Rinker's Opinion: Starting a Collection on a Budget

What tips do you have for someone who is starting a collection and is on a very tight budget?

The adage “collect what you like” applies.  Just because a collecting category is affordable, does not mean that it should be collected.  If the collecting category does not turn-on the collector, he/ she should avoid it and move on to one that does. Affordability should never outweigh personal preference.

Today’s antiques and collectibles market is trendy.  In many cases, trends are determined by forces outside rather than inside the field.  Regardless of the trend source, trendy collecting categories experience rapidly rising prices.  Objects can quickly become unaffordable.  When new trends replace older trends, the collecting category falls out of fashion.  The ideal situation is for the collector to select a collecting category that excites him/her and stay focused on it independent of market trends.

Collecting is a lifetime experience.  In our 20s and early 30s, older collectors, of which I am one, expected to devote a lifetime to building a collection, collecting categories that they selected.  These older collectors organized or joined collectors clubs, often attending the club’s annual convention, developed close personal relationships with other collectors and specialized auctioneers and dealers, and spent time researching the objects in their collection.

This approach is no longer true.  Although 21st century collectors will collect for a lifetime, they will assemble multiple collections, their collecting focus changing every six to eight years.  Collecting category enthusiasm wanes far more quickly than in the past.  New collectors need to be aware of this.

When collecting on a limited budget, look carefully at the top-end pricing in a collecting category.  Collectors want the best, limited budget or not.  If you cannot afford a few high-end examples, select another category.  While common and above average pieces comprise the majority of any collection, it is the upper echelon and masterpiece (ultimate) units that individualize a collection.

Once a collector selects a collecting category, the tendency is to jump in feet first and start buying.  This is an expensive mistake.  When looking for an affordable collecting category, take time to do preliminary research.  Read available reference books.  Track prices in the field and on the internet.  Learn what constitutes a “fair” price to pay.

Develop a collecting checklist and then create a list of first priority purchases.  The collector needs to decide what he/she is willing to pay and stick to these numbers.  Every time the collector spends more than planned, the affordability that drives the collection is undermined.  Walking away is the hardest thing to do in the trade.  Yet, if the price is not right, do not pay it.

Resolve from the start to buy only items in fine or better condition.  Do not, repeat NOT, buy damaged items with the idea of upgrading later.  It never happens.  If the object is incomplete or has visible damage at arm’s length, do not buy it.  Buy only objects that can be taken home and displayed immediately.

Collecting is not about the number of objects in a collection.  Collecting is about fun, enthusiasm, passion, and knowledge.  The collector should collect a category about which he/she wants to talk.  Seek out other collectors who collect the same thing to benefit from and support their passion and enthusiasm.

Learn about the objects in the collection.  Making objects come alive is what makes collecting fun.  Objects have stories to tell—who made it, how was it made, why was it made, how was it marketed, how was it used, why was it saved, and what does it say about the people who saved it over time.  Share this knowledge.

The purchase price is only one cost in acquiring objects.  What about the cost of travel, food, lodging, admission cost for shows, monthly internet fees, and display and storage supplies?  What is the value of the collector’s time?  If a collector is working on a tight acquisition budget, chances are his/her other expenses are tight as well.  Collecting without the ability to make regular purchases is no fun.

Likewise, buying solely on the internet is also not fun.  Face to face interaction is an essential ingredient of collecting.  Collectors feed on each other.  I pity those collectors who have not experienced the thrill of the hunt in the field.

Is it ever possible to have a complete collection of something?

The answer is yes and no.  Much depends on the definition a collector assigns to his/her collection. I collect advertising jigsaw puzzles.  Although my collection numbers more than 500 examples, it will never be complete.  When I visit Don Friedman, who also collects advertising puzzles, I see dozens, possibly hundreds, of examples that I do not own.  I prefer not to count.  Instead, I marvel at the collection Don has assembled.

Within my advertising jigsaw puzzle collections are several puzzle series.  In 1999, HUMBLE Oil and Refining Company contracted with Warren Paper Products to manufacturer a series of 12 “Great Moments in American History” puzzles.  Is it possible to assemble a collection of all 12 puzzles?  Absolutely!

However, what happens if more than one stamping die was used for each puzzle?  A complete collection would require the collector to assemble a collection that includes an example of each die variation used for each puzzle.  What happens if the person loading the pictures to be cut reversed a batch 180 degrees?  This creates another variation.  Likewise, the cutting registration often had variances of an eighth of an inch or more.  Each cutting registration also results in an identifiable variant.

The variance question plagues every collector.  “Error” coins and stamps are a major subcategory in coin and stamp collecting.  Toy collectors are all too familiar with the variant issue.

Thus far, I have considered only the final marketed product.  What about the production dies and other materials used to manufacture the object.  Glass models, often one of kind, have found their way into the collecting marketplace.  This being the case, no glass collection can ever be complete as long as the molds are held by more than one collector.

What about factory prototypes and unmarked product.  On August 10, 2013, Heritage Auctions is offering one of the prototype GI Joe action figures.  The opening bid is $110,000.  Can any GI Joe collection be complete without it?  When I spoke to a sales meeting at Fenton Glass, I was presented with a prototype of a piece that never went into production.  Assuming it is one of a kind, my ownership makes any Fenton collection incomplete, including the Fenton archive.

An object collection devoid of the sales brochures and catalogs, countertop displays, and advertising literature, either produced by the manufacturer or created by the merchandiser, is incomplete.  Since most manufacturers made little effort to record and preserve this material, collectors are unable to create a “complete” checklist.  New finds occur on a regular basis.

Over the decades, I have talked with thousands of collectors.  Whether a collection is complete or not has arisen on only a few occasions.  Collectors assume their collections will never be complete.  Instead, discussions focuses on the size of the collection (is the pile the biggest there is), number of examples known of a particular object, and what items are missing and where are they most likely to be found.

Is there something special about which you would like me to blog?  I love writing about antiques and collectibles and developments within the trade.  I welcome your comments and suggestions as to topics you would like me to cover.  E-mail your suggestions to harrylrinker@aol.com.

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