Collecting in the 21st Century

by Ken Filippini
Issue No. 330 - October 2000

Collecting in the 21st Century compared to before is dramatically different. One of the most overwhelming changes is that what once was a weekend trip to an antique store or waiting for spring shows to begin, has changed into a 24 hour, seven day a week affair. To collect, one no longer has to make plans, get dressed, take long drives, fight traffic and the weather. Instead, all you have to do is get up, turn on the computer, and off you go. A person is no longer limited to buying times, distances or the ability to get somewhere. If you feel like collecting at 3:00 in the morning on a Wednesday, no problem - get online and bid to your heart's content. Instead of taking a whole day out of a busy schedule to go to a show, spend hours driving, only to find that after walking around a hot field that there wasn't anything worth purchasing. You can now spend 15-20 minutes in your air-conditioned home surfing the net, with the inevitable conclusion that there are just too many things you want. Collecting in the 20th Century was like going out to eat at a nice restaurant, having a satisfying meal and driving home feeling good. Collecting in the 21st Century is like sitting in my grandmother's kitchen with bubbling pots all around and always feeling stuffed, but unable to get up and leave because you were sure the next course would be even better.

Access to items in the 20th Century was limited to the distance you were willing to travel, the amount of shows you were able to go to, or the number of dealers you developed a relationship with who might call you to offer an item. Now, access is worldwide, thus enabling a collector the opportunity to reach items that were geographically out of his reach. However, this is a double-edged sword, because before, the competition was limited to a small group of collectors who might attend the same show as you, and now you are competing with the whole world. So, even though access to items has blossomed, so has your competition, and this inevitably leads to a change in the price of an item. Before, you saw an item and played the haggle game with a dealer, one-on-one. You pulled your little two-step; it's nice but ... well, it's a little pricey, and so forth and the dealer told you how this was the first show he put the item out at, and how he paid dearly for it; until you reached a common ground. Inevitably you got some kind of discount on the price. With online buying it is a whole new process. It is a casino-like game where the collectors fight with each other and the price goes up, and the house/dealer just sits by, hoping that crazed collectors push the price up way beyond what he dreamed he could ever get for his piece.

This massive availablilty of items has changed the whole concept of building a collection slowly; the gradual hunt to add an item, the whole process of building a collection over many years. The challenge to search for 20 years to build your collection, that magical feeling of "is this the day I add a piece?". Now, if you can afford it, you can put a collection together overnight. For instance, I have been collecting Rose Point for 25 years, and figured it would go on forever, adding basic items slowly and one of those Holy Grail items very rarely. With the advent of the Internet, I no longer buy basic items slowly, because those rare and unusual pieces show up with regularity. Now, all I want are the rare items; so it sort of changes your goal. Building a collection in the 21st Century will no longer be a lifetime endeavor. It will almost be like: "Well, that collection is finished. What next?" And, I think collecting in the 21st Century may be more of an instant gratification game rather than the slow developing process it was before. Collecting in the 21st Century will lack some of the best aspects of the 20th Century. Collecting in the 20th Century was more than just getting items. It was the fun of entering a room or field or a hall full of other people with the same interests as you ... people who love the same things as you do, talking about antiques, learning together, touching items, feeling the electricity in the air, sharing a good time together. Being with hundreds of people who didn't think you were crazy; in fact, thought you were the sanest people in the world. Talking for hours without getting bored, and making that last a lifetime ... antiquing in the 20th Century can be remembered as some of the best days of your life. I fear that the 21st Century collectors will miss out on this camaraderie and will miss making those fabulous face-to-face relationships. If 21st Century collecting continues to be dominated by the Internet, it will become a lonely, self-absorbed affair, and could crush the very essence of what collecting should be.

Now people say to me, but Ken, there are still things to do other than the Internet, and of course that is true. There still are the antique shows, Brimfield, Adamstown Extravaganza and the like. But if we look at these things dispassionately, we have to wonder how do they fit into 21st Century collecting.

Antique stores in the last 10 years have really grown in number and size. A perfect example of this is the Heart of Ohio, which is both new and enormous in scope ... rows of cases and aisle after aisle of dealer booths. Adamstown, in Pennsylvania, is another example of this: one large antique store after another. These shops are made up of rented space, where dealers show their items. In the later part of the 20th Century, massive antique malls such as Riverfront in New Philadelphia, Ohio, seemed to be the ultimate collector's paradise. Booth after booth of stellar pieces cause the collector the wonderful problem of not knowing which items to buy. These malls opened up an avenue for new dealers who didn't wish to or were unable to do formal shows. These malls not only grew in size, but in quality, as dealers filled their cases with more and better pieces, realizing that hoards of voracious collectors were shopping these stores, and why not let your items sell themselves while you are doing other things. However, in the last couple of years, a not so subtle change has occurred. Both the quality of items available and the number of shoppers visiting these malls have diminished dramatically. So major has the drop off been that inevitable survival of the antique mall as currently configured is in question. Antique malls recognizing this fact have themselves gone online to try to reach the customers who used to frequent their stores in person. Twenty-first Century antique malls may no longer be places you drive to, but rather places you visit on your computer. Such malls already exist. Examples of this are Collector Online and the MegaShow. Twenty-first Century collectors can now travel up and down aisles and visit dealer booths without leaving their homes.

The antique show, which was the greatest collecting tool of the 20th Century faces the severest challenge to its existence in the 21st Century and will be the most sadly missed. The glass shows put on by local Depression glass clubs are already in jeopardy and have begun to struggle to survive. These shows, which were overflowing with quality glass are now little more than depositories for leftover items that are hard to move on the Internet and the once huge lines one had to stand on to get in are almost nonexistant. New 21st Century collectors may soon find that glass shows, full of knowledgeable dealers and tables full of beautiful examples of rare glass, may not be available to them, cutting off a resource which was invaluable to the 20th Century collector's ability to learn, to see and to touch. Small local glass shows used to have waiting lists for new dealers and were very hard to get into, however, the exact opposite is now the case, and club shows are struggling to get dealers to fill all their booths. For instance, the North Jersey Depression Glass CLub decided a few years ago that due to so many members anxiously awaiting entry into the show, which the club could not accomodate, that it was in everyone's interest to establish a second show. Now, only a few years later, with the stiff competition from the Internet, the NJDG Club had to cancel one of the shows and is struggling to get quality dealers to fill the other show. If 21st Century collecting is to be monopolized by the Internet and the auction network eBay specifically, small club shows will surely become anachronisms, and with their demise so might follow the dissolution of local depression glass clubs themselves. Membership in these clubs is directly proportional to the success of the club shows and this loss of clubs will add to the isolation of the 21st Century collector. The NJDG Club, for instance, has dropped in membership from around 125 active members to around 60 in the small space of five years, the same time frame as the growth of eBay (not a coincidence, I'm sure). Small clubs with knowledgeable members, who were always willing to share were one of the 20th Century's best ambassadors for new collectors and I just wonder, if they cease to exist will new collectors also cease to exist? The Internet and eBay are great for existing 20th Century collectors, but for the new generation collector, who would begin collecting by wandering into a Saturday antique show for something to do and then get hooked, without these shows, how will they get started? How will they catch the fever? How will they get addicted?

At this point it appears that certain major glass shows, such as NCC, Houston, Denver, the Great Northeast and others are still holding their own, mainly because national circuit dealers realize that it is in their best interest to keep these shows strong, and there is a strong group of serious collectors that frequent these shows. The existence of these special glass shows should survive well into the 21st Century, allowing collectors some access to that feeling of excitement that is only available when surrounded by tons of beautiful glass and people who appreciate it, that euphoric feeling that you can only get from carrying bags of treasures back to your car after a glutinous day of wantering through a room full of sparkling antiques, that pleasant exhaustion that washes over you as you sit at your dining room table mesmerized by the pile of purchases you made that day. If 21st Century collecting ends up being totally controlled by eBay, as it appears it might be, then this feeling will be replaced by a much more cold, clinical, short-lived pleasure which can only be sustained by bidding on the next item.

Twentieth Century auctons were a group of people in a room, physically bidding against each other and while they still exist, the 21st Century has the new auction form to buy at. That form is exemplified by eBay, the seven day a week, 24 hour a day auction network. In the past, a piece was up for bid for a couple of minutes and you had to decide, on the run, how far to go and you had a short period to decide when you were done bidding. Twenty-first Century auctions are now normally in a seven day window, giving collectors time to change their minds, to rethink, to back and forth, and to bid on multiple items at the same time. Since it is apparent that eBay auctions are here to stay and is inescapably the major collecting tool of the 21st Century, at least at this time, it is prudent to collect this way. However, I truly believe it is in all of our best interests to see that all othe forms of collecting are not allowed to disappear or we will all miss out on the experience that started us collecting in the first place. We should work with eBay to create avenues to promote other collecting vehicles, which will be good for collectors and eBay alike. At the 2000 Cambridge convention, some excellent suggestions along these lines were made and it was decided that the Cambridge club should work with eBay. If you have any suggestions, please forward them to the NCC club where they will be greatly appreciated.