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Saturday, February 25, 2006

The death of collecting 

Longtime readers know that I collect coins, and close friends know that I still have thousands of bagged and filed comic books in the attic1. I also have a lame collection of presidential campaign buttons, and many years ago I collected interesting bottle caps, which I mounted on a board. My sister collected keychains, and my parents had an enormous decanter full of matchbooks and swizzle sticks from the many bars that they apparently frequented (one gets the feeling that college towns in the 1970s were fairly depraved).

Apparently, kids don't collect things any more. The WSJ has a hilarious front-page story titled "Whose going to want grandma's hoard of antique gnomes?". It makes the obvious yet somehow startling point that in most hobbies there are no young collectors to take the place of the old.
Collecting things, once a big part of childhood, is now pretty much passé with kids. Preoccupied with MP3 players and computer games, they are rarely found sitting at the kitchen table putting postage stamps into collectors' books or slipping old coins into plastic sleeves. These days, baseball cards and comic books are collected by adults. Of the estimated 37 million Americans who identified themselves as collectors in 2000, just 11% were under the age of 36, according to a study by marketing consultant Unity Marketing Inc. Most were over 50....

This bit is hilarious:
"Collecting is about memory, and young people today have a different memory base," explains Mr. Rinker, who is well known in antiquing circles for his books and personal appearances. He lives in a 14,000-square-foot former elementary school in Vera Cruz, Pa. He uses the classrooms as storage spaces for his 250 different collections. He says he doesn't care what becomes of it all once he's gone, and if his children opt to use his rolls of century-old toilet paper, "that might be the finest honor they can give me."

This is useful financial advice:
If new generations of collectors don't materialize, the value of items will plummet. That's why marble clubs, to generate enthusiasm, send free marbles to schools. The U.S. Mint has a Web site with cartoons and computer games to entertain kids about the thrills of coin-collecting. Indeed, children have shown considerable interest in the state quarters program.

My own view is that rare coins will hold their value better than other collectibles, because they have been turned into tradeable financial assets via slabbing (a system under which coins are graded against a uniform standard, encased in a plastic "slab", barcoded, and traded against a quoted price). But your collection of grungy old dolls may not hold its value.

This is the part that made me a bit sad, for some reason I can't explain:
Some collecting groups have created unstated policies. The 650-member National Milk Glass Collectors Society -- a group devoted to opaque glass -- holds an annual auction. When the rare young person shows up to bid on an item, older collectors lower their hands. "We back off and let the young person buy it. We want them to add to their collections," says Bart Gardner, the group's past president.

And, finally, this guy gets what he deserves:
Some collectors now accept that younger people don't want their stuff. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky, 64, has collected the last editions of 79 daily newspapers that closed down since 1963. His adult children don't want the old newspapers, which fill a closet. "The only kind of paper my family wants is greenbacks and stock certificates," he says.

He hasn't been able to find a university to take his collection, either. And now he's under the gun to get rid of it. He is about to marry his third wife, who is 27 years old, and in the prenuptial agreement, there's a clause that he must dispose of the collection by Dec. 31. She wants to store her shoes in that closet.

"At least I can wear my shoes," says his fiancée, Jennifer Graham. "He never reads those papers, and besides, he likes how I look in my shoes." (emphasis, er, added)

Candidly, it seems like a small price to pay. Compared to selling your soul.
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1. Comic books are just about the only paper that I actually file and classify. As my long-suffering tax advisor will testify, I store my financially significant shreds of paper under a system known around our house as "the undifferentiated piles" or "the huge wads," depending on our mood.

10 Comments:

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sat Feb 25, 11:12:00 AM:

Reading that middle part made me a little sad as well. I can't explain it either.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Sat Feb 25, 11:22:00 AM:

Kids still collect things. They collect Pokemons and trading cards and video games. Can you blame them for wanting colorful, interactive things rather than coins or stamps?

I still have my Atari from the 80s and the original Nintendo. Every so often I pick up a few more games for each. I guess that makes me a collector of such things, but I wouldn't identify myself as a "collector".  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Sat Feb 25, 03:55:00 PM:

They collect mp3s, and some kids still collect trendy pop culture books or dolls or action figures. :)

I think to a certain extent you're right though.

There is less of a sense of permanence, of history. We have become a disposable society in which the here-and-now is always more important than the long view.

How sad.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Sat Feb 25, 04:08:00 PM:

My son actually has an enormous collection of mp3s. I was astounded to see that his collection of classical and jazz is quite extensive. He really has some fine pieces in there.

So there is some hope.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Feb 26, 06:47:00 PM:

I fail to see how collecting retro action figures or toys is somehow sad in comparison to collecting stamps or coca-cola products. Since when was there a pecking order of merit in collecting things? They're all equally weird to me.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Sun Feb 26, 09:16:00 PM:

I guess when you put it that way, you have a point.

I'm not a collector though. I can see the point in collecting something tangible like coins or stamps or letters because to me they have a sense of history.

Plastic action figures seem kind of kitschy, but then maybe I'm just being a snob, or maybe just short-sighted. In a hundred years people may look back and say... oooh, plastic. How quaint and old-fashioned.

Some things just seem to have more of a sense of timelessness than others. I guess that's what I was trying to get across. Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles are kind of a passing fad.

Coins have been around forever.

But again, I'm probably just being a snot.  

By Blogger RPD, at Mon Feb 27, 01:26:00 PM:

I don't know that kids collect things, so much as accumulate them. A collection implies to me a willful attempt to gather items by specific characteristics with an eye to completism.

MP3's? you get music you like and throw it onto a hard drive. But who's hunting down the rare works of Johnny Horton?

The same goes for Pokemons, they're toys to be discarded when they're no longer interesting.

I blame the internet. I get the sense that you find and aquire most anything after a few web searches, anytime you want. If one believes everything is always available, why collect?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon Feb 27, 11:42:00 PM:

Coin collecting is, by the standard of hobbies, ancient. Proof sets were developed first for visiting dignitaries. People thought that a nation's coinage said something important, and quite ceremonially presented heads of state with proof sets. I just don't see the Prime Minister of Japan giving the King of Saudi Arabia a mint condition set of Pokemon cards.  

By Blogger KaneCitizen, at Sun Mar 05, 11:31:00 AM:

I am appalled by the pre-nup in which she demands that he dump his newspaper collection. I posted about it here.  

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