Antiques offer clue on economic health

Kai Ryssdal Dec 11, 2009

Antiques offer clue on economic health

Kai Ryssdal Dec 11, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: One person’s junk, the saying goes, is another person’s treasure. A different way to put that is there’s no accounting for taste. That’s the basic premise behind a television show that’s been on the air for more than a decade now.

Person on “Antiques Roadshow:” I bought it in a consignment shop and…

Appraiser: What this is a purposefully made fake in the 1920s. That’s why they put the dirt on it, that’s why they put the slip on it and they wore the slip off.

If you think that cross-stitch your great grandma did 100 years ago might be worth something, “Antiques Roadshow” is the place for you. The show’s executive producer has a new behind-the-scenes book out. And we got to thinking that maybe the Roadshow and the collectibles business writ large might be a decent gauge of how people are handling the recession.

Executive producer Marsha Bemko says for starters, the Roadshow has never seen crowds like it has in the past year or two.

Marsha Bemko: Especially when we’re in an area that has had some real economic impact. For instance, when we were in Mobile. And people were talking to us about needing to have objects that would give them some financial return.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but more than 8 million people have been put out of work over the past two years. That is a whole lot of people with more time to go treasure hunting in their own homes.

Dave Margulius from Collectors Weekly says all those folks digging around in their attics and basements makes for more stuff hitting the market, lots more stuff.

Dave Margulius: Antique fishing lures, comic books, clocks, china, baseball, football stuff, art glass — art glass is gigantic.

What’s selling, though, isn’t always what you’d expect.

Margulius: It’s about passion and emotion. Nobody really needs any of this stuff. They want it, it touches a chord for them. Remember that Hot Wheels car, you know, from the 70s? We do, but we don’t remember that thing from 1873 necessarily.

At his auction house, Roadshow appraiser Lark Mason says he sees a little bit of everything.

Lark Mason: It’s a bit of a rabbit’s warren here. We’ve got 20 trays containing several hundred snuff bottles, jade belt buckles.

Mason says you can draw a straight line from the collectibles market to the health of the economy.

Mason: The middle market still sells, but it’s selling for substantially less than it did a year or two or five years ago. It’s the same people that have the houses that are worth less than they had been and their mortgages are underwater. They don’t have that discretionary income to go out and buy decorative items.

A lot of what is selling gives you a pretty good clue as to who’s up and who’s down globally.

Mason: The top end of the market has been and is continuing to get stronger in certain segments, such as Chinese art. There is a huge demand, so it’s sort of indicative of the strength of the Asian economies. So a good portion of what I sell, I sell back to China.

While some of Mason’s items are headed east, most of what’s appraised on the “Antiques Roadshow” doesn’t ever go up for sale.

Producer Marsha Bemko says stuff just means more than cash to a whole lot of people.

Bemko: It really isn’t about the money and we know that. First, people walk away, most of the people who come to “Antiques Roadshow” are going to learn their objects are worth $100 or less. But they walk away satisfied and they’ve learned something new. And for those owners who we have met and who have gotten fabulous, fantastic financial news from us, we know most of them don’t part with their objects after getting the news.

Recession or not, a big chunk of the collectibles market is kind of like those Visa commercials. That old painting your grandmother left you? About $150. Emotional value? Priceless.

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