You see it all the time. Perhaps you think you’ll hit a few Saturday yard sales and so you go online and peruse the listings on Craigslist or some other similar site. “Lots of Stuff Including Antiques” a headline says. As a collector your ears prick up at the word antiques, a bit like a dog who’s just heard the rustle of his favorite bag of treats. So you put it on your list with the other ads which have boasted having antiques and go to bed dreaming that perhaps tomorrow will be the day that you finally find that long lost Rubens laying against the wall in someone’s garage.
But the reality is almost always quite different; especially here in Las Vegas. You turn up to the first place that advertised “lots of antiques”. Before you’ve made five steps up the driveway you gaze past the boxes of baby clothes and clusters of unattractive furniture; all old, certainly, but not antique. You rifle through a box of books that looks promising. No antiques here, you think. And so you ask. “Your advertisement said antiques...?” The unwitting proprietor of this ploy to get you out of bed early on Saturday cheerfully points to any number of dusty plates from the 1980s with Fred Flintstone on them, or a pile of National Geographic magazines from the early 90s that they clearly kept in the hopes that “someday” they’d be valuable. My favorite is the “antique” that still has the price tag from Home Goods on the bottom.
Generally when this scenario happens to me I go to McDonalds, order a cheeseburger, eat it in the car on the way home, and follow it up with a nap. C’est la vie!
So who was the main culprit of this strange redefining of what is antique? That honor goes, of course, to our friends over at The Antiques Roadshow. Now I should say straight off the bat that I have the highest regard generally, for the appraisers on that program. I’m not suggesting that they are the ones who have muddied the waters of their craft. The producers however, over the years, decided that sensational was much more interesting than educational. And as the startling appraisals on Antiques Roadshow became household conversation, that show quickly became the nucleus for every other cable program that has followed, where seemingly uninformed people go into the oddest places to have their items valued and are almost always shocked and surprised by the appraisal. What was once intended to be about collecting has now become about winning a jackpot or turning a quick buck.
The downside to all of this sensationalism regarding the values of stuff is that many opportunists who catch these programs think that antiques grow on trees and that all they’ll have to do is buy a few and they’ll be set for life. They watch an episode of Pawn Stars and suddenly they’re rifling through drawers and boxes hoping to find a great treasure. I’m frequently appalled at the prices at which people are willing to part with things on these shows. Most auction houses charge around 20 percent in commission, so why on earth would you sell your signed George Washington document, which was just appraised at $5,000, to a pawn shop for $2,500?
No matter what your personal definition of an antique may be there is one thing that buyers should always keep in mind. It is a rule that still remains tried and true and any expert in art and antiques will tell you this: always buy something because you like it. Period. If you follow that rule you’ll never be unhappy. And the fact is, even the best antiques can fluctuate in value. Antiques are, and always have been a matter of personal taste and are, at their most basic, nothing more than decoration. Styles change and tastes change, even when it comes to valuable objects. Most people would be shocked to learn that the average Picasso painting from the 1960s will fetch double what a Monet landscape will at auction these days. Quality will always rise above trends over time, but trends will always dominate the current market. The fact is, if you buy a Happy Meal toy from McDonald’s hoping that it will be valuable someday, you probably won’t live long enough to see a significant return on your time and investment. Most antique dealers who truly know their stock and trade will tell you that they do what they do out of love and interest, not to get rich.
Collecting should be fun and it should be about collecting not amassing things in the hopes that you’ll make money. Collectors frequently make mistakes no matter how savvy they are but the happiest collector is the one that gleefully tells you that the their favorite item in their collection is the reproduction, not the thing that is the most rare or cost them the most.
I’ll be writing more about this topic in the future along with tips on collecting and buying. And, as always, I’ll include a story or two about my own adventures in the world of antiques!