An interview with Marty Weil, an award-winning journalist, ephemera researcher, and SEO content strategist. He is the editor and publisher of ephemera, a blog that explores the world of old paper.
#1 What do you collect?
Although I do have a small collection of specific pieces of ephemera, I function primarily as an ephemera researcher. My blog covers all aspects of ephemera and how it relates to the popular culture, history, and the human condition. The purpose of the blog is to broaden the awareness and appreciation of ephemera. Over the years, I’ve display and highlight a wide range of ephemera on the site. My mission is to increase the appeal of ephemera by informing and educating the public on its value as a collectible and research tool. The blog discusses services related to the collection, preservation, and grading of ephemera. It’s not intended to display items from my personal collection, although a few items from my collection have been featured. In regard to my personal collection, it consists mainly of ephemera relating to Asheville, NC (my adopted hometown) and a few other odds and ends that speak to my personal interests and sentimentality.
#2 Do you collect other things not considered ephemera? If so, what?
No, not really. I have two vintage Fedoras. If I acquire one more, than I guess it becomes a collection, according to the popular definition.
#3 Did you begin consciously, knowing what you would collect, or did you just one day discover what you were doing?
I’ve always been interested in history. My fascination with ephemera grew out of my love of history. I consider ephemera to be “raw, unedited history.” I felt there was a need to educate people about ephemera and show its importance, not only as a collectible, but as a tool for researchers, authors, and artists.
#4 Ephemera is a lofty word for such elusive, fragile and ‘surprised this survived’ bits of this and that… I find many collectors who are indeed collectors of ephemera do not describe themselves this way. They say, “Oh, I just hoard old magazines,” or, “I just have old papers & junk”. While many collectors are self-deprecating this way, I think it’s worse in this category… Do you find this to be true? Anything you’ve noted about this? Any stories of collectors who diminish the value of what they have — yet have outstanding ‘bits of paper junk’?
This is a great question. It is something I’ve covered on numerous occasions on the blog. I’ve often talked about the ‘one man’s treasure’ aspect of ephemera collecting. I wrote a post called “trash or treasure” that I think illustrates this point best.
In it, I wrote about a postcard I’d found in the trash that turned out to be worth $100. In the world of ephemera, there’s a thin line between valuable and worthless. Too often, old paper is not recognized as collectible and is tossed out with the trash.Most experts will tell you that approximately 90 percent of old paper is relatively worthless and that’s the truth. So, it’s not surprising that people don’t take the time to separate the baby from the bathwater when faced with an accumulation of old paper. Too often, people simply back a dumpster up to the house and pitch out old paper with reckless abandon.
That’s probably how the $100 postcard gem ended up in the trash. It might have been obvious to the person who tossed this postcard that it had some collectible value, if they’d bothered to look at it. However, when faced with a pile of old paper most people do not closely examine individual items. Even when they do, many pieces of ephemera appear worthless to an untrained eye. It’s these not-so-obvious collectibles that most often wind up in the landfill and are lost to collectors forever.
The remaining 10 percent has collectible, historic, sentimental, and/or research value. For example, please refer to this post.
#6 We spoke about collectors who play down the importance of their ephemera collection, have you noticed any particular category this is even more prevalent in — or where collectors tend to over-value their collections?
Collectors typically don’t play down the importance of their collections. Non-collectors (e.g., parents in the 1950s who tossed out their kids’ comic book and/or baseball card collections) don’t understand the value of old paper. In other words, people who have a collector’s mindset typically value ephemera, but the general public doesn’t normally ascribe a value to it—that’s why so much of it winds up in the trash. Each day, countless piles of old papers are discarded all across the United States, sending one-of-a-kind documents to their unnecessary demise. An important discussion of this phenomenon can be found in this post as well as this one on estate lawyers.
#7 So, in your experience you’ve never met a person who say has boxes and boxes of magazines, but doesn’t necessarily collect by title, theme or anything; they just like the old magazines, the ads or graphics etc., but wouldn’t consider themselves a collector of ephemera. Well, technically you have — me. I just don’t feel comfortable calling myself an ephemerist. (Hubby? Yeah, he does.) If 90% is deemed of no value by experts — and you and I both agree that the value often lies in how, as you said, it “speaks to you on a personal level,” I think this might be part of my perception problem.
I want to be clear on this point. If someone is truly a collector of a particular type of ephemera, be it magazines, chop stick labels, or cereal boxes (yes, I’ve met someone who collects cereal boxes and chop stick labels), they prize their collections. They do not diminish them. They may agree that it is quirky or odd that they collect cereal boxes or chop stick labels, but I have not met one serious collector of ephemera that feels that their collection has no value. The 90 percent of paper that isn’t collectable doesn’t fall into this discussion—just as 90 percent of old furniture isn’t collectible. When you ask if I’ve met any collectors that belittle their collection—I have not spoken with any ephemera collectors that have belittled their collections. If anything, the case is quite the opposite. Speaking of which, Slip of a Girl, talks extensively about her passion for lingerie ephemera in our upcoming interview (scheduled to appear on 3/22). This is typical. People care a great deal for their ephemera collections.
Where there might be some confusion on this matter lies within the realm of non-collectors who inherit or otherwise find themselves saddled with a load of old paper that seems random or meaningless to them. This often happens when a collector dies and leaves his ephemera to his heirs who find it completely senseless, and discard it without thought. In these cases, ephemera is most certainly not highly valued.
[Inteviewer's Note: Well, I wouldn't throw my boxes of magazines out; and, as I've said, I'll mercilessly haunt my kids if they do! So I guess that value alone makes me officially an ephemera collector -- even if much of the 'value' lies in their fodder for mocking. Speaking of value...]
#8 Do you have or recommend any collecting ‘bibles’? (Price guides, reference books, magazines etc.)
No, there really isn’t a viable price guide for ephemera, and it is unlikely there ever will be one.
#9 Do you have a ‘crowning jewel’ or ‘show stopper’ in your collection? If so, what is it?
To me, ephemera has value only if it speaks to you on a personal level. In that sense, I have several items that qualify as crowning jewels.
For instance, shortly after my grandfather died, I was handed a scroll that he’d kept for nearly 60 years. Until then, I’d never known the scroll existed.
When I unrolled it, I discovered for the first time that my grandfather had been a leading Freemason. He never mentioned anything to me about his affiliation with the Masons, a somewhat secretive society that is generally thought to have descended from the Knights Templars. The Masons were an aspect of his life that I knew nothing about until after he was gone. And the scroll provides very little information–other than a date, lodge name, and a few signatures. The scroll was presented to my grandfather in 1930. He was a very young man then. Along the way, something must have happened for him to have left the Masons. Yet, he saved the scroll, and he kept it close throughout the years. So, I have it now. I have a few pieces that might technically have more monetary value than the old Mason’s scroll, but it’s my show-stopper.
#10 Let’s talk about paper as provenance. What sorts of paper, aside from ‘certificates of authenticity’, are especially important at provenance? Do these papers have importance &/or value on their own?
There can be value in owning paper that was once owned by someone famous. Provenance can turn an otherwise ordinary piece of old paper into something truly special. For example, please see this post.
#11 What ‘Holy Grail’ are you currently seeking for your collection?
I don’t have an item that I’m looking for at the moment. Instead, I’m trying to find other collectors seeking Holy Grail items to interview for my blog. I think that would be fascinating–it could also be a book project, I think. In any case, I’m always looking for collectors or authors who are involved with ephemera in some way to interview–these are the Holy Grail ‘items’ I seek.
#12 What do people need to do to share their items with you?
To share items with me, people merely need to send me an email. If I think there’s a good fit for the blog, I’ll often ask to interview them about their collection or feature a specific item in a post. I may also invite them to write a guest post.
#13 Do you find yourself saving ephemera from today for the collectors of tomorrow?
Yes, in fact, I find that a very interesting aspect of ephemera. I couldn’t resist picking up a promotional flyer from Origins, which features my family surname. The company’s 2007 campaign for Dr. Andrew Weil’s line of skin care products features the tag line, “Live and Be Weil”. It’s a blessing that my fairly rare surname has such a good ambassador in Dr. Weil. He’s a wonderful addition to the pop culture landscape. I hope his growing fame and popularity will help alleviate the mispronunciation of Weil (rhymes with smile), which has been a life-long source of irritation.