Recently at the New York Book Fair I saw two Albany maps that, although expensive, were very appealing. I wanted to buy them. As I often do when considering important material I asked others for their opinion and the endorsements were warm but somewhat cautionary. This then inadvertently brought into focus what the final years of my collecting may entail, having to say no for no other reason than that there may not be enough time on the clock to overcome the markups I pay to buy. Long ago I established the theory [and subsequently proved it] that the difference between what many dealers charge and what a collector can expect to recoup at auction ten years later is about a breakeven. This is of course more complicated than simply paying asking prices and waiting ten years. Establishing the correct current value is essential because dealer prices range from the occasionally seriously underpriced to the occasionally seriously overpriced. Understanding actual value is therefore important when buying and the rate of price recovery about 30% per decade. This means that purchases have to be carefully calculated if among the goals of the collector are both an impressive assembly and financial prudence.
Two collections I sent to auction in 2009 and 2010 to Bloomsbury [then in New York] and Bonhams today prospering in New York were very successful. Between them they raised $7.3 million including about a $900,000 gain. The average holding period was about 12 years, a few for most of 20 years and others for as few as 5.
So now I’m 68 and a high fraction and thinking these last collections of mine, all variations on a New York Hudson River theme, will be sold when I’m 75 +/- a year. This means I no longer have the option to buy with the expectation of a 10-year hold to bring the price I sell for back into line with the price I pay. And it’s unsettling because I enjoy collecting. I have given advice to many to plan to sell in their lifetime, in particular not to expect that partners, widows, widowers, children or executers will do better. That’s unlikely to happen because collecting is complex and takes years to accomplish. A collector invests their time because they have the desire and no one else is going to feel the same way or invest the same energy so it is inescapably the collector’s responsibility to dispose.
There are of course many ways to do this; by gift [with a tax deduction], by sale to dealers [only the very best collections will qualify] or a library, or sell at auction in which case many decisions will be necessary. Where to sell all or a part, whether to sell by category, whether to sell via a single house or several depending on their expertise, experience, following and interest; these are all factors to consider.
In other words, just when your knowledge and experience are peaking you have to begin to plan your withdrawal. I suppose it’s like seeing a three-act play. Even as the first and second acts are superb you can begin to feel the nag of regret for you know there are only so many acts – that this play will end.