This article first appeared in the 1st quarter 2019 edition of Personal Finance magazine.
When you drive through the little town of Napier near Bredasdorp in the Western Cape, you can’t miss Napier All Sorts: in the front, a pretty shop; behind the scenes, a B&B. A sign outside lists “militaria” as one of the reasons for stopping. And sure enough, the basement rooms beneath the shop harbour a large collection of relics and memorabilia representing periods in military history.
The odd thing is that nothing on this level of the shop is for sale; you can only look. And you are welcome to do so, but forget trying to persuade the owner, Leon Visser, to put a price on anything. He has found a way of showing off his collection without having to part with a single uniform button or cap badge, medal, sword or bayonet.
Of course, some people do collect with at least one eye on resale value, but Visser is typical of the many who collect things just to have them in their possession. For these collectors, the monetary value of a collection or an individual item is less about profit and more about authenticity and desirability … although letting slip a high resale value can be useful when you need to convince a sceptic that a collection is worthy of respect.
So what is collecting all about? Why do people do it if an investment return is not the ultimate goal? And, what, if any, expectation can you have of the future value of things you treasure, should you want or need to sell them?
Wikipedia describes collecting as “seeking, locating, acquiring, organising, cataloguing, displaying, storing and maintaining items that are of interest to an individual collector”. You’ve heard of collectors of art, coins, stamps, china figurines and Dinky Toys, but a little research online will show you there is very little that hasn’t been collected by someone, sometime, from anatomical charts and ships’ anchors, to zippers and zoo signs. Apparently it’s not unheard of for collectors to hoard things like dental tools, dummies, feathers, guitar picks, watering cans, plumbing parts and samples of earth from around the world.
David Clemens is a collector who also happens to be an army psychologist, so he takes a professional interest in the phenomenon of collecting. And yes, he too collects militaria, focusing on everything that was worn or used by the armed forces on both sides of South Africa’s 1969-1989 Border War, which resulted in Namibia gaining its independence. Think a wealth of clothing, helmets, military equipment and utensils used in the field of battle.
He started collecting as a young child, when his fascination with his father’s military badges and medals caught the attention of family and friends and they began to donate their own memorabilia to his collection. His father has collected coins all his life and Clemens and his brother are both collectors, so he’s inclined to think there is a genetic component to this somewhat obsessional activity, but informal research over two decades has failed to produce any evidence of this.
Now an entire room in his home is dedicated to his primary collection and he has other “microcollections”, including art and Stone Age implements, which must be housed and displayed. Space is one of the cost factors of collecting, so he also photographs every item and stores it on his mobile phone for easy reference.
Clemens is one of those collectors who has no interest in the financial value of his collections, although militaria – and specifically certain military badges and medals with personal stories attached to them – are well recognised as a good investment. For him, money is just a means to an end and the end is safeguarding these pieces of history. Even when the investment value of an object is beyond doubt, he is not tempted to step outside his self-imposed spending limits.
“There’s a part of my brain that says my hobby is more about having fun and about the history my collection links me to; it’s not about investing – that’s too serious”, he says. “And because I don’t seek out expensive things, some collectors think my collection is not ‘valuable’,” he says. “It may not be worth a great deal in rands and cents by many people’s standards, but it is valuable to me in ways that are obscure to them.
“I see collectors describe their latest acquisitions in loving detail – almost with tears in their eyes – and then, at the end, they will tag on the fact that they’re worth a lot of money. Perhaps they feel that that is an objective, as opposed to a subjective, measure of value. For me it’s not like that. I try to make a concerted effort to stay away from financial value and to convey the value that is important to me.
“Of course I am aware that some of the things I’ve got do have a monetary value and that there is an investment side of my collection. So I’ve gone to great pains to explain to my wife that there is a market for these things and, should I die, she can sell them on eBay or talk to other collectors … and regard it as part of her retirement fund.”
That said, Clemens does believe that the Wikipedia definition should include “trading” among the activities that define collecting.
“What I hope to do one day – probably when I retire – is have a small shop or trade online from home. I’ve known lots of collectors who have done that. So you might sell a few things to supplement your income, but you also meet and talk to people, so there is the interpersonal element,” he says. “The joy is in getting together with other collectors and talking about our latest acquisitions; it’s in the relationships around collecting.”
Second time around
As host of a podcast in the United States called The Collector’s Show (thecollectorshow.wordpress.com), Harold Nicoll talks to collectors of every kind and he says many of them do want to know if their collections of this or that will grow in value.
Responding to questions on his website, Nicoll says the important thing to take into account is the cyclical nature of the market for collectibles – including ephemera, which are those collectibles that were never meant to last, such as posters, tickets and postcards, but excluding antiques, which move into another value bracket thanks to being (in most cases) at least 100 years old.
Take that very 20th century essential, the typewriter: it fell out of fashion and out of use about 40 years ago, but nostalgia has made it a 21st century collectible. Similarly, ashtrays, cigarette lighters and teapots are growing in collectability in proportion to their diminishing usefulness. All of them are distinctive items that come in a dizzying range of memorable designs, both serious and humorous – perfect for collecting.
Vintage cars are Nicoll’s favourite example of the fluctuating fortunes you have to expect when you become a collector. “Vehicles from the 1920s and 30s used to bring ridiculous money at auctions 20 years ago,” he says. “Now, stuff from the 1960s and ’70s is bringing crazy money. Why? Because the guys who grew up with cars from the 1920s and ’30s are no longer collectors, or they’ve passed away. The baby boomers who grew up in the 1950s and remember riding in dad’s ’60s Chev want to have a piece of that history, or be a part of that era, and they have the money to pay for it.”
If you’re buying collectibles as an investment, says Nicoll, “remember that you want to buy the best quality you can afford. You want to know that it’s genuine, because once collectibles are worth money, there’s always going to be somebody out there counterfeiting them, copying them and ageing them and trying to sell them to a collector who’s a novice and hasn’t gained enough knowledge to know the difference.
“Know who you’re dealing with. Make sure that the person from whom you buy collectibles will stand behind the items with a guarantee, not just give an opinion. Put it in writing that the seller guarantees that the item is genuine. If you take a collectible to someone who is more knowledgeable and get an opinion that the item is not genuine, make sure the person has the credentials to make that call. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts out there. Deal with someone who has been doing transactions such as these for years. A reputable dealer will stand behind his or her opinion in writing.”
But more than anything, says Nicoll, “if you decide you’re going to get involved in collecting, enjoy it. When you pick up a collectible and you hold it, look at it, touch it… if it makes you smile, by all means, collect it.”