Estate Executors’ Headaches: Finding Value in a Collection

Is a bowl of matchbooks just a bowl of matchbooks, or is it a collection? (Photo:

We are a society of collectors. From bottle caps to art to old newspapers, our collections fill the closets and dens of estates everywhere. Not all of these collections are valuable, but they do have one thing in common: they confuse the dickens out of estate executors.

The confusion stems from the mandate on estate inventory forms which requires executors to “list collections separately.” Sometimes the instruction comes with a value minimum, sometimes not. I regularly get calls from clients who want to know “what sort of items make up a collection.” Should I consider all the art on the walls to be a collection, or are they just a bunch of single artworks? How about the tools in the tool box; are they a collection? Videos and records? Books?

Then the follow-up questions: How many items are in a collection? How do I value a collection? Do I add up every single item or take them as a whole?

These baseball cards, part of a collection of 30,000-plus vintage and modern cards from 1937 to present, recently sold for $8,600 on eBay.

The short answers to these questions are:

• A collection can consist of any group of objects that has an underlying theme. Thus, a tool box full of hand tools is just an accumulation of individual items, but an antique toolbox full of antique tools is a collection;
• Generally, collections consist of three or more objects. There are those who argue that a single item can constitute a collection. In my opinion, one item is an object, two is a pair, three or more is a collection;
• A collection should be valued as a whole, not as an accumulation of individual objects.

Let’s expand on my short answers, so you may have a more thorough understanding of what constitutes a collection.

Consider the concept of “underlying theme.” Almost anything can tie a group of objects together in the eyes of the collector. To the general public, though, a collection’s underlying theme has to be clear. For example: a collector may thoroughly enjoy his collection of vacation souvenirs, but to someone who has never visited the places represented, the items in the collection are just trinkets. To a collector of matchbooks, the bowl of matches on the table represents memories and adventures; to an estate buyer, it represents only a bowl of matches (unless they also collect match books).

Underlying themes can reflect a stylistic period (Victoriana, Art Deco, etc.) or a historical period (Colonial America) or a technological period (early railroads, autos) or any number of types of consumer goods (beers of the ’60s, lunch boxes, fountain pens, you name it).

This collection of vintage dental tools sold for $5,000.

Common in the estates of former military personnel are objects collected from around the world that are interesting, but have no particular value as individual items and no underlying theme that might make the collection valuable. My father had a collection of odd pieces of foreign currency, a few bus tokens from Europe, and half-dozen nondescript postcards tucked away in a cigar box. For him, the items brought back memories; for me, they are a reminder of the stories my father told. To a third-party buyer, these items have no value at all.

Sometimes, an underlying theme can be found on multiple levels, and executors will discover collections within collections. Musical instrument collectors often have sub-collections (micro collections) of guitars, banjos, mandolins or other instruments. Collectors of militaria may have micro collections that could include the First World War, the Civil War, Nazi Germany and medals. Where subsets exist, executors may want to consider that the micro collections may be worth more valued separately (as smaller collections) than to value the macro-collection as a whole.

This brings me around to the next important concept: how to determine if there might be value in a collection. Of course, the best way to do this is to simply call an appraiser, but doing so may incur unnecessary expense if the collection turns out to be worthless, as in the following story:

A few months ago I got a call from a woman whose husband had passed away, and she wanted to have her husband’s art collection appraised in the hope of finding a buyer. She said her husband was a native of Canada, and that he had collected paintings from all over the world. The widow lived in Virginia, about two hours from my home. When she choked at my estimate to survey her art, I suggested that she bring the paintings to my office (she didn’t have a clue how to take digital photos and email them to me).

About two weeks later she, her son and a pickup truck containing her two dozen paintings arrived at my doorstep. You can probably guess what I found: the artwork wasn’t worth the price of gas to drive them to me. In fact, most of the “paintings” were not even paintings. These were department-store prints, whose frames were worth more than the “artwork” they contained.

Tip For Executors: Paintings have paint on them. If no paint has been applied to the canvas, it’s not a painting.

It’s also important for executors to note the quality of individual items in the collection. Quality is more important than quantity. I was once called upon to liquidate an estate that contained more than 300 ceramic chickens, purchased at various highway gift shops over the course of the decedent’s lifetime. The decedent’s family was certain that by virtue of sheer quantity alone that this was a valuable collection. It wasn’t. How many ceramic chickens can one market absorb over the course of an estate sale? Nowhere near 300, I assure you. 

This lot of mixed coins sold for just 6¢.

Collections are also time-sensitive, and because of that their values will rise and fall. Trends in collectibles change as the population that remembers the items die off. Classic sedans from the 20s and 30s don’t bring nearly the price they did a decade ago, because so few of the people who remember riding in them are around anymore. Also, collections of manufactured collectibles like Madame Alexander dolls, Beanie Babies, Franklin Mint coins and others are seldom worth their original purchase price.

Like all antiques, collectibles and artwork, documented provenance adds value to everything. If you have paperwork on any items, it should stay with the collection. Executors who don’t find paperwork with a collection should look for it wherever the decedent’s important papers are filed.

Garbage Pail Kids cards, once a hot collectible, currently have little demand.

In a well-thought-out collection, individual items have a synergistic effect on the whole. In other words, in a good collection, the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. In collections where there is a finite number of items, having all of the items increases the value of the whole. For example, a complete set of baseball cards of the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies is worth more than the price of the cards priced individually. The fact that the Phillies won the World Series that year makes the set even more valuable. An art collection focused on a single style, school, or artist has more value as a collection than it does as singly-priced artworks.

To summarize, here’s what executors should look for whenever they find a collection:

• An underlying theme;
• Completeness, whenever possible;
• Quality of individual items;
• Provenance.

If all of those features are present, then calling in an appraiser will probably be worth the investment.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books.

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