The Young Collector
When you are a librarian, everyone wants you to be on their team for Trivial Pursuit. “You know all the answers,” they say. “No,” a fellow librarian once said, “I know how to find all the answers.” That conversation is the intersection of our understanding of the difference between information and expertise, an intersection that is somewhat chaotic in the antiques business these days.
It is hard to convey just how vastly different the marketplace is now, compared to even 15 years ago, let alone 25, 35, or 50 years ago. Even at this point, we look back and shake our heads in amazement (or horror). We do what people have done since time immemorial to make sense of dramatic changes in our world: try to find simple solutions and try to blame or somehow rise above other people. Look around the world at everything making headlines—our own political situation, Brexit, you name it. These are the reactions of a world undergoing dramatic change and wrestling with all the attendant fear and uncertainty.
We have talked about the “food chain” in the antiques business, that time-honored hierarchy of pickers, flippers, movers, and shakers. Such a structure was once rather fixed. A picker in Pennsylvania, for example, would find an exceptional piece of Pennsylvania redware at a farm sale in rural Tennessee. It, along with many other things, would fill the van he would drive back home to a local brick-and-mortar shop, where he would sell the whole load, probably just for a percentage markup of what he had in the whole load. The dealer would recognize the redware as being a cut above what he normally saw and would call a friend three towns over who dealt on a larger or more focused scale. He would snap it up (for a generous markup) and take it to a show where a knowledgeable Pennsylvania dealer would snap it up (again with a markup) and either flip it at the same show or take it home to send to a higher-profile auction. From there (with fairly steady markups all along the way), the piece would eventually find its way to one of the New York shows where the price would now be orders of magnitude higher. A well-funded collector would pronounce it a rare and fine piece of redware and take it home. Along the way, that redware would have left a reasonable profit in each of the pairs of hands through which it had passed.
Thanks to the increased availability of information, today that original picker can get online, more readily identify a particular piece of redware and its likely worth, e-mail photos directly to that upper-market dealer or specialty/major auction house, and boom, he keeps all the profit. And that is if that little regional estate sale he attended was not already using some form of online marketing, such as AuctionZip or Everything But the House, which would have knocked him out of the running from the start. The food chain has been flattened, arguably, under the weight of information. All those middlemen (middlepersons) have been squeezed out, just as have many ambitious lower- and mid-level collectors who built great collections by doing the legwork necessary to be in the right place to grab that redware somewhere near the bottom of its journey up the chain.
This is how the Internet, which has in so many ways been a boon to the antiques business, can be a curse. Everyone has information now, more information than they know what to do with, information from multiple sources, information that does not always agree, and,as seems to be the case with the entire world, we have become sure that we no longer have any need for expertise. Millennials, it is true, have grown up in a world so besieged with information that they struggle with parsing the difference between information and expertise. (There is no need, however, to be smug about this. We all have that one friend who is always telling us that bras are going to give us breast cancer, that we should use pop as a pesticide, and that we need to forward this chain letter or else.)
This glut of free and easy information, if not always accurate, has done far more than simply flatten the food chain and leave everyone scrambling to figure out which end is up. It has created a crisis of expertise. Everyone wants to be an expert or thinks he or she is an expert. There is no respect for expertise, because there is no awareness that expertise is more than simply having access to information. Heck, expertise is more than simply knowing information. Now anyone and everyone can present themselves as having expertise, and it can be difficult to figure out from the outside who really does qualify. (Again, this is part of the wider crisis of discourse. Information is different from expertise—and expertise is different from infallibility.)
Look at any auction catalog from 1980 and what do you see? Bare-bones physical descriptions, a few dimensions, and no estimates. Auctioneers and auction houses used to be the wholesale end of the market—they were auctions in the exact same sense that livestock auctions still are. You showed up, looked at what you wanted, and made your most informed guess. Auctions were the deep end of the pool, a place one didn’t dabble without expertise. Certainly there were savvy collectors who enjoyed the competitive thrill of bidding at auction, but generally the crowd was primarily made up of dealers who knew what things were worth—or at least what they were worth to their customers. Auctioneers used to have ring men, but now they have specialists, sometimes with advanced degrees and increasingly with museum backgrounds. Mimeographed sale lists have been replaced with professionally produced catalogs, printed or online, often with 1000-word essays, often with very real scholarship, on single objects. But an auction house cannot have true expertise on everything that flows across the block. Ultimately and always an auction house’s first and most important expertise is in a very different field—marketing. Auction houses, to paraphrase our librarian, do not have to know what something is, they only have to know how to find someone who cares what it is.
Dealers, as we suggested earlier, were once situated in a fairly solid hierarchy (pickers, flippers, lower, middle, or upper level), and they were sorted out by their willingness to do the work to drum up good material and their ability to recognize things in settings where others often did not. Today, however, just because someone can offer something for $30,000 does not necessarily mean he or she knows that much more than someone who routinely sells things for $300—it means he or she is able to operate at whatever level his or her checkbook permits. With platforms such as 1stdibs and Facebook, the number of avocational dealers has exploded. Anyone with an Internet connection and a smartphone can participate in the antiques business and call themselves an expert.
Collectors are different too. They can now assemble a world-class collection by pointing and clicking, with limited regular or sustained interaction or education. Because of the plethora of information online, particularly related to auction prices, some collectors become “experts” very quickly and begin to do things such as suggesting that a 20% markup on a $400 item is price gouging because they know what you paid at auction last month. And now with the help of social media and DIY selling sites (eBay, Etsy, etc.), collectors are able to sell things themselves from their collections. (You probably do not need us to tell you that this very often does not end well.)
The problem is larger than dismantling a hierarchy of dealers and auction houses. Where there were once clearly defined roles in the trade, this new market, largely driven by the Internet and more specifically by social media, has completely blurred the lines that formerly separated the antiques trade into a number of very different roles. We are at risk of experiencing the same problems of the larger world, a world in which expertise does not exist and there are no agreed-upon facts.
There are no easy answers to this dilemma we are facing. We can start by demanding less of experts in some ways. The abdication of personal responsibility has led us to require near infallibility from people in many professions, and the costs associated with said profession always seem to go up. The auction model in particular is hamstrung between the demand to keep costs low and to spend an increasing amount of time “expertising” each object (of hundreds), typically within a very tight time frame. There are few solutions to meet those demands that do not involve rising costs (hire more specialists!). Or we can accept that it is unrealistic to expect an auction house specialist to be an expert in everything the house sells. Likewise, we should be willing to let dealers sell items about which they are knowledgeable but may not truly be expert. A little “buyer beware” will not ruin everything (in fact, it seemed to work just fine for decades).
We also need to start looking for real hallmarks of expertise. Having money is not necessarily a sign that someone is smart, honest, or respectable. Having an opinion and being very vocal and repetitive is not necessarily a sign that someone is smart, honest, or respectable. Acting like the smartest person in the room is not necessarily a sign that someone is smart, honest, or respectable. To find expertise, one often has to do the most difficult of tasks—wait, watch, listen. Oddly enough, waiting, watching, and listening are quite likely what an expert is doing too.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached by email at <[email protected]> or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest