Superficially, it’s easy to tell a collection of Ming vases or classic oil paintings. They look old and they look valuable, and the collector knows it. However, anyone who’s played The Price Is Right when watching Antiques Roadshow knows value isn’t always on the surface. The appraiser may go into great detail about an artist, where he was born, what he did during his life, what he was known for, and the drops the valuation bomb: the original work of art is worth $2,000. The next guy, bringing in an unremarkable wooden trunk from the 1700s, design and construction common for the times, walks away with a cool $25,000 appraisal. It’s the collectors who know what something is worth. Those prices are based on what a reasonable buyer will pay, and those buyers are collectors.
Take Scott Travers. Last month, he went shopping in Times Square and bought a hot dog, bottled water, and a pretzel. None of the transactions warranted big bills, so he spent the change in his pocket. Little did the retailers know, Travers wasn’t spending just any pocket change: three of the pennies he spent, mixed with the rest of his change, had a combined collector’s value of over $1,500. Of course, wise numismatic enthusiasts don’t carry their collection around in their pockets. Travers deliberately put the coins in circulation to draw attention to his hobby. He hoped that somewhere down the line, someone who got change at a restaurant would notice the rarity of the coin that had passed unnoticed through the pockets of others. His experiment banks on the unseen value of collectibles: at purely face value, a penny is a penny: value, 1/100th of a dollar. However, in the eyes of a collector, a much different valuation is constructed. The date says 1904, the artist’s initials “VDB” are clearly visible on the reverse, and that 1/100th of a dollar increases millions-fold.
There is, however, a third value, that all collectors can evaluate but find it difficult to describe to their relatives, friends, and critics. It’s the valuation level in between retail pricing and the number collector’s guides print. With a unique collection, it might be the only valuation ever assigned to the collection. What I’m talking about is what a collection is worth to its owner.
This valuation is most important to the kinds of collections profiled in the Entertainment section of the newspaper on Tuesdays. They’ve got a yard full of push lawnmowers, or they built a special building to hold their collection of vacuum cleaners. They’ve got drawers full of flattened milk cartons, or archives of airplane vomit bags. And, if you ask any collector (strange or no), the perceived value is more important than any other. Far too often, the items with the best stories on Antiques Roadshow are the items you can tell will remain in the family: being less valuable than a wooden box means nothing to a family who loves their rare painting. Scott Travers, however, figured his rare coins had a far greater value if they surprised some sharp-eyed stranger someday. For the rest of us, our collection is the reason we spend reckless amounts of money simply to own whatever it is. We know that the money we spend doesn’t come close to the value of adding it to the collection.