Schenectady County

Collectors increasingly looking to turn possessions into cash

Theresa Ruege’s house is filled with collectibles: stuffed animals, plates, historic newspapers, eve

Theresa Ruege’s house is filled with collectibles: stuffed animals, plates, historic newspapers, even swords.

Now Ruege is trying to sell some of her collectibles on the popular Web site Craigslist. Recently, she advertised a Schenectady bicentennial collector’s plate for $25 — “The plate is in wonderful condition!” — and a FAO Schwartz 1996 George Washington Barbie doll for $20 that has “never been removed from her box and is in MINT CONDITION.” In December, she sold an unopened Star Trek game on Craigslist.

Ruege, 29, of Schenectady, said she’s running out of room for all of her things, which is why she’s decided to get rid of some of them.

“I accumulate things,” she said. “I accumulate things, and then I run out of room.”

But Ruege has another reason for selling.

“With how tight things have been, the extra cash always helps,” she said. “I don’t have a car. Cabs are expensive. The bus fares are going up.”

She said she doesn’t know whether she’ll try to sell off any more of her collectibles.

“I don’t like getting rid of stuff,” she said. “It depends on how tight things are going to get.”

Ruege isn’t the only person trying to downsize on Craigslist. Over the past year, the number of collectibles postings on Craigslist’s Albany site have doubled, from 951 postings in December 2007 to 1,889 in December 2008, according to the company.

A growing number of needy people are also trying to sell collectibles at area antique stores, according to local dealers.

What many of these people don’t understand, they said, is that during the past decade, the collectibles market has collapsed as a result of the popularity of sites such as Craigslist and eBay, the online auction site. Items that were once difficult to find, and thus considered somewhat rare, are now widely available and a lot less valuable.

“We’re not seeing more people, but we’re seeing more people who are obviously desperate,” said Mark Lawson, of Mark Lawson Antiques of Saratoga Springs, which sponsors “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS affiliate WMHT TV-17. “We’re seeing more people who have lost their jobs, or can’t afford higher prices, or are struggling.”

Lawson has seen desperate people before but never so many.

“Every once in a while, someone would come in who was in a jam. Often, they were elderly and needed to pay property taxes. Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more younger people, people in their 20s or 30s or 40s,” he said. “Because of the economy, people are desperate to raise money to live or get by on. That’s really new.”

Lawson said many of these people bring him items that are “worth little or nothing.”

“Because of the Internet, collectibles that used to have good value have lost value,” he said.

Slumping values

A Hummel figurine that was once worth between $100 to $200 is now worth between $25 to $30, he said.

A Waterford crystal glass that once sold for $50 now sells for $10 to $15.

“We’re getting desperate people who, when they finally decide to sell a collection that 10 years ago was worth $1,000, now find that it’s now worth $100,” he said.

Dealing with that disappointment “is the hardest part of the job,” he said. “You can see the desperation when you tell them their collection is not worth very much.”

Some antiques dealers report no change in the number of customers contacting them.

Nancy Toomer, who owns House of Rose Antiques in Niskayuna, said she has not been getting more calls from desperate would-be-sellers, although a woman who called earlier this week wanted to sell her Swarovski crystal collection for bill money.

But most of the people who call Toomer are downsizing after a parent or grandparent has passed away.

“EBay has hurt the market tremendously,” Toomer said. “I’m not going to buy Hummels unless the person is greatly aware that Hummels have depreciated in price.”

She said she encourages young people to start collecting.

“We need more collectors,” she said.

“It’s just not fashionable to collect anymore,” said David Ornstein, co-owner of the Albany-based New Scotland Antiques. “People are still collecting, but they’re the people who have been collecting for a while. Their tastes are sophisticated, and they want what’s truly rare.”

And because of the Internet, few items are truly rare.

“There are 10,000 Hummels every day on eBay,” Ornstein said. “Only 5 percent of them sell.”

Shifting market

Ornstein said that few people are aware of how the antiques market has changed.

Items that used to sell quite well, such as Victorian furniture, no longer have a market, while high-end oil paintings, sculptures, Oriental rugs and mid-century quality items continue to do well.

“The tastes of people have changed,” he said. “People between the ages of 25 and 40 are buying the stuff they think is old.”

He said he recently visited a woman who wanted to sell him a Victorian marble-top table. Thinking he could resell it for $150, he offered her $100. But she thought the price was too low.

“She thinks people are trying to cheat her,” he said. “The only thing people know is the ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ ”

Ornstein said New Scotland Antiques has adjusted its buying prices so that it can sell items for less, but it’s still a struggle.

Five years ago, he would have purchased a Mahogany dining set for $400 to $1,000, but the market for such dining sets has disappeared.

“We don’t sell them,” he said. “We’ve got to give them away. It doesn’t matter what the price is if there’s no buyer.”

“Rigor mortis has set in,” Ornstein said of the antiques business. “We’re caught in a tunnel we can see no end to, and I’ve been in this business 30 years.”

He said New Scotland Antiques sells a lot of items on eBay.

“You have to look and see what’s selling,” he said. “We sell anything people are still buying.”

Yet even eBay isn’t doing as well as it once was.

Earlier this month, eBay Inc. reported that its net profit in the fourth quarter fell to $367 million from $531 million a year earlier.

Sell, sell, sell

People are also trying to sell old coins and jewelry for cash. Olde Saratoga Coin in Colonie is running a billboard advertisement that encourages people with gold and silver to sell to visit the shop.

Don Kernacki, Olde Saratoga’s general manager, said that for the past year, there’s been a steady stream of interested sellers.

“It started when oil prices were going up,” he said. “The way the economy is, it keeps going and going.”

Kathy Fitzmaurice, owner of The Katbird Shop in Schenectady, which sells crafts, antiques and collectibles, said that in the past week, there’s been an uptick in the number of calls from people who want to know if she buys antiques. (She doesn’t, but she rents her back rooms and basement to people who do.)

She said she also received more calls when gas prices were higher.

Al Itskov, the owner of Al’s House of Sportscards & Fine Collectibles on Union Street in Schenectady, said that “a lot of people are trying to sell junk. They’re holding onto the good stuff.”

A lot of people, he said, “think they’ve got a fortune.”

teen customers

Most of his customers, Itskov said, are kids — 14- and 15-year-olds.

“They have more disposable income than the average adult,” he said. “The average adult is thinking about they’re going to pay their heating bill.”

Dan Brooks, 18, of Broadalbin, is trying to sell his Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards through Craigslist. He said he started collecting the cards about four years ago, when it was “the cool thing to do.”

“I want to sell them now because I’m 18 and have less use for them,” explained Brooks, who works as a customer service representative at Amsterdam Printing and Litho, in an e-mail. “Trying to find a hobby shop that actually wants to trade with you is difficult enough, and when I couldn’t get any more good cards, I just stopped playing. … Now I need the money and these cards have been in my closet collecting dust. There are some good cards in there that might actually be worth something. But I figure since I’m not using them, let somebody else have some fun.”

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