The Serious Collector at Book Fairs and Beyond: two views
The Traditional Collector-Dealer Relationship
Serious collectors come in two varieties, traditional and new. At book fairs traditional collectors come out in force. They see a hundred dealers with similar standards and occasionally the same titles. They can compare copies, hear their explanations, and get a sense of flexibility about the price. Because dealers authenticate material and typically guarantee their accuracy the collector can focus on what they like. When another copy is available the collector can examine the differences, learn the dealer’s perspective and gauge the influence of condition on value. For many this is how they collect. It is emotionally satisfying and for many, certainly the majority, the way they will buy their entire collecting career.
Shows are the Broadway and bright lights of emotion based collecting and most collectors never go wrong if they have sufficient income to fund their decisions. Hence the substantial and noticeably happy community that descended on the recent ABAA fair. Their purchases may not always turn out to be investments but such collectors do not usually expect them to perform like the Dow Jones Industrial Average. They are something more than baubles and something less than diamonds and they are comfortable with it. What dealers offer is gathered from a variety of sources: from other dealers, collectors, at auction, and from de-accessioning institutions. They have an eye and discernment and this reflects in what they handle and how they price their stock. [illustration 1]
A few traditional collectors experience this first stage and move on to knowledge based collecting and often become substantial buyers as they separately confirm dealer and auction house assurances. Dealers spend their lives learning their fields and collectors moving into ‘serious’ will spend time to learn their category in it. Collecting Lincoln letters, an area of interest to collectors, is a small part of a dealer’s Civil War inventory but for the collector it may be their entire focus and they can study both what is available and what has sold. This transition to knowledgeable can be quick or slow but the shift is fundamental. Knowledge based collectors, while continuing to rely on their primary dealers, develop their own opinions about relevance and importance and increasingly make independent decisions. A few go on to become dealers themselves. Others become important collectors.
The thorniest issues are often bibliographic; specifically completeness, binding and condition. Good books in less than pristine condition are the most available and least desirable. Knowing how to balance these factors and the likelihood of another copy appearing in some reasonable time are all factors that dealers routinely address. This is how they earn their mark-up. The collating and confirmation of condition for issue is indeed far more complex than the inexperienced collector expects and it takes the self-motivated years to develop this skill. Said another way, rare is easy to understand, best known copy a far more complicated judgment. Consequently, for expensive material, dealers and auction houses tend to create independent views and collectors listen carefully to both perspectives.
For the self-motivated collector how does this work?
To find material dealers look at the underlying sources. You won’t quickly, if ever, develop their network of sources but you will develop an increasing sense of where your material shows up. It may be on listing sites, be offered by specialists, be offered at one of the many shows, or offered at auction and even on eBay. That’s a lot to follow but tools exist to make it easy. It nevertheless always takes time because most fields are webs of nuances and figuring out how to uncover relevance is an art, not a science. The fundamental concept to grasp is to see the entire category as a flow. Dealers understand this. Most collectors don’t. They believe what they see is the field. It is in fact a single frame of a movie that never ends.
The Serious Collector at Book Fairs and Beyond: two views
Traditional and Self Directed Collecting in a shared world
In time the collector learns that the world is not as they expect. There will turn out to be much more material and sometimes-substantial differences in price that will leave you scratching your head. With enough experience you may learn the hardest lesson of all, that it’s often the best copy rather than the cheapest that is most appropriate, and may I call such purchases what they are, investments. Such copies will be hard to find but if you someday sell you will probably do well. If you doubt that quality is important look again at what dealers offer. There are some dealers that sell impaired material for lower prices but the best dealers sell very good material. Your mission, should you pursue serious self-directed collecting, will be to identify the current value and the fair price of material in your focus that you believe others will in the future want. It’s certainly the best material. If you collect this type of material you will have options when/if you sell. Rare material is after all a catch and release program. You can own great things but you or your heirs will dispose by gift or sale. This always happens. There are no exceptions.
The second illustration conceptualizes how a self-directed collector approaches their avocation. They live between two worlds, between the traditional world of bookselling and the world of the self-directed collector. They follow the flow at auction, on the listing sites, read catalogues, and of course go to shows. It is a passion and an intellectually filling experience. They do the hard work and achieve better results with lower costs and take the risk, as all dealers do, of making mistakes. It occasionally happens. It’s part of the game. [illustration 2]
This said, most collectors have day jobs and make their money using special skill sets that earn substantial rewards. The best use of their time isn’t necessarily to learn the book business, it may be to deliver Othello on Broadway, sing in concert, sell insurance, or manage money, etc. For them it’s almost always best to rely on dealers to help them build their collections. One’s time after all also has a cost.
If you are one of those collectors who likes the study and brawls of serious collecting you will find enormous satisfaction but you will earn your rewards. Prices are exacted either way and both provide an exceptional experience.