A Week in the Life of a Collector

 I am a dedicated collector of Americana, but I had never taken a “deep dive” into what my collecting entails nor have I read about others. So, for one week I kept track of my collecting behaviors and offer them for your viewing, tossing in a few observations along the way. Let me know how representative my week is if for no other reason, so I learn how “normal” (or not) I am.

An auction house contacts me via its alert function. Two Hubley steel airplanes, circa 1940, give or take a few years, to add to my wife’s growing collection, come up for bid soon. One is listed as having almost a dozen followers, which suggests bidding will be heated. I snag them both at a fair price. The entire bidding process online takes less than 5 minutes. I cannot help but admire the amazing algorithms some auction houses useI am also struck by the additional cost of the omnipresent buyer’s premium and shipping. Once I would have reached for my pocket calculator to figure what these purchases cost, but now I easily factor those expenses into my bidding. The auction houses have trained me well.

For some years I have pursued redware with writing and names inscribed in slip. The market is scorching hot. I have recently purchased a Prudance and Temperance redware platter. I love the saying, the spelling of Prudance, its condition, and its history. Adding it to my collection was a reach financially but I wanted a special piece before prices rose even more. The dealer tells me that shipping is in the offing. 

The day or two after the purchase I have a bigger grin than when I bought the platter, a sure sign of a good decision. The joy of collecting often lies in the anticipation. Oh, the plate itself will furnish day-to-day delight, but there are other factors – I include that misspelling and the realization I have preserved something unique.

 It is near the end of the year, so several January auctions are scheduled, including the high-end ones at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York City. I would very much like to find a piece I crave at one of these auctions that I can afford and lo and behold Bill DuPont’s collection has a couple of affordable smalls I have my eye on. I already have corresponded with a friend who badly wants a piece that he underbid in 2010. The experience reminds me how much of being a collector involves a sense of community. Over the years I have become friends with a broad range of fellow aficionados, some with passions for objects that leave me unstirred, all of whom are sources of fascination.

One of the DuPont pieces is a pair of Philip Syng Jr., Circa 1750, Philadelphia sugar nips. I research prices for similar pieces by the same maker and find one pair online sold by a dealer and several pairs by different makers — including two on eBay, of all places. Since I do not consider myself a “collector of silver” I can easily walk away if the price climbs beyond what I have decided is my limit. 

What am I willing to pay? The collector’s dilemma. The collecting process tells you about your limits (note that I ‘stretched” my budget for the redware plate I love, but suddenly I am charier about spending when it comes to sugar tongs, about which my feels are less elevated).

I am receiving daily photos on social media from still another auction house. The marketing is intense and unremitting. I understand the beneficial and common-sensical reasons for marketing yet at the same time, I feel a bit under siege, and the barrage of postings wants me to say, “enough.” There can be decreasing return of scale when marketing, i.e., the message can become counterproductive. I wonder if I am not alone in my feelings. The ubiquity of social media has rendered selling into an ever-present irritant. (Of course, you need not be a collector to realize this.)I have never seen a discussion of collectors’ responses to the marketing we receive. Lordy! Another item for my to-do list.

I look at the online catalog and I find one small I might consider. The fact is that many collectors don’t proceed in straight lines. It would seem perfectly logical for me to mumble. “I just got those sugar tongs; now I should buy a silver sugar bowl.” In fact, my next buy just might be a cast-iron biplane, a Windsor chair, or a wonderful weathervane. What catches my interest in not only interesting but unpredictable? And I suspect I am not alone.

 I want a carved curlew and a new one will do. See what I mean? Our three windowsills in the dining room have carved birds sitting on them and a windowsill in the adjacent living room calls out for another. A dealer friend has one in his collection — not for sale — that I love, and he sends me a photo that I post on several different social media group pages. I ask if a craftsman can make one like it for me. Amazingly, I get no takers. A lesson learned but I am not sure what the lesson is. I contact a dealer I know who specializes in antique decoys but also sells new ones. I shall keep looking. 

‘Tis the holiday season and time for me to polish our coin silver. I am reminded of the television series, Upstairs Downstairs that aired from 1971 to 1975 with a sequel in 2010. Clearly, my habits (not to mention my income) would have sentenced me to residing downstairs. I have my polishing routine down and all pieces receive the same loving care. The pieces gleam and shine, motivating me to perhaps purchase more like the sugar nips I fantasize owning. Had I known how much I like silver today, I would have collected more in the past decades. But I can still see what is available and perhaps snag a piece or two in the months and years ahead. Despite growing older there is always time for a collector to add to his holdings.

Maine Antique Digest is available online. I have it sent via first class too, so I get an even earlier look at ads and features than from its online version. I look forward to the print version and curling up with it. (Full disclosure. I have subscribed to MAD forever and enjoyed it immensely, long before I began contributing to it.)

Despite the endless public kvetching about the USPS, the post office delivers the issue of MAD in record time by today’s standards. A mug of tea in hand, I begin my ritualized reading. It is not unusual for me to read about an item at auction or a show I might have bid on or been interested in had I known it existed, but there are few regrets. Had I been interested in a piece; the final price would have been higher as the final buyer, and I bid back and forth. I only had one or two moments of humming “If I were a rich man…” There is also The Bee that I receive online each week. Another slice of heaven.

An idea is forming in my head, always a dangerous occurrence. One of the auctions in January has two small redware banks, three or four inches high. Another auction has one such bank. I have often thought of owning a few but have never pursued them. Do I want more small objects in the house? How would they look if grouped? And if they were ever truly used as banks, how did folks get their coins out of them once placed within? I learn people would break them open or enlarge the area around the coin slot. Does that mean that unvandalized small redware banks are relatively rare? I learn they are not, but something about them still attracts me.

A timed online auction is posted, and I am relieved there is nothing that interests me. I have never seen anything written about my feeling of relief, but I cannot be the only collector who has a piece or two on the horizon coming up at auction he might want if the price is right, and who is fatigued from keeping track of the various auction offerings and dealers’ wares. A strange feeling to smile at the knowledge there is at least one auction to cross off my list. Who knew finding nothing could be construed as a victory? Oh the irony.

I am amused by my relief that there is nothing more to covet (for the moment). How many pieces can one fall in love with at the same time? I am a collector better suited to dining on the extensive menu one piece at a time, a more leisurely style, compared with those who like a lot of action with hard fought opportunities. Striking out at an auction or two simplifies my thinking and lets me focus on where I truly want to spend my antique dollars. 

My feelings of comfort and solace, rather than disappointment, means that I am tired, going at collecting a bit too hard. When this “condition” strikes me, I know from experience that I am likely to make buying mistakes, both of commission (buying something I normally would have probably passed on) and of omission (missing an item I normally would have pounced on). As the week draws to a close it is time to take a break.    

So how did things turn out? The Prudence and Temperance redware platter arrived and is safely ensconced in a corner cupboard. It is already one of my favorite antiques. I won the single redware bank, estimated at $400 to $600, and paid more than that; I decided I very much liked the form and glaze. I dropped out of the bidding on the other two. With the sugar nips coming up later in the auction I decided to save my dollars for them. With an estimate of $1,500 to $2,500, they sold for $5,670, a fair price but more than I was willing to pay. My friend did purchase the Delaware tall case clock he wanted so badly and was pleased about both its price and finally owning it. And the dealer who sells decoys, got back to me; he awaits replies from some of his carvers. 

I must consider the lapsed week a relative success. I have learned a few things about myself – it would be gross denial to say I really understand all my motivations. The redware platter and my wife’s Hubleys can be checked off as successes, the passed sugar nips a prudent decision, the possible curlew replica a matter of hope. My newfound realization that there are degrees of my collecting passion, depending on the genre and piece, deserves a bit of study and probing, as does an investigation of how collectors respond to the din of advertising. The un-reaped acreage of new offerings just sits there as a challenge. Being a collector takes work. Phew.Collecting is not only great fun but a never-ending process of waiting, hoping, dreaming, winning, losing. If, as Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players’, then I indeed enjoy the collecting stage and playing upon it. I hope you do also

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