It’s no secret that what is collectible and valuable today, may well be worthless and unwanted tomorrow – but it is the other side of that coin which makes or breaks an antique dealer. I’ve written it before but it bears saying again – you don’t make money selling, you make money buying. Or, you lose money buying – which is more often the case for most people. We conducted an estate sale this weekend where that was very apparent – the lady had amassed a sizable collection of milk-glass and while I don’t know how much she paid for it, I know what the public was willing to pay for it – nothing. A few pieces sold when we dropped the prices by 75%, but most of it was boxed up and given to charity. Just a few years ago milk glass was red hot – any piece would sell for $5-$20, but now, if it isn’t a complete set or a figural piece – you are lucky to get anything for it. And I see it in antique shops all the time – the dealers are holding on, waiting for it to come back, taking it to auctions or flea markets and displaying it hopefully – and then packing it up again. Not me – that ship has sailed and I don’t expect it to return any time soon.
The business is in a funny place right now – everyone knows it. The elders had more disposable income than any generation before or since and they did what you do when you have extra money – they bought bigger houses and filled them with all kinds of things. Now they are dying and their kids, the baby boomers, are inheriting their collections and combining them with their own in their own big houses filled with nostalgic collections that always include some Kennedy newspapers, a bunch of ‘collectible’ Harley Davidson or Budweiser or Coke crap and then realizing they are getting too old to enjoy five acres of lawn or a three story house – and so they are telling themselves that they are downsizing as they put everything in storage, try to foist their crap on their Gen X or Millennial kids, and then move into an RV or cottage – it’s a great time to be in the storage business. The baby boomer stuff is among the most worthless – a generation that saved things showing how important their generation was but didn’t save anything that was actually worth a damn. They all have grandma’s steamer trunk or treadle sewing machines or grandpa’s huge radio which they think are priceless but which are actually hardly worth the weight of moving them. They generally have thrown out the valuable stuff – the old motorcycle odometers, the Rookwood pottery they thought was ugly, the folk paintings by outsider artists, grandpa’s levis, or the ultra-rare buttons that were in grandma’s sewing machine but seemed worthless. Oh, but they saved those Bob Dylan albums, they saved Elvis records by the tons, and they saved those Kennedy death books, and they saved the most worthless parts of their parent’s collections too. And the younger generations – not interested in that crap. My wife and my generations (Gen X and Millennial) like the stuff that went in the garbage – or, prefer to have nothing at all.
It’s a hard time to be an antique dealer – but a very good time to be an estate liquidator, storage provider, or professional declutterer. Of course, at some point, today’s trash is going to be tomorrow’s treasure – the hard part is that there has never been so much shit to sieve. What is going to be the most valuable thing selling in a year? It’s probably going to be whatever has been thrown away as garbage the most, what has current cultural context (for example, what shows and movies are popular), and manages to evoke feelings of hope and happiness to the generation with the most disposable income. Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants are looking pretty good – what do you think is going to turn into gold?