For more than 25 years, I’ve collected various genres of Civil War artifacts, each with the excitement and fervor of Gallagher at a farmer’s market. Of all the things I’ve collected over the years, my Civil War collection provides me the greatest joy… and pain! Yes, pain! Every time I admire my collection, I’m reminded of the many mistakes I’ve made. I’ve passed-up items that I wished I had purchased, sold a few things that I kick myself for letting go, and let collecting get in the way of other, more important things in life. Sound familiar?
Based on my personal experiences in amassing my own collection, I’ve put together 9 tips for collectors that I hope will help lead you to a more enjoyable and fulfilling journey of collecting.
1. Set goals
What do you want your collection to look like 10 years from now? Do you want a “relic room” full of stuff? Do you want an instructional collection that can be used to teach others about history? Do you want to focus your collection on specific items or a broader category? Do you want an investment-grade collection that could be sold for a profit? While goals certainly change from time-to-time, periodically asking yourself these types of questions will help guide your research and purchasing decisions down the road – leading to a more rewarding collection in the future.
2. Invest in research material
Early in my collecting career, I didn’t place enough emphasis on research and reference materials. I would rather have spent my money on an artifact than a book. In hindsight, I now consider reference materials as an important and necessary investment in my collection. And as shocking as this may sound, with all of the great information available online, there is much more available in print form. So don’t skimp on this part of collecting, because with great reference material by your side, you will inevitably become a more savvy and knowledgeable collector.
3. Nothing beats hands-on experience
The best learning experiences I’ve ever had were through the hands of another collector. If you know of a local collector, ask if you can visit their home or shop to learn more about their collection. Most (not all) collectors will be more than happy to share what they have and what they know – it’s part of the hobby that most of us enjoy. If you don’t know of a collector in your area, try contacting a museum to schedule a time to review a particular collection with someone knowledgeable. Lastly, attend as many shows as you can, regardless of how much money you have or don’t have. At shows you’re able to see a tremendous amount of items, study them, and ask a lot of questions of knowledgeable people.
4. Leverage the web
The internet offers an extraordinary opportunity to view, read, and ask questions about the things you’re most interested in. More likely than not, there are online forums and social network groups that cater to your area of interest. Once you find one, take time to sift through the various posts, read past conversations, and then introduce yourself to the community. Keep in mind that such online forums should be treated as a resource – not a place to showcase your awkward loneliness or to be an internet troll.
5. Focus & Quality
When I first started going to Civil War relic shows as a kid, I was blown away by the dealers with tons of “stuff” on their tables. In my naivety, I mistakenly perceived that to be a sign of a great, accomplished collector. As I’ve grown older and had the opportunity to visit the homes of other collectors, I’ve realized that many of their collections were just like those tables at shows – just a ton of stuff without a real story. While still impressive, volume doesn’t say much more than “Check out all my stuff!” On the other hand, a collection focused on a specific area of interest will allow you to develop a unique level of expertise in that area and share a much greater story with anyone willing to listen.
Focus and quality often times go hand-in-hand. Take it from me, you’ll be much happier 10 years from now if you spent your time and money on quality items versus quantity. If you visit enough shows, you’ll see those who gravitate to the “everything $1” boxes. Remember, a box full of cheap stuff is exactly that – cheap!
6. Set and stick to a budget
Remember that your living expenses and family comes first! This sounds like a ridiculous reminder but if you’ve collected long enough, you’ve made the mistake of putting your hobby in front of more important things at least once. It’s important to determine what a healthy budget is for your situation and to stick to it. If you have to pass on something you’ve seen online or at a show, chances are you’ll find another one down the line. It’s also a good habit to leave the credit card behind and only make purchases with cash.
7. Take care of your collection
Caring for your collection can be just as exciting as acquiring new items. Time, heat, light, and oxygen all pose real threats to your collection. Learn how to properly care for your collection to minimize its decay.
8. Documentation and death
Let’s face it, we’re all going to die. Our collection will have another caretaker after we’re gone. It’s important to understand this sooner rather than later and to take the necessary measures to ensure your collection is cared for after you’re gone. Make sure you’re documenting the details of the items in your collection – what the item is, where it’s located, how and when it was acquired, how much you paid for it, etc. Once you’ve decided what you want done with your collection after you’re gone, make sure to document your wishes legally in the form of a will.
9. Keep perspective
Remember, it’s just stuff! Cool stuff, but just stuff. Don’t let your collecting hobby get in the way of more important things in life. I’ve personally seen collectors experience divorce, the loss of family and friends because they lost perspective. Remember, it’s just stuff!