Behind the Gavel: Rubbish theory classifies objects, establishes value

I love Academics. Not the practice — the people. I’m all in favor of advanced education, but for some reason Academics just think and write differently than the rest of us. A Professor of Sociology communicates quite differently than an auto mechanic or an MBA. I’m a fairly well-educated guy, but whenever I read academic papers, my mind glazes over somewhere between the qualifiers and attributions and slips into its “blah, blah, blah” mode.

From that point on, the words on the page ring in my ears like the muted-trombone voice of Charlie Brown’s mother in a Christmas special. Perhaps my resistance is due to my Toastmasters public speaking training: “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it and then sit down.”

My mind slipped right into “blah, blah, blah” mode recently as I read through an academic critique (http://bit.ly/1dmgkRr) of Michael Thompson’s book “Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value.”

This is too bad, because there are some really good points made in both Thompson’s book and in the critique. Keeping in mind my mother’s admonition “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” I slugged my way through the critique with the help of some coffee and an occasional visit to Facebook.

There’s not much in Thompson’s book that antique dealers and collectors aren’t instinctively aware of. Rubbish Theory, as explained by Thompson, has nothing to do with dumpster diving or early morning garage-saling. Rather, Thompson points out that all the material goods in our lives, from safety pins to houses, can be divided into three categories: the Transient, the Durable and Rubbish.

Items in the Transient category are items that have a limited lifetime, whose value goes down over time until it hits zero. Cars, watches and most consumer goods start in the Transient category.


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Items in the Durable category are items with an unlimited lifetime, whose value increases over time. Investment quality art is an example of the Durable category. Any item that does not fit in either the Transient or the Durable categories is considered to be Rubbish. Material goods with no value and no practical utility are all Rubbish.

Most Rubbish finds its way into a landfill. Some Rubbish is stored in basements, garages or elsewhere; we have no use for it, but can’t quite bring ourselves to throw it away. After all, one never knows when an item might be needed again. When Rubbish is tucked away in the back of a drawer, a box in the basement or a corner of the garage, it’s out of sight and doesn’t interfere with the discharge of our daily duties. It’s only when Rubbish crosses our path again that it’s noticed.

Rubbish may live in an obsolete status for some time; but some day someone (an estate executor, usually) will draw it to the light, look at it, blow the dust from it and consider if the item could be of any use (or bring any money). If not, the item will remain rubbish; if so, the item will pass over into the Durable category and will begin to grow in value. The object’s growth in value is driven by low supply (most similar objects went to landfills) and renewed demand (for the object’s beauty of form, utility of function, historical importance, etc.).

Thompson states his Law of Rubbish thus: Objects can move from the Transient category to the Rubbish category and from the Rubbish category to the Durable category, but objects cannot move from the Transient category to the Durable category without first passing through the Rubbish category. According to Thompson, each community sets its own conventions as to what is Transient and what is Durable.


This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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One shortcoming of Thompson’s work (as pointed out in the above critique) is that there is no discussion of the practices surrounding Rubbish Theory that can, by themselves, give value to all sorts of Rubbish.

For starters, there is the thrill of the hunt. I don’t believe for a minute that millions of garage-salers get up at the crack of dawn every Saturday morning and hustle from sale to sale purely for the sake of profit. Their motivation isn’t greed; it’s the thrill of the hunt. Profit is the side-benefit that funds their garage-saling hobby.

Another practice that imbues rubbish with significance is its display value. Take deer antlers, for example. Deer shed their antlers seasonally, and there are places where one can walk through the woods and pick them up off the ground. To Mother Nature, the discarded antlers are Rubbish. To fans of rustic decor, they are Art; they get picked up, washed off and placed on a mantel.

Or driftwood: I recently had an enlightening conversation with a Florida gentleman who has made a comfortable living for decades by gleaning driftwood from lakes and re-selling it to florists. Suddenly, Mother Nature’s refuse is instilled with value and moves from the Rubbish category to the Durable category.

A third practice that instills new value into Rubbish is transforming and re-using objects (often for other than their original purpose). It’s called “re-purposing,” and Cari Cucksey of HGTV’s “Cash and Cari,” is the reigning high priestess of repurposing.

Her website (http://repurposeshop.com) states that Cari “is an Antiques Matchmaker who … refurbishes just about anything she can get her hands on.” Her tagline says it all: “ReClaim. ReInvent. ReFashion.”

In Thompson’s Rubbish Theory, Transient goods seem to mimic Mother Nature: They are new and fresh in the spring, come into the fullness of their purpose in the summer, begin to fade away from use or neglect in the fall and become dormant in the winter (become Rubbish). Come the following spring (upon re-discovery), Rubbish either dies off (goes to the landfill) or is re-discovered and/or re-purposed (becomes Durable).

It seems to me that that’s the natural cycle for our material goods, at least from a practical standpoint. Aside from that, it’s all just theory, and how we respond to it is academic.

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