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Model train madness. November 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben are pretty maniacal when it comes to collecting. Between the two of us, we collect stamps, marbles, Pueblo pottery, cookbooks, quilts and coverlets, even antique chesspieces (and much, much more). Our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders has never met a book or magazine on Colonial and Federal America that he didn’t have to have. Even if we don’t share someone else’s collecting passion, we find it fascinating. What drives someone to choose to collect? What causes them to narrow their collection into a particular specialty?

All of which is a long-winded way to explain why OFB and Silence joined our friends Rob, Gary and Carolyn yesterday to see a lavish model train exhibit in the basement of the Kutztown Historical Society. No, we don’t collect model trains (and please don’t call them “toy” trains, unless you’re specifically referring to Thomas and friends). But Rob and Gary do, and as a result, we’ve seen a number of elaborate model train setups over the years.

Rob will only buy antique model trains made by one company in Germany. Why? Because he inherited some beautiful antique engines made by that company from his grandfather. Gary has devoted the upstairs room of his workshop to a train room, with tracks running around the walls and up to the ceiling. (We think his trains are Lionels, but are afraid to ask for fear of setting off a brand war with Rob.)

Rob’s trains are metal rather than plastic, but he’s not a purist when it comes to the buildings and accessories he buys for his train setups. Plastic’s okay, as long as it looks aged. However, he does specialize in Southwestern buildings and sets. This strikes us as a bit incongruous given the German trains, but it certainly makes for an interesting display: German trains in the wild, wild West?! But it combines Rob’s love of the West and his love of model trains, so it makes perfect sense to him, and that’s what counts for any collector. 

Getting back to the Kutztown model train display, it’s by far the best one OFB and Silence have ever seen (we know Rob and Gary agree). The buildings and settings are incredibly detailed: huge, completely realistic bridges, mountains, lakes, wildlife, elaborate town scenes. And amazingly, though the buildings and sets must have been plastic, they don’t look plastic: They look real. Someone must have spent decades creating that level of detail, then had the civic-mindedness to donate their life’s work to the Historical Society, which had the good sense to appreciate it.

If you enjoy model train displays and live within driving distance of Kutztown, we urge you to see (and judge) for yourself. Admission is free. There are other items of interest, too, including turn-of-the-century schoolrooms, World War I displays, and original Keith Haring artwork (he was born and grew up in the house, still standing, next door). And if you have a passion for collecting, please let us know what you collect, and what drives that passion! We can certainly relate.


Ben Picks Ten: Tips for Collectors January 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was just reading an article on what collectors should do if they needed to or decided to sell their collections in these tough economic times. It immediately made me think about the things collectors shouldn’t do. As a lifelong collector whose passions run the gamut from Pueblo pottery and numismatics to fossils and marbles, I have seen collectors make a lot of mistakes over the years—and have made plenty of them myself. Follow these tips, and you can indulge your interests without coming to grief (or financial ruin):

1. Start small. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get excited about a new hobby and start spending big bucks before you know what you’re doing. Instead, when you’re just getting into a hobby, spend a little on the stuff you want to collect and earmark most of your early money for books. Yes, every expert and book will tell you to buy the best example of something you can afford rather than a bunch of lesser stuff. But (see #11, below) maybe the bunch of stuff will make you happier than just one thing. And maybe you don’t yet know enough to buy something expensive. And maybe you just want to buy stuff you like. Buy that $8 jar of buttons or marbles, and wait to buy an $80 button or marble until you’re sure you want to and you know what you’re getting.

2. Book up. Say what? If you’re not a book collector, spending money on books when you could be buying stamps, vintage hubcaps, Colonial stoneware crocks or whatever may seem like a waste. But it would be far more of a waste to spend bazillion dollars on a “priceless” addition to your collection, only to find out when it was time to sell that it was worth a pittance. There are books for collectors on most hobbies—look for them on Amazon, at sites that sell the stuff you’re collecting, in bookstores, and at flea markets and antiques malls. Don’t overlook your local library as a source of books, though they may be older; used book stores are also a good source of older books at discount. Some hobbies, such as numismatics (coin collecting), have magazines and newsletters devoted to them, too. Buy some of the latest issues at a Borders or Barnes & Noble (or, if your passion is John Deere memorabilia, at a Tractor Supply), and read up. I feel that learning about your hobby is as interesting and exciting as collecting the things that interest you. And of course it will save you money.

3. Look up. Remember that sales sites can be considered sources of education. For absolutely no outlay of cash on your part, you can explore eBay and sites that sell the stuff you want to collect, noting what people are identifying as what and how they’re valuing it. When our friend Ben began collecting marbles, I found several sites that simply showcased people’s private collections or identified a given marble company’s marbles by name and type. Often, the photos were better than the ones in my marble books, and there were lots more examples to check out. I also check marble and Pueblo pottery sales sites regularly, even if I’m not buying, just to learn from the identifications.

4. Hook up. No, not like that, unless what you’re collecting is notches in your belt, in which case keep it to yourself, please. What you should be doing is talking to real live collectors who know a lot more about your hobby than you do. Not only is it informative and educational, it’s fun to talk to fellow fanatics, especially when everyone you know thinks you’re bizarre to collect baseball cards or Betty Boop cartoons or Elvis memorabilia. Most hobbies have both national and local organizations; if you’re a joiner, seek and ye shall find. If, like our friend Ben, you’re not a joiner, you can hook up with other collectors and experts in other ways. Go to shows and sales, venture into antiques shops, look for forums and chat boards. Sellers who are passionate about what they’re selling are often willing to share their hard-won knowledge with you, especially when they see that you really love what they’re selling and have taken the time to learn something about it. Forums can be very welcoming, but if you don’t want to create an identity and get involved, you can still learn tons from seeing what others are posting. Whether you’re speaking to someone in person or on a forum, however, please for mercy’s sake be respectful! Whatever you think you know, there’s no law saying that you have to share it and contradict the person who’s trying to help you. Unless someone specifically and genuinely asks for your opinion, our friend Ben thinks the wisest course of action in these cases is this: “The alternative to the truth is silence.” And FYI, this is true in life as well as in collecting.

5. Bring the salt along. Having said all this, don’t believe everything you read, see, or hear. Our friend Ben has seen contemporary marbles passed off as priceless antiques, newly made arrowheads sold as genuine artifacts, mass-produced pottery pawned off as handmade, worthless or even fake coins sold as investments, and on and on and on. Marbles can be buffed or polished to remove flaws, coins can be treated to remove wear and even acidfied to produce the marvelous rainbow colors known as “toning,” a gorgeous side effect of age in an unaltered coin. The same is true of every hobby. Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. Wherever you go, be it a website, a show, or a store, take that grain of salt along with you. Maybe the vendors believe what they’re telling you, and maybe they don’t. But in either case, it’s up to you to sort the grain from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. And the only way to do that is to learn as much about your hobby as you can.

6. Learn what other collectors value. Sometimes, rarity doesn’t equate to increased value. If an item’s so rare that collectors don’t recognize it, it may be worth much less than a comparatively common item that’s hot. Almost always, perfect condition is a value and price booster. Our friend Ben doesn’t mind signs of wear, as long as they don’t detract from the overall aesthetics of a piece, since to me wear places a collectible squarely in its place in history. As a result, I’ll sometimes buy something most collectors wouldn’t, at a bargain price. But I don’t ever delude myself into thinking I can trade up on whatever it is or even sell it at all. It’s something I love and want, and that’s the end of it. 

7. Remember the “guide” part of price guides. Many hobbies produce price guides that supposedly show you what various collectibles are worth. But when it’s time to sell off your stuff, just try to get book value for it. Price guides are educational in terms of valuing one item in a collection against others, but they’re anything but a guarantee of absolute as opposed to comparative value. When you’re buying, a price guide can help you evaluate different objects. When you’re selling, expect to get about 50% less for your collectibles than the guides say. And please, use common sense here! A guide that’s a decade or even a year old will not show current values. Keep up with what’s current by checking eBay, auctions, online sale sites, hobby magazines, and the latest version of the price guides.

8. Don’t buy what you don’t like. I don’t care if somebody tells you that that hideous vase is worth $50,000, or that sulphide marble is worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. You’re all too likely to be stuck with it. Instead, put your money where your heart is. Then, even if your “priceless” collectible turns out to be mass-produced, you’ll still have it and love it. And obviously, again, the more you know about something before you buy, the happier you’ll be with the results. Better to buy a “sleeper” you love and think might increase in value than a top-of-the-line item you loathe, as long as you know not to overpay for the sleeper. 

9. Don’t get carried away. Like any addiction, a hobby you love passionately, be it toy trains or Da Vinci originals, can spell your financial ruin. No matter how scarce they may seem, it’s likely that collectibles will always be available to you. Use the good sense God gave you and budget accordingly. Can’t afford that Jaguar XKE this year? Trust me, there will be another one. Put your purchase in perspective before you put your family and financial well-being at risk. There is bound to be something less ruinous that you can buy to keep your collecting habit alive until you can afford the ultimate.

10. Rotate your collection. If you can see everything you have at a glance, be it Audubon prints or antique chess pieces, you’ll stop seeing your collection at all and long for new things. Keep a few Tibetan “singing bowls” or shells or vintage guitars on display, then swap them off every few months for others in your collection. This will not only keep your enjoyment fresh, it will also keep you in touch with what you actually have, so you don’t waste money duplicating other stuff already in your hoard.

And finally, the bonuses:

11. Don’t catch a fire. Let’s say you’re bidding on eBay. You’re in the lead, and are looking forward to becoming the proud owner of whatever it is. Then, near the end of the auction, someone else puts in a bigger bid. You bid up, but they’re still ahead. Hey, you wanted that! You can’t let it get away! Before you know it, you’ve bid twice what you originally set as your limit (you did set a limit before bidding, didn’t you?!), and now you’ve won the item. You feel that sickening sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you realize that you were so caught up in the moment that you’ve ended up paying not just more than the item was worth, but more than you could comfortably afford. Before you ever place a bid, decide your maximum price, and don’t go over it by more than a dollar or two no matter what. Walk away; put that fire out. Unless the item is the capstone to your collection, the one must-have piece, you can do without it. It may not seem like it in the heat of bidding, but there are more, and you will eventually find them at a price you like. Practice walking away and see how quickly you forget whatever it was. If you need to, and you’re in a local store, tell yourself that you can always come back (or call and buy the item). If a day or a week later, you’ve forgotten all about it, that’s money well saved. 

12. Don’t let the ones that matter get away. Our friend Ben is not suggesting that you grossly overpay to get something you want. But if you really fall in love with something, don’t leave the store or website without asking yourself if you’ll remember it as “the one that got away.” There are three things our friend Ben did not buy when I saw them and loved them, all because I felt they were somewhat extravagant. I have never stopped regretting them, even decades later. In retrospect, the money spent would have been worth it in terms of my happiness. Don’t let this happen to you.

13. Trade up. Tastes change. Don’t ever feel like you’re stuck with your collection. As you learn more and your tastes mature, you may want to trade in some of the earlier things you bought for something better. Just do it! Now that you have a better idea of what you have, you may even feel embarrassed to take your “junk” to an antiques dealer, flea market, or eBay store. Just remember that everybody has to start at the beginning. Maybe you’ll lose some money, but you’ll free up space and money for new collectibles. Go for it!

14. Never, ever consider a collection as an investment. This is the absolute ultimate very best advice our friend Ben could ever give you. I have friends who justify additions to their collections on the grounds that “they’re investments.” It’s all our friend Ben can do at these moments to refrain from screaming. Collectibles are not investments, unless they’re investments in your enjoyment of life. They’re pleasures. Like orchid growing or trying to find and own every scented geranium known to humankind, your particular stuff is just that, something that gives you joy. Buy what you can afford. Enjoy what you buy. But never, ever assume that you’ll profit from your collection. Maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. Make sure it makes you happy either way.

Two kinds of collectors. March 14, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is an inveterate collector. From earliest childhood collections of fossils, cacti, and books to current collections of Pueblo pottery, vintage chess pieces, and heirloom quilts and coverlets (and, of course, fossils, cacti, and books–God forbid I should ever stop collecting anything), if it’s aesthetic or interesting, our friend Ben has at least considered collecting it. (Affordable is also a consideration, but I never let that get in the way of a good imagination.) Even if I would run screaming from a particular type of collectible if I encountered it in my home (Disney and Hallmark fans, cover your eyes), our friend Ben has complete sympathy with those who cherish these collectibles. Passion is passion, whatever form it takes.

All of which is to say that our friend Ben has spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pondering the nature of collectors and the collector mentality. And at last, I’ve come to a conclusion: When all is said and done, there are only two kinds of collectors.

But wait, you say: There are infinite kinds of collectors. To you I would say, no, there are infinite kinds of collections. Let’s use iris as an example. Someone might collect species iris, or all the cultivars of a single species of iris, or bearded iris, or a certain height of bearded iris, or bearded iris cultivars produced before 1890, or every white iris cultivar known to humanity, or iris that have won the Dykes Medal, or iris bred by Currier McEwan, or… Trust me, I have not even scraped the surface of the possibilities. And that’s just for iris.

Moving on to inanimate objects, there are folks who collect things as–they tell themselves or their spouses, anyway–investments, folks who collect things because they’re trendy (Manolos, anyone?), folks who collect things in pursuit of knowledge or while working on a project, folks who collect things that contribute to their hobby (as yarns, beads, fabric, wood, tools), and folks who collect things for love. But despite the many motives that may compel someone to collect, there are still just two kinds of collectors.

At the end of the day, our friend Ben thinks it all boils down to this: There are collectors who can parlay parts or all of their collections into profits, and there are those who can’t. For example, our hypothetical iris grower might want to divide his or her bearded iris rhizomes and end up with extras. Our Pueblo pottery fanatic might discover that his or her taste had changed considerably since s/he began collecting, and want to offload some of the early pieces to have cash to buy others.  An Audubon print collector might have learned that some of the first prints he or she bought are commonly available, and might decide to trade up for rarer versions. You yourself might realize that, though you loved that opal and diamond ring when you bought it, you’ve never really worn it. Maybe you could sell it and buy a piece of Imari. But can you?

Our friend Ben has concluded that the world divides neatly into buyers and sellers. Some collectors are able to buy, sell, and trade with finesse. Others, like (heavy sigh) our friend Ben, are incapable of striking a bargain. Not because we don’t want to sell something, but because it seems we can’t. In our friend Ben’s case, it’s tempting to blame it on a classical Southern upbringing where attempting to “push” something, dicker, or bargain was considered rude, boorish, completely unacceptable behavior. (Our friend Ben was raised to keep whatever someone gave me, however disgusting, tacky, or inappropriate, because returning it to the store was vulgar. For that matter, anything smacking of “the shop” was vulgar, along with an interminable laundry list of other things.) Yet our friend Ben knows any number of Southerners who are more canny about these matters than anyone else, and it would not occur to anyone to think of them as vulgar.

So the whys and wherefores remain a mystery. Some people upgrade their collections or move on to other collections on the profits of previous ones. Others, like our friend Ben, stare sadly at items they no longer love but cannot for the life of them offload: collector clutter.

Not that I haven’t tried. From time to time, I’ll gather one or a clutch of objects and take them to a venue that specializes in that particular type, or to an antiques store, or a flea-market stall, or even an eBay store. The owners will eye the object(s), then eye our friend Ben, with that particular sort of eye that says louder than words “Oh, you poor sheep.” Then they’ll tell me that no, they couldn’t possibly sell that. And they don’t know of anyone or anyplace else that could or would sell that. Even if I bought that particular that from this very vendor; even if I’ve been buying these thats from them for decades. Must be the luck of the English/Irish/Scottish/Norman/German/Austro-Hungarian. (Can you say “hybrid vigor”?)

Is there a lesson in this? What would my mentor, the great Dr. Franklin, say? I’m sure old Ben would put it more memorably, and work some humor in, too. But I can only sound a warning to my fellow collectors (you know who you are): Before you put your money down, know which of the two you are. And if you fall into our friend Ben’s can’t-sell-it-to-save-your-life camp, think very hard before you whip out that blazing checkbook or credit card. Whatever you’re about to buy will be with you for the rest of your life.