It’s easy to get so caught up in the process of accumulating things – after all, that’s the fun part! – that you lose sight of some of the important details that are part and parcel of maintaining a serious collection. In this post I want to cover some of the oft-neglected things that you should be doing to protect your investment and plan for the future of your collection. Some of these considerations were brought to mind recently, as in the last month both a colleague of mine, and a collector with whom I have done a good bit of business, passed away. Both are survived by family members who may or may not have a firm handle on what should be done with all the books and ephemera, nor where to look for or how to interpret related records and materials (if any even exist).
The following should lay the groundwork for keeping your valuables safe while you’re here, and making arrangements for how to protect them once you are not. This should help to ensure that the things you have taken the time to collect will continue to be enjoyed and appreciated.
Quick disclaimer: this post is intended as a list of helpful pointers, and even though it is based on my experience and knowledge of the book and ephemera trade, it should not be construed as professional legal or financial advice.
If you have a small collection, it is very possible that your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance will cover loss or damage under the umbrella of personal property. Most policies allow for claims up to a certain value threshold, so as long as this dollar amount is sufficient to cover the loss of your collection and other items lost during the same event, you should be fine. If not, you may want to consider speaking with your agent about adding a special rider that describes your collection and establishes a value for insurance purposes. Different insurance companies have different ways of doing things, so I won’t get into too many specifics, but here is a general set of steps to follow when adding your collection to an insurance policy:
Describe the collection. Photographs are helpful here, and describing what is included with notes on condition is standard practice. You want someone who is unfamiliar with the material to be able to understand what was lost or damaged, and what state it was in before this occurred. If you have a large collection, having a digital database that lists all the items in your collection, with redundant electronic backups or periodic hard copy backups is a good idea. Keep in mind, if you lose everything in a fire, and there is no documentation of what was lost, no one is going to take your word for it. Accurate records are very important
Establish the value of the collection. This generally involves contracting with a professional to perform an appraisal. You can expect to pay an hourly rate for this service. Look for an appraiser who has a certification (Appraisers Association of America is a good resource when researching this). Most appraisers will include a written description of the collection, and an assessment of value with justification (and supporting references where available).
Discuss the proper level of insurance with your agent. In some cases, replacement value and market value are different, and this can affect the amount of insurance you purchase. Again, I won’t go into particulars here, as this can get pretty complicated, but a good example that most people can relate to is homeowner’s insurance: The assessed value of your home is $X, but your replacement value for insurance purposes might be $3X, because the cost of building a new house – if, for example, the one you own burns down – is different than the cost of purchasing a comparable one. You should be discuss these nuances with your agent to make sure you grasp the terminology, and have an understanding of what makes the most sense for your particular situation
Another thing that may affect your insurance is how your collection is stored, and whether you have any security measures in place to protect it. This is similar to car insurance or homeowner’s insurance: the lower the risk for the company underwriting the policy, the better your rate will be. I recently took out a policy for a particularly expensive item that is on consignment, and the coverage I ended up purchasing specified how it is to be stored (in a safe), whether it will leave the address specified in the policy for any reason, and if so how it will be transported. These details may seem a bit nit-picky, but think of it this way: If an insurance company wants things done a specific way to manage its risk, aren’t these things you should be doing anyway? Chances are you have a decent chunk of money tied up in whatever you are collecting, and it makes sense to know the best practices for protecting it.
For those with questions about storing their collection, I have basic information on things to look for when organizing and storing collectibles. I will probably write a more exhaustive post with specifics in the future, so watch for that.
I already mentioned appraisals above, but I want to go over a few best practices, and not all of these relate directly to insurance. Appraisals are also helpful in establishing trends that allow you to identify opportunities, or expose bad investments, as you build your collection. While it is not necessary to appraise your collection on a continual basis (e.g., annually would be overkill), the currency of an appraisal is important. Think of the litany of changes that have occurred in the last twenty years in the world of collectibles, and then consider the relative values of an appraisal performed in 1999 and an appraisal performed in 2019. One of the fascinating (and frustrating) things about collecting is that markets change, and with them so do values.
Institutions that maintain significant collections of collectible material have periodic appraisals to determine whether they need to reassess insurance policies, and to establish a thorough accounting of inventory. These are good practices for the serious collector as well, and a good appraisal can provide valuable information. What pieces in your collection have appreciated significantly in value since you purchased them? Which ones are waning in popularity? Does this have any bearing on how you should proceed in building the collection, or in the prices you should expect to pay for new acquisitions?
Another important consideration here: If an updated appraisal is performed by a different individual than an earlier one, and there are large discrepancies in stated values for particular items, does this indicate an error made by one of them, or has the material appreciated/depreciated that drastically in the interim? If you suspect that one of the appraisals is incorrect, how do you determine which one? This is why a full written appraisal, inclusive of detailed descriptions, is very important. In the event of an issue such as this, you have records to compare, which may help determine which evaluation is correct.
There are a few considerations here. First of all, what is happening to your collection when you pass away? The sad truth is that relatives will almost certainly not have the expertise, or the bandwidth, to confront this sort of planning, so it’s best to take care of this yourself. Will it be passed down in the family, or is it destined for donation to a university, a museum, or another institution? If the answer is none of the above, you may want to take some time to consider the ramifications of this.
You probably want avoid the collection being split up and sold by an estate sale company (or, worse yet, at a garage sale). If you have a will, this is something you should probably name specifically, and you should provide a clear idea of how you want it treated. If you don’t have any relatives interested in inheriting it, and you can’t find anywhere that will accept it as a charitable donation, you’re not alone (I probably speak with 5-10 people a month at my shop who are in this situation, and looking for options). I plan on writing a separate post in the future dedicated to selling your collection, so stay tuned for that.
If you are donating the collection, you should arrange for an appraisal, or organize with the institution accepting the donation for an appraisal to be performed at the time the donation is accepted. Whether you or they will foot the cost of the appraisal is something that should be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. If it is important to you that the collection go to a specific place, or that anything else related to it be handled in a particular way, make sure to get these details in place ahead of time. Keep in mind that there are costs associated with storing and preserving this material. Make sure that the place destined to receive your collection is prepared to shoulder that responsibility, and has the resources to do so. If you are not sure, ask questions: the head of any respectable archive should be able to explain in detail how they treat materials that are part of their collections, and speak to any concerns you might have about your contribution.
If you are already doing these things, congratulations, you are ahead of the game. A large percentage of collections are uninsured (or underinsured), unappraised (or not appraised recently), and unaccounted for in estate planning. As a result, when most collectors die, their belongings are auctioned off or sold for pennies on the dollar by well-meaning relatives who simply do not have the expertise to properly evaluate the items. I hope you will consider taking these steps to make sure your collection is properly treated in the future.
I would like to dedicate this post to Garry Austin, owner of Austin’s Antiquarian Books of Vermont, and to long-time collector Edward Atwater, who helped build two impressive medical collections for the University of Rochester. I had the pleasure of knowing them both, but they have both passed away since my last post. The world lost two great bibliophiles, the collecting world lost two unique perspectives on the trade, and those of us who knew them lost two good friends. They will be missed.
Until next time, happy hunting!
Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, and online at
www.yesterdaysmuse.com. His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the
book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers
Association, and currently serves as the head organizer of the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair.