In packing my author-signed book collection, I came across a duplicate copy of the Beginner Books’ edition of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” (New York: Random House, 1956, 1986) signed “Dr. Seuss.” I stood in an autograph line at an American Booksellers Convention and watched Theodor S. Geisel sign it, my method of validating all the signatures in my collection.
When the opportunity to obtain a second copy arose, I thought: “Connie Swaim of AntiqueWeek collects Dr. Seuss memorabilia. I bet she would like a copy.” Good intentions aside, the two copies remained together on my bookshelf for more than a decade. I never sent Connie the extra copy predicated on the subliminal assumption that “the book might be worth something someday, and I would be a fool to part with it.” Although I have long professed my collecting has never been about the potential long-term value of my things, I occasionally succumb to the subconscious voice that whispers, “How do you know?”
Preparing my collections for moving is a traumatic experience—what do I keep, what do I give away, what do I sell (writing this causes me to twinge; thinking about it drives me to edge of madness), and what do I store (an act I swore I would never do, but find impossible to resist)? I am blessed in one sense. I do not have to sell to pay bills or ensure my retirement.
[Author’s Aside: My retirement is in the far distant future.]
I am ready to part with the autographed copy of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.” I considered sending it to Connie as a surprise. However, I remembered reading or hearing that she no longer collected Dr. Seuss material. Not wanting to waste a perfectly good object on someone who no longer would appreciate it, I called Connie to ask about the status of her Dr. Seuss collection. When we failed to connect by phone, I e-mailed.
Waiting for her response, I started thinking about why people stop collecting. While I have written extensively about why people collect, I have only touched upon why people stop collecting as an afterthought in earlier columns. It is time to deal with the subject in its entirety.
[Author’s Aside: When viewed from a collector’s perspective, what follows in this and its companion columns is very disturbing. I accept full responsibility. While my e-mail to Connie was the catalyst that moved the question to the front part of my brain, the idea obviously has been fermenting in my subconscious for some time.]
I asked Connie two questions: (1) do you still collect Dr. Seuss/Grinch material? and (2) if not, why did you stop collecting? Connie stopped collecting Dr. Seuss/Grinch material six years ago. Her response to the second question reads:
“I was finding it too difficult to find truly vintage items. The Web was being populated by new Seuss items. Once Universal Studios put in a Dr. Seuss theme park, there was just a ton of Seuss merchandise, plus the new Grinch movie also brought a lot of new merchandise. I didn’t want to buy all the new stuff, but then I kept thinking maybe I needed to buy it to make the collection complete, but the shear volume was too much for me. When I did Internet searches (where most of my buying took place as finding Dr. Seuss items in malls was extremely rare), I could never get the searches to bring back truly vintage items with any accuracy. It just wasn’t fun anymore. But, I still have the entire collection. By the time I decided to move in a different collecting direction, my collection was worth about one-quarter (or maybe one-eighth) of what I had paid for it originally. I couldn’t bear to part with it. So, I have about 10 giant plastic totes of Seuss material just sitting in a room. Since I don’t see it every day, then I don’t get stressed out by the fact that it is just sitting there!”
Wow, talk about fodder for a column or two or three. Using Connie’s thoughts, I began making a list of reasons why people stop collecting. By the time I finished, the number of reasons stood at 16. The list will get longer in the days and weeks ahead.
Collectors are orderly individuals who think categorically. They do this in order to keep track of what they own and where it is located. As I ordered my list, I identified five basic reasons why individuals stop collecting—personal, financial, availability, contemporary material and issues arising as part of the collecting process.
Personal reasons to stop collecting fall into five subcategories: (1) age; (2) divorce: (3) pressure from the spouse or kids; (4) death; and (5) emotions. There are two key questions when considering age: (a) when do collectors stop collecting and (b) when do collectors give serious consideration to disposing of their collections?
The answer to the first— when do collectors stop collecting?—is in their early to mid-1960s. Retirement is the culprit. Few individuals are able to sustain their income level in retirement. Retirement requires cutting back. Cutting back forces the collector to examine his/her discretionary spending, the primary financial source for buying antiques and collectibles. The collector faces questions he/she thought would never be asked: (1) how much more do I really need and (2) can I use the money for a better purpose? Previously, these were questions the collector could readily answer. Uncertainty now prevails.
Few collectors take a cold-turkey approach to ending their collecting. Instead, the process is gradual. The collector devotes less and less time to the hunt. He reaches a high level of contentment with what he already owns. Many of his collecting contacts such as other collectors and dealers fade from the scene. A sense of isolationism arises. His collection becomes his primary companion.
Most individuals retire with a sense of optimism, especially if they planned well. However, time and circumstances change. A sudden downturn in the stock market, increased inflation and other economic woes quickly affect the retiree’s sense of long-term security. Gradually, the collection does not seem as important as it once did and its potential worth the possible answer to a prayer.
The end of collecting does not coincide with the sale of the collection. Collectors reach this point in the mid- to -0s. Like Connie Swaim, collectors have a difficult time letting go. Many collections are not sold until their owners die. Alas, when the collection is sold, it only brings a fraction of what the collector assumed it was worth. The time to sell to achieve maximum return is usually within a very small window of opportunity. Hanging on until he has to sell is one of the worst decisions a collector can make. The truly happy collector is the one who dies with his/her collection intact.
Divorce, especially if it is highly contentious, is a disaster. A forced sale against a preset clock is tantamount to achieving only a fraction of what a collection is worth. I avoid divorce appraisals. The end result is lose-lose, never win-win.
Few spouses, partners, significant others or whatever politically correct term you want to use, collect the same thing. In fact, in most situations one person is a collector and the other is not. The hidden resentment often suppressed by the non-collecting person rises to the surface in a divorce. Forcing the collector to sell his prized possessions is one method of getting back at him or her. Likewise, if each collects the same objects, an “if I cannot have it, then neither will he/she” attitude develops. While hell may have no fury like a love scorned, it pales by comparison to a collector scorned. I have seen couples fight harder for their goodies than their children.
I have just started on this matter. As I look at my list, I am thinking at least two, possibly three more columns are required to fully explore this topic.
[Final Author’s Aside: The copy of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” still rests on my desk. I promised Connie I would send it to her, and I intend to keep that promise. The question remaining is: when? It is not as simple as putting the book into an envelope and taking it to the Post Office.]
REQUEST—I would like your help: What have you stopped collecting and why? I am as interested in your answer to the first part of the question as I am to the second. Send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Stop Collecting, Rinker on Collectibles, 22 Stillwater Circle, Brookfield, CT. 06804).
Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.
You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.
“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. You can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
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