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The Value of Collecting

The business end of the antiques and collectibles trade receives much attention these days. What's hot, what niche seems to be losing favor, and what area is being projected as the next 'big ticket' market item, are all topics that fill most trade publications. Guide books abound which now cover many areas of collecting that used to languish in obscurity, and local banks not infrequently will send out flyers to their customers concerning the 'investment' potentials of art and antiques. Apparently collectibles currently line up quite nicely in a portfolio along with stocks and bonds. What with the nature of both mankind and capitalism being what they are, this phenomenon is to be expected and probably will continue, at least for the foreseeable future. But I like to think that any dedicated antiques and collectibles dealers who may have lost track of the essence of their business, due to present-day monetary hype, will eventually find their way back to appreciating that which is truly valuable: the collectors themselves.

Before the advent of the World Wide Web collectors were somewhat limited by distance and their ability to travel it when in pursuit of their special treasures. Often they would seek out the establishments of one or two local dealers and initiate business relationships that would last for years, often helping to educate one another in the nuance inherent in a particular line of goods. Sturdy friendships were frequently built from such arrangements. The single-owner shop vis-a-vis the avid collector is still the perfect arrangement for mutual reward, even now, on the Web. Though these days dealers and collectors may not exactly do business in what you could call a 'face to face' fashion, so much as 'computer screen to computer screen', there is still much potentially to be gained from every transaction, other than the simple exchange of goods for money. But only if those of us who sell are willing to give those who would collect their proper due.

What is it that makes the collector important? Have you ever considered how hilarious or bizarre the everyday objects from the past appear to the eyes of a later generation? To grandchildren, perhaps, who have been accustomed since birth to the more innovative design of products intended to accomplish similar tasks. My mother, for instance, uses a hugely heavy cast iron household implement once ubiquitous to 'modern' homes. She currently puts it to use as a doorstop but undoubtedly as recently as my Grandmother's youth this implement was actually still employed by women to press the wrinkles out of clothes. To my eyes today that cast iron 'iron' more resembles an instrument of duress and drudgery than it does a potential wedding gift for a young bride, but quite possibly it once was.

Poor Great-Grandma. She probably had to use such an iron for many years, until Great-Grandpa brought home the newest innovation of this same product. It would have been much lighter in weight and you wouldn't need to build a fire in the stove, heating the entire house in the process, in order to ready it for use. This new-fangled iron heated itself by internally burning gasoline! Huzzah!

Do you suppose we would still have examples of these ordinary sorts of products which were made for the average housekeeper and designed not for beauty or rarity but for utility of purpose, if it weren't for the collectors who saved them when they became obsolete? How about the tools that Great-Grandpa used. While his wife would stay behind to iron clothes, hopefully with her husband's thoughtful gift failing to go off like a bomb on her ironing board at some point, Great Grand Dad would possibly head out to the fields with his own dangerous and inadequate tools to contend with. He had the ax, the froe, that crazy shotgun with the octagon barrel. The fortitude and spirit of our pioneer forebears is best appreciated by viewing the articles of everyday life, from clothing and bean cans to mule shoes and tractors. And many of these things would have been unavailable for consideration by us, their progeny, were they not at some point in time saved from destruction by a collector.

People may initially become collectors for a variety of reasons. Something so mundane as a peculiar shape or function may intrigue them. Or it might be nostalgia, familial respect, or just because they think an object is beautiful. But, the strangely magnetic attraction of the past itself, in general, is the big draw for most. Artifacts of the simple foot soldiers of the American Civil War are widely collected, as are those once employed by the 'grunts' of later conflicts. This is where history starts to become less connected to a national identity with a patriotic visage, and begins to show its true face, a human face. History is about us. The dedicated collector can help us to see that image.

Whatever the reason they themselves believe they collect, whether plain or heroic, the reasoning itself is not the distinction and, truly, is not of consequence. It is that the collection ultimately will survive the test of time, will pass through the hands of each appreciative generation of collectors and beyond them all, into a future that they themselves will never see. And posterity will be the better for it, regardless of the original intent behind the initial gathering of objects. Without collectors, the rich and the poor, our libraries would have less depth and scope, both we and our children would have faint knowledge of where humanity has been in the space of a few short generations. Without the efforts of dedicated collectors down through the ages, we would have no museums.

As the years go by, artifacts are often lost forever, through improper storage, acts of nature, fire and flood. As historical pieces which help puzzle together and illustrate the path humanity has taken are destroyed, the rarity and importance of those things which do survive increases. So, if you like button hooks or dolls or toasters.....collect them. Collect according to your interests, your appreciation for form and function, for the joy given by the whimsical, your love of the beautiful or the artistic. Look at it this way, you may succeed in giving your 'time' to the future.

Article Last Update: September 29, 2013