Imported from: Google Blogger site
Original publish date: January 28, 2010

Understanding the collecting gene

The January 23rd, 2009 installment of the CBS Sunday Morning program had a several-minute segment on an amazing collection being offered by Sotheby’s. Collector Jerry Green amassed a giant collection of over 40,000 toy trains and related stations, figures, bridges, and so forth. The collection is hugely important because it represents every single item ever made by several different companies.

My main interest is not the depth and breadth of the collection. Rather, it concerns an observation that reporter Martha Teichner made. She said, “One look will convince you that there is such a thing as a collecting gene, and that Jerry Green inherited it.”

We can debate whether the mythic gene is transmissible, but the manifestation of the collecting gene is plainly obvious to all of us involved in collecting. While remarkably few people understand and accept the nature of the “collecting gene,” the CBS Sunday Morning report touched on every important concept.

Collecting is about searching for and acquiring “one of everything” within targeted specialties. Collectors who carry the collecting gene:

  •  Clearly and absolutely define their specialties.
  •  Find a method of determining what items they seek to acquire.

While Jerry Green’s quest of collecting model trains and accessories is quite common, his execution is not. He precisely defined his acquisition goals through the use of vintage manufacturers’ catalogs. Green started with the Bing catalog, marking off every item he acquired until he had no more targets. Then he moved on to different manufacturers.

Ultimately, he ran out of manufacturers.

Green was fortunate to have started early and was able to fuel his passion with large sums of disposable cash. Today, his collection is worth multiple tens of millions of dollars. However, value was most assuredly not his primary goal. This is another defining quality of the collecting gene and one I cannot stress enough.

  • The goal of collecting is pursuit, not ownership.

Yes, acquisition is necessary. Items are not collected until they are owned. But once owned, individual items quickly lose their previous allure. This is the point that confuses non-collectors rather terribly. They think that collectors’ pleasure comes from ownership. Nay, nay, nay! It is the pursuit, pure and simple.

Sure, ownership is nice. Certainly fulfilling. Yet, once items are acquired, their previous importance dims, replaced almost immediately by new quests. Non-collectors will never grasp the concept that the next quest is greatly more important than any previous success.

Jerry Green’s indescribable collection made it onto TV because of its size and the fact that Sotheby’s is offering it for sale. The report got me thinking about how easy it is to spot non-collectors. Profit is always the main concern of non-collectors. Mr. Green and his heirs will surely profit from the sale of his collection, but financial reward is hardly the reason for disposal. As Green told Teichner, “I definitely will collect something else.” Every collector knew the answer the moment Teichner asked Green whether he’d fill up his collecting rooms again. “Absolutely! I’m a collector. I would have to. That’s the fun.”

  •  Profit is not the goal of collecting.

In the last twenty years, I cannot tell you how few times I’ve heard collectors talk about intended profit. In my role as advisor, I rather wish this weren’t so true. I deeply wish collectors would consider their heirs more than they do. I often wish collectors would consider their purchases with a little more thought of profit. But profit is simply not in their vocabulary.

Few of us ordinary mortals have the monetary resources of Mr. Jerry Green and other big, big names in collecting. The beauty of collecting, though, is that we can all pursue collecting in our own way. We may need to temper our goals with financial reality, but that does not mean we can’t enjoy the chase.

Of all the things we can say about collecting, of all the psychological mumbo-jumbo we could argue, one clear point repeats itself time and time again. Collecting, like exploration, hunting, game-playing and numerous other hobbies, is purely and simply about the pursuit.

  • No pursuit, no hobby.

Again, Sunday Morning confirmed this important point. The CBS program clearly explained that Green decided to sell the collection when he ran out of good pieces to buy. There was simply nothing substantive left to pursue. Green had to sell so he could move on to the next quest. What fun!

One of my clients told me that he had once considered collecting elements. (You know, things like copper, iron, samarium, etc.) Not just a few – all of them. But he quickly abandoned the idea. He discovered that he could buy all but a few elements in one fell swoop by merely writing a check. And not a very big check at that. Shrugging his shoulders, he asked, “Where’s the fun in that?”

Where indeed?

Which brings me to the question of Sotheby’s sale of the Green collection. The company intends to sell the collection intact to one buyer. Wait a minute! What kind of “collector” wants to buy a collection in that manner? Even the most rudimentary examination of collecting proves that true collectors don’t acquire that way. They want to pursue items one at a time. I can see a museum buying the entire Green collection, but I simply cannot imagine a true collector doing so.

On the other hand, I can imagine someone buying the entire collection, and then parting it out in series of auctions over the next ten or twenty years! While I have a hard time imagining having a checkbook of that magnitude, I can certainly envision how selling a collection of greatly rare items, one at a time, to thousands of desirous collectors would be tremendous fun. Oh well. Like a thousand other pursuits, I’ll need to leave that pipe dream for someone else.