The Zen of Collecting: 8 Tips for Building a Better Collection

An original California black license plate from 1969. It has an interesting number: ZEN 469. Someone found peace through it, paying $284.44 for it and its mate last November.

An original California black license plate from 1969. It has an interesting number: ZEN 469. Someone found peace through it, paying $284.44 for it and its mate last November.

“Knowledge is power,” a quote attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, is the watchword of collecting and one reason WorthPoint is such a valuable resource: With a few keystrokes you can research a specific collectible and find out what similar items—even the very same one you’re considering purchasing—sold for in the past. It’s the ideal way to get an idea of how often a collectible comes on the market and whether you’ll be paying top dollar if you decide to spring for it.

As for general advice, novice collectors may benefit from—and veteran collectors may identify with—the following observations gained by more than three decades of prowling various venues, including the universe’s biggest flea market: the Internet.

1. Collecting is about restraint, not the lack of it. If you buy selectively, you’re a collector; if you buy reflexively or compulsively, you’re a hoarder. In other words:

2. Don’t amass “stuff”—collect something that’s meaningful to you. True collecting is much more than just acquisitiveness; it’s about knowing all you can about your subject and, even better, discovering something new that other collectors don’t know about.

3. Choose your collecting area carefully, specializing as much as possible, and set parameters for yourself. It’s smarter and certainly more cost-effective to limit your spending and then broaden your field than to spend widely and then narrow your focus.

4. Be realistic. If you flip burgers at McDonald’s for minimum wage, don’t plan to collect signed Hemingway first editions. Better to choose a more contemporary author or artist or musician you really love whose associated memorabilia is within your price range.

5. Stay within your budget. Part of the fun of collecting is getting great stuff at great prices. Sure, if you have deep pockets, you can buy whatever you want by just throwing money at it—but how rewarding could that possibly be? What’s more, you’re bound to overpay more often than not.

Some of my favorite pieces are the ones I paid the least for. This usually meant spreading the word about what I was looking for, watching a lot of online auctions and dealer websites, exercising patience and in general persevering. When you finally nab what you’ve been searching for, that’s when you’ll feel the most gratification.

6. Quality is more important than quantity. Unless something is unique, one-of-a-kind or so rare that you’ll never see another, expect it to pop up on the market again—sooner rather than later, in better condition and/or at a better price. Before buying or bidding on something, ask yourself: Do I really need this particular item? If your honest answer is no, then pass on it.

7. You can’t have everything. Collecting is a journey that never ends. Unless you collect a very limited series of something—rookie cards for the 1969 Mets, for example, or Franklin Mint spoons for the state of Hawaii—you’ll never acquire every worthwhile collectible in your area of interest … so don’t try to buy everything. Again, be selective.

8. When you lose an item, let it go. I write this on the very day that I lost something on eBay just as I was about to snipe it—because I mistyped my bid. Sleeping through an early-morning auction, mistaking the date or time an auction ended, encountering a computer glitch, discovering that an auction ended unexpectedly because the seller sold the item directly to another bidder—all these things have happened to me. Most often, I’m simply outbid. It used to ruin my whole day—even my whole week.

Then I learned to take a deep breath and just get over it. If you want to be spiritual about it, just accept that everything happens for a reason. Maybe it means that you’ll get something even better before long. Or consider it fair payback for the great stuff you were lucky enough to get in the past. The important thing is not to agonize over a loss and, if possible, to learn something from the experience.

If you follow these simple steps, you’ll be a better collector for it.

David Chesanow is a freelance writer and a copy editor for major trade publishers. He collects vintage boxing memorabilia and 19th-century portrait photography.

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