The Auction Apocalypse
No, dear reader, the end is not near. Today, we thought we would discuss changing trends in the auction business and the nature of antiques and collectibles in general. Any of you who have been around auctions, flea markets and antique shops for any amount of time know that tastes and merchandise change quite often. What was desirable just a few years ago is no longer sought after. Some items can still fetch money on the secondary market while some become relegated to the half off bin at your local thrift shop. Avon perfume and cologne bottles spring to mind. They used to command decent sums; however, recently they’ve become very difficult to sell. Fine Victorian era furniture is another example. Though the outcome for these pieces is less dire, they still don’t fetch what they once did. Tastes in types and shades of wood fluctuate and that gorgeous oak sideboard or maple table just isn’t what today’s buyers want. This leads, many times, to perfectly good, very beautiful pieces being thrown away. Now, keep in mind, they aren’t making any more solid wood Victorian era pieces. Hand carving is a dying art. In a few short decades you may not be able to find the gorgeous hand carved pieces that are considered old hat today. That is sad more than anything. We’re looking at a future where modular Ikea type furniture will quickly become commonplace at auctions.
Something else that is starting to creep its way into auctions is all of the cheap products we so often see coming in from China. If you’ve ever strolled through any large retailer, you’ve no doubt found tons of “As Seen on TV” items gracing or should we say darkening the shelves. These items aren’t made to last, they’re barely made to function. They end up being purchased heavily usually around the holiday season and given as gifts. The receiver normally regifts the thing, maybe uses it once or twice or they just put it in a closet and forget they own it. Now, fast forward several years. The owner of the array of “As Seen on TV” stuff is downsizing. They have a closet full of cheap Chinese merchandise and they want rid of all of it. Since they’ve contacted an auctioneer, they clearly don’t wish to hold yard sales. These items may be brand new in the box, but on the secondary market, they are worth yard sale prices at best. At the very least, the makers of this stuff don’t make any claims that the items will appreciate in value. They don’t even really make any claims about the item lasting a few months.
I know we talk a great deal about mass production and what it does to resale value. That’s because it’s a very important point to discuss. Mass production kills resale value. Those Duck Dynasty bobble heads you paid $29.95 each for are not going to appreciate in value; there are millions of those little creepy bearded guys out there. That Chia pet you got at last year’s White Elephant party, yeah, they still make those. Pillow Pets, the Flowbee, the Perfect Pancake, the list is endless. So many of these items were produced, they are plentiful. There were probably enough of all of these items and more made to give everyone in the US one each. An item simply can’t appreciate in value when there are millions just like it floating around. An item especially can’t appreciate in value when millions have already been made and they’re still churning out more.
It isn’t just “As Seen on TV” merchandise, however. Items from HSN and QVC have started making their way to auction houses as well. Again, these items are produced in massive quantities and normally cost quite a bit more when purchased through home shopping television. Don’t get us wrong, we know that QVC does carry exclusive items from desirable designers (Dooney and Burke, Michael Kors, Bob Mackie etc..), but these items also don’t appreciate in value. They are higher quality than the No Boundaries brand at Wal-Mart but they don’t have a high resale value. Most of the items you can order from the comfort of your living room chair are not going to make you wealthy later on.
While we’re on the subject of Wal-Mart, nearly every item you buy at your local Wally World will not appreciate in value. Cheap, mass production in China has flooded the US resale market with scores of these items. Most times, even recovering the original cost of the item is a tall order. Even if the item is brand new and in the original box, a buyer could simply go to their local Wal-Mart and buy a brand new one off the shelf. Not only do many of these items not have any real lasting power (cheaply made, not made to last, inferior components), they simply do not have much in terms of value on the secondary market. Even pricier appliances like Keurig coffee makers typically don’t sell for much at auction. There are exceptions vintage Kitchen Aid and Sunbeam stand mixers still do very well. Modern ones tend to hold their own in terms of sales as well. They won’t fetch retail prices at auction, but they do tend to be desirable and sometimes sought after. There’s a reason for that, quality. We have a contemporary Kitchen Aid mixer that we use regularly. It was worth the initial investment as it has outperformed every other hand or stand mixer either one of us has ever owned. We can’t say that for other brands.
In this day and age with the availability of cheap clothing being pumped out by Chinese factories, even relatively expensive clothing items don’t sell well at auction. A vintage Chanel dress or suit will normally do well as will vintage Halston or any other Haute Couture designer of old. A modern designer such as Stella McCartney probably will not. When you’re talking about mid range or low range clothing, auctioneers are lucky to sell every item as one lot for pennies. Those expensive Love Pink items from Victoria’s Secret can be found in just about any thrift shop and at many yard sales. Under Armor is pretty much the same. It doesn’t really matter if the items still have the tags attached of if they were never worn, they simply don’t sell well at auction. While we’re on the subject of fashion, why do you think it is that a vintage Chanel dress is still, pardon the pun, hanging around? Sing along, you know the words; vintage Chanel was not made in China. It may have been made in London, Paris, New York or Milan, but not in China. The pride of handcrafting a fine garment is sadly long gone. Insane profits have taken the forefront while quality craftsmanship has been pushed to the back burner.
The last bit we’ll touch on here is anything you buy through an MLM company. You may not know the phrase MLM, but you know the heavy hitters in that game. Party Lite, Mary Kay, Avon, Thirty One, Origami Owl, Home Interiors, I could go on and on. Basically the stuff you buy in your friend’s living room because you got invited to this party and you really should buy something. Just about every one of these and the hundreds of other companies just like them have produced some sort of collectible or another. They produce just as many of these items as, say, Franklin Mint. There are millions of Avon perfume bottles out there, most of them still filled, many of them still in their boxes. Most of the modern MLM merchandise is made in, you guessed it, China. We are literally being buried under piles of cheap Chinese merchandise as I type this.
In the next few years, these items will start to make their way in to auctions. It’s very difficult to stem the tide of the influx of cheap Chinese items coming our way. This influx makes us concerned. We know that the resale value of such things is minimal. This is why we don’t generally do new merchandise auctions. There is so much pressure to buy these items wholesale from China. We also know that due to poor quality, most bidders won’t be pleased with mass produced things. Most importantly, these items lack character and charm. They literally look just like the neighbor’s things because they are just like the neighbor’s things. Don’t misunderstand us here; it’s clear from my writing that we do not like mass produced items. That is true. We both feel they have little character or “soul” of their own. If you like Ikea and Home Interiors, that is your prerogative and we wouldn’t presume to tell you that you are wrong. We’re talking in general terms of resale.
What can you as a bidder do to help make sure your local auction house isn’t flooded with Chia Pets and other mass produced flotsam and jetsam? The simple answer is don’t consign it. The longer answer is insisting on a higher quality of merchandise. We don’t judge you when you buy a singing fish plaque; we enjoy a good gag gift as well as the next guys. Both of us have our own style. We both like things the other doesn’t. We’ve never split the difference and settled for bland. You should never settle for bland. If you’re in the market for a coffee table or a couch, keep looking until you find the piece you’ve envisioned. Check your labels. Buy Made in the USA instead of Made in China. Maybe put that last bug in the ears of your friends and relatives too. Simply don’t buy mass produced Chinese made products. If there is less of it out there, less of it will make its way to auction in the future.
Finally, and we say this often, don’t be angry with your auctioneer when he truthfully tells you that your Avon perfume bottles, Jim Beam decanters and Home Interior candle holders will bring a pittance at auction. He’s telling you these things because they are true and because experience has taught him that these things are not desirable at the moment. He isn’t being lazy, he isn’t being greedy; he is being honest. The more money you make, the happier you are right? Your auctioneer wants your auction to do well. We all work on a commission basis. If you do well, we do well too.