What role does niche collecting play in the antiques and collectibles field
inJanuary 4, 2013 - 11:54am
When I first started analyzing developments in the antiques and collectibles field, I assumed there was a logical progression of a collecting category from a small niche category to a full blown collectible category that eventually evolved into an antique category over time. This is not true. All collecting categories – niche, collectible, and antique – are subject to the whims of the moment. No collecting category has a guaranteed infinite life.
As an author and editor of price guides, I developed a five tier approach: (1) garage sale price guide for those items whose principle value was reuse; (2) flea market price guide for those collecting categories entering the collecting sphere and affordably priced; (3) collectible price guide for collecting categories of more recent origin; (4) antique price guide for established middle to high-end collecting categories; and (5) Country for items fitting the one decorative look that is constant in America. Deciding what collecting categories appeared in each or crossed over into two or more was a subject of constant discussion between my staff and me.
Between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s, I watched as new collecting categories made the list, antique collecting categories faded from the scene or were condensed into more general categories to preserve their integrity, and one generation collecting categories arrived and departed on schedule. Such developments followed the natural order.
I also witness the arrival and fall of specialized niche collecting categories driven by the dedication of a single or small group of individuals. Their life depended solely on the ability of the individual or group to maintain interest. When the individual or group tired, the collecting category disappeared.
Geisha Girl China is the classic example. Elyse Litts was the driving force behind the collecting category. The publication of her Collectors Encyclopedia of Geisha Girl Porcelain (Collector Books, 1988), identifying, naming, and cataloging over 200 patterns, marked the high point of this niche collectible.
For those unfamiliar with Geisha Girl China, the term refers to inexpensive Japanese porcelain produced between the late 19th century and the 1950s featuring a decorative pattern of Japanese ladies wearing kimonos. Geisha Girl China was sold in five and dimes stores and used as giveaway premiums. See http://gotheborg.com/glossary/geisha_girl.shtml for more detail.
[Author Aside: Authors naming glass and china patterns based upon their own imagination was not new. Many of the names used to identify Carnival and Depression Glass are not from manufacturer’s catalogs, but rather the vivid minds of select group of Midwestern ladies, such as Marion Hartung.]
Litts single handily promoted the Geisha Girl China category. She wrote numerous articles that appeared in antiques and collectibles periodicals. She organized a collectors club. Eventually, Litts lost interest in Geisha Girl China. Although she created hundreds of collectors, none stepped forward to assume leadership. By the turn of the 21st century, Geisha Girl China as a viable collecting category vanished.
PEZ is a second classic example. The Pez collecting craze began in the 1980s. It was driven by a small core of dealers who manipulated the market driving prices higher and higher as well as several key authors who published price guides. In situations such as this, with numerous individuals vying for leadership in a collecting category, rivalries develop. These split rather than unify the category. Two additional developments impacted the category. The first was the arrival of fakes, examples made to deceive collectors. In 2006, a 1950s space gun PEZ container was sold on eBay for $11,000. Later tests proved it was a fake. PEZ became greedy, creating limited edition and exclusives that fueled the speculative collector market.
Although annual PEZ collecting conventions are held throughout the world, the collector base is aging and fractionalized. Further, the time period between revisions of PEZ price guides is growing longer, an indication that prices have stabilized and may be falling. No one wants to buy a price guide to find the value of their collection has diminished.
In summary, collecting categories remain in a state of flux. Even collecting categories whose track records can be measured in centuries rather than decades are not immune. The market is fickle and specialized. Change is expected, not a surprise.
How close is the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the antiques and collectibles market recovering the glory years of the first half of the 2000s?
The antiques and collectibles market appears to have reached a plateau. The train is stopped dead on the tracks. There is a “wait and see” atmosphere.
The good news is that bottom has been reached. The drop in value is over. Prices are as low as they are going to go. While some sellers still live in the high price dream world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, most recognize that today’s buyer wants prices to reflect their buying capacity. This issue is not one of bargains. Buyers want “fair” prices.
The plateau is level. The train is not stopped on an uphill slope. A negative impact is not going to start the train sliding backward. It will take a major push to create forward momentum, even a slow pace.
The antiques and collectibles marketplace no longer controls its own destiny. It is subject to a broad range of outside economic, cultural, social, and other forces that dictate its direction. Although American avoided plunging off the fiscal cliff, the deal that avoided the fall will not ease the continuing economic uncertainty. The deal increased the amount of money withheld monthly for social security. Every paycheck will be impacted. The budges is far from balanced. America’s fiscal clip is nothing compared to that of Europe’s Euro crisis.
The antiques and collectibles marketplace depends on discretionary income. First, the amount of discretionary income continues to diminish. Second, the competition for this income, especially from digital products and leisure activity spending, is growing. Antiques and collectibles no longer sell themselves.
The under 40 generations see little value in collecting. Collecting is no longer prestigious nor helps define individuality. It is risky, more than investing in the stock market. While this always has been true, it was never as apparent as now. Few collectors are able to recover the cost, forget the time, invested in their collections when divesting.
The time has come to raise the question as to whether the light at the end of the tunnel will be the same as it was when the train entered the tunnel. Those involved in the trade who experienced the economic recession of the late 1980s and the mild recession of the mid-1990s found that the light at the end of the tunnel was identical to that entering the tunnel. The status quo was restored. Nothing changed.
The status quo is dead. The antiques and collectibles trade is in an evolutionary stage. The light at the end of the tunnel promises to be a brave new world. The leaders who shaped the antiques and collectibles market of the last half of the 20th century are old and retired or deceased. The new world will be shaped by a new generation of leaders.
Identifying who these new leaders are is difficult. The antiques and collectibles field would be wise to reject outright the Johnny-come-lately reality television stars whose interest is more in self promotion and deceit than the good of the trade. The editors of the trade periodicals were leaders in the past. Today, these individuals shift so rapidly that there is no consistent voice.
As I write this, my mind keeps repeating—grumpy old man, grumpy old man, grumpy old man. Is age causing my pessimism?
Hence, I make a plea for your insights. Who do you see as the new crop of leaders in our trade? Who do you trust? Who is willing to take up the mantel out of love rather than greed and self-promotion? Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
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I love writing about antiques and collectibles and developments within the trade. I welcome your comments and suggestions as to topics you would like me to cover. E-mail your suggestions to email@example.com.