We lovers of antiques are especially prone to this. While many non-collectors think we just dwell on the past, I believe most of us appreciate the quality of objects from the past and study them to better understand not only the past but also the present and the future. It’s all about change; even the concept of what an antique is changes as time goes on.
There is still a commonly held belief that to be an antique, an object has to be 100 years old. That means on January 1st, 2013 a whole bunch of stuff made in 1912 will officially become antique. Unfortunately it’s not that easy; there is no official definition of antique. The term can be applied to almost anything that’s old. When we call something antique we can mean it has superior craftsmanship, is representative of a certain era or is simply out-of-date and useless.
The 100 year rule comes from a guideline used by U.S. customs when determining duty. It started with the infamous Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 which imposed high tariffs on imports. The act, which many blame for causing the Great Depression, no longer exists but its rules for defining duty-free antiques persists. 1830 was chosen as the cut-off date because that is when mass-manufacturing became the norm so objects made before then were more likely to be hand-crafted and therefore have artistic merit.
Another rule that revolves around the passage of time is the 25 year rule. It states that collectable objects will become much more valuable once they are more than 25 years old. If you believe that, I have some Beanie Babies I’d like to sell you. That rule is the invention of purveyors of modern, mass-produced collectables such as plates, dolls, figurines and plush toys. They were all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s but 25 years later they trade hands, if they sell at all, for a tiny fraction of their original cost.
One rule that has developed from years of observation is the 20 year rule. It states that nostalgia basically runs in 20 year cycles. This one seems to work; in the 1960s there was a wave of nostalgia for the 1940s, Fedora hats and Hawaiian shirts were everywhere, 60s counter-culture lingo was basically a re-hash of 1940s Harlem jive talk. In the 1970s there was a huge wave of nostalgia for, and satire of, the 1950s. We had Happy Days on TV, Sha Na Na played Woodstock and Grease was one of the top films of the decade. By the 1990s Happy Days was replaced by That 70s Show and Boogie Nights, a film about the 1970s porn industry, topped the box office.
So now in the twenty-teens we should be seeing nostalgia for the 1990s, after all things were really different in 1990. A cell phone was an expensive luxury that was installed in your car (remember car phones?), the Internet existed but hardly anybody used it because it was text only, Google was not a verb, some people still had a black and white TV and used a typewriter. There was a wall in Berlin that separated the Communist world (remember the Communist threat?) from the West.
But wait – it isn’t happening. There is no 90s nostalgia wave, why not?
Writer Kurt Anderson examined this in depth in an article for Vanity Fair about a year ago. In the article You Say You Want A Devolution? (Google it) he notes that while we are changing technologically at a faster pace than ever before, our culture has stagnated. There’s no nostalgia for the 1990s because everything (TVs, cell phones and music players aside) pretty well looks the same now as it did then.
Here’s an illustration; if you looked at a picture of some people standing in front of a car in 1932 and compared that to a similar picture taken in 1952 you could instantly tell when each picture was taken. The car is different, the people’s clothes and hairstyles are dramatically different. The same would be true of another picture taken in 1972. Now, imagine looking at a picture of people in front of a car in 1992 compared with a similar picture taken in 2012. There’s not much difference between the two. Cars today look much the same as they did 20 years ago. There’s a big difference under the hood and in the technology they use, but they look the same. The standard dress uniform of the 1990s – jeans and sneakers – is still the standard today. The people in the 2012 picture may have some tattoos and if they are teenagers they will probably be staring down at a black box in the palm of their hand instead of looking at the camera but other than that they haven’t changed much in 20 years.
Imagine if someone in 1992, or even 1982, dressed the way they did in 1972; they’d look ridiculous. Someone in 2012 dressed the way they did in 1992 looks, well, normal.
Anderson takes it even further; going back as far as the early 1800s just about everything in our culture; architecture, books, grooming, clothes, entertainment and music would show a marked change over 20 years. However at some time in the late 1980s, it stopped.
For instance the music business has seen a dramatic revolution in the last 20 years in terms of how it’s made and distributed. However as an art, contemporary pop music has evolved only marginally.
If you’re old enough to remember top 40 radio in the 1960s you’ll recall that the term “oldie” was applied to anything that was popular more than a year ago. Stations rarely played any record that was more than five years old. Music recorded ten years previously sounded like it was from another world. Think of the biggest stars of each decade; Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Michael Jackson and how different they were from each other. Today stations that claim to play “today’s favourites” routinely mix current hits with those from 25 years ago and nobody bats an eye – it all sounds the same.
This means if you are a pop culture collector or a dealer investing in inventory you have a problem; there is no predictable cycle anymore. We now have trends that come and go in a matter of months. If Martha Stewart does a feature on Hobnail Milk Glass it becomes all the rage for a few weeks until some other style maven draws attention to something else.
People are not collecting individual categories, such as pink Depression glass or Art Deco, so much anymore, they mix things up. In this world of sameness many people are looking to antiques and collectables to express their individuality. They want objects that are different from what their friends have and they don’t want their parents’ stuff. That’s why inner-city flea markets have become so popular in the past few years; it’s the search for uniqueness that attracts younger people especially.
By the way, Orillia has a perfect location for a Sunday flea market in Market Square. Just sayin’.
So while many columnists make predictions at New Year, nobody would be so foolish when it comes to antiques and collecting. The field has become totally unpredictable and that’s what makes it so much fun.