Why specialize?

Some collectors tell me they have neither a collecting specialty nor much money. I hate to break the bad news, but the less money they have, the more they need to watch their spending. The more they need to watch spending, the more they need a specialty.

I doubt it will surprise you to learn that beginners often tell me they don't want a specialty; they intend to own one of every variety ever printed. Owning an example of every variety would be a lifelong pursuit worthy of kings.

There's just one teensy, weensy problem...it's impossible!

Collectors are doubtlessly misled by the erroneous idea that prices reflect rarity. They naturally assume that sub-$1000 items cannot possibly be rare. I apologize for failing to communicate this fact more clearly, but there are hundreds of genuinely rare certificates that have sold for less than $50. In the coin hobby, equally rare items might sell for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Collectors prove day after day that they do not appreciate the super-rarities of our hobby. Speaking strictly about railroad certificates, I can testify that hundreds of varieties are represented by only one or two examples. A thousand varieties, maybe two thousand, are represented by fewer than ten examples! Owning one of those rarities is an achievement and honor. Trying to own them all is a recipe for failure.

Dreaming of collecting everything?

I have nothing against dreaming; I'm all for it in fact. But how can collectors enjoy a hobby when the first thing they do is set themselves up for failure? A satisfying and achievable result might be to own some of the earliest certificates ever printed in the United States. Or maybe owning a few of the rarest certificates from a particular state, region, or country. Some collectors find it satisfying to own the signatures of major railroad executives. I know one person who collects certificates with autographs of historic stock operators. Several collectors find enjoyment trying to collect certificates from companies that did business in their home states.

Regardless of the specialty, the more clearly collectors identify the results they want, the greater their likelihood of gaining satisfaction. When they precisely identify the results they desire, they discover their specialties. When collectors make this crucial discovery, their collecting goals become crystal clear. For instance, maybe they want their collection to represent one certificate of every ancestral company of today's New York Central. Then why do they have an Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe certificate in their collection? If they want to own an example of every certificate ever issued in the state of Kansas, then why did they buy a Blue Ridge bond from South Carolina?

Specialization and spending

Specialization helps with spending. Admittedly, if a collector is a billionaire, the need for specialization is unimportant. However, according to the book The Millionaire Next Door, even millionaires need to watch their checkbooks once in a while. The more limited a collector's resources, the greater the need to collect wisely.

Are there already specialties hiding in a collection?

There are a couple of ways collectors can uncover specialties they may not know they already have.

They might ask, "How can I have a specialty when I have already collected certificates that appear to be entirely random?" I suggest that when they get time, they should sit down and look dispassionately at their collection. They should look hard at every certificate. What is the specific thing about each certificate that fascinated them enough to spend money? If they were to separate their certificates into three or four piles, what would those piles represent? States? Companies? Streetcars? Engravers? Vignettes? Transitional certificates? Stocks? Bonds? Dates? Autographs? If collectors can force themselves to group everything into just a few piles, they will discover their specialties. I say "specialties" because many collectors have several specialties and they switch back and forth.

Another trick is the "justification strategy." Collectors can imagine talking with another non-judgmental collector and justify what made them buy every certificate. As diverse as collections may appear, the act of justifying purchases often discloses major interests. Everyone has secondary interests, but why should collectors let them divert attention (and funds) from more compelling interests?

Goals are good. Goals clarify.

It may take years to decide on a true goal. so why hurry?

The more collectors uncover their true collecting interests, the more likely they will notice that some of their early purchases were ill-planned. Maybe they should rid themselves of those distractions. I'm not necessarily advising doing so this year and maybe not the next. Once they discover their more compelling specialties, they will look at their future – and past – purchases more clearly. At that time, they can ask, "If I buy this new certificate, will it take me closer to or further from my goal of ...........................?"