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Collect Call

10 Expert Tips On Starting A Covetable Collection

By Emili Vesilind

Whether you're passionate about '50s sunglasses or 19th century chairs, starting a collection can be a daunting prospect. Shady pseudo-experts abound, and finding dealers you can trust is the key to building something of value — even if that value is more personal than financial. But, as British politician Augustine Birrell once wrote, “Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one.” The pains of gathering prized possessions are usually outweighed by the pleasures of seeing your collection grow — and becoming an expert on the subject yourself. We asked a few professionals to weigh in on the best ways to start, and protect, a covetable collection.

1. Collect what you love. “Most collections start because the collector has a personal connection to the items or a passion for a specific category,” says Amanda Miller, senior manager of consumer public relations for eBay. And because “it's challenging to predict what will become a lucrative hobby,” it's best to choose an item or items you're keen to learn (and talk) about. Think fun, not profit.

2. Mind the condition. In real estate, the rule is “location, location, location.” But in collecting it's “condition, condition, condition,” says Beth Szescila, an appraiser on PBS' Antiques Roadshow. “You can have a great item that's really old, but if it's in terrible condition, it will never bring the value it could.”

3. Look for old. If your collectibles aren't hinged to a certain era (i.e. costume jewelry, vinyl records), know that “older is always more expensive,” says Szescila — when buying and selling.

4. Buy when the market's down. The collecting market is a lot like the stock market, and “a smart trader is someone who buys when no one else wants it,” says Szescila. “The time to buy is when things are not hot. Most really well-known collectors will tell you that they were collecting something when no one else was.”

5. Keep up with trends. Remember when Victorian furniture was all the rage? Well, now it's gathering dust in antique stores, says Szescila, who adds that keeping an eye on collectible trends is key to figuring out how much things are worth. Currently, anything midcentury modern — from furniture and clothes to decorative arts and homewares — is “really hot,” she adds.

6. Think fashion. With celebs donning vintage fashion on nearly every red carpet, classic fashion has become one of the most popular (and lucrative) categories of collecting. But buyer beware, says Cameron Silver, owner of preeminent designer vintage shop Decades in Los Angeles. Not everything with a fancy label is fit for collecting. “It's very easy to get seduced by labels,” he notes. “You have to consider the wearability. Great design is extremely timeless.” And unless you're buying for a museum collection, “You don't want to buy a costume, you want to buy things that are relevant to the modern wardrobe.”

7. Find your experts. Depending on what you're collecting — be it Hummel figurines or '40s comic books — you'll want to track down the experts in that particular genre. “Establishing a relationship with reputable dealers and store owners will foster the opportunities to get the best of the best,” says Silver.

8. Be cautious online. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can also be deceiving. “I never appraise anything online,” says Szescila. “You can't see the back, the construction. Unless you're a pretty sophisticated collector, you have to be really careful online.” Even with reputable online dealers, Szescila urges collectors to ask questions about the condition and pedigree of any item.

9. When in doubt, ask an appraiser. Having trouble pricing or authenticating a collectible? There are trust-worthy organizations that can help, says Szescila: The International Society of Appraisers and The American Society of Appraisers. Each can direct you to a local appraiser — and it's best to never veer from their rolodexes.

10. Store items smartly. You don't want to go to the trouble of building a fabulous collection, only to mishandle it. Keep things like furniture, paintings, clothes and textiles away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, says Szescila. But don't store valuables in plastic, as it doesn't breathe and can even eventually “eat” into materials such as silver. Instead, keep collectibles in acid-free tissue and acid-free boxes. Uber-pricey clothes can be stored in acid-free paper at your dry cleaners for a fee, or — for really rare pieces — at a professional storage facility such as Garde Robe. Because, notes Silver, “You don't want a Dior from ‘54 stuffed in your closet.”

  • Keeping an eye on collectible trends is key. Currently, anything midcentury modern is a hot commodity.

    Inside-photo/Serge Anton/Getty Images
Collect Call
10 Expert Tips On Starting A Covetable Collection
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