How to effectively build a collection of books, manuscripts and ephemera

- by Bruce E. McKinney


An effective collection includes material from many disciplines.

One of the best ways to see the market is through traditional auctions. This past year more than 160,000 auction lots were posted on AE several weeks ahead of their sale, the realized prices added following the sale and the full lot description and price then posted to the AED [Americana Exchange Database], where this material becomes searchable along with 1.3 million other records to provide a history of transactions for almost all important printed material.

This material provides a cash history. For collectors whose collecting criteria includes fair value the AED is the single best source for establishing what the value is. Using it you buy the bargains and sometimes successfully negotiate with sellers to achieve a compromise price that gets you the item that you want within reach of what you believe to be fair market value.

There are also private sales. You'll find them randomly advertised in local newspapers and on the internet. Included among them are traditional auctions that sell the occasional important item but do not document their sales. Auction houses are moving onto the net but most are certainly not yet there. Pursuing such material requires patience and luck but occasionally yields some great finds.

eBay is a world unto itself. It is the world's garage sale. There are bargains available every day. It is also a science. If you become an eBay buyer it will change your collecting parameters. All the other sites sell mainly documented material, that is, material that has been written about and explained in various bibliographies. eBay of course has documented material but its strength is in the undocumented material. It's very challenging but worthwhile.

The final way to find material is at shows. Trade associations hold them as do various show promoters. Every serious collector occasionally attends them. You won't necessarily buy but you will meet dealers and be able to see first hand the relationship between condition description and actual condition. If you are lucky, you'll find one or two dealers with whom to work long term.

Outcomes: Everything you acquire will someday be given away or sold. Yup. Life ends. If you are a great collector you may achieve a bit of immortality by attaching your provenance to material that for a few decades was part of your collection. If you collect well, build skillfully, document and share in time, even if you were always a hard headed negotiator the market may say "Jill and Frank Ross" owned it and remember only good about you. And even 300 years from now, that fact will remain attached to the piece and collectors who won't be born for several hundred years will grow up to appreciate your collecting skills. It won't get you into heaven, but it will get you immortality.

Collecting is a medusa's head of possibilities. The responsibility for understanding the many possible elements lies with the collectors who must, in time, define their scope and scale, find sources, develop skills and, to be very good at it, develop a passion for the material and a love of the search to find it. Today the tools for building intellectually vigorous and visually powerful collections are at hand. It is again Sutter's Mill and the year is 1849. In twenty years today's opportunities will be a memory, the gold nuggets long since collected. For today, the future is still ahead of us and the opportunities to build collections there for the taking.