Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2015 Issue

When Collecting Ends

At the end of the day

Recently at the New York Book Fair I saw two Albany maps that, although expensive, were very appealing.  I wanted to buy them.  As I often do when considering important material I asked others for their opinion and the endorsements were warm but somewhat cautionary.  This then inadvertently brought into focus what the final years of my collecting may entail, having to say no for no other reason than that there may not be enough time on the clock to overcome the markups I pay to buy.  Long ago I established the theory [and subsequently proved it] that the difference between what many dealers charge and what a collector can expect to recoup at auction ten years later is about a breakeven.  This is of course more complicated than simply paying asking prices and waiting ten years.  Establishing the correct current value is essential because dealer prices range from the occasionally seriously underpriced to the occasionally seriously overpriced.  Understanding actual value is therefore important when buying and the rate of price recovery about 30% per decade.  This means that purchases have to be carefully calculated if among the goals of the collector are both an impressive assembly and financial prudence.

 

Two collections I sent to auction in 2009 and 2010 to Bloomsbury [then in New York] and Bonhams today prospering in New York were very successful.  Between them they raised $7.3 million including about a $900,000 gain.  The average holding period was about 12 years, a few for most of 20 years and others for as few as 5.

 

So now I’m 68 and a high fraction and thinking these last collections of mine, all variations on a New York Hudson River theme, will be sold when I’m 75 +/- a year.  This means I no longer have the option to buy with the expectation of a 10-year hold to bring the price I sell for back into line with the price I pay.  And it’s unsettling because I enjoy collecting.  I have given advice to many to plan to sell in their lifetime, in particular not to expect that partners, widows, widowers, children or executers will do better.  That’s unlikely to happen because collecting is complex and takes years to accomplish.  A collector invests their time because they have the desire and no one else is going to feel the same way or invest the same energy so it is inescapably the collector’s responsibility to dispose.

 

There are of course many ways to do this; by gift [with a tax deduction], by sale to dealers [only the very best collections will qualify] or a library, or sell at auction in which case many decisions will be necessary.  Where to sell all or a part, whether to sell by category, whether to sell via a single house or several depending on their expertise, experience, following and interest; these are all factors to consider.

 

In other words, just when your knowledge and experience are peaking you have to begin to plan your withdrawal.  I suppose it’s like seeing a three-act play.  Even as the first and second acts are superb you can begin to feel the nag of regret for you know there are only so many acts – that this play will end.


Posted On: 2015-06-01 11:09
User Name: periodyssey

Hi Bruce,
This article surprises me. I like quoting your comment that the last words of a collector are "I'll take it." This sentiment, it seems to me, comes much closer to the heart of the collector than your cold calculus. The collector makes sense of history, gathering together objects that have a natural unity but have been dispersed by time. This is often an heroic feat of patience, perseverance, discrimination, and money. And enthusiasm! I suppose if all you care about as a collector is getting a return on value, then your emotionless (and suspect) math is worth considering. But if that is the case, I would suggest investing in stocks instead. Rich West/Periodyssey and Partners in Paper


Posted On: 2015-06-01 16:58
User Name: bookbones215

Thank you for your article. It is not a pleasant subject. I am a bookseller who started out as a book collector, now in my mid sixties. No kids, and a spouse who knows nothing about book values. Although my passion was ever hardly linked to the economics, my attention has been increasingly been drawn there. I would like to leave some kind of legacy for my wife in the event that I pass before her, which seems likely, looking at the Male vs female mortality rates. Anyway, although my collection is quite small and specific, I am interested in just compensation for the books I have...even though I didn't buy them "as an investment" per se, prudent dealings and cognizance of the marketplace has aided my purchasing decisions. When you say that it is up to collector to dispose of his/her collection, this hit a chord with me. The various venues available to me to sell presents a field I need to explore with care. I was quite surprised and pleased to see that the topic was up for discussion, and thanks again for your POV.


Posted On: 2015-06-02 16:44
User Name: Fattrad1

Bruce,

We booksellers will be anxiously awaiting some investment reporting from collectors, time weighted rate of return, diversified portfolios (genres), currency hedged collections.


Posted On: 2015-06-02 16:53
User Name: Fattrad1

Oh, I am short selling modern literature, predicting future declines, better dump those Gatsby's.


Posted On: 2015-06-02 21:06
User Name: greenbooks497

Great article. I’d love to hear the experiences of those collectors who, at the end of the collecting rainbow, decided to sell or auction their treasures. I’d be particularly interested to hear the delta between their perceived value of the collection and the actual return on the investment. The area that I collect is exceedingly narrow with a limited number of collectors. Many of us are friendly rivals for the same material (emphasis on the friendly). Releasing my rather large fish of a collection into this tiny pond of interested collectors would almost certainly depress prices during the time of the sale a quite sometime thereafter. My case is extreme given the specialist nature of the collection but in today’s interconnected world the risk of flooding a mirco-market (and hence shooting onesself in the financial foot) is very real, and significantly greater than in the pre-Internet era.


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