Introducing: Generation NEXT

Young collectors are ready to share their passion for antiques

Matthew Lien is a welcome guest at antiques shows. At age 14, his hobby of choice is learning new ways to buy paper money, coins and lead soldiers.

He still finds time for video games and friends, but he takes pride in knowing the history and details of Depression-era tin soldiers and watching his collection grow in value. One of his favorite sources is the world’s largest antiques show held twice a year in Atlantic City.

“My mom brought me here when I was 8 years old,” Lein said, clutching a sack of treasures he found during the October 2005 Atlantique City antiques show. “She said, ‘You must be getting smarter, you’ve been coming here for every show.’”

A shopper such as Lien is a hot commodity in the antiques trade. As dealers face a cyclical retail market and a generation presented with a plethora of alternative buying choices, changing tastes are felt immediately. This begs the question: How do dealers make the antiques market more attractive to 20- and 30-something collectors to replace the buying prowess of their parents or grandparents?

One industry leader remains bullish on the market and said there are more young collectors active in the hobby than at any other time. However, they buy and sell in a manner that’s different than previous generations.

Jacob Newman of Elizabeth, N.J., doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. At 25, he’s been a collector of “all kinds of stuff” but especially Cold War memorabilia and postcards for as long as he can remember. He, too, was searching for finds at Atlantique City.

“I remember, back in the 1980s, the tail end of the Cold War,” he told Antique Trader. “I remember Reagan and all the players, probably because it was one of the first things I remember on TV.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Newman and collectors of old is how he collects. Newman has participated in dozens of auctions — all from the comfort of his home.

“I mainly use eBay and military shows,” he said. “There’s always stuff online about the Communist Bloc, the Warsaw Pact, East Germany.”

At this point in his collecting career, he is an accumulator who is learning everything he can about his topic. Newman closely watches how much he spends on his collection.

Finding enough spare money is a challenge for most young collectors, said Amy Spano of Egg Harbor Town-ship, N.J., a self-described “eclectic” young collector of textiles, folk art and other “untrained” art works. Unlike Newman, Spano doesn’t use eBay for one simple reason: “When I go shopping, I like to shop,” she said. “EBay isn’t as much fun as an estate sale. When you’re young and like antiques, you have to be resourceful,” she said.

She and her friend Becky Golebiewski of Egg Harbor City, N.J., were fresh from a jewelry buying binge at the October 2005 Atlantique City. Golebiewski collects cookie jars.

Savvy dealers who have seen the shift in collectibles have diversified their stock while keeping one truism in mind: the top of the market always takes care of itself. That’s a rule of thumb for dealer Stan Truce, owner of The Happy Packrat of Chicopee, Mass.

“I’ve seen that people like the things that they grew up with and the things that their parents grew up with,” he said, standing in his Atlantique City booth filled with store displays, memorabilia and collectibles. Collectibles from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s sell very well at antiques shows, he said.

Truce is returning to Atlantique City for the March 2006 show in booth No. 1269. When a young customer enters his booth, Truce is always at the ready to answer questions about items. He finds himself volunteering tidbits and trivia about collectibles, such as the fact that items can sometimes be dated based on the appearance of the ZIP code. ZIP Codes first appeared on items in 1963.

A willingness to educate newcomers is a talent and a trait more dealers, shop owners and show producers should be willing to adopt, Steve Geppi, president and owner of Diamond International Galleries told Antique Trader. Diamond is revolutionizing the comics and collectibles market and is making significant gains in the live auction world. All three of Diamond’s auction house holdings, Morphy Auctions, Hakes Americana and Collectibles, and Geppi’s Memorabilia Road Show, recorded sales into the millions last year.

Diamond is North America’s largest distributor of English-language comic books. Geppi said he’s been able to apply some of the lessons learned from that industry to the antiques and collectibles trade.

The antiques business would do well to pass their passion and knowledge to a younger generation, Geppi said. Dealers who brood about the lack of young collectors or criticize them for not pursuing the most expensive antiques should adopt a broader view of how the antiques and collectibles market has already changed, he said.

“Collecting is a gene that doesn’t need much fertilization,” Geppi said. “Companies like eBay have increased the number of young people bidding and buying and even going into business to buy and sell things.”

Geppi has created a free online newsletter called “Scoop” whose only mission is to pump up the buzz about collecting comic books, auctions and comic character items. It’s taken the younger collecting community by storm and boasts 300,000 readers. To sign up for Scoop, visit scoop.diamondgalleries.com.

Geppi said the antiques market is no different than others that occasionally suffer cyclical changes. He uses his own children, which span in age from age 4 to age 34, as an example. “Look at the advent of Nick at Nite and the replay of all the oldies. My 4-year-old loves ‘I Love Lucy.’ The appeal of Lucy isn’t lost. It just wasn’t on television. It’s just as funny to kids today.”

Young collectors who are introduced to new genres of antiques will become long-term collectors. If a dealer can impart their passion, then they will necessarily impart an excitement about antiques, Geppi said.

“If we can teach kids how many ways there are to enhance a collection: buy new, dig into stores, run ads, go online, buy at shows … then we can show them that there are so many tools to make this hobby something that they’ll never get bored with.”

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