Thursday, June 30, 2016

Antique Collectors as Canaries – Welcome to the Coal Mine

In the world of business, from my tiny perch as a communications consultant, nothing surprises me any more. In the world of antiques, from my tiny perch as a collector and sometime dealer, nothing surprises me anymore.

If you have a job that you go to every day and have the luxury of knowing that scenario is going to continue for the foreseeable future. Count yourself lucky. You’re one of the fortunate ones. You have some occupational certainty in your life.

It seems to me, antique collectors, not to mention communication consultants, are like the canary in the coal mine. The first subtle frisson of gas in a mine and the canary does a swan dive to the bottom of the cage. 
OK it's not a canary but the closest I had in the photo archive!
Collectors like to collect. Passionately. And I don’t care what you collect. If you’re passionate, hooked, you’re going to act on that passion, poor economy or not.   

But a key point here is the degree to which collectors continue to collect and at what cost?  Should you spend that $10,000 on a very good cupboard? Pull the trigger on that $4,000 folk art painting? Is the time right for that $2,500 top-notch bucket stand? How about shelling out $3,000 for a stellar piece of decorated stoneware? Or, does one keep the money liquid in a cashable GIC – even if it’s earning next to nothing in interest? Some collectors will buy. Some will not.  There are lots of good things to collect for less than $1,000 – maybe that’s where everyone has gone to play.

A point to make here is that collectors like a good deal as much as the next person. Once armed with knowledge and experience, collectors put their noses to the ground and start searching for antiques and collectables – especially ones that can be had for a bargain or for prices at below market value. The majority of collectors also dabble on the sell side of the market and making a tidy profit on a flea market find is a bonus that can occur frequently.  Again, in this economy, for most of us extra dollars are welcome.

I think it’s obvious that there aren’t as many collectors now as they’re used to be. Maybe the new collectors are all off searching for and collecting “mid century modern” items, advertising and nostalgia or whatever, thus leaving the country furniture domain populated mostly with dotty seniors, including myself, wandering about their houses noting inventories on their smart phones facing the uncomfortable prospect of what to do with these prized collections in their declining years. 

Of course if you’re sitting on heaps of money, enough to make you and your family financially secure, then all these points and counter points I’m making are irrelevant. Those with bags of moola are free to indulge in their collecting passion without constraint.  Still, folks with the deepest pockets are often the ones that don’t like taking a loss, ever. And, they also like a bargain as much as anyone.

However, if you are on a budget, like most of us, you’re going to face the balancing act - to buy or not to buy. Not surprisingly even in the face of uncertainty, collectors will often opt to purchase. The urge to own a particular piece is often too strong to ignore and damn the consequences.

Leaving the economy and financial circumstances aside, collectors desire objects that have character, colour, uniqueness, rarity, strong graphics, visual appeal, good design, form, age and provenance, none of that should surprise anyone. It’s what we all look for in antiques. Good things sell. Very good things sell quickly. And excellent things sell instantly. It’s the price at which they sell that is the moving target.

Of course when objects that meet that criteria, in whatever category, appear on the market they usually sell. What that leaves behind is the inferior objects and lots of them. There is more and more of the below average on the market. Those are objects that prove difficult to sell especially in a sluggish economy. So, there they sit taking up space in shops, stores, flea markets and anywhere else where marginal antiques and collectables are stored, frustrating the advanced collector and confusing the beginner. Heck, in this market even pretty good items languish in the shops and booths of the dealers.

Where is this all going to end? I certainly don’t know. I like most collectors, continue to pursue the hunt, spending what available dollars I have on antiques and folk art.  The thrill of the hunt, the discovery and the acquisition is the equation I love to solve, over and over again. 

The economy may be doubtful. Harsh events may be just around the corner. I don’t want to think about things at that level. I can’t do anything about it.  What I can do is enjoy the simple yet exciting pleasure of discovering more of this great country’s material history and adding these items to a small collection which brings joy and satisfaction on a daily basis.

Perhaps in preserving items of the past, I am doing some good at a minute level. That’s the philosophy I am going with and I think it’s a pretty solid one given all the other nonsense that’s happening around us.

Further, at the risk of extending this notion too far, I’d suggest that if we all spent more time studying and enjoying art and antiquities that our world would be a better, saner, more peaceful place in which to live. Not that that's going to happen, regrettably, any time soon.


  1. Great points Shaun and a nice collection of items in the picture! Enjoying your purchases, no matter if someone else thinks it's junk is all that matters. I just recently was at a auction with many nice items but could not compete with all the VERY deep pockets in the room. But I did purchase two folk art pieces that would be considered 'inferior' by those collectors, auctioneers, and dealers in attendance there. But I told him my very heavy, tall, primitive Canadian Goose, cleaned him with beeswax and he proudly stands in the corner of my dining room. So even though I'm on the inferior end of the scale, I think I love my goose as much as the guy who bought the $1050 spotted dog. Enjoying my finds! Happy hunting to all.

  2. Hey that was a nice goose you got at a very reasonable price! And I liked it almost as much as my $1050 spotted dog..BTW, my wife did not share my same enthusiasm.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.