Categorizing Antiques - Collectibles

Most antiques fall into one of three categories: investment, collectable, and decorative. No doubt, you have already thought of several items that fall into more than one category.

Tiffany lamps are investments, they are decorative, and some people collect them. What I hope to demonstrate is that each one of these categories carries specific conditions and that the buyer places an object into a category by virtue of their approach and expectations.

This is the second article in which I will explore these three categories.

Most antique dealers will not regularly refer to these categories, but they do recognize them. Sometimes when an antique is of exceptional value, dealers will call it “important” or “museum quality”. I think of these terms as analogous to the term investment antique. Some dealers say “collectable” when referring to things they think are too young to be antique. Very few dealers will call something a “decorative antique”, although they understand the concept. I have coined this to categorize just about everything else.

The reason I am proposing these categories is that over the years I have encountered people who apply the standards of one category to another such as asking for the “provenance” of a common marble top table. The person who expects this does not know that what they are asking is inappropriate to the object and its intended use as a piece of furniture. This sort of confusion I hope to clarify in these articles.


As I said before “collectables” is sometimes, a term used for things people feel uncomfortable calling antiques because of age. Look up the word antique and you will see that the dictionary definition never mentions a hundred year minimum. The hundred-year thing grew out of customs law. In an effort to protect local industries, a country puts a tariff on import. Officials figure that if something is over a hundred years old, it is not a financial threat and most countries do not charge import tariffs on things designated antique. Young and often inexpensive things get designated collectable.

One important quality of a good collectable is that there is enough of the item hanging around waiting to be found to occupy the collector for many years with, hopefully, not too much time between purchases. You must feed the beast regularly or it dies. The option of collecting the object in a number of different ways can often make a collectable attractive as well.

The best example I can think of is the lowly postcard. Could there be an object more worthy to waste or destined to discard? I remember the first time I saw a postcard booth at a flea market over forty years ago. It had three rows of tables covered in shoe boxes filled with post cards. There were a dozen or so folding chairs pulled up to the tables, on which people sat diligently leafing through the boxes. I asked a friend what they were looking for and he explained to me that for every postcard collector there was a different way to collect them. He said some collected only views of buildings, some looked for cards from particular cities or towns, while others collected humorous or romantic cards. He added that some collectors look for Art Nouveau style cards or holiday cards while others focused on the hand written messages. He said the booth, which had so impressed me, was nothing as post card shows regularly filled high school gymnasiums.

In many ways, postcards are a perfect microcosm of the concept of collecting. When they were new postcards were one of the cheapest things you could buy and many old cards still sell for only a dollar or two today, all though some sell for hundreds. Personalizing a postcard collection by creating your own focus allows room for individual self-expression. It is this quality of flexibility, affordability, and enormous availability that makes old postcards almost the perfect collectable and why they have any value at all. If it were not for collectors, you would just toss postcards out as we currently do the ones sent by uncles and aunts from Miami. Perhaps we should be stuffing them into a shoebox because someday, somewhere, somebody may want them.

As it is with investment antiques, pristine original condition is often what a collector wants. However, since future increase in value is not the motivating force behind the purchase, there is more room for acceptance of the less than perfect.

Imperfection may come into play when there is a drive to complete a limited series. My wife’s collection of Holt Howard “Cozy Kittens” is an example. There are only about thirty different Cozy Kittens. The five rarest Cozy Kittens sell for as much as three hundred and fifty dollars each as opposed to the others, which range from fifteen to seventy-five. My wife would never spend three fifty on one, or so she tells me. If a chipped or cracked rare one turned up for a hundred dollars she would spend that amount to complete the set. A dealer once said to me that true collectors will throw themselves into financial ruin to posses something and a collector who won’t is a dilettante. I should be glad my wife isn’t the first kind of collector.

Collectables are only collectables if someone collects them. If no second or third generation of collectors picks up where the others left off then the item quickly loses that special value. The item is then just another knick-knack or as I would say, changes category to become a decorative antique. Recently, I asked a glass dealer, if the pressed glass pieces I bought at a yard sale were Victorian. She answered, “Yes they are, but who cares, everyone who collected pressed glass is dead.”

Imagine a son growing up with a father who would rather polish his insulator collection than take him to a ball game or a young girl whose mother makes prettier cloths for her doll collection than her daughter. That situation might put a kid off that particular hobby. However, like mental illness, children can inherit the collecting gene from their parents. As antique dealers, we keep our ears to the ground and nose in the air, since those kids could very well become collectors of something, and we want to be well stocked in whatever it is when that happens.

To summarize, a collectable is something that owing to qualities of convenience, quantity, and variation makes it good to collect and collectors give it added value.

Some collections may be comprised of very valuable items like diamond jewelry but if the buyer’s interest is not future return but the simple pleasure of gazing at then, it is not strictly speaking an investment even though it might become one. You may not want to refer to your friends hundred thousand dollar necklace as a “collectable” even if she does have fifty of them but you wouldn’t hesitate to refer to her beautiful “collection” of fine jewelry before you would say she was “investing in ice.”

Chris Osborne -  My Ruby Lane shop  City Lights

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