From the Editor: A road map to the antiques future

Think back to the last time you watched a lot sell at your local auction house and mumbled to yourself, “Wow, somebody got a deal on that.” You probably don’t have to think back that far.

My wife and I find ourselves saying that at more and more auctions these days. Just a few months ago we were at a rather crowded auction filled with dealers and collectors and watched as lot after lot of cast iron skillets, century old Majolica and vintage Coca-Cola tip trays all sell for about 25 percent of their accepted values.

In one instance I made two new additions to my growing collection of antique maps of the Upper Midwest. A pair of framed and matted, hand watercolored, 1860 Mitchell maps appeared from behind a box of linens. One was a county map of Illinois with an inset street map of Chicago and the other showed Minnesota and the territory which was at that time called the “Dacotas.”

I was shocked to see them in the first place. Usually I only come across framed examples at big city shows where I have paid up to $150 apiece. I was absolutely ecstatic when I topped the lone bid and bought them both for $5. A favorite find, indeed.

I was awash in what I call the “collector’s rush”: I had just found two perfect examples of 150-year old maps for the price of two cups of coffee at Starbucks. I proudly showed them to my wife who was equally as stunned.

But my thoughts quickly turned to the seller. What will they say when they learn their maps sold for so little? Is this just a case of the market finding a new level?

I was reminded of the maps a few weeks later when I read Wayne Jordan’s guest column titled “What dealers can learn from Encyclopedia Britannica.”

On page 10 of this week’s issue he writes: “In America today, there is a paradigm shift occurring that will completely restructure the antiques business. What are the main drivers of the new paradigm? There are two: a soon-to-be crushing overabundance of supply and universal distribution.”

Jordan correctly reinforces two truths: No. 1, it’s important to buy what you like and No. 2, collectors who purchased items for monetary investment might be disappointed if they have to sell.

The important thing to remember is that even though prices are changing for items — it still means these items are changing hands. Now might be the best time new collectors can enter the market for old Majolica and Coca-Cola tip trays. If they won’t be used on an open fire, maybe cast iron skillets will take on a new role as a funky kitchen decorator item.

Changing times may save these antiques and collectibles for future generations.

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