Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 1, Collect your passion

If you were talking to someone thinking about starting a collection as a hobby, what advice would you give them? That's the question my father and I attempted to answer, and in the process came up with five universal principles.

First Principle: Collect something you're passionate about

There's really only one good reason to start a collection -- it gives you pleasure. Something about the objects you're seeking out provide a joy that just isn't met otherwise.

So what does that mean? Well, it's no accident that many collectors are interested in objects from their past. Take the area of toy trains, for example. The average collector seems to be a 60-year old male. The hottest items? Toy trains manufactured in the early 1960's, when that average collector was 10-13 years old.

For the average collector, trains from that period have special meaning. They may conjure up pleasant associations from years past (and since most toy trains of the period were commonly used as Christmas decorations, that feeling of nostalgia can be especially strong). They may be the toys that the collector wanted but never had as a child, and so to get that special train provides a feeling of accomplishment.

Whatever the reason, for the toy train collector, there's more to their hobby than just accumulating objects of plastic and metal.

That should be true of whatever you decide to collect. A book collector I know tells me that, while he's primarily interested in the author and the story, there's something about the smell of old paper that conjures up fond memories for him.

A coin collector friend likes to contemplate the history of the Roman coins he owned. Where had they been? How many hands did they pass through? How did they end up where he found them?

And remember collections don't have to be about old things, or even valuable things. If a particular group of objects strikes your fancy, then that's fine. I knew someone who collected novelty salt-and-pepper shakers and seldom paid more than a few dollars for any set. While the items weren't (and still aren't) worth much, it doesn't matter. She had fun collecting them, and that was really the point.

Remember: it's your collection. Perhaps you like post-modernist fine art. Or maybe your taste runs more towards bobble-heads. Doesn't matter. Your collection only has to speak to you.

Corollary: Collect for fun, not profit.
Even a casual Internet search will turn up lots of posts talking about the value of "collectibles." But there's a reason why the stories about old, presumably valueless items found to be worth thousands keeps turning up. Because it's still such a rare occurrence that it's newsworthy.

Make sure you read those stories carefully. What you'll discover is that these highly valued items are exceptional in some fashion. Sure, that first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 is said to be worth $310,000. But don't expect to collect comics and then sell them off to fund a comfortable retirement!

Let's look at that value again. The estimated top value of Action #1 is $350,000. That means the price it can get when the comic's in impeccable condition. Damaged covers, missing pages, etc. significantly lower the value. However Action Comics #2 is valued at around $20,000 (first appearance of Superman is historically important - the second, not so much). And there's a further fall off with issue number 3, 4, and so on.

When Action Comics #1 came out in 1939, the concept of collecting comic books wasn't really formed -- many were folded up and jammed into back pockets, passed around among friends, read and reread to tatters. At the time comic books were regarded as cheap juvenile ephemera, and often discarded. Quite a few ended up recycled in World War II paper drives.

Out of a print run of about 200,000, less than 100 copies of Action #1 are known to exist. So it's very unlikely you'll find a copy in your attic. And of those copies, only a handful can command top dollar. Further, that $350,000 is an auction estimate. If all the major collectors are at the same auction and if they get into a bidding war, the comic might fetch that amount.

But Action #1 is an unusual comic. It's both rare and historically important. Millions of comics have been published, and many of them aren't especially desirable -- even in mint condition. Most of the comics you're likely to run across won't be worth a fraction of Action #1. A clean copy of Career Girl Romances #1 from 1965? Perhaps three or four dollars -- if you can find a buyer.

So while the idea of finding a stack of old comics in the attic and selling each one for hundreds of thousands of dollars might seem like an attractive business model, that's not likely to happen.

Collecting things for the primary purpose of selling them at a profit isn't a hobby -- it's a business. And as any antique dealer can tell you, it's a labor-intensive business at that. Tracking down items to buy, maintaining the books, making sure you have enough operating capital, monitoring the market, selling at shows and auctions -- it's work. So unless your hobby is running a commercial operation, it's best to stick to collecting for enjoyment.

One other thing -- most collectible markets are even more volatile than the stock market. If buying and selling is your thing, you'll probably do better as a day trader.

Next: Narrowing the focus.

- Ralph


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