markets and malls, rarely read the trade literature.  Ignorance reigns within the collecting community, largely the result a general egotistical, know–it–all attitude. This in no way reflects negatively on the abilities of those within the trade who are waging war against the false sale of this material.  Rather it demonstrates the enormity of the problem of educating those who participate in the secondary antiques and collectibles marketplace.

    I have been tracking and analyzing the antiques and collectibles field for almost thirty years.  I consider myself an extremely competent researcher.  Somehow I missed the plethora of “state and federal laws that provide remedies for these problems.”  Robert Easton of the Bureau of Consumer Protection is the staff contact person at the Federal Trade Commission (Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580).  I urge everyone who reads this to send a letter to Mr. Easton asking him to send a detailed list of those state and federal laws that provide protection from the deceitful sale of antiques and collectibles reproductions, copycats, and fantasy items.

    Further, ask Mr. Easton to also provide a list of the departments and agencies within the state and federal governments responsible for enforcing these laws.  I welcome the opportunity to see what track record they have established.  I am willing to bet their batting average is low, so low that it may be non-existent.

    The FTC’s argument that the 1973 Hobby Protection Act is limited in scope has merit.  Here rests the crux of the problem.  The 1973 Hobby Protection Act pertains only to numismatics and political items.  Narrowly interpreted, it cannot be extended.

    If the 1973 Hobby Protection Act is to be extended the battle must be waged on Capitol Hill and the White House, not the halls of the Federal Trade Commission.  The answer is a new Federal law that requires all reproductions, copycats, and fantasy items to be plainly and permanently marked.

    Does the antiques and collectibles field have any friends on Capitol Hill and/or in the White House?  If yes, who are they?

    There has to be some antiques and collectibles collectors among members of Congress and within the White House.  I wish I could name them.  I cannot.  The only collector that I knew about was Hugh Scott, a former Pennsylvania Senator who had an impressive collection of Oriental antiques.  Alas, Hugh Scott is deceased.  Congressional collectors seem to prefer to keep their collecting interests a well guarded secret.

    Lobbyists, large contributors, and national organizations with large voter blocks are three groups who have strong track records for initiating legislation on Capitol Hill.  There are no antiques and collectibles trade lobbyists on Capitol Hill.  There is no organization in the trade, from ACDA to the Professional Show Managers Association to any of the trade periodicals, that can afford to hire one, even part time.  Further, I doubt if any lobbyist would take on the causes of the antiques and collectibles trade.  The constituency is too disorganized.  Washington politicians do not tremble over 1,000 to 2,000 votes.

    Obviously there are many large political contributors who are also collectors.  Alas, it is equally true that they probably collect at a level where reproductions, copycats, and fantasy items do not seriously impact on their collecting.  Reforming the antiques and collectibles field is not foremost in their minds.  I can hardly blame them.

    At close to 2,500 members, the ACDA is our largest trade organization.  If the fight continues, it must play a leading role.  However, it cannot wage the battle alone.

    While there are collectors’ clubs with membership numbers higher than ACDA, their focus is inward.  Kudos to the International Nippon Collectors Club, the one exception.  Their members sent over 200 letters to the FTC in support of extending the 1973 Hobby Protection Act.  Help in a national lobbying effort from a unified group of collectors’ clubs is highly unlikely, especially given the absence of a national umbrella organization.

    The Federal Trade Commission battle has been lost.  Hopefully, this does not mean that the war against the false sale of reproductions, copycats, and fantasy items is lost as well.

    It is time to regroup.  A concerted effort has to be made to find friends on Capitol Hill and within the White House.  Everyone’s help is needed to identify anyone who might be approached.  If you are reluctant to make the approach directly, forward the name to Tom Hoepf or Connie Swaim, Jim Tucker, president of the ACDA, Mark Chervenka, or myself.  One of us will make the initial contact.

    While this search is taking place, how about looking for supporters within state governments.  This fall I plan to work hard to help elect Dave Bausch, a major automobile/toy collector, to the Pennsylvania House.  If he is elected, I plan to enlist his aid along with that of my local representative to introduce legislation to create a Hobby Protection Act for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

    Finally, the Federal Trade Commission has confirmed what many of us have known all along.  If the antiques and collectibles trade is going to clean up its act, it has to do so itself.  At the moment there is no “Mikey” at the federal, state, or local level willing to do it for us.

    We need to get mad and expose those individuals and businesses who are not selling ethically.  Hopefully, we will find the courage to do this.