Rinker on Collectibles: The Traditional vs. Digital Hunt

Posted by & filed under Features.

The hunt is an essential part of collecting. It consists of seven parts: 1) research, 2) select goal(s), 3) plan the hunt, 4) decide where the hunt will take place, 5) consult experts and dealers, 6) persist, and 7) achieve the goal. Historically, the hunt has taken place in the field utilizing a combination of sales venues such as an auction, collector’s home, collectors’ club convention, flea market, mall, shop and show. This is known in the trade as the traditional hunt.

In today’s digital age, the hunt is more likely to occur within the worldwide web. The digital hunt contains many of the same elements as the traditional hunt. The main differences are the commitment level, time allotted, the global nature of the hunting landscape, and a much higher sophistication on the part of the digital hunter.

The traditional hunter understands that a learning process is required before the hunt begins. A reference library needs to be assembled and the books read and studied carefully. This research is supplemented by visits to auctions, shows, museums, historical societies and other institutions where objects are available for study. Such research is essential to understanding condition, cost, desirability and scarcity. If a collectors’ club exists, the person joins and attends one or more conventions.

The digital hunter also should do this, albeit few make the commitment. The digital hunter assumes everything he/she needs is available on the Internet. This is not true, not yet and possibly never. Although I am spending more and more time in cyberspace, I still consult printed references on a regular basis.

Although a few collectors begin the hunt with a “learn as one goes” philosophy, most make a list of desired objects. Until the 1970s, a trade up philosophy applied to hard-to-find, upper echelon and masterpiece objects. Collectors purchased pieces with minor damage with the understanding that they would eventually trade up to a better example. By the 1990s, this approach was passé. Buyers focused on pieces that were room-ready and in very fine or better condition. In the digital age, the focus is on “like new.” Collections are smaller and tend to emphasize the most desirable over the ordinary. Commonly found examples have little appeal and very limited value.

The digital hunter is a “learn as one goes” individual. Rather than spend an extensive period of time doing advanced research, the digital hunter takes a tangential approach. Objects are researched individually and not as a group or collecting category. The result is a narrow rather than a broad understanding of the market within a collecting category.

Because of the multiple hunt opportunities, traditional hunters carefully plan where to hunt. They identify sales venues and regions where the time spent is most effective. Traditional hunters also realize they cannot be in two places at one time. They develop a group of loyal, more or less, dealers and pickers who are familiar with their hunt list and report buying opportunities to them. Although traditional sales venues persist, digital hunters rely on devices such as the computer, mobile phone and tablet.

A partial list of traditional antiques and collectibles sales venues includes: auctions, classified and display advertisements in trade periodicals, collector to collector (often involving trading as opposed to cash), collectors’ club conventions, consignment shops, dealers, estate sales, flea markets, malls, pickers, private treaty sales (a sale arranged by an auction company without placing the object at auction), shops and shows. Some savvy collectors and dealers are known to haunt Goodwill, the Salvation Army and other thrift shops. All are fertile ground. The difficulty is that there are so many possibilities, far more than can be covered even by someone hunting full time.

Although it appears at first glance that the digital hunter has a much narrower hunting field, the truth is that the global nature of the worldwide web has increased the hunting territory multiple times. eBay.com is American eBay. EBay has more than 25 websites in other countries. Although efforts are being made to create search engines that include the full worldwide web, these efforts still are in their infancy and not fully trustworthy.

Experience teaches the traditional field hunter the most fertile sales venues and locations. The traditional hunter returns to the same locations where his/her previous hunts have been most successful. I recently visited the shop, Antiques on the Avenue in Winter Park, Florida. Objects were fairly priced. Linda and I departed with a number of treasures. When we return to Winter Park, this will be the first antiques shop we visit. Returning to the same hunting grounds over and over is dangerous. A sales venue can be over hunted. The traditional hunter who limits his/her possibilities also restricts the ability to adequately grow a collection.

Digital hunters demonstrate less loyalty to auction and direct sale websites. Although they might follow a few “favorite” websites, they are more likely to use a search engine such as Google. This constantly exposes the digital hunter to new territory. Relying too heavily on first page results is a danger. The best sources may be on the second or third page. Another concern is entering the right search words. Skilled digital hunters use a dozen or more search word combinations to achieve maximum success.

The traditional hunter has an advantage in terms of meeting and interacting with sellers and others with a high level of expertise. The personal exchange of information is essential to the development of a skilled hunter. Personal insights into condition, scarcity and desirability in what is primarily a subjective activity are learned only through experience.

The digital hunter is at a distinct disadvantage. He/she acts alone. Emailing and other digital communication is secondary to face-to-face interaction. While person-to-person communication programs, such as Facetime and Skype exist, they are underutilized by the digital hunter, due in part to the lack of digital technology skills by one or both individuals.

[Author’s Aside:  In early March 2016, WorthPoint and I began recording a weekly feature entitled “WorthPoint Chats with Harry Rinker” that appears on YouTube. The chats are recorded live on Tuesdays at 2:00 PM Eastern Time, unless I have a schedule conflict. The two primary goals are to share information about the latest developments in the trade and to allow an expert (me) to respond to questions asked by viewers.]

Persistence and patience are part of any hunt. Traditional hunters accept frustration and live with it, especially when returning empty handed. A product of the instant/immediate gratification community, the digital hunter has neither persistence nor patience. The digital hunter seeks instant gratification—a successful hunt is measured in minutes rather than hours, days, months or years. The digital hunter assumes what he/she wants is available now. Oddly enough, more often than not, the object is available—provided the correct search word combinations are chosen. Cost is another matter and will be ignored in this column.

A successful hunt is the goal of both hunters—traditional and digital. Since it is most likely the object has to be shipped, the digital hunter’s hold-it-in-my hands’ satisfaction is delayed. The dissatisfaction level differs. Traditional hunters walk away from objects that do not meet their standards. The digital hunter occasionally must return an object that does not meet his/her standards, providing the seller allows the return.

The hunt is not a game. It is a commitment to total victory, victory being measured by finding the object or objects sought in a condition worthy of acquisition and at an affordable, sometimes a stretch, price. The antiques and collectible hunt stories told by collectors, dealers and others are the equivalent of war stories told by members of the military. The overriding tone is a grand adventure involving personal tenacity and courage.

The traditional hunt sales venues will not vanish in my lifetime, albeit I have watched trade periodical classified advertising become almost inconsequential. What will happen in my lifetime is a continuing shift in the purchasing of antiques and collectibles from the traditional sales venues to digital sources. I will have fun watching it, documenting it as best I can, and taking advantage of it to dispose of the bulk of my collections while continuing to build a few new ones.

You can listen and participate in Whatcha Got? Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8 and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, Whatcha Got? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com. Contact Harry at Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512 or by email at harrylrinker@aol.com. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC, 2016

Leave a Reply