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.