Monday, November 30, 2009

Where's Ralph? Writing in Virginia

Readers of our blog may have noticed a significant drop-off in the frequency of our posts. (If you haven't we have an even bigger problem).

During the last 30 days, I once again participated in the National November Writing Month event. The idea's simple enough -- start and finish a 50,000 word novel in one month. I completed the event last year, and I did so again this year.

Unfortunately, my other writing fell by the wayside, for which I apologize. We'll get back to business now that the event's over.

As always, Nanowrimo was a blast. My novel was titled "Death in Five States," and was actually a prequel to last year's tome, "The Crimson Doom." Here's the first draft, as I completed it yesterday, warts and all.

"Death in Five States" by Ralph Graves - first draft pdf

Over the next few days, I'll go back through the manuscript and clean up spelling errors and other typos. But I won't even think about serious editing for another few months. And I already know there's some trimming in this story's future.

So will "Death in Five States" ever be published?

I'm not sure. It's a literary homage to a pretty obscure genre of fiction (the hero pulps of the late 1930's), so this may be as far as it gets. No matter. I had fun, learned a lot about the writing process, and already have the next adventure planned out.

- Ralph

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 5, Understand the market dynamics

If someone's just starting out in the field of collecting, there are a few things to keep in mind. Personally, I think you can boil them down to five basic principles. And these should work whether you're collecting subway tokens or vintage clothing. In the other parts of this series I talked about ways to determine what to collect and how to shape your collection.

But collecting requires acquisition. And for most collectors, that means purchasing items. And that leads us to the final principle.

Understand the market dynamics of your collecting subject

In the first post I talked about the importance of collecting your passion, rather than to make a quick buck. But that's not to say that knowing the value of what collect isn't important.

Even if you don't intend to sell anything, and let your heirs decide what's to become of your collection, it's good to understand value -- and how it's determined.

Basically, the value of any collectible is a function of condition, desirability, and availability.

Not all old objects are valuable. If they were very common (and easily found) then prices will remain low. If they're something that's not very desirable (say, hospital bedpans), then even if they're sort of scarce, they won't be worth much.

Remember, though, that the value of a collectible object isn't determined by the general public, but by other collectors. And so it's important to know what features make a particular item desirable.

Know the standards

For the average person, it doesn't matter if a book has a dust cover or not. It matters greatly to the book collector, and its presence (or absence) and condition impacts value. And if you're looking to add that volume to your collection, having that knowledge can be the difference between finding a bargain and getting fleeced.

Some objects decrease in value when reproductions arrive on the market, because it affects availability. Some don't. And sometimes the reproductions themselves become desirable.

And remember when we're talking about condition, it's not necessarily new-in-the-box. Some antiques are more valuable if they show wear. And for very old objects, some types of damage is acceptable (while other kinds are considered deal-breakers). Same with repairs and replacement parts. For some objects, these kinds of alterations don't affect value, but for others, repairs or partial replacement parts can make them practically worthless.

Nothing lasts forever (especially collector demand)

Fashions change, too. Rare objects in great condition still arent' worth much if they're no longer desirable. Think Beanie Babies, or pogs. Red-hot for a while, now just yard sale fodder. That's not to say that the value on these items might not increase should they become desirable again.

For many collectors, the thrill is in the hunt. Understanding the market dynamics just helps get you through the jungle safely while you're hunting.

- Ralph


Monday, November 02, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 4. Build a solid knowledge base

So what advice would you offer someone starting a collection? Regardless of what one chooses to collect, I think there are five basic principles to keep in mind. Pick something you're passionate about, keep it focused, and know how you want to organize and/or display it. Which leads us to the fourth principle.
Build a solid knowledge base about the subject of your collection

If you follow the other three principles, this one should just naturally develop. It's one of the primary reasons to collect something you're really interested in, instead of something you hope to make a quick buck on. Because research is an important part of collecting, and having to study a subject you're especially fond of is, well, too much like work.

So where does this knowledge come from? All over. And all of it can have its own set of rewards.

Talk with fellow collectors - especially when you're starting out, visiting other more experienced collectors can be very helpful. First, there's the sense of camaraderie that comes from "talking shop" with someone who's just as into a subject as you are. You can also see what your collection can potentially grow into, look at display and organizing solutions, and so on. You might see fairly rare pieces up close. And by talking with other collectors you'll generally get some hands-on tips about what to look for, what things are truly worth and so on.

Personal experience - over time, you'll become one of the collectors I just talked about in the paragraph above. Chance are you'll get burned on some purchases, you'll learn the hard way that all that glitters is not gold (or even pyrite). If you learn from your mistakes, you'll eventually develop an instinct that will help you when you encounter something out of the ordinary.

Case in point: at a recent toy train show, someone brought in an unusual piece: a vintage Lionel steam engine with an "Eastern Railroads" decal on its tender. It was decided a one-of-a-kind item, so looking it up online or in a reference book wasn't going to help. First off, what was it, and secondly, was it real?

I happened to be there during the discussion when this item was presented, and the collective wisdom of the folks examining it went as follows:

"Eastern Railroads" a road name used in the "Railroads at Work" diorama at the 1939 World's Fair Railroad Building (sponsored by the Eastern Railroads Presidents' Conference).

Could this be a surviving piece from that legendary display?

No, because the engine was an off-the-shelf O-gauge locomotive. And while it was made in the late 1930's the railroad exhibit used all hand-made smaller scale models.

Could it have been a display piece from some other part of the railroads pavilion?

Possibly, but the trim actually dated the locomotive as coming from a run made after 1939, and therefore not likely to have been at the Fair.

What about the paper decal?

Decidedly of the right age, but hand-applied. And such decals were known to exist.

Most likely explaination: someone with connections to the Fair had obtained the decals and made their own souvenier by converting a locomotive they already owned. There was probably no intent do defraud, and so this is an interesting curiousity, even though not an actual piece of the 1939 American Railroads exhibit.

All of which, of course, greatly impacted the value.

Reference Works - reading up on the subject of your collection can help greatly in several areas. Sometimes the way a reference book is laid out can give you ideas on how to organize your collection. And while it can give you relative values, don't take them to heart -- most price guides are out of date before they roll off the printing presses. Such guides can, however, be useful in helping you understand what's out there in your field, and how available (or scarce) particular objects might be.

Historical reference works are useful, too. Lists with prices are great as shopping guides, but to really understand the nature of the objects in your collection and the reason why some are more valuable than others, you'll need to understand the background of your objects.

If you're familiar with the history of Arm & Hammer, you'll have a better idea of why tins from certain years are more valuable (and more desirable) than others. And if you're collecting any type of object from the past, just understanding the general history of the time will help tremendously, too. The scrap tin drives of the Second World War took a heavy toll on inexpensive prewar toys.

And don't forget original sources. Again, if you're collecting something from the past, company records may be spotty or even non-existent. The best references for 1920's Tootsietoy dollhouse furniture are the catalogs the company sent out to retail buyers. You'll see what was available, when it was available, and in what colors. If you look at successive years, you'll know when items were discontinued, redesigned, recolored, and/or repackaged. All of which helps accurately date objects when you find them in the wild -- the very kind of information used to determine that the World's Fair locomotive couldn't be authentic.

If you're collecting your passion, then all of this research -- both written and oral -- will just add to your appreciation of your hobby.

- Ralph


Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 3, Have a plan for organizing/storing your collection

So what advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a collection as a hobby? I think there are five basic principles to keep in mind, whether its Victorian birdhouses or Christmas Seals, or anything in between. In part one we talked about how to choose your collecting subject, and in part two we suggested how to keep the collection manageable.

But there's another important point to consider before you go too far down the collecting path, which may actually determine the subject and focus of your collection.

Have a plan for the organization and storage/display of your collection

Let's break that principle down into its component parts.

Storage - It's usually not the first thing a collector thinks of, but it's often the first problem one runs into. Say your interest is nautical memorabilia -- and you live in a tiny New York City apartment. Deciding to collect ship's wheels wouldn't be very practical. But steamship dinner menus, small box compasses, a sextant or two, etc. could be things that one could collect and enjoy in such a small space.

And storage isn't just a question for bulkier items, like oil paintings or Chippendale furniture. Even small objects can reach critical mass.

I know someone who has a massive book collection. Now she doesn't follow our second principle -- have a focus. She continually brings home boxes of books from auctions and estate sales that are only marginally related to her primary subject, and after years of doing this she has yet to separate the wheat from the chaff of her collection.

Her library has outgrown the house, as well as the small detached building built for her use. A portion of the barn on the property has also been converted to book storage, and that's currently overflowing as well.

Here's the thing -- many of those books which she "rescued" from the dumpster by bringing them home are deteriorating a rapid rate. The volumes in the barn are exposed to extreme temperature, excessive moisture, and various critters who find old paper quite tasty.

Had she kept the confines of her library building, her collection of books might be one of a limited number of volumes, but one that could be continually refined and upgraded. As it is, most of her collection is simply disintegrating because storage wasn't considered.

Collect your passion, but consider the space you have available to indulge it.

Organization - So let's assume you have the space you need for your collection to grow into. How will you organize it? Thinking about this may also help the direction your collection will take. Decided to collect stamps? Cool. Chances are the albums you purchase will help you organize your treasures better than a shoe box.

Collect LPs? Then organize them by label, year, genre, artist, or some other theme that makes sense to you. Dolls can be arranged by size, or perhaps by age. Vintage stock certificates by company, or engraver, or year.

The point of organizing is two-fold. First, it's a good way to maintain an idea of what's in your collection. Because there will come a time (sooner or later), when you can't remember everything you have, and you'll start unintentionally duplicating objects.

Secondly, it's a good way to evaluate your collection. If you're looking to collect a particular run or sequence of objects (like all the baseball cards of the 1954 American League), then you can readily find the gaps and know what you should look for.

It's also an opportunity to take a hard look at what you have and ask what objects need to remain. Organizing isn't a one-time activity. Regular organizing helps you reevaluate your collection and help you keep it pruned. After all, tastes change, and sometimes those oh-so-desirable objects have become "what-was-I-thinking?" embarrassments. Let your collection change and grow with your interests.

Display - And finally, there's the question of display. Perhaps you don't want to show off your collection. That's your choice, of course. Maybe for security reasons you'd rather not have everyone know just what stamps or coins you've collected.

But since a good collection reflects the collector's passion, it's safe to assume that you'd want to display some of it. Maybe your collection is such that only a few pieces can be shown. You may have thousands of antique post cards, for example, but only choose (or have the space) to frame and hang ten of the most interesting.

Maybe you'll want to have a bookcase for your collection, or (depending on the size) a dedicated room. While your collection may start small, it's a good idea to think of these kinds of things early.

I know someone who has their collection scattered about their home. Things were just placed anywhere temporarily -- and never moved. Just about every flat surface is filled with something from their collection, which makes it hard to see exactly what the collection's about (and kind of looks like the first stage of hoarding to me).

So go ahead and collect those soda pop bottle caps. But while you still just have five or six, think about what you're going to do if you accumulate several hundred of them. Having piles of bottle caps on a card table is not an attractive long-term solution.

- Ralph