Excerpt: 'Antique Roadshow Collectibles'

What actually does make an object collectible is a combination of several things, of which the ever-questing eye of the museum curator is perhaps among the most important. When such a scholar takes a fancy to a particular 1930s industrial designer or a 1950s couturier, then works by that person almost immediately become collectibles among the cognoscenti. When newspapers review the ensuing exhibitions, and when magazines publish articles about this next new thing, that heightened visibility serves to reinforce the perception of the thing as a collectible among a wider audience.

Curators aren't alone. Dealers are always looking for the next collectible thing, too. They have a genuine interest in the newly discovered or rediscovered, of course, but they have a commercial agenda as well. So if they have been priced out of Tiffany glass by a lack of supply combined with too much of a market demand, they turn, instead, to Loetz glass. When they're priced out of Loetz, they find carnival glass (also known as "the poor man's Tiffany"). As they buy these things from each other, which they do regularly, dealers spread the word of growing interest in a field or manufacturer. Eventually, specialized dealers appear, and the national community of dealers begins to seek out and stock what is suddenly becoming the latest trend. It wasn't until dealers began to carry fifties furniture, for example, that it became a recognized and highly sought-after collectible. The public can buy only what it is offered, after all.

Sometimes, however, collectibility begins at the other end of the spectrum — in the grass roots, so to speak — as it did with baseball cards and comic books. Kids traded these items among themselves, and even if they packed them away when they got older, that didn't mean they had lost interest. However, their moms, who have been known to toss, give away, or sell stuff at a yard sale, often unintentionally divest their children of treasures. As adults with discretionary income, the former traders went in search of the cards and comics they once owned. Eventually, specialty card and comic booths appeared at small local markets. In due course, an entire show was devoted to baseball cards or comics — or to toy trains, or dolls, or vintage textiles — interest in which sprang, initially, from the private passion of a few devoted enthusiasts.

Each country, of course, has its own homegrown collectibles. Americans are partial to American toys and sports memorabilia — although we do fervently collect Japanese ceramics and robots, English china, and Scandinavian and Italian glass. In Great Britain, the going price for a handkerchief printed with the portrait of a champion cricketer is $400. If such an item were to turn up in the United States, however, no one would be particularly interested in it. So if you owned that handkerchief, and if you were somehow aware of its popularity in Great Britain, you'd have to travel to England, or go on the Internet, to find a fellow enthusiast — or, for that matter, to sell it profitably.

Where Do Collectibles Come From?

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