How Can I Start a Collection in Today's Economy?

Question

My wife and I have always wanted to collect something. Anything. It seems like with the recession we're in, there might be some great bargains out there. How should we get started? (from Luther, Peoria, IL)

Answer

Luther, a lot of people are wondering about how to prosper at anything during these difficult times, and that includes taking advantage of everything from distressed pricing on real estate to true bargains at auction houses.

If you haven't started a collection yet, then you and your wife have a bit of homework to do. First, what do you love? What catches your eye and stirs your passion? If you could tell a story to a perfect stranger about what's in your house, what would you find most entertaining and what collectibles would you never get tired of talking about?

Never fill your home up with things you don't like. That's like a life sentence in prison, isn't it? Surround yourself instead with objects that you and your family can all relate to, and things that bring you joy. It also helps if they are useful items as well as decorative (remember that art is also useful as it brings mood, color, tone, theme, depth, and oftentimes great texture to any room).

Leslie Keno, director of American furniture and decorative arts at Sotheby's, advises that you should start with what appeals to you, then try to narrow your focus. If you like American furniture, narrow that down to a period like midcentury Modern or Pennsylvania colonial antiques. If you like antique rugs, narrow your interest down to a specific country and time period.

Here are other specific tips we've gathered from articles and experts on starting a private collection:

1. Once you narrow your collecting focus -- and really are getting excited about what you'd like to invite into your home -- start to purchase a reference library. Find everything you can read on the subject so you can inform yourself about your collectible subject matter. That's the only way you'll be able to learn what's good and bad about what you see out there.

2. Go to auctions as much as possible. Attending an auction, even way before you're ready to make a purchase, is a great way to educate yourself on what's hot in today's market and what's not. We went to an auction in January at Rago Arts in Lambertville, NJ, and silver serving trays were not being bid on at all. Now would be an excellent time to bid low and start your collection of silver trays, right? But back to our first core piece of advice: never make a purchase because it's a bargain! If you love what you're going to collect, you will be bringing great joy into your home. That's the acid test for whether or not you should buy something or not.

3. If you are buying items in a collection for investment purposes, it's good to work with a dealer who can accompany you to exhibitions or auctions (high end auctions as well as local auctions). Even country auctions are no guarantee of good prices as many times things can go for quite a lot without any in-house authentication of what you're buying. "Buy something for what you think it is," is both advice and caution when buying collectibles. You can't be sure you're always buying the real deal, so it's often good to have someone knowledgeable to give you their best advice.

4. If you buy something like Oriental rugs that are currently selling for unusually low prices during the bad economy, know that what is depressed now will probably increase in value in the future. But again, buy what you love.

5. Bring some tools to auctions, like distance glasses for good eyesight and a handy tape measure to make sure that an item will fit in your space back home.

6. Refine your collection constantly. Weed out what you don't love and recycle it, sell it, donate it, or gift it. Add new items of better quality and more value as your collection grows and matures.

With any collecting, you'll make mistakes early on and you might doubt your sanity at a future date ("What was I thinking?!"), but educating ourselves is part of the life experience, and collecting things you love for your home is a Beautiful Thing. Enjoy the process.

Jay JohnsonComment