You would think after spending 6 straight days out in the heat and the dust fussing with Austin City Limits I would be ready to spend the week on the couch. 9 times out of 10 this would be true, however not on the week when the Round Top flea market is going on. I know I remind you twice a year when I head out to the fields of goodness between Austin and Houston, but this is the flea market I scheduled my wedding around. This is why my anniversary was last weekend and not this one! Yesterday was day one of three out in the fields searching for treasures and boy were we thankful we were in my mothers huge SUV. Karly bought 2 chairs, Hope bought 6 taxidermy deer heads for an art project (one was so big we had to leave it and go pick it up today), mom bought enough Christmas ornaments to cover the tree on the lawn of the white house and then there was me. Oh I scored, but I always get small things. Well except when it comes to giant panda heads. I got tons of old jewelry to tear up and make into new treasures. A bag full of vintage cupcake toppers for new jars of Crafty Curios. Plus lots of other random goodies like plastic Eskimos, tiny Grandfather clock charms that are pink and Scrabble letters. Just the necessities.
As I was perusing the dusty aisles yesterday it got me to thinking about an article my mom wrote that I had put on my old zine called Discovering Tomorrows Collectibles Today. I was telling Karly once you have 3 of something that makes it a collection. One giant panda head does not make me a collector of giant pandas. 50+ kitschy 1960’s stuffed animals makes me a collector. Here is the article for your reading pleasure peppered with some pictures of yesterday’s adventures at the flea market where tomorrow’s collectibles are definitely waiting to be discovered. I think kitties in drag could be the new black. Oh and don’t forget to read my Twitter feed below in the right column for minute by minute updates today of what I find!
Some people seem to just have a knack for collecting. While everyone else competes for the same popular items, they collect some obscure, interesting or decorative object that no one else has noticed.
Picking new collectibles may be an indefinable creative ability. If you ask such a collector how she does what she does, she probably could not tell you. She might have some vague explanation such as “I just collect what I like.” When vanguard collectors’ behavior is analyzed, however, most are doing at least one and often several specific things to choose their collectibles. These are pointers that anyone can learn to advance to the cutting edge of collecting.
1. First, take a tip from some stock market investors and be a contrarian. A contrarian investor buys what other investors avoid. When everyone is internet stocks, the contrarian is buying them at bargain prices. The same strategy can be used with collectibles. One way to find out what’s not hot is to talk to professional antique dealers. Find out what they are currently turning their nose up at. Learn what they think is tasteless, plain, or valueless. There is an antique show promoter who absolutely will not allow dealers to sell Jim Beam bottles at her shows. To her, figural whiskey decanters are the epitome of low brow, poor taste. However, it is important to take a long view of collecting. Many mouth pouring, Continental majolica pitchers produced before the turn of the century began their lives as figural decanters for French liqueurs. By the 1940’s, they were probably looked on by most collectors with the same disdain the current show promoter reserves for whiskey decanters. These rare and highly sought after figurals were the Jim Beam bottles of their day.
2. Don’t overlook collectibles that were once hot but have lost market because of the influx of cheaper reproductions. Collectibles that are usually the hardest hit are those that must compete with well made rather than shoddy reproductions. In recent years, the market has been flooded by new, hand made quilts made in the orient. This creates an opportunity for a savvy collector to put together a nice collection of older, American quilts while the market is down.
Reproductions tend to hurt the middle section of the market more than the top. Rare, well preserved objects from any collecting category will usually hold their own against reproductions. However, reproductions often present an opportunity for collectors who want good, but not necessarily rare, old things. The fakes often drive down the price of the true collectibles, at least temporarily.
3. Look for items that are hand made. In an era of mechanization, things made by hand become rare. Some hand made items may be the work of hobbyists. Folkart was often made by craftsmen who worked more for pleasure than for money. It was first collected in the 1940’s by a hand full of individuals who saw the creativity and uniqueness of this quintessential American art form. Today, curly can furniture is largely undiscovered and hand made. Made from cans cut into strips and curled to formed wicker-like doll furniture, these sometimes come in upholstered suites as well as single chairs with padded seats to be used as pin cushions.
America has a long history of homemade crafts. Particularly during the Victorian era, wives were largely restricted from the workplace, and to pass the time and to prove their prowess as a homemaker, women created many decorative craft objects. Craft fads were spread though monthly ladies magazines. Those objects that remain from that era make wonderful collections.
4. Look for objects that were hand decorated. Hand decoration has always been time consuming. As the twentieth century progressed, labor became more expensive and fewer and fewer things were decorated by hand. Soon after the turn of the century, American potteries switched from tedious hand decoration to molded decoration with quickly executed painted accents to save time and labor costs. Made in Japan ceramics, imported from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, continued to be hand decorated, often with elaborate scenes and were shipped in volume to the United States. Still plentiful, these ceramics are an excellent example of affordable hand decorated objects although they are rapidly rising in value.
6. Perhaps the material is not rare but it has been replaced by something new or improved. The fifties and sixties saw a fad for plastic dinner ware. Now retired, it is turning up at estate and garage sales. What was once seen as the height of innovation has once again been usurped by ceramic dishes. Rulers made of wood, the kind used by school children, have been largely replaced by plastic. The old wooden ones have developed the same aged patina seen on older wood furniture and they often have the added benefit of an advertisement by a well known company such as Coca Cola.
7. Keep abreast of technology and be on the lookout for items that have become obsolete in their use. The appearance of technological innovations has always signaled the obsolescence of something else. Rapid innovation has been the hallmark of Western civilization since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s. The path of 20th century history is littered with the case offs of a society obsessed with newness. The technocrat’s discards are the collector’s treasures. Slide rules have been replaced by calculators which are in turn becoming obsolete in the face of more powerful hand held computers.
The twentieth century has seen a plethora of hair roller designs. Perhaps not the collection for everybody, hair rollers might be a fascinating collectible for a hair dresser with a sense of history. More generally, many devices designed to curl hair have come and gone in the face of technology and deserve consideration by collectors.
8. Be alert to out dated equipment, devices, or illustrations of some narrowly defined field. You might began by looking at your own areas of interest or professional expertise. This author still regrets passing up an old intelligence test kit from the 1920’s she came across at an estate sale. The test items had a quaint, nostalgic look that reflected the times in which intelligence tests were first developed.
9. Develop an eye for secondary lines of popular manufacturers. In addition to their hand decorated pottery, Weller and Roseville as well as other American potteries, made florist lines that were sold to commercial enterprises. As the more popular lines of these potteries become too expensive for the average collector, their lesser lines are bound to become more popular.
10. Examine your own ethnic or cultural heritage for clues to undiscovered collectibles. Collecting provides individuals with a unique opportunity to explore their own personal history through the study and acquisition of artifacts representative of that history. Perhaps your father owned a grocery store that sat next to a railroad. Those are two avenues to explore for new collectibles tied to your personal history. Further back in your history, perhaps your father’s ancestors were furniture makers in Germany. Many more collecting possibilities emerge. And maybe those ancestors were Jewish– an even more fascinating heritage with many collecting possibilities to pursue. Knowing about your past and the history of your family provides you with a link to that past and gives you a sense of continuity between the present and what has passed away. If examined with care and with a bit of adventure, it can also reveal many collecting possibilities you might otherwise miss.
11. Find out what celebrities are collecting. Remember what happened to the popularity of cookie jars when it was discovered that Andy Warhol had a warehouse full of them. Finding out such information is not always easy. One way is to watch interviews done in the celebrity’s home. Rather than focusing what’s being said, notice objects in the background. Learn to watch the details, not the people. The same is true of articles in magazines. In the far background may be that delightful collection of widgets that you had never thought of collecting but now are in love with. And don’t assume that just because they’re rich, they only collect expensive things. The rich didn’t get that way by wasting their money.
12. Observe the sets of movies and TV shows. Set designers are very creative and ingenious people. They spend a good bit of their time scouting flea markets and tag sales for clever and esoteric items to decorate the living room set of the latest sitcom or Woody Allen flick. If you steal their ideas, you may not be at the very frontier of collecting, but you won’t be far behind.
13. Chat about collectibles with flea market vendors. They are often on the front line of collecting. Items that are gaining collectibility are filtered through these dealers after they leave the estate or garage sale and before they get to the antique mall or shop. Ask them what people are starting to ask for and what other dealers are starting to handle. Many are in the business because they love to collect and shop, and they generally have a good eye for diamonds in the rough.
14. Talk to avid collectors of all kinds of things. Ask them what they would collect if they had the money or room for one more great collection. Their answers will range from menus to machetes. Because they are aggressive collectors, they shop often, have contacts, and usually can spot an undiscovered collectible among the rubble of junk for sale.
15. Talk to older people about the things they used or enjoyed when they were young. Ask them what things have become obsolete during their lifetime. Inquire about fads from their youth. What were popular or better yet, obscure hobbies at that time? If you have a general area of interest, such as jewelry, ask about popular jewelry that they recall but no longer see. A good general question is “What things did you use or enjoy that I’ve probably never heard of?”
16. Read magazines and newsletters either print or online. Both provide solid information about spotting collecting trends. Even though you may prefer your collectibles aged, in as little as ten years, newer collectibles may start to take on the patina of age.
17. Don’t limit yourself to strictly decorative items. Sturdy, utilitarian objects often have enormous nostalgic appeal when grouped together. Old, wind up alarm clocks are an example. Taken alone, they often look dreary and plain. But artfully grouped on a shelf in a bedroom or den, they acquire the unexpected charm of an old black and white movie starring unknowns who never made the big time.
18. Look regularly. Finding the next great collectible need not be an obsessive quest but it’s rarely a casual accident. If you only browse through flea markets or go to auctions when your majolica collecting sister comes for a visit, then your chances of finding the next great collectible are slim. While staying in touch with the market usually means regularly going where collectibles are sold, there is also much to be learned by perusing antique and collectible classifieds such as the Antique Trader or the antique section of the classified ads of larger newspapers. Of course, E-Bay is filled with collectibles of all kinds. In addition to E-Bay.com, there are several other interesting sites that either sell collectibles, provide information on them, or display them. They are www.collectingchannel.com, www.collectingnation.com, www.collectoronline.com, www.dibit.com, www.ehobbies.com, www.ewanted.com, www.gocollect.com, and www.whatacollection.com.
19. Look for objects that strike a personal cord. Personal meaning is an important criteria for most collectors. Often the most satisfying collections are those that symbolize an important time, event, or person in your life. By looking for very personal objects, the collector often finds collectibles that others can relate to as well. These might be fancy bath powder containers like those Aunt Doris always had when you made your summer visits, or the plastic figural bubble bath containers you loved as a child. One collector friend has a bathroom full of rubber ducks.
20. Trust your instincts. Just remember that while one or two of something may look tacky, when you group enough together, they start to look decorative and clever. Sometimes the tackier they look alone, the better they look as a group. There is a lesson to be learned from the goat herder who discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. He almost left them behind because they smelled bad. Fortunately he had a hunch that he had found something important and took them home despite the stench. You may never discover something of such great significance but having a confident, original point of view has always been the mark of a great collector. You may be drawn to collect something that does not fit neatly into any category. If it speaks to you then you have discovered a unique collectible that will please and intrigue you for years to come.
I’m curious, leave me a comment and let me know what you collect.