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Where Are all the Young Collectors?

Snuff and Patch Boxes

A collection of English, French, and German snuff and patch boxes from the October 2010 Skinner Auction of European Furniture & Decorative Arts

Collecting is an age-old hobby, a passion to buy, hunt for and accumulate treasures. But it seems that the drive to collect beautiful things has disappeared, primarily with the forty and under crowd. They appear to be far more interested in gadgets than objects.

You may argue that serious collecting doesn’t begin until one has gone through college, married, and had children and a house. Maybe you have to be in your mid-40s to decide to invest in a collection. But that doesn’t seem right. I started collecting before I was ten.

Back in the early 60s, kids collected baseball cards, dolls, stamps, coins (who didn’t have those little blue books?), Tonka toys and so on. Today what do they collect? Video games, Facebook friends, and iPhone aps.

I believe that collecting is a bug that you catch early on and continue to nurture through adulthood. It’s no surprise that so many collectors that I know and have known have more than one collection at home. They may collect English furniture, have a collection of inkwells, a number of nice portrait miniatures and an assortment of toby jugs. I’ve had consignors whose collection was selling in the first part of an auction, and then who started bidding in the second half. Asked about it, they simply stated that they thought they’d start collecting again!

There is a social side to collecting, and these groups are missing young blood. Collectors societies focusing on pipes, fans, steins, pattern glass, a wide variety of ceramics, dolls, open salt cellars, you name it, flourished in the 1950s right through to the end of the century.  If these groups aren’t already gone, they are aging terribly.

Along with other ceramics groups, I’ve been a member of the Wedgwood International Seminar for many years. Held annually in various locations throughout the US, Canada and the UK, members from across the US and as far away as Australia (there are three Wedgwood Societies there) can socialize, share thoughts, enjoy lectures, eat, drink and be merry together. Many form lifelong friendships, and even after I’ve sold their Wedgwood collections, they continue coming for camaraderie. Even so, the populous of the Wedgwood Seminar has declined over the years. Event attendance in the 1960s often topped at over 300.  Today, depending on the venue, 80-120 is good, and with no young faces!

This decline is a concern for every collectors group, not just Wedgwood, and many societies are constantly trying to reinvent themselves to try and attract new and younger collectors.  Reduced membership fees, attractive and informative literature and modern websites with helpful links are but a few of the ways groups are attempting to reinvent themselves.

There’s no reason to believe that there won’t be a renewed spark among young people to collect, and perhaps avenues such as Twitter and Facebook can help connect older collectors and various collectors societies with the younger generations.

Reversing this declining membership trend is vitally important to the future of collecting. Is there a short term answer, no.  Would I encourage you to join a collectors society, absolutely.

41 thoughts on “Where Are all the Young Collectors?

  1. Interesting read! I’ve been collecting since I was in my teens. I graduated last year with a BA in Art History. I always wished my university offered courses relating to the business/commercial side of art. This topic would have made for an excellent research paper. Ken Hall-RI.

    • I would be curious as to what percentage, age wise, of people visit museums on a regular basis. I wonder if the trend translates to that ratio as it does to collecting. One problem is that with all the younger people graduating with art degrees, it will be another 20 years or so before they are at that point in their lives where they can afford to be collectors themselves.

      • When I first got into antiques (furniture, crystal-ware, art (prints and oil paintings), mirrors, table lamps and ceiling light fixtures (and most recently WW2 radios) several years ago I started collecting from thrift stores and antique shops and online classifieds.

        If I liked something I’ll pay enough for it — no low balling. I leave low-balling to the thrift store pricing. I acquired this collection bug 3 years ago and now I have too much stuff, but not enough to satisfy my taste, which is infinite. Mind you I am a perfectionist so everything I collect must not be chipped or bent. Visible age and mild damage based on (100-300 years is acceptable), patina etc. are acceptable. I also restore and repair things. I am satisfied by what I have and I do not sell any of it. I feel a sense of preservation of history. I think as a collector you need to feel deeply with what you collect based on what you like. Antiques opened my eyes to the creativity and quality craftsmanship of the past. This is not found today unless you get into very expensive modern day pieces. Most of which are minimalist in design. Again you need a passion and drive to collect. It must be something that inspires you and that catches your eye. You can’t get bored of it. Antiques come in all kinds of varieties since the beginning of the human race. It’s a dynamic collection with little that is mass produced. And the older it is the more rare and unique it is. This is what keeps me going for example.

    • Thank you for your insight. I can totally appreciate with the internet access that everyone has, how many fewer people are browsing these wonderful old bookshops. Unfortunately you are not alone, I know of no category of antiques where there is any strength in youth. Do you think it’s a cycle?

      • Automobiles is the only area I can possibly think of that would have a hold on younger people. However, having an interest in antique sports cars doesn’t mean they are out collecting them.

        I don’t think it is a cycle-but if someone has a cycle theory I’m all ears.

        I’m adding a sociological twist to the topic. I’m wondering if it’s somehow related to the shift away from the nuclear family. That ideal family had roles and traditions in which objects served as a tangible representation of a particular family.

        Add to this an abundance of the population having incomes that don’t allow for much more than Walmart and Ikea purchases-this could be an explanation.

        • I like your idea of the twist from the nuclear family. I still believe collecting comes from within, either you are or you aren’t (starting from a young age). The concept of having one and wanting more…rocks, shot glasses, snow globes…it doesn’t matter. That usually transcends into more sophisticated collecting as years go by. Unfortunately we have to discount for the Walmart, Ikea , Pier 1 and Crate and Barrel buyers!

  2. I think a large part of this exodus is the fact that many of the items that we collected in our younger years are now disappearing into the ether. Records and LPs are now on iTunes — Movies are now on NetFlix — Books are now on Kindles. Young people these days don’t own physical items like we did, and they are growing up knowing that as normal.

    • The thing about antiques is that they are our never ending recyclable. As you state, there is a progression with the records, books and movies. With antiques, there is no progression but more owning a part of history. You hit the nail on the head…they are not into physical objects. They are amost rebelling from what their parents and grandparents had.

      • It’s not so much that kids these days aren’t into physical objects -because they are. They just want the newest model and have no respect for age or quality or how many hands have touched or used something. At one point in time, things were made to last as long as possible, and today, when something hits 5 years of age, it’s way passed its prime, and it’s time for a new one…
        I have also commented on your post in my blog

        • Totally agree, although my eleven year old son collects everything and nothing. Unusual rocks, bottle tops, pencils. It’s more the concept of collecting. I remember my parents always had match books from everywhere they went. Collecting becomes a passion at an early age and I think either you are or you aren’t from early on. There have always been new items out there for children, yet many became collectors. There’s no real answer. Nothing teaches anyone to collect. It’s always been about the thrill of the hunt.

  3. The last comment made me think about how things of the past are treated here in America vs. abroad. I noticed on my first stay in Europe that art seems to be known and appreciated by all classes. Here I see a lack of interest, maybe even an avoidance by people who feel untitled to become knowledgeable.

    In Europe are significant historical objects and art history taught along with the abc’s? I don’t know having been raised here in the US.

    Then again, Europe has an overabundance of historical items & architecture due to its age. Maybe this fact leads to an unavoidable or ingrained interest in such things.

    • Interesting observations. Today, Americans have some of the biggest and most important collections of antiques and fine arts in the world. However I’ve always felt that Europeans have always taken a much more academic approach to collecting than their American counterparts. Working for an international auction house, I am not seeing younger buyers in any field, from any country.

      • Has there ever been a period where there were “young” buyers? Am I wrong in thinking that pieces have been collected by the older generation and handed down? For example, I’m Armenian and I have more rugs (yes, stereotyping myself)that I know what to do with. I appreciate and value these things, but if I didn’t have them and still appreciated the quality of a hand made rug-it’s a matter of prioritizing. There are 200 things I’d need to worry about before ever looking into collecting.

        • Young buyers, maybe not, but young collectors yes. Again starting with baseball cards, stamps, coins (who didn’t have those little blue books?) There is little appreciation for antiques and fine arts…as you say, you appreciate them.

    • Most US Americans are uneducated, unintelligent, disinterested, even arrogant and competitive, thus they do not collect anything other than beer cans and coca cola bottles.

  4. I think it will actually become worse as the decades march on. The current group of people who don’t collect certainly won’t instill any desire to collect in their children. A lot of it begins with your environment as a child. I was surrounded by a family of antiquarian book dealers, antique dealers, and auction enthusiasts, so I started collecting a variety of things from 5 years old. My tastes and interests have changed now that I am in my thirties, but I certainly know when our first child arrives in May that I will be counting the months until she goes to her first book fair, antique show, or auction with me.

    • I, too, was introduced at a very early age. I think everyone enters at different points in their lives, and for different reasons. I think the key word you mention is enthusiasm, which in collecting terms is also the thrill of the hunt. In a way, they don’t know what they’re missing. In today’s world it’s instant gratification.

  5. When I started collecting we had radio, TV, movies and that was it. There are so many hi-tech “distraction” today it does hurt collecting, going to museum, etc. However with the Green Generation you would think they would love the idea of re-cycleing “old stuff”.

    • Antiques are certainly “green”. I do believe that the abundance of distractions today keep people from spending the time at museums, going to antique shows and the like. Even antique reference books don’t have the interest and value that they once had. But you would think the researching of these antiques would be easier in the computer age. It still goes back to the unknown gene that makes us collect…anything. That seems to have disappeared.

  6. Quick question-will this trend lead to: A) A de-valuing of items due to progressive lack of demand? B) An eventual market dry-up? Meaning 2-3 generations from now this lack of interest (and knowledge) in collecting will result in nothing being introduced to the collectors market.

    • Well, to answer your questions in a round-about way. The market today is very strong at the high end, so-so in the middle and very soft at the lower end. Many categories of collecting have withstood time, trends and recessions. But many others have already suffered due to lack of demand, and loss of momentum. Collecting has always been a cycle, but this one could be 2-3 generations in the making. Somehow the market doesn’t dry up, but as those in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s become in their 70’s, 80’s and maybe 90’s, the trend will be for many more items to come on the market. The question is who will be left to buy them?

  7. I think that the root of collecting an object must, in most cases, resonate with the collector. You mentioned the waning of Doll collecting in your article, but there are dolls being aggressively collected today, they just might not be the ones that resonated with an older generation. I doubt that a Jumbo Machinder has ever been auctioned at Skinner, yet these figures from the 1970’s sell for many thousands of dollars and attract buyers across the globe. So, it falls to the collecting community to keep a finger on the pulse of younger buyers and be dynamic enough to embrace the new trends in collecting.

    Items that are now obsolete in the world aren’t devoid of collecting appeal to young people, it just becomes less likely when dealing with something that evokes no memories, cannot be easily re-purposed, or isn’t part of a “natural progression” in collecting.

    Another hurdle for the collecting community is that the increase in preservation and restoration created a glut in many areas. Every boy growing up heard from *insert name of relative* that they should hang on to their baseball cards or comic books because they would be worth a fortune. This relative laments putting his/her baseball cards in bicycle spokes, or allowing mom to throw out all their comic books. If this relative had only hung on to these items, they would be “worth a fortune” today! However, as my generation learned, what made baseball cards or comic books valuable was the fact that people destroyed them and threw them out. Desirability was based on the inability to find an old comic book or baseball card that survived youth. So, when we all took our comic books directly from the shelves, or cards directly from the package, and protected them with sleeves and cases, we flooded the market with items kept in mint condition. When companies that produced these collectables finally addressed these concerns, they tried to create limited/variant versions of their product to artificially simulate rarity and value that came from limited supply. Sports cards, as far as I know, never rebounded from this crisis. Comic books have, to a degree, been able to sustain themselves by scaling back all production, increasing the quality of art, and maturing the storylines to stay relevant.

    Another anecdote is in toy collecting. The same phenomenon that flooded the comic book and sports card market occurred in the toy market. Suddenly, nobody was taking their toys out of the package anymore. Stories began to circulate of unscrupulous collectors destroying the packaging of toys left on the self, in a desperate attempt to increase the scarcity of mint condition. As with the comic book industry, the toy industry tried to create variants and limit production to increase value. This has been proven to be only work temporarily, as collectors become frustrated or bored. Eventually, the toy market saved itself (to a degree) by focusing on increasing quality and listening to the demands of what collectors wanted to see.

    In summation, my generation isn’t oblivious to collecting, to the contrary, we’ve been forced to be far more savvy. Of course there will always be a market for easy to appreciate collectables like art, wine, antique furniture, historical fragments, and well-made antiquities; but what about everything else? Skinner and other auction houses have proven themselves to be excellent stewards of the world’s collectables, but there will come a time when market sentimentality, the driving force of collecting, could lead to stagnation. The people who make a living from collectables are at crossroads, and must learn what will appeal to tomorrow’s collector. Is it more likely to be a snuff box, or a pair of vintage athletic shoes…?

    • I appreciate your thoughts though do see this as a trend starting with the good suppliers, the dealers who satisfied the thirst of the collector. As they die off and retire, who is taking their place? As collectors die off who are taking their places? The marketplace is getting smaller and smaller, although the great items are still bringing the most competitive prices at auction. It’s the beginners we need who get that spark and create a momentum that leads to more collectors. The young collectors today that are coming onto the marketplace has more knowledge and more money than their predecessors and is starting their “collecting” at a much higher level, if not right at the top. There is less personality in their collecting and they have not gone through the process of buying good, then upgrading to better, then to finally best. They are also not social collectors as they were in the past, with the many collectors societies, seminars and symposiums a forum to exchange thoughts, knowledge and friendships. I still feel the best of any category of collecting will hold its own the longest, and if that includes the best vintage athletic shoes, so be it.

      • You make some excellent points. I already alluded to new things being collected by the next generation, but I did not touch on the effect of the Internet on collecting.

        The Cons:

        The Internet and Global Market has changed the collecting world in a number of ways. Access to information and products has never been so easy to come by. With that accessibility, there is less challenge, and a shorter learning curve. Additionally, values have been set according to total population, rather than localized markets. With the lack of need to rely on human contact with others for information (symposiums, conventions, etc.) some buyers miss out on the finer points of information that is amassed naturally, as opposed to technologically. Additionally, the lack of human contact prevents the friendships that come from social collecting and eventually transcend into something even more binding.

        Moreover, the Internet can remove some of the magic from collecting. The first auction that I attended as an adult was 6 or 7 years ago when I was in my mid-20’s. The auction was held in Danvers, Ma. and one of the items for sale was a piece by my favorite artist. I attended the auction and there was a wonderful jamais vu. When the item I wanted came up for sale, I was the only bidder present and could have purchased my treasured art piece. However, two Internet bidders drove the price of the item far beyond what I could afford. I remember feeling cheated. I did my homework, I amassed the money I needed, I gave up a Saturday, went to the auction in person, waited for my item, and raised the paddle. Despite the sensational environment, I was stung by the disappointment. I have not been to an auction in person since then, because there seems to be a much greater chance that I will lose when bidding against the world, instead of just one room/community. I’d rather bid from home, so if I lose, at least I can still salvage the day.

        The Pros:

        The Internet has empowered collectors to be better informed, more selective about condition, and kept sellers honest. For the Completist, the Internet has removed luck and leg work. If you have the money, the Holy Grail of whatever you collect is yours. For people who collect inherently social things, such as wine, the Internet has actually increased the connectivity and comradery of its community.

        It’s a double-edged sword, and there is real reason to romantic for the past, but there are things to be thankful for as well.


  8. I am 25, and I seriously collect currency and dabble in other areas. I can tell you why I am the only person I know my age that collects. And the answer is simple. We all got burned with our first collectibles. If you were born in the 1980s, and you played any sport, you collected cards. If it wasn’t cards, then you collected pogs, pokeman, beanie babies, etc. As we hit our teens we learned that what we had spent years spending our allowance and birthday money on was absolutely worthless.
    Early coin, comic book, and card collectors got to realize a tidy profit when it was time to pay for college or sell out for their first car. We got nothing. Today people my age would rather spend discretionary income on season tickets, vacations, and electronics.
    We can respect that some collectibles, antiques, and art can be valuable. However, the people buying them are viewed as suckers because we all lost money with our first collecting experience. I think news stories about something setting auction records is positive for any hobby, but it will certainly take more than positive press and viral marketing to get generation X and Y into the world of antiques in a meaningful way.

    • Thanks for your input. You are confusing collecting with investing. I work with collectors for a living and have done so for neary 40 years. Collectors collect out of a passion, not as an investment. If their collections happen to go up in value, that’s wonderful, but if they only bought the rare and unusual at the right price, they would pass up many opportunities. If you are buying as an investment, it’s no different than the stock market. You win some, you lose some. These are not collectors.

  9. I also believe the composition of the collectors, the professional husbands and wives of today have changed the dynamics of attending symposiums, meetings…the social aspect. To attend a seminar, say a three day seminar in Chicago, a couple would each have to take days off of work and find somewhere to put the kids. Do they really want to make this their “vacation”? I belong to a number of groups, each with diminished memberships, some half of what they had 20 years ago.
    The internet certainly removes a dimension of collecting. Antiques are very tactile. There’s a joy in holding it in your hand and seeing it firsthand. But as a seller, the internet is now between 15-20% of the buyers, as well as more competition as underbidders. And prices at the high end are higher than ever. I understand your frustration in not being able to compete against the world, but in any auction there can only be one winner. That still leaves 80+% of the buyers either in the sales room, on the telephone or leaving absentee bids. There’s nothing to say that the people on the internet have more money, passion or interest that the person in the room. What the internet has done is certainly create more instant gratification. I’ve always looked upon collecting as a journey, the thrill of the hunt and finally the conquest. We need to find away to encourage more people to take the journey.

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  11. I have been a dealer since 1996 in real world and online since 2002.
    I have helped moderate The Haul on Auctionbytes also for a long time. I got into selling out of necessity of collecting. I am still an avid collector first and foremost.
    This is a topic I have been passionate about forever. I love the research of collecting as much as the selling.
    As a child almost all parents or moms would encourage the younger ones to collect something. I started with TV guides and post cards at about 9. My brother matchbooks and my sister salt and pepper shakers. I just could not come up with why I did not see this as much in the last few groups of children.
    A mystery was solved for me with Manning Garrett’s post. I am amazed I never thought of this.
    While it is true collecting and investing is definitely not the same his comment opened my eyes.
    Hopefully with the social groups and TV shows there will be a renewed interest in true vintage and antiques that do still hold value and increase even. Like me I also believe there are many silent collectors out there acquiring and holding the very best items. As many things are repurposed it only makes the original intact item more valuable IMHO.
    Collecting brings lots and lots of joy to the eye of the beholder. Once the young get on board I hope they understand.
    It may not even be set on a monetary value but the emotion these items stir in the true collector. Sandra.

    • I totally agree with everything you’ve said, so where’s the answer? The majority of the younger generations are into their gadgets and seek instant gratification. Most didn’t understand what mom and dad collected when they were living at home. And most have no emotion towards objects beyond Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. I know many specialists in many fields of collecting and they all show great concern with the future of collecting, not in the next five to ten years, but certainly in twenty years. Stuart

  12. Thank you for the interesting comments. I stumbled across this website by chance. I have been to six auctions, and I love them. The internet has probably been the biggest lure for me. I had no exposure to antiques growing up. Antiques were hard to come by where I lived. Everyone held on to what they had. If you didn’t inherit them, then, you just had to do without. As an adult, I happened upon a few antique shops, only to discover that items were either drastically expensive, or, not very interesting. Now, with the internet, I can search local estate auctions on-line and see what type of items are for sale. I can research the history on-line too. None of this was available to me growing up. I assumed that anyone with antiques would never give them up. With the internet, I see that many people are sellers due to factors, such as downsizing, moving, etc. I have collected my first few pieces. They probably aren’t worth much to other people, but, they are very dear to me. My children are watching me buy items that bring nostalgia and history to our home. Things that remind me of my grandparents, etc. I have taught my children to stay connected to their history. Though they are both just starting out on their own, I feel they will eventually follow in my shoes. I just helped my daughter purchase a 1930’s waterfall bedroom set for her first apartment. It was quite exciting for the two of us. We have researched the history of this type of furniture online which has led to an interest in other items of this era. Now, we’ll be on the look out for more treasures that we didn’t even know existed. Thanks to the internet, we are becoming collectors! Perhaps the new generation isn’t collecting the way their parents did, but, there are also new collectors starting out that didn’t even realize these items were available & obtainable.

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  14. This was a fun topic two years ago. I would be intrigued to hear if people feel like more young collectors have entered the market. Unfortunately, I can think of about a dozen well-regarded lifelong collectors who have passed away in the past two years. I can only think of one person under the age of 30 who has started a meaningful collection of paper money. Obviously it takes a long time to build a significant collection. However, I am not seeing too many more young collectors out there. What is everyone else seeing?

  15. In trying to inspire young collectors, especially of used/rare books, I wrote a novel set in a used bookshop for middle-grades readers, following a young apprentice in the shop. My husband started collecting and going to auctions at age 12 and still is very passionate about books at age 60. I’d love to inspire that love and respect of antiques, history and books in at least one young reader! It seems like there are a ton of bibliomysteries and similar for adults, but they’re pretty scare for kids. Gotta pass on that collecting bug somehow!

  16. I think the simple answer is that there are so many ways a persons attention can be diverted today. In 1977 when I started collecting coins much of the reason was the entertainment value. It was a nice hobby to while away a few hours here and there. These days I don’t think kids are suffering from lack of entertainment.

  17. I have always had a fondness for B&Bs, particularly those with lots of antiques. Three years ago, when my husband and I decided to take a vacation to Gettysburg, I booked a room at a B&B a few minutes outside of town. The B&B happened to be located in a town with several nice antique shops. The owner of the B&B suggested we check out a few of the shops, and provided us with a list of her favorites. It was an amazing experience;it was the reason I began collecting.

    I came away with so many interests that narrowing down what to collect was difficult. That same year, we began attending antique shows. At my first show, I bought an antique jewelry casket and three pieces of Wedgwood Jasperware – – two vintage lilac bud vases and one black trumpet vase. I now have a collection of lilac Jasperware and antique jewelry caskets.

    A year later, I fell in love with an owl I happened to come across online. The owl was the work of Judd Manufacturing Co. I now own a collection of desk items – – bookends, paperclips, a letter holder, a bill hook, an inkwell, a rocker blotter, and blotter corners made by Judd Manufacturing Co. In addition to the desk items, I also own a door knocker. (The Judd items I collect feature an owl with pinecones in the background.)

    That same year, I started collecting antique holiday postcards. Recently, I have purchased two Moser patch boxes, a dresser jar, and a footed basket. These purchases came after I located, bought, and familiarized myself with three books about Moser glass written by Gary Baldwin. 🙂

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