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The Artful Collector
Strange New Worlds  Issue 14 - June/July 1994

Possession Obsession
The Case Against Hoarding
by Jane Frank
Director of Worlds of Wonder Gallery, Washington DC

Possession Obsession [Page 1, 2 ]

The Packrat Principle:
the principle which propels otherwise sane individuals to amass multiple examples of essentially worthless merchandise, just in case something should happen to one of them. Like be worth money.

Hoarding. It is not a pleasant word to describe your affliction. It is acquisition without the possibility of parole, minus the thought of auctioning or sale, devoid of the contemplation of disposal (horrors!). Such socially inappropriate behavior can be described as either eccentricity or mental disease, depending on the socio-economic status of the person in question. Hoarding can be described as a sickness or a harmless and entertaining obsession. One thing for sure, this behavior is, ultimately, expensive.

Museums de-acquisition their holdings from time to time. But you won’t. You fill every closet and cranny. You buy containers that slide under your bed. You borrow your parent’s attic / basement / garage / shed / closet for a few years. You rent public storage space. But you never give up your hoard.

Hoarding. You can call it a collection, but no one believes you.

Hoarding. As in putting away for a rainy day, cheap premiums given away by gas stations, fast food joints, and cereal boxes. You don’t know why. You just do it.

Hoarding. As in filling cupboards with Burger King Star Wars glasses — even as I write this you have three or four of every pattern. As in burying in your basement, special non-acidic cardboard boxes filled with duplicate comic books; one to read and one to wrap in mylar. As in amassing, for whatever peculiar and unspeakable reason, everything that ever intrigued you that can be cataloged, classified, or categorized.

Hoarding. As in multiples of miniatures, toys, figurines, or plates — one pristine in the original packaging, one open to display. If one pack of trading cards is appealing, then buying half a dozen, especially if the theme is one you believe will be popular, is even better. The idea is simple. Stockpile as much as you can of items that are relatively popular and inexpensive. Better yet, save everything, for sooner or later it will be valuable.

Threats that an item will soon be sold out drive you into a feeding frenzy. You go to every store within a two-hour radius of your home, just to insure that you can buy up every one that’s available. You are a sitting duck for "new issues," "special editions," and "for a limited time only" printings.

Your motto: Anything worth having is worth having three of.

The Genesis of Hoarding: A Typical Case

Perhaps it started in infancy, your parents passed on the genetic affliction via the adorable Hummel figurines in the nursery. Since childhood you have been amassing a mountain of things that almost always are closely looked at only by you. It starts out slowly.

The Hoarder's Motto:
Anything worth having,
is worth having three of

In my day, the clues were collections of Double Bubble gum wrappers and baseball cards — not for flipping, but for categorizing, stacking, and wrapping rubber bands around. Or walls of felt pennants, shelves of snow domes from anywhere you had been, for no matter how long, or anything obtainable in a series. You may recall a childhood obsession for collecting every one in the series of matchbook cars, or every one of the outfits that Barbie could wear (not to mention owning all the Barbies!)

Perhaps you grew up with kitchen drawers filled with ball-point pens neatly bundled and an attic filled with stacks of National Geographics. Or watched while bowls filled with match books no one dreamt of striking, salt and pepper shakers no one dreamt of filling, or tall glasses filled with swizzle sticks no one dared use for stirring. This is how young fertile minds are twisted and warped. Combine this with family outings to flea-markets or sales exhibitions (such as coin or stamp shows), encouragement for saving box tops and every stuffed animal you ever owned, and taking advantage of gas station toy or glassware premiums, and you can do long-term, serious damage.

Comes a morning, you open a drawer and discover you have twenty-five watches, though your wrist can bear only one. You think commemorative pennants (or t-shirts, or pocket knives, or postcards, or sports programs) are colorful and fun, but more importantly, necessary for your survival. So you buy one in every vacation spot or rock concert or sporting event you go to, just to celebrate the occasion. You carefully store them, but hardly ever look at, wear, or otherwise touch the article again. You wouldn’t dream of giving them away, let alone throw them out.

One thing leads to another. If you play the piano you find yourself buying sheet music. Then vintage sheet music. Then collectible sheet music. If you like beer, you like beer cans. Then 200 different beer cans. And foreign beer. Then the advertising signs. Then the antique bottles and premiums and signs.

Sooner or later, your home is filled with untouchables: pens that cannot be written with, pencils that cannot be sharpened, spoon, cups, mug, and plates that go unused, lest they chip, or the soap and water damage them. Boxes remain sealed, cartons unopened, packaging pristine. Nothing is played with, fondled or otherwise handled — finger prints and dust contaminate the object. If you do unwrap, and display an item, the original packaging is carefully put away, for safekeeping (see past SNW issue on action toys — how to slit open the box . . . and reclose without damage to the packaging!)

At some point, you run out of closet and exhibition space. And the idea of storage in another location outside your too damp basement or too dry attic takes form. A seemingly ideal solution to an insoluble problem, outside storage is inexpensive at the outset. But soon you’re footing a monthly bill for commercial warehouse space. Convinced that at least some of the items you’re socking away will some day be major treasures, it’s relatively easy to justify the expense. Compared to their ultimate value (and your vindication for being so far-sighted) the storage fees seem trivial. Having solved the problem, you are free to pursue your obsession(s).

At some point, during this process, you begin to make jokes about your hobby. Jokes like, "I don’t own my collection, it owns me."

Getting A Grip

In its most extreme manifestation, hoarders believe that nothing should be discarded. They operate on the theory that even the most mundane, banal items may one day have value, since this has held true for objects as diverse as barbed wire, cigar bands, Pez containers, and grape jelly jars. Such hoarders feel they’re on solid turf when they pile up stacks of discontinued science fiction fanzines, mint paper backs, and convention memorabilia. This confidence extends to any signed item: letters and postcards, publicity and press materials, and advertising ephemera and such.

Here are the facts:

  1. In the long term, only a small fraction of any group of related objects (i.e., that which is collectable) becomes memorable enough to enter the ranks of items called "collectibles." Just because you can save something, doesn’t mean you should. Just because something is produced in limited quantity doesn’t make it valuable.
  2. Of those objects designated collectible, only a tiny number of them become rare / valuable enough to treasure. Hoarders must save a highly disproportionate number of items to guarantee that among them will be the one item that makes it all worthwhile.
  3. Whatever you hoard, experience shows that when the item becomes collectible you can almost always buy it for less than what it would have cost to store, keep, insure, and track it. Someone ends up paying these fees, why should it be you? Meanwhile, funds that would have gone for storage, insurance, preservation supplies, etc., might be more usefully put into a true investment vehicle.
  4. There is never an optimum time to buy or sell collections. If you hoard relatively valueless objects waiting for them to get hot, you are almost guaranteed to lose the bet. Waiting for collectibles to reach their peak is just as risky.

To offset vagaries in the collectibles markets, to maximize potential gain, and minimize potential loss, hoarders must constantly turn over a percentage of the hoard. Dealers do this so that they don’t get caught with the wrong inventory. If you aren’t a dealer and you’re using words like "making a killing when this stuff gets hot," you are setting yourself up for disaster.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Every time you buy something, you are foreclosing your opportunity to buy something else. This is "opportunity cost," the price you pay for the choices you make.

Unless you have unlimited funds and storage space, you must decide how to allocate your collecting budget. Even if you are independently wealthy, you still need to be discriminating. Your collecting strategies are important. Your collection will ultimately be worth the choices you make today. The issue is the age-old one of variety vs. specialization, quality and quantity.

Here’s how focus works: Imagine two collectors, each on a set budget which allows them to buy ten comics per month. You buy two copies each of five comics per month, one to read and one to save. Your friend buys one each of ten comics, reads them, then also puts them away. After one year, you have sixty different mint comics, your friend has 120 slightly used different comics. If one of the comics you bought becomes rare and highly valued, of course you’re ahead, because mint copies are always worth more. If, however, history repeats, no one is going to be interested in most of the comics you have purchased two of — and you have given up your ability to adapt to the market. Your friend has not.

After five years you take stock. You have 600 comics total, representing 300 different items. Of these, ten have risen in value. This gives you hope that the others will somedy be worth more. You keep on with your strategy. You now can afford twenty comics per month. You also buy every trading card set issued as they come out and doubles of those. When you’re offered a collection of comics, even though you don’t need them all, you buy them all, because it’s cheaper that way. You figure you can always use the doubles for trading — though you rarely do. Every one else has these doubles, too. You stockpile, store, wrap, and save them all. The more you can afford, the more you buy.

Your friend also takes stock, finds 600 comics in his closet, with the same percent rise in value for the whole: twenty comics. Immediately your friend dumps emough of the hoard to upgrade all twenty to mint, and fills in with mint issues whatever of the ten they didn’t own. He selects specialty areas. Particular comics. When offered collection, he cherry-picks from them. If forced to buy more than is wanted, he culls out the needed ones and dumps the rest.

Compare your respective collections when you retire, after you have spent years obsessively acquiring (and keeping) every comic you could.

"You have some nice material here," the dealers will say, "but most of it is crap. You’ll be lucky to get face value for 70% of it." Ugggh. "We’ll take the x’s and y’s and the z’s. You can give the a’s through v’s to the Salvation Army." Oh, no! Cherry-picking! But you knew this would happen. You counted on the saleable thirty percent to offset the years of storage, packing materials, worry, and explanations. Now you worry that you’re being cheated. You hate to break up the collection just to sell off the best material. So, you end up keeping it all, hoping the price will rise on the seventy percent. It never does.

Junk is junk is junk. The best goes up and the mediocre remains difficult to sell. This is gospel.

Your friend, on the other hand, is visited by Christie’s auction house. "A fine collection, choice material," they comment, "very focused, very little fluff. We’ll highlight the best pieces for the best price. We’ll split the collection into manageable units of complete sets and photograph it for the catalog." Everything is saleable. Indeed, find the right dealer and you can sell it overnight.

Which position would you rather be in? That is the choice you must make.

All reputable dealers and experienced collectors will tell you the same thing: focus your collecting. Buy the best you can afford, and in the best condition you can find.

The Moral ... it doesn’t pay to be a squirrel.

Take our diagnostic self-test : are you are a packrat?

Possession Obsession [Page 1, 2 ]

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Articles by Jane Frank written for Strange New Worlds:

bulletHow to be a Sucker - why you paid too much, and how to avoid doing it again
bulletNegotiating the Rocky Waters of Collecting - learn how to bargain for price with dealers
bulletPossession Obsession - The Case Against Hoarding - are you building a collection or just a pack rat?
bulletTake the Diagnostic Test: Are You a Pack Rat?
bulletIs It Advertising or Is it Art? - You know what you like, but do you know what to call it? N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell were once scorned as "commercial" illustrators, but now their art is highly collectible.
bulletCollectibles as Gifts - the do's and dont's of giving collectibles
bulletHow to display your science fiction collectibles

Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Books by Jane Frank:
bulletThe Frank CollectionA legendary SF&F art collection, containing the largest assortment of fantastic art in the world — includes the most celebrated names in the field: Earl Bergey, John Berkey, Chesley Bonestell, Margaret Brundage, Frank Frazetta, H.R. Giger, Frank R. Paul, J.K. Potter, Boris Vallejo, and many others. 112 pages (all in color). Hardcover.
bulletThe Art of Richard Powers"I think Richard Powers was one of the most original artists to enter the science fiction field, which he shook up considerably ... I am happy to see this collection of Richard Powers's outstanding work." — Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Hardcover, 128 pages (all in color)
bulletGreat Fantasy Art Themes from the Frank Collect 128 pages (all in color), hardcover. Available in May, 2003. Order now and save.


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