This article appeared in
December, 2011

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Studying the Hobby

I feel vastly honored to have met so many fine people through this hobby. To people outside of collecting, it might seem odd to call them “friends”. After all, we may correspond feverishly only once or twice in one year, and then go a couple years without writing again. I know several of us enjoy similar pursuits outside collecting, but we may never share a conversation face-to-face. Still, there are many people with whom I thoroughly enjoy corresponding and I call them my friends. Speaking strictly for myself, those relationships give me great pleasure in this hobby.

But what drives the hobby overall? What gives pleasure to everyone else? I was not doing anything purposeful when I started, but I guess I’ve been unofficially studying collecting hobbies since probably the age of eight or ten. I’ve bought and sold many different kinds of collectibles, but it wasn’t until the last twenty years that I discovered that my main passion was collecting and categorizing information. I know it might seem weird to say that I’m not really driven to own things, but I am assuredly driven by collecting.

Through numerous conversations with collectors, it has became apparent that collecting is its own motivation. It does not matter whether we collect certificates, auction catalogs, toasters, coins, post cards, dolls or art. It is the same drive. Some of us may have a lot of money to fuel that drive and some of us may be seriously hampered by its lack. Yet, when it comes to collecting, we can’t stop. Collecting might not even be good for us, but we still collect.

I have always advised that beginning collectors go about their chosen hobby with a sense of purpose and a view for future value. I firmly believe that beginning collectors need to develop clear specialties and understand that cheap collectibles will always remain cheap.

Paradoxically, that is almost the opposite approach when discussing hobbies with my advanced collecting friends. When advanced collectors tell me they’ve started collecting something new and have amassed a bunch of cheap items, I applaud their efforts. I know where they are going. They are using the cheap junk to learn the “rules of the hobby” and discover their true interests. They will quickly move into specialties they have never explored before. They are getting their feet wet. Cheap, beginner-level items are merely their entry fees.

This brings me to something that we’ve probably all noticed. We can probably all accept that collectors go through developmental metamorphoses. As beginners, we all seem driven almost exclusively by valuations. We seem to approach our collectibles as investments. We are unsure of price patterns and history and we want someone else to tell us if specific items are valuable and how quickly their values will grow.

Advanced collectors, on the other hand, tell me by their words and actions that they’ve outgrown the valuation trap. Many tell me they frequently give little if any attention to estimated values. If they want something and they don’t have it, they’re going to get it! Period!

That approach does NOT mean advanced collectors are spendthrifts. Rather, considered as a group, advanced collectors know precisely what they want and why they want it.

So what about future values? Are they concerned or not? That is a hard question to answer and one that my collecting friends and I rarely discuss. I get the impression that genuinely advanced collectors “trust their gut.” When it comes to true rarities, I think most firmly believe that their purchases will work out well in the long run. Many seem ambiguous about the subject of price appreciation. I think most readers would be surprised how many of my correspondents freely confess when they think they have overpaid for certain rare items. At their levels of achievement, their motivations are more about collectibles and less about money. While those confessions are very much real, I feel there is often an understated sense of modesty about the achievement of acquiring true rarities. I’m convinced that the pleasure of finding great rarities, regardless of cost, is almost impossible to share with non-collectors.

You’ve heard me say time and again that “cheap collectibles will always be cheap”. I believe collectors eventually tumble to the corollary: “rarities will always be rare.” Or as I like to shout, “They aren’t making any more of them!” Thankfully, certificate collecting is a hobby with large numbers of unrecognized rarities.

Please let me give a personal example, identical to many reported by my collector friends. There is a series of certificates that I’ve been trying to collect for twenty years. Four remain unpurchased. They are clearly unrecognized rarities. They now seem much rarer than the numbers suggest. Based on records of past appearances, my four sought-after certificates have rarely sold for more than $75. If any of the remaining four certificates came up for sale tomorrow and I didn’t notice, I doubt they would sell for more than $50. Nonetheless, my opening bid will be substantially higher than any previous high price. In other words, I WANT those certificates. After all, they aren’t making any more of them! Ultimately, I am unconcerned about future valuation; I am merely concerned about acquisition.

Having already admitted that I’m an information guy, what gives? My hobbyist friends all know the answer. It is all about collecting. Pure and simple. Collecting is its own motivation.