Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I've always been fascinated by people that don't collect anything. What sort of a person can be satisfied with a singular example of whatever catches their eye-that's like saying you'll only read one book by an author. I can't really relate, and though my collections are well-curated (I don't buy just any old piece of California pottery) I do understand the desire to avoid moving thousands of books, or box after box of clothing that you never wear. The vintage clothing in my permanent collection is quite limited in scope, and the day-to-day vintage items I wear tend to move out as quickly as they move in. There's no shortage of tacky polyester pantsuits in the world (trust me) so no need to cling to every one.

Some things however, are more difficult to part with. My brooch collection is vast, and that's not an exaggeration. They don't take up too much room which is of course simply encouragement to bring home more. I rarely pay more than a few dollars for a piece, because I am above all, a cheapskate. There, I've said it. I'll splash out on quality upholstery fabric, or furniture, but I'll also expect a lifetime of use from it. My brooches don't get quite so much use, and rarely merit that sort of price-tag. The brooch pictured above was purchased in the gift shop at Ellis Island, and I know it didn't cost much as I was newly married and didn't have much to spend. It is a lovely piece, an unusual piece, and being small I have been holding onto it since 1992.
It is stamped, JJ, which is Jonette Jewelry. They're a sought-after manufacturer of costume jewelry, but I bought the brooch knowing nothing about that-I simply liked it.

Unless you are in the business of selling vintage/collectibles/etc. it can be dangerous to shop with an internet enabled phone. I personally don't do it as I believe it clouds my judgement. Not everything listed on ebay will sell, and the prices you see on Etsy take into consideration all the cuts sellers have to pay out before their profit. People tend to over-value things, and selling on the web means anyone can do it-you need not be an expert. Buying an item because you believe it is valuable can leave you sitting with quite a lot of tat you don't want. There are exceptions of course (I mean, if you find something like a Galanos evening gown for ten dollars (I wish) you should buy it no matter how ugly it is, but in general, it is best to buy what you like, not that which you think will make you rich.

Let me offer a couple cautionary tales from my own family. In the early 70's, my mother started seeing her friends collecting Hummels. If you're unfamiliar with the figurines, they're typically of children, with that ever-so-slightly creepiness to them that resulted in my dad calling them "The little Nazis" or alternately, "Hitler's youth." They were designed by a German nun, and for whatever reason they became a popular collectible in the 70's. There's nothing charming about them, they're not pretty, and at the peak of their popularity people were forking over huge sums of money for the things. My mother got caught up in the hysteria, and before long was purchasing a dining room set to house and display the figurines (each perfectly spaced to show off their...well whatever it was). You didn't just pop onto the Internet in 1974 to buy creepy German figurines. No, you had to drive to gift shops all over the bloody Midwest looking for the things. On the positive side, I always enjoyed a ride out to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and the drugstore that sold Hummels also had a rather nice selection of candy and perfume, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.

At collector's convention my mum met up with a woman who lived "out in the country" (the far suburbs) that was willing to sell her some plate for $700.00 That was a lot of dough for a plate, but it was one she needed to complete her set, and off we went to her house a week later to pay for it.

At some point, driving down a very dark, country road with $700.00 in cash it occurred to my mother that it might have been wiser to write a check. Then she made some sort of joke about us both being murdered and how they typically let the kids live, but I was old enough to pick the person out of a lineup so I was probably going to die too. Did she turn around, and go home? What do you think? She needed that plate, remember?

We weren't murdered, though in hindsight paying that sort of money for a collectible plate that now sells for $15.00 if you're lucky, you could say were were robbed. All this would have been fine had my mother liked the damn things, but I got the sense she really didn't. That's the problem with herd-mentality collecting, and the "collectibles" market.

Mum wasn't the only relative to fall for "hot collectibles." Another relative (I'm not naming her because she's still alive) got caught up in the Beanie Baby thing, and was driving to McDonald's all over the state seeking the special edition Beanies in Happy Meals. Even with a gaggle of kids, that's a whole hell of a lot of bad food for a bean bag shaped like a bear. The kids never got to play with them because she was convinced they'd be paying their way through university. I probably don't need to tell you how that went.

Vintage collecting isn't immune to this sort of collective collecting madness. Lucite purses for $500? At some point it is a good idea to assess whether you want the item because you like it, or because you appreciate the status of it. What you shouldn't do is expect to recoup your investment or make a profit on it unless you are selling quickly. Fads being what they are, don't last forever. If you admire a lucite purse with a hefty price tag, by all means you should purchase it, but don't do it because of what you see on the internet. Years ago I was an antique dealer when I lived in Boston. I was the only dealer in my circle that didn't consult the Kovels guide when purchasing for the shop. I did my research generally, and if I didn't know something specifically, I made a guess based on my own tastes. I didn't sell every sort of antique because I didn't know anything about fine art or furniture. I stuck to things I knew (and liked) such as Mauchline ware. Sometimes, I made bad calls (antique accordion, anyone?) but most of the time I wasn't stuck with loads of inventory I didn't want.

I mention all of this because I'm seeing how out-of-control the vintage clothing and perfume has gone thanks to the Internet. One person posts a Sara Coventry brooch for $50.00 and pretty soon there are pages of Sara Coventry brooches listed at $50.00 which is, frankly, madness. Not all Sara Coventry is created equal, and in most cases it isn't worth $50.00. Take this lecture for what it is-a sort of collector's reality check, and unsolicited advice from someone who's been buying vintage clothing so long I remember when it was just, "used" and I had to sneak it in the house because my mother was ashamed I wanted to wear secondhand.

A final thought about collecting is that nearly everything I see for sale on the internet is marked, "Rare." That's largely untrue. I understand the desire to have something no one else does, but do yourself a favour and look around a bit before buying. More often than not that, "rare" item will be listed with dozens more just like it. If you can't find what you want at a price you're comfortable with-do the legwork yourself. Sooner or later just about everything shows up at thrift stores or yard sales. I've never been the impulsive sort though, so if you're the kind of person that wants things immediately this isn't going to be helpful guidance.

There are some very good deals on the internet, but you have to look for them. Sometimes it means buying from a person that takes terrible pictures in bad lighting. Other times it might mean you'll need to tack up a hem, or replace a heel on a shoe. Minor repairs on less-than-perfect items can save you quite a bit of money.

Really, trust your gut. If something catches your eye in a thrift store-examine it up close and see how you feel about it-don't pull out your phone to see what Google has to say. Make your decisions based on your own criteria, not what everyone else is collecting. If you wouldn't want to show up at a party wearing the same frock as ten other people, why would you want to post the same sort of outfit everyone else is doing? There's many ways to style a vintage dress-find yours!


Connie said...

Your father was so right. There is something rather Hitler youth about those Hummel figurines. i did think they were pretty cute when I was younger. My mother collected owls. Lots and lots of owls.

Bibi Maizoon said...

Hummel, Lladro, Thomas Kinkade, anything from the Bradford Exchange, all those 'manufactured collectables' - just no.

Propagatrix said...

I ownapproximately two items that cost (for me) a hefty sum: a Civil War hair art mourning brooch and an Enid Collins "Hapi Cat" box purse. I love them both and try not to think that my purse cost approximately six times as much as my wedding ring.

Vronni's Style Meanderings said...

Yes, I remember the Hummel figurines - absolutely hideous!

I tend to have collections of things that are cheap because a) I'm a cheapskate and b) nearly everything is bought at charity shops or car boot sales. So, I have a collection of earrings (over 300 and counting), scarves, and a growing collection of brooches. I also collect Persephone and Virago Modern Classics books,(the green ones). I ask for the Persephone books for Christmas and birthday presents and for the first time have just ordered 3 Virago books from Amazon - all the others have come from charity shops. I collect these things because I like them - not because they have value. I'm sure some of them are worthless!

Your advice is sound as always.



Goody said...

Owls are having a moment again.

I knew someone that was nuts for those cottage paintings. Like, an entire house filled with them.

Either you have an inexpensive wedding ring or the Enid Collins bags have gone sky high. Loving something absolutely makes all the difference though. Hair jewelry is such fascinating stuff.I remember opening an enamel locket and finding a braid of hair in a hidden compartment years ago when I sold antiques. That was the first I'd encountered it.

Earrings are great to collect as they take up no room at all and *always* need them, right? I'd feel naked without them.

Mim said...

My mum collected beanie babies for a bit, though stopped when the prices started getting silly. I also remember her getting out *every* box of PG Tips in the supermarket because they were coming with plastic animals and she was looking for the one she didn't have. That wasn't embarrassing at all, oh no...

I don't collect things, though I do tend to accumulate things I particularly like, so I have a fair bit of jewellery (mostly cheap), and several SylvaC vases. As you say, buy what you love, not what other people value.

Propagatrix said...

Let us just say that my wedding ring cost well under $100.

Beth Waltz said...

First, as we enter into a discussion of antiques and collectables, let me confess that I've only now caught the pun about the "hall tree." (You might have propped an umbrella against the trunk as a hint.)

Now I'll shout (in my genteel indoor voice) AMEN! to your observations about collecting items created exactly for that purpose. My 100+ pairs of $1 earrings roost in clear plastic egg cartons when they aren't being worn. My cats drink from a beautiful glass punch bowl; they dine on odd bits of Spode, chipped Wedgwood and badly stained Mason's Patent Ironstone. En lieu of a wide-screen TV, the long wall in my living room is occupied by an 18th C Dutch marquetry chest -- rescued from a car wreck that damaged both it and the dealer transporting it. (Secure your cargo!) Were my purse filled with gold, the only difference in my household inventory would be the addition of high-tech items I now live without.

And speaking of purses, I say they CAN be regarded as a sensible purchase if one loves them and uses them! They last indefinitely and even evening bags that can't be carried often can be used to store jewelery, stockings, etc. My mum spent $$ for good leather bags in NYC back in the 40s that her granddaughter-the-lawyer now totes into courtrooms. Lucite? Enid Collins? Hand-tooled leather? Yes!

Sue said...

I am a bit of a collector but my family would call it hoarding!! What would a bunch of males know?? I told my sons that when I pop my clogs their inheritance from me is sitting in the china cabinet and my jewelry boxes, yes boxes! I find that on our trade me in the antique and collectible section I am constantly annoyed with the tat some people consider collectible. Bit like our charity shops that deem certain cheap brands as 'Labels'.

Goody said...

Danny went through a phase of collecting the china animals from Red Rose tea...I loathe Red Rose tea, so I'm glad that one passed quickly!
Some of those SylvaC pieces are adorable (I'm thinking of the crying onion)I can see wanting to collect them.

That's sensible at least (I was really concerned you might have an insane amount on an Enid Collins bag). Whew.

I'm such a klutz that I know a lucite handbag wouldn't last long in my possession. I suppose that keeps me from investing too much money in one.

Good tip about the egg cartons for earrings, though I on't think I've ever seen a clear plastic one-I'll have to keep an eye out.

Make sure to keep a list of what you have, and what it is worth because you don't want it all sold off for a dollar at a yard sale (I can imagine my rare books ending up that way).