Collecting Strategies: When Should I Buy?

An e-mail from TW of Havre de Grace, Md., described her fascination with Halloween postcards. TW is a 28-year-old middle school teacher who has a mortgage and is in graduate school. Her discretionary income is limited. Her passion is evident by her references to how these postcards “…call to me! The art is awesome, and the forgotten customs they depict are intriguing. But prices are high…” Having read my “How to Think Like a Collector” (Emmis, 2005), TW notes: “you wrote that interest in collecting categories waxes and wanes, and the latter often happens when people who used the antiques as kids pass on. So, should I wait a decade or more before getting ready to buy? I can tell you that none of my twentysomething friends have any interest in early 1900s holiday material. They barely know what postcards are.”

Harry RinkerAlthough focused on Halloween postcards, TW raises a basic question faced by every collector and dealer: When should I buy? The answer is complex. Yet, if followed, there are a few simple guidelines that can make the buying experience positive.

Buying Guideline #1: You do not have to buy it now

When I first began collecting in the 1960s, the buying process was governed by a “buy it now, you may not see another” concept. Buying sources were limited—antiques shops, antiques shows, auctions and a few trade periodicals such as “Antique Trader” and “Hobbies.” The antiques mall, large outdoor flea markets with their extravaganzas, collectors’ clubs, an expanded trade press and literature, and the Internet were all in the future.

The antiques and collectibles trade is a supply-and-demand business. In the 1960s, demand exceeded supply, a truism that would last into the 1980s and even the early 1990s in some collecting categories. The “buy it now, you may not see another” concept aided the sale of objects in less-than-fine condition. Collectors traded up when they could replace a lesser conditioned piece with a better example.

I first attacked the “buy it now, you may not see another” concept in “Rinker on Collectibles” in the late 1980s. As the opportunities to hunt expanded, I urged collectors to exercise patience and wait until they find an example in very good or better condition and at a price that they are willing to pay. I still do today.

In the 1960s, the playing field between collector and dealer was uneven. While some advanced collectors could match knowledge with that of dealers, most collectors relied heavily upon and trusted what dealers told them. Dealers’ knowledge was power and often internalized as a “trade secret.”

The late 1980s and 1990s literature revolution incorporating an expansion of price guides and trade periodicals fostered a knowledge revolution. Collectors had access to the same information as dealers. Collectors’ clubs developed, adding to the information exchange. Collector sophistication developed on multiple levels—object identification, sources of supply and market practices. As the 20th century ended, the playing field leveled.

Buying Guideline #2: Do not buy until you have researched and understand the market for what you want to buy

In 2010, a serious buyer begins by researching the collecting category in which he is planning to buy. The buyer who does not do this is a fool. There is no excuse. The information is readily available.

In TW’s case, there are more than a dozen reference books on Halloween collectibles, plus additional books on holiday collectibles that include Halloween material. The primary value of these reference books is that they allow TW to create a checklist of the postcards she wants.

TW is best advised to ignore the values found in these books. First, many books are more than five years old. Always check the copyright date of any antiques and/or collectibles price guide before consulting prices. While most markets are relatively stable, price jumps and declines often happen. Second, prices reflect the high-end of the market for postcards in fine or better condition. It is critical to understand the condition criteria the authors use. Third, prices must be checked against eBay and the field. More often than not, there will be a major difference, with eBay and field prices being lower than those in the price guide.

Determining which examples are common and which are scarce is the primary value of price guides. Divide Halloween postcards into no more than five groups, with Group 1 being the lowest valued (hence, the most common) and Group 5 being the scarcest. Keep two things in mind. First, price guides represent the price bias of the authors. The values are their opinions. They are not always right. Second, the level of desirability can shift within a category. Little is consistent in the antiques and collectibles trade.

Book research without field research is useless. A buyer needs to attend general and specialized shows in their area. Again, the goal is to develop the ability to identify the difference between what is common and scarce and to obtain a sense of how value works.

Comparison shopping plays a critical role in approach taken by the 21st century antiques and collectibles buyer. Since there are no fixed prices in the trade, a skilled shopper will find identical objects in the same condition with a broad range of prices. When the range between the low and high price is small, the buyer can buy once condition concerns are met. When the range is large, more patience is required.

Buying Guideline #3: Take command of the buying process

Forget the old adage that collectors should not spend more than they have. Every collector violates this rule. I have borrowed money to buy things. I often use layaway as a payment method. Those who argue that collecting is driven by discretionary income do not understand the role passion plays.

What I am willing to pay is what determines the value of an object to me. Having done my homework, I understand my price limit. Although it takes discipline, and I do make mistakes, I hold firm. If I have to walk away, I do. I used to tout the “if there is one, there is another” concept. Thanks to eBay, I have amended it to “if there is one, there are at least a dozen more.”

“Do I need it?” is a question I never ask. If I want it, I need it. Collecting is about desire and not need.

Buying Guideline #4: Understand the short-, intermediate-, and long-term market

Collectors focus on the present and give little concern to the intermediate- and long-term markets. If they are governed by the pure joy of collecting and not about the money, this approach is fine. However, 21st century collectors are concerned about getting out as well as getting in.

Ask A WorthologistTW raised the question of whether she should wait to buy Halloween postcards until the current collecting community ages and begins to decline. A good thought if your goal is to collect Hopalong Cassidy collectibles, not a good thought if you want to collect Halloween postcards.

The key is identifying the potential subcategory and crossover buyers inherent in the object. If the count exceeds five or more, it is probably that one or more collecting communities will sustain the marketplace long after others fade away. How many buyers can you name for the pre-1915 Halloween postcard? I will get you started: postcard collector, holiday postcard collector, Halloween postcard collector, postcard artist collector, cat (black) collector, holiday collector, period collector, pumpkin collector, witch collector and decorator. The list already stands at 10. You should be able to add a minimum of another five.

Research the collecting category’s value history over the past two decades. Has the category shown a steady price increase (an unusual occurrence), gone through a number of price runs (how recent was the last one), or exhibited a steady decline (not unusual these days)?

Finally, look at the broad category—age of dealers, number of dealers, changes in stock, and literature. Is the category following or defying trends in other major collecting categories?

Buying Guideline #5: Trust in the Force

When all is said and done, it comes down to one person—you. You are the person who makes the “buy” or “don’t buy” decision. Learning and accepting this is an agonizing process. Initially, there is a lot of second guessing. In time, the process becomes instinctual. When this happens, trust the Force.


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:

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 Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

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