Monday, April 26, 2010

A Few Collecting "Rules of Thumb"

Writer's note: I originally wrote this for a newsletter article back in June 2002. It's been reworked somewhat, since my outlook has changed over the past eight years. However, the main points in bold are the exact same as they were when I first wrote this.

Something that bothers me about some collectors is a fixation on turning a collection into a big pile of money. While I'm not averse to honest and fair-dealing hobby people, there are some collectors who seem to assume they're somehow "better" because they are under the impression they have bricks of gold sitting in their 5000-ct. boxes and push themselves in an arrogant manner. Personally, I never got into collecting because of potential profit, and when I sold cards at a few card shows between 1989 and 1992 I spent my profits at the tables of other dealers. I kept the money in the hobby and improved my own collection in the process.

I started collecting cards when I was six years old, and have continued the hobby into my adulthood because I enjoy it. I'm not motivated by making money. If I ever find myself treating my cards as properties or investments, I'll be the first to say it's time for me to get out of the hobby and get into something else. 

This is not to say that I'm against dealers or anybody else who wants to make money by selling cards; in fact, dealers are essential to keeping the hobby going, and I have a good rapport with many dealers. In this article, I'm focusing on maintaining a collection rather than concerning myself with value.

I have come up with a short list of guidelines I use to aid in my collecting.  The list isn't complete (nor is it mandatory), but I think these basic guidelines could be helpful in building a nice collection of vintage baseball cards (though it's not supposed to be era-specific, it would work just as well for a 12 year-old collecting modern issues).

1.  Price guides are merely guidelines.

A lot of sellers appear to rely on prices found in price guides. Some offer cards in lower condition, but still give the Beckett high book value (which is meant to be a value for a top-condition card). If you take the time to read the disclaimer printed in every price guide, you'll see that the prices listed aren't intended to be absolute.

There are many factors that affect a card's value: its condition, who's pictured, your geographical location (since Tigers cards are more popular in Michigan than they are in Boston), scarcity...or lack thereof, and age are all important. The most important factor, however, is the buyer. If a seller offers a card for $100 and nobody wants to pay more than $20 to have it, the seller must make concessions on the price or the card won't sell...regardless of whatever price "experts" assign to it.

2.  Know your seller

A lot of dealers understand that the key to repeat business is treating customers fairly. In my own experience, I find that if I talk with a dealer for a while about cards and the hobby, we both feel more at ease about what I'm looking for. Often, once a rapport is built I occasionally end up getting a nice deal when I'm ready to pay. That's a nice tactic, because I'll be happy to give that seller more business, and also to refer my collector friends.

There's a flip side to that, however. As a buyer, I also realize that a seller isn't going to be able to just deal with me when there are others at a show table or in a store. Something a simple as a polite "go ahead and deal with your other customer, I'll still be here" can go a long way towards showing that you value that seller's time and business.

Another idea is to seek out trading partners. There are several online groups of traders, and membership isn't necessary to trade. With an online trading club, members often have to make a few deals before joining, so you can rest assured that the collector you're trading with is trustworthy. Trading gives you a great opportunity to improve your collection and divesting yourself of duplicate cards at a low cost.

3.  Avoid the hype

Many dealers and eBay sellers are collectors as well, and will give you a fair deal. Occasionally, you may come across a dealer that talks like a used car salesman, or you'll see an online auction with a lot of slick hype. If you have to do business with these sellers, stick to your guns. If you can't make a reasonable deal, know when to walk away.

4.  It's a collection, not an investment

I've known hundreds of collectors, but very few have ever made a great deal of money by selling their cards. That's not to say that you shouldn't become a dealer if you are so inclined; in fact, dealers are essential to the hobby. It's just that turning piles of cards into piles of cash isn't always a quick or easy process. If you are holding onto cards solely because of a potential rise in value, it's important to realize that you may have to hold onto them for several years.

As for speculators, ask a person who's been sitting on 200-card lots of Gregg Jefferies and Sam Horn rookie cards for 22 years about how well that went. While in 1988 it was easy to see the value of holding on to a Jim Palmer rookie from 1966, the collecting landscape was different then: the cards were issued in series and even though 1960s material was produced in great numbers, they were dwarfed by what flew off the presses in the late 1980s. Add to that the increased sensitivity to condition and centering...and you have an entire generation of collectors who dutifully held on to their cards and took care of them and still lost their shirts when they tried to sell them.

5.  Stay within your budget

Face it: you won't be able to own every card ever made.  You may not even be able to own every different card ever printed of your favorite team (I'm a Yankee fan, but cards of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle are a bit elusive for my budget). There's no good reason for a collector to declare bankruptcy because of his hobby.

Personally, I'm fairly cheap. It doesn't make sense to pay ten dollars for a card when I can get it somewhere else for two. If dealers employ the "hot card" sales pitch, it's good to know when to walk away from a bad deal. If somebody else is willing to spend more money than you to buy a card, then let it go; with patience, another one can be acquired later for your asking price.

6. Remember why you collect

Almost every collector started as a kid, because baseball cards were as much a part of many childhoods as school. However, when those kids grow up and decide to keep collecting, there is a reason. Since I'm not a psychologist, I'm not going to get any deeper into those reasons, but every collector has a motivation.

From time to time, it's important to think about what motivates you as a collector and perhaps re-evaluate your collecting goals. Once you've had time to think about it, the answer can help you determine what you want to collect.

7. Keep it fun

This is the most important rule. A hobby is supposed to be enjoyable. Sometimes the best part of collecting is in the chase.

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