What is An Antique? A 21st Century Definition

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by Harry L. Rinker 

“What is an antique?” is a question I was asked a great deal in the twentieth century. Only recently did I realize that I only have been asked this question a few times in the twenty-first century. The obvious conclusion is that most collectors and the general public as a whole no longer desire to specifically define the term. If they like something, they buy it no matter how it is classified within the trade.

Although what follows will be repetitive for longtime “Rinker on Collectibles” readers, it is necessary to set the stage for a new approach to defining antiques. When I studied with the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Fellows during the spring 1963 semester at the University of Delaware, I was taught an antique was anything made before 1830. 1830 was the magic date that separated handcraft from machine technology in the United States. Although machine technology was in place in England and Europe by the end of the eighteenth century, collectors and museum personnel thought in American terms.

In the early 1960s, Winterthur used an 1830 cutoff for its collections. Fifty-two years later, Winterthur has expanded its collection to include material from the early and middle Victorian period. It is only a matter of time before Winterthur includes the late Victorian period.

The general public used the 100-year-old rule to define an antique. The rule is the result of the United States Custom Agency’s rule that any item imported into the United States older than 100 years can enter duty free. In the 1960s, this meant an antique was an object made in the 1860s or earlier. Using this approach today, an antique is any object made before 1918. The only merit to this definition is its forward movement.

When I began writing “Rinker on Collectibles” in the mid-1980s, I selected 1920 as the dividing line between antiques and collectibles, a new term to the trade at the time. Over the years, I updated the dividing line—first defining an antique as anything made before 1945, anything made before 1962 and, most recently, anything made before 1980. For those wishing to know my reasoning behind these dates, see the series “Defining An Antique” in the “Rinker on Collectibles Special Series Columns” URL on my website www.harryrinker.com.

In 2019, 2045 is only 26 years in the future. In 2045, 1945 will qualify under the obsolete 100-year rule. I would love to live long enough to see this happen, but the odds are against me.

A date is the common element in all these definitions. This did not strike me as odd until recently. A specific date is comforting and easy to understand. It removes all doubt and requires no thought. It is safe and absolute.

In late October 2018, Linda and I attended a Halloween dinner at the University Club of Winter Park, Florida. During a break, one of the individuals seated at our table came over to talk with me.

“You mentioned your strong interest in antiques and collectibles,” he began. “My wife collected antiques. She had an unusual definition of an antique. To her, an antique was anything older than 25 years that she did not remember or recognize.”

Cue the lights. Sound the alarm bells. Slap the side of my head. Why did I not think of that? Imagine a definition of antiques that floated. It is enough to cause a lexicographer to turn over in his/her grave.

Since the end of the 1990s, I have wrestled with understanding how younger generations approach antiques as a concept. They clearly have no interest in a fixed date. As indicated earlier, it is highly possible they do not even care. The more I think about this, the more I question if I care.

Imagine a definition that is individually relevant as opposed to an absolute, concise, fixed definition that is universally acceptable. Actually, a fixed date is meaningless. If 20 collectors are asked to define an antique, it is highly likely that 10 or more separate definitions, each with a different date, will result. The dictionary definitions of antique are broad and vague to the point of uselessness.

Older, more traditional collectors prefer to define an antique as something older than them. Few individuals are willing to accept they have reached the point in their lives where they qualify as an antique. I am not one of them. I am an antique and proud of it.

Time is a critical perspective. Although I have always known this, its impact upon me in this age of social diversity becomes more evident each year. I watched so many of the values I was taught by my parents, my religious upbringing, my college professors and mentors being overturned that I now wonder if what I believe is what I am supposed to believe.

The more I think about defining an antique based on a person’s individual perspective, the more it helps explain what I am seeing in the field. Members of Generation X, the Millennials and Generation Z tend to focus on their own past rather than that of previous generations. This approach moves the time definition of an antique forward at a far more rapid pace than I am prepared to acknowledge. 

This new floating definition of an antique is a difficult concept to understand and accept. Adding memory to the definition only complicates the picture. Once again, this addition needs to be considered. How does a person, especially a collector, deal with objects they do not remember?

I recently encountered a Whitey Lockman first baseman’s mitt while doing a home walk-through appraisal. I had no idea who Whitey Lockman was. The glove was well used. As a result, I misdated it. I assumed it was older than it was.

Carroll Walter “Whitey” Lockman (1926-2009) was a major league baseball player, coach, manager and front office executive. Lockman, a first baseman and outfielder, signed with the New York Giants in 1946. He was traded to the Cardinals in 1956 but sent back to the Giants at the end of the season. He finished his career playing for the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds.

Lockman played while I was growing up. I certainly knew his name at the time. He later served as manager of the Chicago Cubs. I probably knew that as well. If I had remembered, I would have dated the baseball mitt correctly.

I played first base during a relatively undistinguished Little League career. I used an Eddie Waitkus endorsed mitt. Waitkus was the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies and inspiration for the Roy Hobbs character in the movie “The Natural.” Out of curiosity, I did an Internet search to see what my Eddie Waitkus mitt looked like. I was surprised to find it closely resembled the Whitey Lockman endorsed mitt. Is my memory starting to fade?

[Author’s Aside: Years ago, I reacquired an Eddie Waitkus mitt. Mine disappeared. I found an example for sale on eBay. The seller wanted $100.00 plus close to $10.00 to ship it. I counter offered with $60.00. The seller refused. eBay responded with a suggestion I counteroffer with $75.00. This is not a game I play. Since I already own one, assuming of course I can find it, a second example is not worth more than $60.00 to me.]

Memory does define what each individual considers an antique. Lack of memory places the object back in time, often further back than deserved but back nevertheless. Objects not remembered are presumed to be old in the 21st century.

Historically, the definition of antiques has been immune from being associated with the concept of old. This is no longer the case. Old is a relevant term. Once linked with antique, antique also becomes a relevant term.

What is an antique? In the twenty-first century, it depends entirely on who you ask.

POSTSCRIPT: This column marks the 32nd birthday of “Rinker on Collectibles.” As I keep reminding my wife, age marks the completion of a year. I am 77. When asked my age, I reply, “I am in my 78th year.” Rinker on Collectibles begins its 33rd year with my next column. I already have written it. Recently, I made a list of future text columns I wish to write. I have identified enough topics for another year. Column #1700 and most like #1750 are within sight.]

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. 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. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC. 

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