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In this new periodic feature, Bob Brooke offers personal insights into the world of antiques and antiques collecting.

LATEST EXTRA!_______________________________________

What Effect Has the Internet Had on the
Value of Antiques and Collectibles?

by Bob Brooke


 

The well-known mantra of real estate sales is location, location, location. With antiques and collectibles, the mantra has always been condition, condition, condition—that is, before the Internet.

Though it didn’t happen immediately, over time the Internet has had a dramatic effect on the value of antiques and collectibles. At first, the Internet was a way of disseminating information. But when eBay came on the scene, everything changed. No longer could people just find out about antiques and collectibles. Now they could buy and sell them as well. The process was so easy that anyone could become an antiques and collectibles dealer literally overnight.

Back before the Internet, collectors wanted objects to appear as though they had just left the assembly line. Damage, especially visible on the surface at arm's length, was a major down-grade. Any defect resulted in a major deduction in value.

The established collecting community had a clearly defined condition criteria. And while collectors shared this among themselves, no one ever wrote it down, so the buying public didn’t have a clue.

Collecting antiques used to be a pastime of the rich. But that changed in the 1960s with the birth of the yard and garage sale. Now anyone could buy and sell antiques and collectibles easily. Dealers bought to replenish their inventory and collectors bought to grow their collections. There was a lot of energy involved—getting to the sales, browsing them, and carting purchases home.

With the dawn of eBay, buying and selling became really easy. There was no need to get to the sale, searching keywords made finding objects simple, and the seller shipped the purchases. All the buyer had to do was pay by credit card and perhaps use a razor blade to open the package. What was missing was the handling of the object before the sale, a vital ingredient in collecting.

The majority of Internet sellers are novices to the antiques and collectibles business aren’t collectors. As a result, they have no knowledge of condition grading. Sellers often make objects look better than they really are, even with multiple views. And because standards of condition aren’t spelled out, new sellers usually over grade their wares.

As a result, serious Internet buyers automatically lower condition grading in their minds when evaluating what they will pay or bid for an object on the Internet. The end result is that even if the object's condition is graded fairly,it may still fail to achieve full value because of the inherent distrust in online condition grading.

But one thing hasn’t changed. As in any retail transaction, the principle of caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—still applies: The burden falls on the buyer to know what he or she is buying.

Though condition is still a major value point today, it’s importance has changed. In fact, most people believe an object’s value increases based on its age and scarcity, rather than its condition. But if no one wants to purchase an object, it literally has no value, no matter how good its condition or how rare it is.

Before the arrival of the Internet, it was difficult for people to judge an object’s rarity. Their scope was limited to the objects they saw for sale in antiques shows, antiques shops, flea markets, garage and yard sales, in that order. In many cases, they had no idea how scarce or rare an object was unless someone told them.

Prior to the Internet, these goods trickled into the market as they became available via auction, estate/tag sales, and private purchase. Now objects thought to be extremely rare are far more common than people realize because of the large number of items still in private hands. Prior to the Internet, these goods trickled into the market as they became available through garage and estate sales, auctions, and private purchases.

Today, the Internet has flooded the antiques and collectibles market with enormous quantities of objects. The low cost of listing goods, whether for direct sale in an Internet antiques mall site or at auction has encouraged anyone with Internet access to become an antiques and collectibles seller.

Before the Internet, people had no idea what prices goods sold for, especially dealer sales. Although auction results were available, they weren’t available to the public. And only dealers used antiques and collectibles price guides.

All this changed with the Internet. Search engines, whether general or site-driven, allow a quick check of existing sale prices. Internet auction sites, and such, allowing anyone to search completed auctions.

Also, before the Internet, people showed little interest in searching their attics, basements, closets, garages, and sheds for objects that retailed in the $25 to $100 range, especially when they were lucky to obtain half this amount when selling to a collector, dealer, or at auction.

Internet sellers find $25 more than ample incentive to seek out and list an object. In fact, many sellers have little or no problem listing objects that eventually sell for less than $10. The Internet effectively eliminates the middle man in selling. Even when the Internet seller is a dealer, there’s usually only one level—a garage sale, flea market, or auction—between the owner and the final buyer.

And Internet sellers are price wise. When an object sells well, it’s often common to find three to four identical ones listed for sale within a couple of months. Scarcity today can be measured by the number of times a particular item appears for sale. Desirability can change because people have been told a certain group of items is “hot.”

But many of those selling at garage and estate sales and fleamarkets use the Internet, especially eBay to set prices for their items. The problem with this is that eBay and other general merchandise auctions aren’t just auctions, they’re entertainment for many people. Buyers bid prices up just so they can “win” the auction. This throws the true value of antiques and collectibles sold at these auctions beyond what it should be. So are Internet prices a true reflection of what an object is worth?

Without interpretation, probably not. And sellers at physical sales aren’t going to take the time to research end-of-auction amounts and average them to get an idea of the value of an object.

Internet pricing within a collecting category appears to follow a predictable pattern. When the collecting category first appears on the Internet, prices are strong. Even common items sell, sometimes for three to four times the antiques and collectibles book prices. But because goods flood the Internet, the amount of offerings increases five or ten times. Buyers no longer have the time to view all the listings. Values fall and eventually stabilize. Sellers become discouraged and move onto another "hot" category.

Finally, the values of antiques and collectibles float on the Internet. They constantly go up and down and aren’t a good measure of an object’s worth. Unfortunately, this volatility causes overall values to fluctuate more than they should.



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