Collecting into the Future: Learning from the Past

- by Bruce E. McKinney


A painting of Lake Mohonk by Daniel Huntington

The Internet has transformed many things, collecting among them.  From the beginning of the Internet old books and collectible paper could be found.  Yes, you could see opportunities and quickly, observers began to discourage using the Internet as a primary source, pointing out that condition is subjective and descriptions potentially misleading.  To understand that issue I found auction records useful and in time, started Americana Exchange to build an authoritative database to reduce my financial risk when acquiring material.  Rare Book Hub and later Transactions+ in time became the [my] search for proof of valuation and rarity.


Had the pursuit of financial security been the only goal, Rare Book Hub would have been a worthwhile project.  Auction history gave me confidence to build book collections relating to The New World [up to 1625] and the American West [up to 1890] that 10 years later netted a 15% profit.  I wanted to prove that collections could be built and subsequently be dispersed without financial harm.


For the future of collecting, in my view, financial viability is vital.


And I also had another collection to build relating to the Mid-Hudson Valley.  I grew up there.


Such a collection would be a labor of love, an emotional investment, with additional purposes - to learn how to build, value and ultimately sell what would become a massive collection of ephemera.  My first collections were books with a smattering of broadsides and ephemera acquired from exceptional dealers.  A collection relating to the Hudson Valley would need to rely on different resources because almost all of the deep history of the mid-Hudson Valley is ephemera.


There are several hundred books relating to that area’s history.  I have and use them but the truly interesting materials are the original source documents and ephemera. 


As to where to look and what to look for when I started collecting in earnest, that took time to figure out.


Twenty years ago eBay was a phenomenal resource for the relentless downpour of disgorged documents, objects, letters, artwork, maps and ephemera that related to the Hudson Valley.

Between 2000 and 2012 I spent about $200,000 sorting through, bidding and buying their daily offerings.


In time, the flow petered out and the collection gradually transformed into a more structured pursuit.  Experience became the teacher.


Traditional auctions and specialist dealers became the collection’s principal drivers.  Simultaneously, larger images and paintings became accessible, providing visual focuses for subjects that have since become my dominant themes. 


Frankly, this collection has been absolutely unpredictable in the nicest way.  Great manuscripts, paintings, and extensive runs of business histories regularly readjust my sense of relative importance and relevance for its various constituent parts.   


Today, I’m soon 76 and I have about 25,000 items and my family has asked me to complete this Ulster County Odyssey.  It’s been deeply satisfying and has been a marvelous experience to build.


Twice, having sold collections successfully, I had a meeting at Swann recently to talk about  how that collection might fit into their plans.  The answers were Yes and HUM.


The description of such a collection will in part rely on the expertise of the collector because it is intense and narrow.  Such collections are invariably unique and will need the collector’s perspective.  My two previous auctions were accomplished by simply transferring the material to the house taking on the project.


My sense for this one, I should expect to write what I’ll call the back catalogue, connecting the many levels of history that tie together the political, social, and economic threads.


It will be a useful exercise for future collectors who focus on ephemera. 


For those who collect intensively, I suggest you follow the process as I work through the process of converting an emotionally satisfying pursuit into an auction late fall in 2023.  I expect to be writing about the process regularly.