Fall 2007 Forward to a Friend

Collecting 101


Nobody is immune. Says Peter Cook, the producer of Antiques Roadshow, “Every so often somebody walks into a Roadshow event with a collection that’s been lovingly pulled together over the years. Baseball cards, vintage eyeglasses, fountain pens, snuff bottles, silver hairbrushes, fire-fighting memorabilia. It’s always a great moment for our appraisers. Their excitement reveals that they aren’t simply experts, they are collectors, too.”

So, if all this seems to tell – more or less – the story of your life, you, too, have been fatally bit. You’re a collector. You may even be a “born collector.”

“A good collection, first and foremost, is composed of things you truly love. If it pleases you, if it reflects your own taste and individuality, it will be a satisfying and wonderful collection, whatever it is.”
~ Carol Prisant, Author

A “born collector” is many things, most of them deeply passionate. He or she is utterly addicted to that heady blend of thrill-of-the-chase and thrill-of-discovery. He or she is someone who generally prefers that the desired object be a trifle difficult to obtain – because if it’s too easy to get, it’s a whole lot less interesting. A born collector’s usual MO is to collect either in quantity – acquiring, for instance, every single Madame Alexander doll that’s ever been manufactured – or to collect for rarity – acquiring just the rarest Madame Alexander dolls in existence. A born collector is knowledgeable about his or her subject, fiercely competitive, and willing to stand for hours in the rain waiting for tag sales to open. For all born collectors, there is never too much. The hunt is all.

Luckily, only some of us are born collectors. Otherwise, it would be truly a jungle out there. Compared with such unquenchable thirst, such burning passion to acquire absolutely all the Lalique perfume bottles ever manufactured or the 15 best and rarest toy robots, the rest of us are furnishers or accumulators at best.

Often, latent collectors start out as innocent heirs of their grandfather’s toy cars or grandmother’s dolls, things that they had loved as children. Maybe they were forbidden to play with these toys – or allowed to touch them only on special occasions. Today, these heirs have become the careful conservators of that inheritance. While many of them are a little reverential about the family “thingamajig,” they have rarely been interested in even semi-scholarly diggings into methods of manufacture, for instance, or in tracking down makers’ names. Most of them are simply curious and not too knowledgeable about values other than sentimental.

Subaru of America, Inc. is proud to be a sponsor of Antiques Roadshow, the most-watched series on PBS®. The program airs on PBS Mondays at 8:00 p.m. ET. Please check your local listings to confirm the broadcast day and time in your area.

Until they visit or watch Antiques Roadshow, that is. Because any time a latent collector learns a little more about his grandparents’ thingamajig, he starts to look around a lot more carefully. Sporting a similar thing in a shop window, he may go in to ask the price. Often, although it’s pricier than imagined, he buys it to complement the one he inherited – first, because it’s like the one he already owns and second, because he now knows a little about it. Then he adds another and another of the same type of item to something that is suddenly on its way to becoming “The Family Collection of Thingamajigs.”

From here, it’s just a tiny step to purchasing a good magnifying glass; tracking down reliable reference materials; reading every book available on the subject; ransacking the Internet; attending specialty shows, flea markets, tag sales, and auctions; and always upending, touching, pinging, and turning inside out any and all examples of thingamajigs that cross his path. Now, our latent collector begins examining inner workings and condition (that’s what the magnifying glass is for), searching for labels and indications of age, analyzing materials, and thereby expanding his knowledge. Excited and in love, our passive caretaker has become a full-blown collector – late blooming, perhaps, but passionate and thrilled, joining thousands of others drawn to his field by accident, or by interest, or by the object’s eye appeal, or – like our collector – by nostalgia.

Unlike born collectors, this group isn’t usually driven to own the “all” or the “every.” The latent collector’s fascination with the object of choice is grounded basically in curiosity, accident, and – all right – some smidgen of acquisitiveness. Love of collecting Mickey Mouse memorabilia, Buddy L. trucks, or Norman Rockwell posters has less to do with omnium gatherum than it does with the latent collector’s interest in this particular thing and its relevance to the social and historical past – most frequently, his own.


According to the Antiques Roadshow experts, the value of any antique is based on a number of variables including condition, rarity, demand, and quality. Even subtle differences can dramatically affect value. Learn more about determining the value of your prized possession at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/

Just because someone collects something – clothes hangers, wedding cake tops, ticket stubs – doesn’t make it a “collectible,” and coming up with an exact definition for a “collectible” isn’t easy. Even the experts disagree.

A collectible is generally an object that is plentiful, because enough of it has to exist for a market to be made in it. A wide and enthusiastic collector base is also a prerequisite. So it has to be an object that is being purchased by more people than just your Mom and three first cousins, because the more collectors there are who are in pursuit of an item, the more collectible it is.

In addition to that plenitude of objects, and the crowd of people who want them, there needs to be at least one or two collectors who are willing to write down and share what they know about their field, thereby providing the imprimatur of scholarship.

Our definition of “collectible” is based in part on when the object was made. Things that are more than 100 years old are legally antiques, and the term collectibles has come to be a convenient catchall term for many things – ceramics, furniture, glass – that are not yet old enough to be antiques. Before an object has stood the test of at least a quarter century, the market is still too volatile to know what will be significant and have lasting desirability.


They certainly know their stuff, but the Antiques Roadshow experts also have a secret weapon – a backstage library of reference materials. You too can access this valuable tool of the trade, which covers a wealth of topics from all areas of the antiques and collectibles world. Find a full listing organized by category at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/

While not everyone owns antiques, there’s probably not a household in America that doesn’t have – somewhere in the cellar, attic, or toy chest – something that someone somewhere considers a collectible. Thus, the collectibles market is fed by deaccessionings from thousands of retirees and simple chucker-outers. And it follows that the more of a thing that has been accumulated, the more things for collectors there will be. Metlox dinnerware, half-dolls, Beacon camp blankets – “If your Mom sold it at a yard sale,” says Antiques Roadshow pop-culture expert Gary Sohmers, “in 20 years, you’ll want it back.”

Actually, collectibles probably choose you. If you are thinking about starting a collection, however, and the choices seem almost limitless, the criteria you apply should be yours and yours alone. Whether you concentrate on excellence of manufacture or cuteness, your choice and collectible yardstick should reflect only your own preferences. Don’t be influenced by what others collect or by what they have told you is a good thing to collect. And never, never – say Antiques Roadshow appraisers in unison – collect purely as an investment. If the objects you can’t help but love turn out to be unexpectedly valuable, that’s a plus. Even if at first you’re the only one around who is interested in Corgi toy garages, it’s not altogether impossible that in years to come many people will want Corgi toy garages, a development that, naturally, will make you look smart while it makes your own collection that much more valuable. But if no one ever shares your passion it will still offer you the enormous satisfaction of both discovery and ownership. The real joy of collecting is a lifetime of pleasure and becoming more knowledgeable – not richer.

From Antiques Roadshow Collectibles by Carol Prisant. Copyright ©2003 by WGBH Educational Foundation. Reprinted by arrangement with the publisher. To order a copy, please visit the Workman Publishing Company Inc. Web site at www.workman.com.