Antique Trader Inbox: What has driven prices up?

There are very few truisms that can apply to the whole antiques business these days, but it’s safe to say that the high end and the very low end both sell.

There will always be people with millions of dollars who don’t mind dropping a few hundred thousand on a piece of art, furniture or jewelry, and everybody is willing to spend a little at a flea market in the hopes of making a great score.

In my estimation, this has driven the price of good examples of a given form through the roof, squeezing the middle market and sending the price of just decent examples of good material – transferware, say – way out of the price range of everyday collectors. There are no more million-dollar flea-market or garage-sale finds. There is also a significant amount of “investment” dollars coming into the business; that is, people who are not buying for their appreciation of the material, but just for the monetary appreciation of something in an unstable stock market. Dollar amounts are no obstacle to this mentality.

What Antique Trader wanted to know from its readers is what they thought about these attitudes. True or false? Is it a better-educated audience that has driven the rise in prices, a general lack of availability in the post-peak days of Brimfield in the 1970s and 1980s, or has the idea of antiques solely as investment done the damage? Or is it something else altogether? The readers of our e-newsletter certainly told us what they thought. You can to, by going online to www.antiquetrader.com and signing up for our weekly Internet exchange.


Dear Noah:

I am responding to your recent article “What Sells” in the Antique Trader eNews of 11/2/07.

I believe the significant rise in prices (or damage, as you say) is partially due to all three forces (cited in your article) in the following order of strength: 1, lack of availability; 2, educated audience; 3, investment. Based on conversations I’ve had with numerous collectors, we feel the first two forces are substantially greater than the third.

In addition, we believe Internet auction venues are exerting the greatest pressure on prices by exploiting a basic economic principle. Internet venues have steadily expanded the buying pool – from a local, regional or national audience – to a global sea. They are continually raising the demand (and) it is overwhelming the supply.

Regardless of the number and strength of the forces at work, and how they will ultimately reshape the market, I think “damage” is a misperception. I will explain by using myself and other collectors like me as examples.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, we spent hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars and considerable time just on traveling to auctions and sales in pursuit of items for our collections. Thanks to Internet venues, we can now take our travel budgets (and our time, which equals money) and use them to augment our bidding. This can mean we are still spending roughly the same amount of money to obtain an item. But none of that money is lost to hotels, restaurants, airlines, car rentals, gas stations and other travel functions. Instead, some of that money goes to the shipper; some to the auction house; and most to the seller of the item. Thus, when certain funds associated with buying an item are redirected, a clearer picture of the item’s true cost becomes apparent to the market. On the surface, it can seem like a price increase.

Obviously this is a benefit to collectors at all levels since they don’t have to spend time and money traveling to cultivate their collections. It also benefits those who wind up selling later on. They receive more money for their items, and there are no travel costs to recover or incur a loss over. As I see it, the only damage done is to the travel industry’s revenue.

Sincerely,
John Bain


Noah:

Get serious. Read Greenspan. Trivia, such as your squib, does nobody any good. There are tons of good things in markets … an unknown table recently sold for $6 million. Transferware, in real dollars, is quite stable. I doubt that there is any more investment, as a fraction of the whole, than there used to be, albeit liquidity in general is greater in the world economy. (I remember Antiques as an Investment and other such books written 35 years ago). Americana is a relatively small part of the arts market in the same way the USA is an ever diminishing part of the world economy. Study first … then write … not the inverse.

Michael Higgins


Noah:

How did you overlook mentioning the Internet! My specialty business (antique advertising and tins) within my antiques business has collapsed as far as retail sales at shows are concerned. EBay, eBay, eBay, etc…

Patrick Ursomano


Noah:

Too many reproductions, flea-market stuff at shows, dealers are not buying investment items, customers at “middle-priced” shows just do not have the extra money for the $100 or $200 items. The (antique) mall on Route 76 in Northeast Ohio, always full with a waiting list, has shut down more than half of its space and will probably be gone by mid-2008. Did a show at the Stark County Fairgrounds in Canton, Ohio, on Oct. 12 and 13. Saturday was OK, low attendance. Sunday was very poor; many dealers barely made their rent. You had to sell a lot of items, cheap, to do anything at all.

Mlabbott


Noah:

It seems to me that the novice collectors/sellers/pickers have driven prices up on “junk” that we used to pay pennies for.

For example, McCoy pottery. The experienced buyer/seller knows from studying that only rare pieces are worth anything. We all know that Lancaster Colony McCoy is lower end, but to the novice if it says McCoy, it’s got to be valuable. The same theory goes for employees of second-hand stores. If they don’t seriously study, then they don’t know the difference between J.W. McCoy, Nelson McCoy or LLC pieces, therefore they price them all too high.

I’ve seen this a lot with Roseville pottery also. Folks don’t know that there have been a hundred or so potteries located in Roseville, so even if a piece is marked RRCO Roseville they believe it to be an expensive piece, whereas the educated buyer/seller realizes that RRCO stands for Robinson-Ransbottom and is not the “collectible” Roseville that collectors seek. Nothing can take the place of education. If you want to buy and sell or just collect, you must learn all that you can to facilitate your hobby.

I also think that online auctions have driven the prices up in a lot of ways. The reverse is also true. Where it used to be impossible (or nearly so) to find that elusive Cowan (Pottery) piece, you now have a worldwide Internet to help you locate it and possibly purchase it. So in the game of supply and demand, the supply has increased for many items, so demand has been driven down.

Bruce Cole


Dear Noah,

I fully agree with you. The pressed-glass business is practically down the drain, but a fine piece of Tiffany can sell for $1 million. My specialty is glass. I appraise, sell and buy it for resale, but have slowed down to a trickle because my shop is so full and very few customers are collecting the fun old patterns like Lily of the Valley or Torpedo. Both of those patterns were very popular about eight years ago.

I guess the price of gas has something to say about people’s mobility. No longer do the 50-year-old ladies go out for lunch and then go antiquing. It seems the “Gay Nineties” are over – 1990s, that is. Nobody hankers for porcelain and sterling on their dining table. Paper cups are the thing to use for the kids – and adults. I’m sure this statement announces my age, but beauty in living has taken a vacation.

Sincerely,
Barbara M. Lessig
Certified Appraiser


Dear Noah,

Your recent article states, “There are no more ‘million-dollar finds,’ and at the same time on the cover of the Antique Trader this week a woman finds a million-dollar painting in the garbage on the street!

There will ALWAYS be million-dollar finds, as long as people keep looking for them. When we stop looking, we stop dreaming. And when we stop dreaming is when we should move on to another field!

Regards,
Bob Zurko


Hi,

I am a dealer, who had a shop and was primarily a show dealer. For the last five years I have not been active because of family commitments. I have watched the market change … and it is really amazing! I do one or two shows, but I still go to resale shops, garage and estate sales, antique shows, flea markets, etc. I talk to everyone I see and ask them what is selling … The answer I get most is Mid-Century. It is simple, does not clutter and the young people love it. Usually they have money and pay top dollar. I am talking about New York City; I really do not know about other places in the country. I live in Northern Bergen County, N.J., and I find all these million-dollar homes are furnished with top designer fashions. I feel there are lots of factors and these are my opinions:

1) There is no more hunting for finds, everything is on the Net and there are dozens of books, shows, and auction sites for you find whatever your heart desires.

2) During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s you had to depend on pickers, flea marketeers, show dealers, auctions and shops to find your antiques or collectibles.

3) The dealers (shows, shops, flea markets) are old. Young people are not coming into the business; they have to have a job to get health insurance. The cost of living is up and they cannot do the shopping that we did. Most of us were women whose husbands had jobs and we could go out. A lot of men were single and had only themselves to worry about. Husbands and wives did shows on weekends and you could survive on the shows, shops, auctions, etc. Those who worked chose the malls to sell for them, and as we travel we see they are closing the malls …

4) The younger people, those who are under 40, are not interested in antiques when they can go to Ikea and pick something up quickly and cheaply. They do not care if items are authentic or reproductions.

5) The gap between the rich collectors and the low-end collector reflects the American society. The Middle Class is caught holding the bag and they are too busy trying to keep their heads above foreclosure and disaster, paying for health care, paying for college, taking care of their children, parents and grandchildren.

6) There was a time, when I did shows, that people used to run down the corridors just to be first one to buy. Shows in the East use to charge $30 to $50 to be first in a show.

7) Also the Clean Sweep shows/Clutter Busters shows tell everyone that if you don’t use it, throw it away. They also have “Cash in the Attic” and encourage everyone to get rid of their collections. I have seen people intimidated to do just that … get rid of their family treasures to buy a couch, furniture, hot tub, pool, etc.

8) I am hopeful that times will change and we will have the collectors who will value the things that reflect our past.

One last observation: I took a course at New York University for an appraisal certification. One course covered auctions and their buyers and we were told that “The Rich” put their money in places like antiques when the market was uncertain … it really is nothing new.

CS Antiques


Noah:

Like a woman, the antique world is fickle. Right now art is a hot item and seems to be holding up well. I follow Sotheby’s auctions and the prices are unbelievable. Where does all this money come from? I buy art but usually it has to be a bargain for me to part with my money. I only buy if it is something that speaks to me, if you know what I mean. I do find it very educational and interesting to follow the auctions on a daily basis, however.

I enjoy your commentary and thanks.

Dwight Ash PT.


Hello,

I am a person who does enjoy collecting, in particular antiques, stamps, coins and other usual items … However it seems more and more advertisements of antique shows, sales, and flea markets are coming up with glassware: undocumented items of questionable possession, greedy sellers hoping to put one over on the unsuspecting or a lack of knowledgeable individuals. Please do not tell me that’s “business as usual” – it’s not!

I, for one, have in the past bought many objects I felt were honest, good items from respectable dealers/sellers, but now I question what and who is selling in most markets available to collectors today.

I look closely at the “seller” and the item to check pedigree; try to find one! I look for graded, documented items from professional grading services with proven track records. I may pay a little more, but for the most part get some piece of mind; not perfect, but some peace of mind …

Again, it comes down to knowing your seller, item, and the worth of the material you purchase. Honesty seems to be taking a pace backwards, sadly … Thank you.

Richard Donovan Sr.


Hey Noah:

I agree with you. There are a lot of wealthy people out there and those people are still buying anything that they want, no matter what the price. And yes, this has driven the price of some of the everyday things through the roof to where the middle class collectors can’t afford to buy it. And I can’t afford to buy and re-sell it either.

Also, I think computer technology has changed the whole complexion of the business, too. What I mean by that is that people used to enjoy going out and looking for things that they wanted, and it was “the thrill of the hunt” that made the business a lot of fun. Also the colorful characters and people that they met along the way were a part of it, too. But today it seems like most people don’t want to take the time to go out and scrounge around and look for “stuff” anymore, and it’s a lot easier for them to just go over to their computers and buy it on eBay, anywhere in the world.

Also another point I’d like to make: We now have television shows like the Antiques Roadshow, in which, on a weekly basis, we see people bringing in items to appraisers worth thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. So now when I go out to yard sales to buy stuff, I sometimes get run over by people running across the yards and grabbing things before I even get a chance to look at it. And when I go into homes to buy things, the people selling the stuff think it might be an Antiques Roadshow item, so I usually can’t afford to buy it to re-sell.

Please, don’t take me wrong on this. I’m not saying that I used to go out and buy stuff from “ignorant” people and took advantage of them, and now I can’t do that anymore because the public is more informed and better educated. What I’m trying to say is that I guess I’m just one of those old dinosaurs who enjoyed the “good old days” of the business, and I’m having a hard time changing to modern times.

So Noah, do you think the end justifies the means? Or getting the item no matter what the cost is more important than the process, or the thrill of the hunt?

Have a good day,
Terry Wert

(Hey Terry, I’ll ask the questions here! Just kidding. I guess I’m trying to figure that out myself. Judging by the volume of the responses, and the incredible variation, I’d say a lot of our readers are trying to figure it our, too. – Noah)


Dear Sir,

I have been an antique dealer and flea marketer for the past 42 years. I have seen the market swing in all directions over that course of time.

The current trend, in my opinion, is being driven by the younger and middle-age buyers. They seem to have a mentality based on “decorator items.” Their buying is not motivated by the usual criteria such as age, rarity, maker, etc. The thinking is: “Hmmm, will this look good on my kitchen shelf and how much is it?” I have witnessed the sale of the most shabby junk imaginable in the name of, for lack a better word, “primitives.”

Of course, the most high-end antiques will always garner a market no matter what. The middle layer has suffered the most. My observation of this trend is based on the dying off of the older collectors and the replacement by the “decorator crowd.”

What the future will bring is anybody’s guess. I hope this opinion of mine is of some help.

Arthur Bransky Jr.
Breinigsville, Pa.


Hi Noah,

Enjoyed your article and agree. I also think that our young people are not interested in collecting. They are so bogged down in debt from their big house and all the trimmings that they don’t have time to be interested. Plus, they would rather buy from Wal-Mart and just throw it out when they tire of the item.

A visit to TJ Maxx will tell you why we can’t sell a nice vase. You can buy something pretty for a few dollars and, again, if you tire of the color, go buy another.

It is so frustrating trying to stay in this business, which we all love, and find something that people will buy so we can continue with our passion. Occasionally I have found some young people very interested in preserving the past and am quite surprised and joyful. The antique shows bring in lookers, but hardly any buyers any more.

I wish I knew the answer to what would make them collect again. I have found that men who love something are willing to shell out the big bucks if it’s something they love, i.e. toys, fire memorabilia, sports, trains.

The store I rent space in makes the most money from the owner’s “new items,” which people can buy for a few bucks and go home and say they bought something.

Just my two cents. Wish I had an answer.

Linda Owens


Noah:

I think it’s a combination of a better-educated audience and the lack of availability – a better-educated audience because of television and a lack of availability because of eBay being my two prime suspects. I personally would not buy for investment, because to me the market is a fickle place and down the road what sells well today might or might not sell even better in the future. For whatever reason, it’s not near as much fun as it used to be and that’s a shame.

I am in my late 50s, but when I was small my great-aunt instilled in me a love for memorabilia and family collections. So you might say I loved collecting when collecting wasn’t cool.

My opinion, for what it’s worth.

LT in Texas


Salutations,

In my humble opinion I think it is little bit of everything listed in your article.

Today’s market is populated by what many would consider “neophytes” in sophistication and knowledge of the true market value of collectibles. I think you hit the nail on the head with the mention of the stock market mentality. Antiques have become the new stock market. It is generally cheap to buy into with a little research and you could almost establish a P/E for certain strata of the market.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributor’s has been television shows with an antique/collectible bent. As stated in the article, gone are the days of the 1980s and 1990s. I have always had an appreciation for antiques, and now people who would laugh and scoff at my obsession are now the obsessed.

I think we are entering into a period that could go either way, becoming the golden age or collapse, like the 1929 stock market. Such a wild swing can only be controlled by education and judicious purchases. Thanks for listening.

Regards,
Jim Adams


Noah:

I believe it is the easy access of knowledge (Antiques Roadshow, antiques value books, etc) that has caused prices to rise. As one learns more about any given subject, one usually acts upon that which he/she has learned, purchasing whatever they can in the hope that it will become the treasure of the future. Oh that it was so …

Ilenne Tyman
Ariel Art
Las Vegas


Noah:

Wish I knew the answer – it would surely make my buying and selling profitable instead of just fun. I can’t answer for non-U.S. buyers.

For U.S. buyers I am thinking that with everything going global and the craziness of all the imports from other countries, we are trying to hold onto some of our heritage. Most collectors are nostalgic for whatever it is that they collect, and we are sad to see things like Buddy L toys now being produced overseas.

I deal in vintage glassware and prices have gone up since I started in 1990 (just a newbie compared to some dealers, I know), but I do go to a lot of estate sales and it strikes me that someone is hoarding – one hardly ever sees the high-end Depression glass, for example, at auction … thus driving up the prices when we do happen on some.

Basically, I think people will pay and pay for whatever it is that they are collecting if there is no damage and it was made prior to the time that the company either went out of business OR went overseas.

Marie Luft


Dear Sir,

I believe that it is a combination of all the reasons you have given and one more that was not mentioned.

In today’s society, when the going gets tough we have a tendency to revert back to better times. With older folks, that time is the 1940s and 1950s.

Fashions will change. Women’s hemlines will change and a lot of society will go back to a more comfortable time and surround themselves with items and “stuff” that puts them more at ease, hence the lack of well-priced collectibles.

Regards
Larry Tobias
Henderson, Nev.


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