Collecting in Choppy Waters
The rare book business today is not the business it was or will be. It is in a state of becoming and the pace of change accelerating as elements of the old model break down. Complicating things there are as many and probably more people vying for a place in the trade that is at once traditional and morphing into something new. The well-established tradition of schooling collectors in the once common used bookshop gives way to the era of the self-educated collector with fewer enduring ties to dealers. The lament among dealers today is that there are few new collectors. The truth is simpler: collectors are acquiring in different ways.
The new collector is often a skeptic who learns online and by chance. They are cautious in their purchases; more trusting of market derived prices, and often initially buy the cheapest rather than the best. In time they discover that unimportant, defective and derivative material that has been easy to buy will be next to impossible to sell. If they learn this lesson early they may move on to collect successfully for decades. If they buy too much before they understand this, they often quit, disappointed with their mistakes. In every generation there are only so many great collectors. The probability that some, because of the breakdown in the structure of the field, will never achieve their collecting potential is a source of frustration to those dealers who specialize in interesting and important material that they gather for such collectors. In consequence many dealers are adjusting their approach as they try to catch the eye of the serious and engaged early in their collecting experience.
Just a few years ago this was easier done for the book business was books. Today books are an important minority to the growing majority of materials that include maps, manuscripts, pamphlets, ephemera and paintings. Being au courant these days means being both broad in perspective and skilled in the concept of collectability across the broader panorama that collectors, as polymaths, increasingly assume.