Monday, September 23, 2013

Muddy Monday: Twelve Habits of Happy Collectors

I recently visited with a local collector, Jayne Kubas, and was interested to learn that we shared several similar collecting habits and specialties. She has been collecting in near-isolation from the model horse hobby for several years. Even without the modern internet forums and Facebook, her collection is well curated, well documented, and brings her immense joy. Like mine, it is not large, but it doesn't have to be. This is because certain habits in collecting, without influence of other people, set the stage for satisfaction.

Most internet lists of habits use the word, "successful" in the title. I used "happy" on purpose, since "success" in collecting is subjective, but happy is easy to identify. The habits in this list are not numbered, because there is not a strict order of importance or chronology. 

Infrequent dusting. 

The first reasoning a person may use to convince themselves to not purchase an item- "I have enough things to dust"- is not a viable argument. That's right, the less one messes with the fragile ceramics in their cabinet setting, where all surfaces are hard, the better off everyone is. I personally dust everything, top to bottom, once every two or three years. I know other ceramic collectors who do not dust their cabinets this often. If your nerves are telling you that it's a bad idea to dust frequently, listen. Most guests understand what an undertaking it is to empty an entire cabinet and safely replace them all. They wouldn't want that task every month, either!

Keep files. Know your inventory.

Don't trust it to memory. We all can forget details. What if something happened, and you didn't have a chance to convey to your loved ones what you have saved in your brain? If your collection is of a modest size, you don't need a whole filing cabinet. Keep a school binder with a sheet for each item in your collection. Some collectors put a photo of the item on its page, for immediate recognition. Others use a number ID system, and affix numbered adhesive tags on the hoof or base of each item. I have also seen some collectors write out the provenance, with ink or pencil, directly on the base or belly of their collectibles. Others print out self-adhesive labels with provenance, to place on the model's base. Make use of the reference books, and identify the color, factory era, and mold number of each piece. Identify them as if someone who knew nothing about the collection was being introduced to it.

Maintain a useful library about your collectibles.

The happiest, most thorough collectors, that I have met, tend to buy two copies of each professionally-printed book on their collecting interests. One copy is a working copy, for weekly or daily reference, wherein the owner hand-writes corrections, additions, contact information for owners of featured pieces, and auction results. The other copy is kept in fine condition, and is really part of the collection, itself. It is scarcely, if ever, used.

Books on subjects related to, but not useful to, the collector's focus or interests are represented by a single copy, or not at all. It is about having reference material handy for one's own needs, not about having the most collectibles titles under one roof.

Be flexible with your time.

This is a hard one to achieve, in today's world of working two jobs, commuting, and volunteer commitments. Thankfully, smart phones and widespread internet access make it possible to check sales sites while in a waiting room, or during a break. Some collectors work unusual hours, and they surf eBay for late-night "Buy It Now" bargains. I wouldn't even mention it, if I didn't know of some wonderful deals my collector friends won, just by being among the few awake at a given hour. Got insomnia? Make it work for you!


Trading is one of the greatest joys of being in a collecting community. This is an easier proposition for those who have established themselves, and have a solid reputation. For beginners in ceramic horse collecting, specifically, I would recommend starting out trading in person at model horse events. Protect yourself by carrying your own handheld mini blacklight (around $10 shipped). This tool will let you fully assess any repaired damage, and thus have a better idea of trade value. It is normal for collectors to forget about all the repairs done to a piece over its lifetime, particularly if they have held up well. Don't assume a seller/trader is trying to pull a fast one, they probably just forgot. At any rate, the blacklight makes it clear to both parties what damage exists, and makes for a more fair negotiation. Trading at events also means that you don't have the troubles of boxes, foam peanuts,  and deciding who-ships-first. 

Remember: there is no such thing as "restored to mint". There is "restored", and there is "mint condition", but a piece can't truthfully be both at once.

To help build one's reputation as a good trader, leave your business card, or contact information, with your trade partner. Ask them to post to any of the hobby reference boards about their satisfaction with the trade.

After the beginner has had a few positive reports online, it is much easier to pursue long-distance trading. Search the reference boards before doing business with any hobbyist. Use the insurance, signature, and other secure shipping tools that shipping carriers offer. 


Some of this is covered, above. The happiest collectors keep in touch with other collectors. They find great fun in helping their friends find items they need to complete their collections, because we've all had that "Aha!" moment. It feels good to make it happen for someone else we like. One of my favorite things to do in a quiet moment is to send links of things I've found, that I suspect my collecting friends need. At best, it completes years-long searches, and makes everyone's day. At worst, it just gives them a smile to know you are thinking of them, and watching for the things they like. 

You can network at shows, on collection tours, at collectibles book signings, and even at workshops related to your collecting focus.

The gems of three different collections, in an unprecedented photo shoot:
priceless horses glazed by Maureen Love.
This was not at a horse show, just collectors getting together to visit and share.

One tip for ease of networking in a collectibles field: do more listening to others, than talking about what you have. Nine times out of ten, you will be surprised to learn that the quiet shy person has amassed a collection over three decades, or their mother was a collectibles dealer. When a new collector-friend asks you about your favorite piece, just tell them the one, and it's OK to be giddy and happy, too. Just don't give a laundry list. There's lots of time to share more, as you go forward.

It's not about the ribbons. Well, maybe, a little.

If you want to compete, read the show packets carefully before entering. Learn which shows understand the needs of ceramics exhibitors. If you don't see what you need to find out, write the show holder and ask specific questions. Show holders may offer these courtesies to china exhibitors, at no additional charge:

A table space against a wall
Gaps of 1-2" between each table
Exhibitor space close to the "china" show ring

Nice things that may cost more:

Extra table space (such as an upgrade to a full from a half-table exhibitor space)
All-china specialty show
Shipping ahead and storage of boxes of china showhorses

There are plenty of volunteer jobs at a show, which can get you close to see everything and to network, without the pressure of competition. Volunteering can be a fun way to be active in the scene.

Paper roll and lights.

Invest in a good, useful (not necessarily top grade) camera, photography lights, and a backdrop or PhotoCube. Make sure you get the same color photography bulbs, each time they need replacing. Ahem.

You will need to take at least one clear photo of each piece for insurance replacement, your own records, sharing with friends, and when you edit your collection.

A PhotoCube set up.

If you don't know, ask.

You'll get to see what Maxine sent, in a future article.

Write letters, and snailmail them, don't just leave them in the desk drawer. Send emails. If the person you need to contact prefers to use the telephone, call them at a time that is convenient for them, not an hour after they have gone to bed. Courtesy and humility will help you find answers. Sometimes, you will receive even more in return.

It's OK to not be a "completist" collector. Specialization is key to happiness.

This sort of follows the philosophy of "love yourself first, and you will be ready to love others". When you identify your favorite area of collecting, you are accepting your own sense of taste. Your personal fancy is legitimate, even if it is not what may bring the big ribbons in shows. It doesn't matter what other people like. You aren't collecting for them. They aren't living in your house and seeing this every day. It's much more fulfilling to focus your budget and space for the things that you deeply love, then it is to have a lot of things that give little connection. With time, because it takes time to find things within a specialty, you will have much more appreciation for the collecting whims of others. You will have interesting anecdotes and production facts to share about collecting, because of your specialization journey. Welcome to the party, Professor!

A doll collector had to have an example of every major manufacturer, but they were not terribly clear on what they wanted, at heart. The collection was a hodge-podge of doll styles, ages (baby to fashion), condition, rarity, and era. It wasn't terribly nice to look at because it had zero specialization, and the curation was completely lacking. This is a dangerous pitfall if you start with a goal for the Guinness World record in collecting, or any quantity measurement to determine status. Decide for yourself whether a collecting "accomplishment" means it must be a contest, or personal satisfaction for the long-term.


Curation is the vigilant editing and awareness that distinguishes an assembly of objects from a collection. This job starts with selection, and continues with organization, display methods, and restoration; it makes room for new acquisitions by the culling of items that do not support the quality or focus of the whole. 

Without curation, it's like an unscented landfill. It's tedious to look at, it's hard to find anything when you need it, it takes up a lot of space, stuff is constantly falling over other stuff, and you find yourself not wanting to spend a lot of time there.

Appreciation Time.

Every happy collector I know does this. Find a comfy place to rest and just look at your collection. Pick a piece, sit down with it, turn it over in your hands, or, if it's too large, walk around it. Set it in a well-lit spot and really look at it, as an individual piece. You'll remember why you do this. You'll see the evidence of the human hands that made it, and feel a connection. You'll be glad that you went to the trouble to bring this item into your life.

If you ever find items that don't do any of this for you anymore, it's time to curate.

Appreciation to the many collectors who helped raise in this hobby!
Also, gratitude to the owners of the various items illustrating this post: Keith Bean, Jo Ellen Arnold, Liz Bouras, and Jayne Kubas.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, and interesting as always! Great topic and one everyone can learn for. Thank you and God Bless.
    Sharron Dunning