The auction and antiques world has changed quite a bit in my twenty-five years as an auctioneer. People’s desires for decor and possessions have changed, and along with that, different lifestyle choices have emerged in terms of collecting and, therefore, are redefining the antiques market.

Many times each day, I have the job of explaining to potential sellers why the market isn’t responding to the silverplated tea sets, Haviland dishes, Hummel figurines or Victorian furniture that were so cherished in the 1980s and 1990s. This story may illustrate why.

Miss-America-Pink-Dinner-1-2632-300x291My mother collects (collected, I should say; I don’t think she’s purchased much in the last few years) a particular pattern of Depression glass. (If any Millennials are reading this: Depression glass is a clear or colored translucent glassware that was distributed free, or at low cost, around the time of the Great Depression. It came in boxes of Quaker Oats, was sometimes given as a ‘freebie’ for going to the movies, could be purchased with Green Stamps {um…Green Stamps…that’s sort of like points on a credit card…} and was generally of lower quality.) However, after the 1960s or so, the glass gained traction as a collectible, and was sought out by many folks who wanted a certain pattern, or a certain color that met their desires. Mom’s glass of choice is Miss America pattern, in pink (illustrated here).

There are hundreds of pieces of this pink Depression glass in a large curio at my mother’s house. She and my father spent many hours, and stopped at many antique shops all over the country, looking for the elusive pieces they didn’t have, to embellish Mother’s collection. They recall various antique stores, and the related stories of travel with friends, where the items were purchased. They recall finding some pieces at local auctions that were conducted by my Dad, and I for a time, that had belonged to friends or relatives.

Like so many collections, the joy of the experiences had while seeking the various treasures is very much a part of the value, from the specific collector’s viewpoint.

My brother, sister and I had little part in the accumulation of this collection, but we know that Mom, especially, is quite proud of it, and the memories assembled while acquiring these pieces is a part of she and Dad’s shared experiences in life. I am thankful that they enjoyed it, and glad that Mom values her collection.

So, here’s the “but” (you knew it was coming). Neither my brother, sister or I feels a responsibility to curate this collection in the future. At some point, the collection will be disbursed, and the likelihood of any of us keeping any more than a piece or two is slim.

Does anybody want to live like this anymore?

In decades past, it was common for heirs and assigns (those who’ve been bequested items via a will or legal instrument of conveyance) to assume ownership of the grantor’s items. People absorbed their parents items into their own homes; there was an amount of ‘guilt’ if they sold grandmother’s quilt to someone they didn’t know. People even absorbed the personal estates of aunts and uncles, if succession deemed it appropriate. In the middle 20th century, not too far removed from the Great Depression, children were raised with a different ethic regarding personal property. Don’t throw that away…you might need it someday, and you might not have the money to buy another one…

With the proliferation of throw-away goods, the need to ‘keep’ something is less pervasive. Very few retail purchasers go into a furniture store to buy a dining room set with the mindset that this is a set they will use for the rest of their lives, and then pass it on to their kids. Our grandparents did. Heck, my parents did, on some things, think that way. Now we have cheaper goods, widely available, that serve a purpose for a time, and are then discarded, because these goods are not made of a quality to last a lifetime, so there’s nothing to pass down. For example, think of an automobile made in the 1980s that is destined to become a collector car. OK. Now, think of cars made in the 1960s that are collector cars. See what I mean?

millennialsAdd to these factors that the Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) have different values. Baby Boomers sought to go to college, get a good job, get married, buy a house, have 2.3 children and establish themselves in their respective communities (in that order). Millennials, on the other hand, go to college, get a job, rent an apartment, and do everything possible to travel and experience things. Buying a house is on the horizon, but not urgent. Having children is desirable for most, but definitely after a few years of marriage, not right away; when the time comes, being a good parent is the most important thing. They’re graduating from college with mountains of debt, finding that the jobs they thought they’d have after graduation aren’t as glamorous as they’d imagined, and some are finding that two part-time jobs are necessary to maintain their lifestyle choices. And they’re not flocking to the suburbs like the Boomers did.

According to the 2014 Nielsen report “Millennials: Breaking the Myths,” 62 percent of millennials prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers where they can live near shopping, restaurants and work. And 40 percent say they would want to live there in the future. (Washington Post, “Stuff It” b March 27, 2015)

So, if the next generation of consumers with disposable income aren’t moving into 4,000 s.f. homes, and aren’t duplicating the previous generation’s desire for personal property from a previous time, what do they want? Some would prognosticate that these folks only want the next gen I-phone, a faster internet connection, more Facebook ‘friends’ or more time off from work to travel and ‘find’ themselves…

However, the Millennials are the same generation that have embraced the Save the Planet mindset. Are we then going to continue to fill our homes with disposable furniture and department store art that hits the landfill after a few years? Or, will there be renewed interest in the quality and style of items created in days gone by?

I cringe, somewhat, at the now-popular flea market term of “Repurpose” (which should be defined as: the process of putting cheap latex paint over fine quality hardwood furniture in an effort to find an uneducated buyer and make ten bucks), because that process tends to obfuscate the original authenticity of a piece, burying under those layers of paint the evidence of a hand-selected hardwood or bookmatched veneer which was carefully and skillfully utilized by a real craftsman, who took pride in his work and took a paycheck home that fed and housed his single-income family. Oops, rabbit hole…sorry…

In any case, “repurpose” or “reuse” or “recycle” will possibly become the buzzwords that will return the next generation to the estate auctions, antique malls, resale shops and consignment stores, seeking those timeless, quality-crafted pieces that create a unique and functional home that can be enjoyed for as long as desired.

If you’ve read this article and have nodded your head in agreement a time or two, you’re probably in the Baby Boomer or Greatest Generation demographic. If so, encourage your friends and acquaintances, or children, if that’s the case, ages 25 to 40 to consider engaging in a search as my Mother did for her glass; in the search for unique, quality items to use in their own homes. They don’t have to absorb your stuff; tell them how to find their own. Tell them your own stories in a way that is relevant to them. The joy of the hunt creates memories, and the financial gain (just say no to Ikea…) can benefit the young adult individual in terms of creating a (gasp) savings account, or instrumental in paying down existing debt (just ask Dave Ramsey).

Mostly, though, send them to auctions. That’s where the really cool stuff is.


Darin Lawson, CAI, BAS

President, Wickliff Auctioneers

Carmel, IN