The Young Collector
Pandemic lifestyle grates on a person. Of course, at this point in winter, everything grates on a person, and as the anniversary of a year in shutdown rolls around for many of us, it grates all the more.
Many aspects of this are, as the kids would often say in an attempt to be polite, “not our favorite.” We miss our friends, families, restaurants, browsing in stores, hugs, and seeing people’s faces. You don’t need us to enumerate them for you, we are sure.
Underneath it all, the shift comes from our tectonic psychological plates—part of what we all miss too is a subterranean sense of control, a sense that in much of our lives there are things that we can do something about. While television and movies made pandemics look much more interesting, the end result is the same: we can control only so much, and sometimes we just have to make the best of things.
We have talked before about the tyranny of choice and how it affects the antiques business: how it’s impossible to make a decision when there are so many options, how we feel hesitant to buy anything that’s not quite just right in a marketplace where something just right is bound to be out there somewhere, and how exhausting parsing so many choices can be. We haven’t talked about how this same aspect of things is turning us into control freaks.
Americans have, arguably, always been control freaks. It’s a core part of our historical identity, our shared mythology: come to America and reinvent yourself! Freedom! Better life! If you can see it, you can be it! Grow up to be president! Grab a bootstrap and change your life! The larger world seems to find this by turns endearing and annoying, because it’s filled with both optimism and denial. With that in mind, it is no wonder that we have worked pretty hard to allow ourselves to have exactly what we want or that the ability to choose and determine for ourselves is the highest ideal we aspire to and thus a built-in goal in anything we work to create.
Let’s be honest—when people want to be rich, what they really want are choices, more choices, better choices, and the most successful services are those that find ways to make choices—or the appearance of choices—available and affordable. We pride ourselves on this, with our catchphrase Starbucks order outlining all our choices, even as we drown ourselves in it. We spend 45 minutes browsing Netflix before we give up and settle on a Cheers episode. (And why a Cheers episode? Because we control the experience, if only by knowing before it starts exactly what we’ll be getting. Give us choices, and we might experiment for a bit, but we’ll eventually work our way around to making the exact same choice over and over. Hence our political situation, but we digress in the direction of a minefield.)
When Andrew is assisting clients with the arduous task of divesting a household full of stuff (or a “collection,” as some people like to say), he tends to ask up-front (because knowing from the start is so much easier than finding out later), “What is your priority? Do you want money, convenience, or control?”
It is, as we have discovered to be true of many things, an endlessly unbalanced three-legged stool: you can get any two of the three, but you hardly ever get all three. Extenuating circumstances aside, most people’s answers tend to shake out along the lines of “I want to get as much money out of this stuff as I can” or “I don’t care about anything. I just need it done and the house broom-swept by the end of the month!” Collectors, though, almost every single time, choose control, and collectors, almost every single time, are the least satisfied with an outcome. So we have begun to ask ourselves, is our need for control undermining us?
Perhaps this is because we consider ourselves the experts when it comes to our collections. Does that make us experts when it comes to dispersing a collection? How clear-eyed are we able to be about the things that we love? Many parents struggle to be honest about their own children’s shortcomings, but most of us also know that when our children go out into the world, we cannot expect everyone to appreciate them as much as we do. We certainly cannot expect more when selling an assortment of objects. We might say that the goal is money or recognition, but for many of us, what we might be looking for is for others to appreciate what we appreciate, to validate our choices and tastes by choosing the same thing.
Frustration is the result of unmet expectations, as anyone who spends time in the company of small children or dogs, doesn’t usually like their Christmas presents, or loathes car trouble—you know, most of us—understands. It really is that simple, at least that part of it. We spend a lot of time trying to find things to meet our expectations but typically spend very little time evaluating the quality or quantity of our expectations. Most of our expectations are rooted either in things we actually control or things we think we should be able to control, but control is an illusion because while we might—might—control something, such as, say, the process of dispersing a collection, that in no way conveys control of the outcome.
It is a little astounding in some ways that we have such expectations. This thing that we are doing—releasing volumes of stuff acquired through years of focused buying—is really without much in the way of precedent.
Until the 1960s and ’70s, antiquing was not a widely practiced hobby of the middle class. Those collections came to market in the ’80s and ’90s, so we got to see a few good years. Perhaps if you were buying then, that laid a foundation for what you thought it would be like when you decided to sell—a buzzing showroom, an event atmosphere, and a beautiful catalog.
And then the Internet happened. And 2008 happened. And a pandemic happened.
And so, there’s not really any certainty, any guarantee, when you think about it, about how all this downsizing, deaccessioning, and general divesting should go. There is no established history the way there is, say, with the market for houses, where we are also hoping to find someone else who appreciates our choices, and where we can reasonably expect home prices for reasonably maintained properties to, if not dramatically increase, at least to rise with a fairly standard degree of predictability.
The roots of frustration are in our expectations, and while it does not change much, examining expectations can be useful. Are we frustrated because we expected more money? Are we frustrated because we expected more interest? Are we frustrated because we expected more appreciation? Did we expect our kids to be more interested or for downsizing to be easier? Where did we get the expectation that it would be reasonable for us to have expectations of other people’s reactions to our “stuff?”
Perhaps we would do better to adjust how we view what we have. The word “collection” implies a degree of focus, application, and academic interest that many of us do not actually apply to the things with which we live. Many of the things we end up with have meaning to us, which is as it should be. That, perhaps more than anything else, is one of the things that sets collectors apart—that virtually everything we live with has meaning to us. But meaning, we should all know, doesn’t always equate to much.
It does not equate to monetary value, as we see over and over again when interesting but imperfect pieces fall flat or when the kids don’t care about the silverware but will fight to the death over the Tupperware popsicle molds, and, in fact, it’s often the opposite, with some of the most valuable things on the market simply being great stylistic examples but having no particular meaning or history attached. We buy widgets that have meaning to us because of time and place, we spend years valuing them for those nonmonetary reasons, and then we want to control other people’s perceptions of them, to ground those perceptions in a meaning and context that is valuable only to us.
Are we creating what we fear, as the old saying suggests? You can, after all, find tons of people to help coach you through downsizing, selecting what to take and what to donate, but there are far fewer antiques professionals who offer this kind of service. (Please don’t spam us with proof that you exist! We know! We do similar work!) We simply mean that finding people qualified and willing to do this kind of work is far more challenging than the demand suggests it should be, but our expectations may be creating an environment that a professional wants to avoid. After all, if money is one of your objectives, you might be loath to pay a fee, commission-based or hourly, when you’ll also be paying a commission when you sell. And speaking more broadly, when expectations are so weighty, this kind of help can be difficult to offer. Offer someone an appraisal, and they’ll usually be happy, even if things are worth less than they thought. (Andrew, to date, has been yelled at only once over an assigned value, after five years and hundreds of appraisals. We cannot say the same of life in the auction business, for instance.) You value their stuff too! You get it! But offer to sell it for them or help them manage its sale, and you may find yourself consigned to an impossible task.
We are not saying that one should not care about the dispersal of their collection. It is an important task, and it is not one to be left to just anyone, if for no other reason than decisions made in the midst of a crisis or a loss are often not the best ones. We just suggest that instead of looking ahead to the results that we spend some time looking backward, back at the expectations we have accumulated, and the experiences we have had. Perhaps when it is time to part with anything, we should just keep the experiences and set aside most of the expectations. If we can control anything, it is that.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached by email at [email protected] or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest