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Selling Precious Collections

May 31, 2019 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Collections are defined as a similar group of things, often more than three. Most of us equate them not in terms of the number but as objects that we really don’t need, and which have made our everyday lives more beautiful, fulfilling and interesting. They reflect our personal taste and style. They also require great time, effort and money spent learning and hunting for something that catches our attention and becomes a passion worth pursuing.

 

Margaret’s mother collected paperweights, and her husband amassed more than 5,000-vinyl records and many bottles of fine wine. And then there was all the baseball paraphrenia and music collections that their two sons assembled. Margaret collected children’s books. Barbara collected a 250-piece snow globe collection of globes from around the world. Her mother had a small pitcher collection and one of Barbara’s daughters had a postcard collection. How we each loved our obsessions.

Collections vary greatly, not just the objects chosen but the number. Some can be huge and bulky like paintings or books while others can be small like gemstones or decorative buttons. Some are quirky, including Elvis memorabilia or Happy Meal toys. Other collections might have started out small, then grew to ungainly proportions like Barbara’s snow globes. Photo collections are another example of how a collection can slowly build and gain momentum. Margaret is housing several large boxes of loose photos and video tapes as well as more images in countless photo albums, all of which she won’t part with but which she might digitize.

Large collections are wonderful if we stay put in our homes and have space in rooms, attics and basements. But once we decide to move, as many of us do in our 60s and 70s as we retire or simply don’t want to pay and maintain so much square footage, we realize it’s time to decide what to do with our collections. In studying and thinking about them, some of us decide the passion has faded. We’ve fallen out of love with them because they no longer seem to engage or amuse us or fit into our simplified lives. It takes time to dust all those snow globes.

This begs the question: Why are we hanging on to them?  Who are we saving them for? Do our kids want our collections? Most likely, no. They are of the mindset like Socrates who said that simplicity is very powerful. Minimalism seems to be their millennial mantra. In addition, we live in an age where most things are digital and disposable. These realities create an even more intense longing to strip ourselves of these physical objects that once spoke to us as an association with a time and memory, maybe from childhood, but no longer do.

So, we debate. Does this painting still offer that magical feeling that keeps us hanging onto something because we’ve had it forever, our parents did, or we think its value will increase the longer we own it? If not, is it now time to let it go?

Before we do, maybe we’ll document our collection by doing an inventory sheet in Excel or a video or photo record. Margaret is finding as she goes through her possessions to downsize that trying to document, decide what to keep and learn any monetary value is akin to a full-time job. It requires computer savvy on eBay, working with auction houses, big-time collectors who know record values, wine connoisseurs, antique dealers, coin and silver mavens, estate sales people …and so many more. She may also decide to attend some trade shows and events to sell her belongings or hire an estate salesperson to conduct a sale at her home. This requires more time researching, interviewing and hiring folks.

Case in point is Margaret’s late husband’s record collection. He started the collection when he was a child. For more than 10 years in his 20s and early 30s, he worked for two record companies. The record collection kept growing with mostly classical and 70s and 80s rock music, some country, and a little jazz.

After Margaret’s husband went into the family wine and spirits business and they moved from Chicago back to St. Louis, all the records came with them. There the albums sat like good soldiers on specially built shelves in their home for 37 years until her husband’s death eight years ago. Two years later, Margaret moved into a condo and put the records in storage.

Now that she’s moving to New York City, she faced a conundrum. What to do with the records? They meant so much to her three kids yet none of whom lives in St. Louis and has a home large enough to take on such a huge collection. Her younger son, a musician and composer, came up with a solution: Have the boxes of records delivered from storage to Margaret’s condo and he, his girlfriend and a record expert, Warren Hill, owner of Little Axe Records, a shop and record company in Portland, Oregon, would come and sort, catalogue and value the albums.  

To start the process, Margaret put down plastic and covered the furniture in her living room and hall before the storage company dropped off the records. They consumed the space. It took two full days and nights to go through every album. The ones with value were mailed to Warren to sell through his outlets, and the unclaimed records were purchased and picked up by Tom “Papa” Ray of a local record store, Vintage Vinyl. It was tough to see the collection broken up, but Margaret and family knew it was the propitious time to do so.

Barbara’s snow globe obsession has cooled a bit. She started it in the nineties after writing a story about a Chicago home and seeing the owners’ collection prominently displayed in their front hall. She thought it was charming. She started collecting a few with no thought to build a collection but gradually did. On every trip, she would bring home one globe.

Soon, friends and family began to send them when they’d travel to places Barbara had never visited—South Africa, India, Spain. In a prior home, she had glass shelves built to house all together from floor to ceiling in a newly remodeled kitchen. The collection looked stunning. In her current home, the globes are dispersed throughout the rooms, and the impact is far less dramatic. Today, some of the “snow “has dried up--a bit like her passion for the globes, and it has become harder to bring back new ones from trips since they must be packed rather than allowed in carry-on luggage. Because she hopes to downsize within the next year, she’s begun thinking what to do with them. Perhaps, her grandsons will want them or maybe a museum will.  But she feels they should stay together, if possible.

In the end, collections represent something that has caught our eye and tugged at our heartstrings. Margaret’s husband loved music, and for him the records weren’t just vinyl in cardboard sleeves but music that filled the air and brought great happiness to her entire family. Collections say something about what matters greatly to us, and that may be the real reason it’s hard to dismantle or part with these things. We’re giving away a piece of us.

Tips for selling off a collection:

Get some sense of the value of a collection by checking online. Don’t look at what the buyer wants but what it sold for in today’s market. Many of the items we grew up with that we thought were so valuable, are not as popular today. For example, we thought antiques would always go up in value. Few people want them now. Some items might have value again in 10 or 20 years if you can hang on to them, which means storage if you don’t have the room. However, that can become pricey when you must pay a bill every month, quarter or year.

Have an expert appraise your collection for insurance purposes and then you will have some idea of its value, if it has value. Not all collections do. This also covers you if you lose something in a fire or if it’s stolen. Remember to document it in images.

Sell the collection as one rather than breaking it up, although it might have less value than if selling one piece at a time. The best way is online but spending time on the computer estimating the value of each item can be time consuming and laborious. However, you can do it from home and in your spare time. Don’t forget, you’ll have to take photos, write a blurb about the item/items, measure certain types of items, pack and ship. Check out sellingyourcollection.com to discover the pros and cons of doing it this way.

Find a third party to sell it if you don’t want to do the work required i.e. an auction house or consignment store, an estate sale or flea market. Auction houses offer a world-wide market but it’s not an instant sale. You must wait until the items are purchased. Same if they’re on consignment. Also, don’t forget, if you use a third party, you will have to pay them a portion of all sales, often one half or one third depending on any work they may have to do.

Sell at events and shows. A baseball expert took Margaret’s sons’ collections to sell at a big show in St. Louis. Not much sold so he decided to take the rest of the items he thought had value and sell them on eBay and through other online sites.

Consider selling to small retail stores that resale smaller items such as designer clothing, purses, scarves or jewelry. People love antique jewelry and old designer purses and scarves. Have a Birkin bag? You may have won the lottery.

Donate to a museum i.e. a baseball hall of fame or if a precious antique furniture, mirrors or paintings. Contact your local art museum. If they don’t want it, perhaps the person in charge can suggest who might.  If it’s a telescope or fossil collection, for example, you might contact a science museum. If the collection is blues records and CDs, you might call a local blues museum. There are museums for everything. If a piano, resale is difficult. Donate to a school or local hospital …and get a tax deduction. And there is always Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity or your favorite charity.

And always remember the joy that you or someone else had in building the collection. That will remain forever.

 




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