3/8/16

Following the Herd, Part Two: "Currency Vintages," and The Difference Between "Paranoid" and Batshit Crazy




In the current political cycle, nasty things are coming to light. Beliefs and values that betray our basic human decency are all on the dinner table, and a nation of hypocrites is squirming. Racism, nativism, xenophobia, nihilism, bigotry, chauvinism, and capitalistic greed are no longer the trimmings, but the entrée.

When people harbor insane beliefs, they tend to fabricate a facade of sanity as a buffer. Donald Trump's is the image of an all-American businessman/entrepreneur, the classic Yankee success story, retold. We also see this in fiction; Jack Nicholson portrayed Jack Torrance as an insane spirit thinly disguised as a responsible, contractually-obligated hotel keep, a phib soon made obvious to his wife and young boy when a fire axe made its sudden appearance.

This phenomenon exists in the fragrance world, also. Consider, for instance, the insane belief that random, wildly-inflated prices for discontinued perfumes on eBay reflect the existence of a legitimate "market" for such things. This idea is predicated on the supposition that "buyers set the price."

Yes, in a practical sense, buyers frame the price range for all products, simply because practical commerce is sustained by price discrimination from both the selling institutions and their customers. Blenders cannot be sold in mass quantities if they're priced the same as cars, so even the most expensive blender is much cheaper than the cheapest car. Some buyers may be willing to pay much more than base price for their kitchen tools, and they make the higher prices feasible, while most buyers just want a blender that works and lasts a few years, making more competitive prices the norm.

But what about this "buyers set the price" nonsense? I think it's based on the Subjective Theory of Value (STV), the cornerstone of "marginalist" economics, which states that the price of something is set by its marginal utility to the buyer and manufacturer. Marginal utility is defined as the point at which a person's desire for something is satisfied.

According to the STV, price is set by the buyer, and his subjective valuations in the marketplace. Makes sense, right? After all, people do value things to varying degrees, and ascribe these values to products, often before buying them. For example, I need some chewing gum. When I go down to the corner store to buy some, I expect to pay no more than two dollars for a pack of gum. That's the maximum price I believe I should ever have to pay for gum. If I see gum for less (which is overwhelmingly likely), I'll buy it without a second thought. But if I see it for more (not very likely), I'll feel a small sense of outrage, because in my estimation the gum is overpriced.

Suppose I'm a fragrance connoisseur who happens to want a bottle of vintage Patou Pour Homme. I want a large splash bottle, in perfect condition with its box, and I want it to be "like new," as eBay ads are wont to advertise. I go on there, and I see someone is asking five hundred dollars for three ounces. Another person wants six hundred dollars. And a third person wants seven hundred dollars. All three bottles are in good shape with boxes intact, and all sellers have sparkling records.

Putting aside that I'm already batshit crazy for even considering this kind of coin for a bottle of something older than me, let's say I buy the five hundred dollar bottle. Because I bought it, that gets recorded by eBay as a sale, which is referred to by future buyers, who then use the statistic as a consolation that it is people like them who set these prices, simply by being eager and willing to pay them.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, this example, which supposedly is a reality for some vintage enthusiasts, demonstrates classical "Circular Logic." The buyer sees a ridiculous price. The buyer considers the price to be acceptable, based on what he thinks has transpired in past exchanges. He then pays the price. In doing so, he believes he has demonstrated the "marginal utility" of a vintage Patou PH. He is convincing himself that his threshold of satisfaction is worth at least five hundred dollars, maybe more, for vintage Patou PH.

Fine, except in order to feel the marginal utility of something, a buyer has to know the price before encountering the product in the marketplace. Therefore, the STV "obviously rest[s] on circular reasoning. Although it tries to explain prices, prices [are] necessary to explain marginal utility." [Paul Mattick, Economics, Politics and the Age of Inflation, p.58]

The notion that "buyers set the price" falls apart further in this example when we consider that some buyers actually do know the price before buying the vintage bottle, because they recall what Patou PH cost when it was new! It was certainly expensive, but nowhere near five hundred dollars a bottle. It's no coincidence then that these buyers would balk at the price faster than the nimrods who drop several Bens for something they know little about.

An objective measure is needed before subjective marketplace evaluations can be made, because personal evaluations are always based on the objective measure.

If you purchase a bottle of Patou PH for seven hundred dollars a bottle, for instance, you are not basing the purchase off the objective measure of its value: its original retail price, adjusted for inflation. If Patou PH was $100 in 1980, it should only be $287 today. This is the objective value, and the only price a smart buyer would pay. Herd followers will blindly drop three or four times as much.

However, "profit is the only aim of the capitalist." [Peter Kropotkin, Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 55] Therefore the seller, if truly capitalistic, will want as much as humanly possible for something as ostensibly esoteric as Patou PH. But even the esoteric has guidelines in capitalism. So what really determines the price of vintage Patou PH? First, consider it in the context of the Labour Theory of Value (LTV). Here, you must weigh it against its objective measure, which states that its price will be dictated by its production price, which is its production cost, plus an average profit rate, which is decided by its ease of entry into the marketplace.

When supply is greater than demand, supply is cut until an "average rate of profit" is achieved. When demand is greater than supply, prices increase, which signals to other manufacturers that it's time to enter the market, thus increasing supply and reducing prices again. With a second-hand sale of a used vintage perfume like Patou PH, the issue is that there is no real shortage of supply (the product was mass produced, and there's always vintage available online), yet prices continuously suggest the opposite - that this was a tiny niche brand, and bottles are rarely seen.

Given that Patou PH made an appearance on the TV show Miami Vice, it can hardly be considered a classy bespoke brand, and bottles are always seen in all the same places. Every week there are at least six or seven vintages on eBay for sale. So why do prices continue to be absurd?

The answer to this rests with the LTV. According to Proudhon, "Utility is the necessary condition for exchange." Consider for a moment that the vintage crowd is familiar with vintages on eBay. Vintage fragheads know that vintage Kouros is roughly $130 for 100 ml, give or take. They recognize that vintage Molto Smalto is, roughly, a hundred bucks. Ditto for vintage Azzaro Pour Homme. These perfumes, priced for inflation, have relatively low "resale value."

Thus the act of buying these frags with the intent to resell at a profit isn't something that herds of vintage buyers consider doing. They buy them to wear them, because at that price, there is only utility in wearing, not reselling.

But the utility of Patou Pour Homme is quite different. There isn't a sizeable bottle on the entire internet priced at less than five hundred dollars. If people are buying Patou PH in this price range, then they're either (a) blind buying and intentionally burning their cash, or (b) buying to resell at a profit. Since the perceived price margin is high, it's more likely that reason "b" is the culprit for the continuously increasing prices of Patou PH. There is utility in reselling this perfume, and this is the necessary, and only condition for its exchange on eBay.

Because this condition exists, the exchanges for Patou PH continue, just as bottles keep appearing in twos and threes with constant regularity on eBay. Price determines demand, based on the use value of the product to the consumer and his/her financial situation. Labor is needed for production, and you need production before you can exchange. The LTV notes that a product's value does not exist independently of demand. To be exchanged, a product must be desired by someone other than its manufacturer, and must have commensurate use-value for the buyer.

Since certain "currency vintages" are clearly not in short supply, their high prices must reflect high demand. Given that a sensible buyer (including very wealthy buyers) would never pay five hundred dollars or more for a regular three or four ounce bottle of discontinued designer perfume, and these perfumes sell constantly (and reappear just as fast), one can only conclude that their exchange is based not on the use-value of being worn, but on being re-sold.

Also, because these perfumes have been abused by sellers as "currency vintages," and are only being passed between sellers, their status as being relatively (and only relatively) rare among wearers persists. Those who would buy to wear either can't afford the bottles and wisely avoid paying insane prices for them, or stick to small samples, which are still expensive, but at least attainable. Because the supply rapidly passes between sellers, potential wearers don't stand a chance.

Note that Patou Pour Homme was being used here as one example. Another is Fendi "Donna," which I have never seen reasonably priced, yet always see on eBay. If Patou and Fendi were "rare," I'd rarely see them. Yet I always do.

If you are a member of the "must have vintage" herd, always reading about how great this sort of stuff is, to the point where you MUST have it, then you're following the herd. You clearly haven't read about what's really happening in the false marketplace for these perfumes, which are frequently bought but almost never worn, and you're clearly not thinking for yourself.

Lastly, I'd like to address something I read on Bigsly's blog, and on basenotes this week. Our friend is announcing that there is "paranoia" behind the claims of vintage perfumes that smell "spoiled." He frames his argument on his blog with the suggestion that anyone claiming to smell spoilage is either full of shit, or just looking for any little sign of spoilage as an excuse to "go off the deep end" when a few notes smell "off."

Yes, we're all paranoid, Bigsly. We're finding spoilage where there isn't any, because somehow this benefits . . . well, nobody. But that seems to be beside the point to you. You ask:

"I’ve had around 300 vintage bottles (around 20 years old or older), if not more, pass through my hands since 2008, and I have only encountered a few with what I would say are 'off' top notes – no spoiled drydowns! How is that possible if spoilage is common? Are we all walking around in public smelling like skunks?"

To which I say: No, only you are. You fucking stink. For the love of god, wash that stale shit off already.

But seriously, how bad is the logic of your position? Because you alone detect zero spoilage from three hundred bottles (not even remotely believable, but I'll pretend to believe it for your sake), that must mean nobody experiences spoilage, ever. Organic perfume ingredients mixed with volatile synthetic chemicals in what are often poorly-designed bottles could never conceivably turn to swill. That's incredibly far fetched. Totally unbelievable. But your three hundred bottles of very old perfume (twenty years or older) all smell great. No spoilage. Every basenote in its place, vibrant as the day it was mixed. That's believable. Right.

I'd roll with that as far as it goes, except the argument then turns to the supposition that anyone with a view contrary to yours is "paranoid."

Cue the basenotes thread from March 2nd, in which the OP says (in short):

"Currently interesting me is vintage Polo. I have had a look at older threads but I have managed to do nothing but confuse myself with the following: Vintage Polo Green, Polo Modern Reserve, Cosmair Polo, Current Polo . . .

"I am having real trouble in working out the history of the scent and what I should be looking for and where everything fits in . . . I would really appreciate it if someone could give me a very brief history lesson on this and suggest what I should be looking for?"

To which Bigsly replied:

"The original post is quite strange, and sounds like there is a desire to 'vent' some negative emotions due to disappointing experiences - why not mention what those are? The thing is, pursuing a vintage scent after feeling burned (or whatever) by previous experiences (derived from notions about vintage that are not disclosed and which originated from others) seems rather self-contradictory! The person says he know the difference between the terms but then doesn't seem to know the difference between 'vintage Polo' and 'vintage Polo Green' (there isn't any). My advice: get some vintage samples from someone who can sell you the bottle if you like the sample, so that you know exactly what you are getting (Crystal Flacon may be the best place for this possibility), and don't buy into any 'hype.' Judge for yourself.

"And as to the history of Polo, if the company itself isn't providing this information, why would you think that some anonymous internet person is going to be able to tell you? When you ask such a question, why not consider whether or not you are basically prompting 'know-it-alls' to provide what is perhaps no more than opinion (and possibly ill-informed). I think there has been enough written about Polo formulations over the years just here on BN alone for you to get a sense about what us anonymous internet people know and don't know, but you'll still have to decide for yourself what to believe, even if it is tentative, contingent upon new information being revealed (perhaps by your own investigations). Good luck !

I can only say, thank you for accusing people of being "paranoid," and then exhibiting that paranoia for everyone to see, lest they be confused by what you meant! This is clearly an example of the "facade of sanity" beginning to erode. When someone innocently asks about a vintage (openly admitting they aren't sure what they're talking about), and you explode into a rambling diatribe about "ulterior motives," you're a model citizen of that "shining city upon a hill."

To the rest of my readers, I urge you to reconsider positions holding vintage in a place of infallibility. Don't be swayed by arguments that "top notes will go, but basenotes will remain," or claims that perfumes just need darkness and cool temps to stay fresh forever. Think for yourself, and avoid blind-buying vintages whenever possible. The chances of getting a skunked (or severely unbalanced) composition are fairly good. I'm rather forgiving, in that I've learned to live with some of these qualities in my own vintages, but there are some cases where they were unbearable (Green Valley by Creed) and unwearable (Cool Water, early 2000's vintage).

If you think you can amass several hundred vintages and only experience some briefly "off" top notes, you're either stupid, batshit crazy, or both. My mental universe isn't shaped by "academic standards." It's shaped by reality, i.e., the testimony of dozens of basenoters, my readers, other bloggers, and the occasional industry insider, who discuss their experiences with spoiled perfume, often in detail. You can choose to believe them, or not. But, as always, I leave the choice to you.



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