Jameson: How to divest of collectibles as you grow older

I am about to get myself into trouble — again. Recently, while speaking at a book event about what to do with our stuff and our loved ones’ stuff, a woman in the audience shared that she and her husband, both pharmacists, had a plan. They had amassed a collection of mortars and pestles from around the word, and they wanted, upon their deaths, to have these sets handed out as funeral favors.

OK, so that’s weird on a few levels, and it’s their death, not mine. But I suggested that maybe she keep the collection intact and donate it all to a pharmacy school.

Bad advice, I later learned. I’ll tell you why in a minute, but first let me tell you where my instinct to keep the collection together came from.

Recently, my eldest cousin, decided to distribute place settings of our grandmother’s china among the family. This would have been a lovely notion, if we’d wanted it. I loved Grandma Mac, but her old-fashioned flowered, ruffle-bordered china not so much.

Assuming I would want it, however, my cousin gave me two place settings. Eventually, I could give one setting to each of my daughters, she said. (Oh, they’ll love that!)

“It’s called Forget Me Not,” my cousin told me wistfully.

I accepted it graciously, of course, and appreciated the sweet sentiment. But I have china, and I have my mother’s china. Now I have these two one-offs of a pattern I would never pick out. If you think about it, there is no end to the cascade of generational china. I tucked my tongue in my cheek, and the china in the closet.

When my brother, who is married with no children, got his place setting, he thought, reasonably, what am I going to do with this? Not knowing the back story, he wrote a tactful e-mail asking my cousin if she could suggest someone else in the family who would like his place setting, who might appreciate it more?

You see where this is going. I get a call from my brother. I get a call from my cousin. I referee my cousin’s good intentions to fairly disperse this “family asset” and my brother’s desire to reunite the collection – elsewhere.

Because my instinct was that the china was probably more valuable together than apart, and that it should go to someone in the family who would appreciate it, I suggested the pharmacist keep it together, in so many words.

But I wondered. Though I was dispensing advice, I still felt as if I were awkwardly groping my way around the topic of collections – specifically, whether it’s all right to break them up.

To rest my mind and my case, I called collections expert Jim Halperin, co-owner of Heritage Auctions, the largest auction house founded in the United States, and learned I was wrong about the mortars and pestles – but right about the china.

Beaded handbags are in Jim and Diane Cook's collection in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Beaded handbags are in Jim and Diane Cook’s collection in Eden Prairie, Minn. Photo courtesy of Intelligent Collector Magazine.

“Almost every collection is worth more broken up,” said Halperin, noting that china, technically, isn’t a collection; it’s a set, and should stay together. “Although every collector’s dream is to leave their collection intact the way they envisioned it, that’s almost always a complete fantasy.”

Halperin, who collects Maxfield Parrish art, superhero comic books, political buttons and movie lobby cards, says he, too, dreams of selling his collections intact, “but I purge that from my mind.”

What else didn’t I know I wanted to know, so I hit Halperin with the following questions about collections and busted a few more myths of my making:

Are collections better dispersed one item at a time?

When you have a group of distinct items – not a set, like china – but a collection such as mortars and pestles, don’t bundle them for donation or sale if you can help it. “You will almost always get more by selling one item at a time on eBay or at auction, especially if you find the collector looking for that very item.”

What if the entire collection is really valuable?

Even if you have a museum-worthy art collection, chances are a museum will only want a few pieces. “The rest of the collection winds up in the basement, where it becomes a source of battle among board members who want to get rid of it but are bound by the donor’s stipulation that the collection stay together. It’s an anchor around their necks.” If you really want to help the museum, let museum officials pick what they want to display, then you sell the rest and give them the money. “Even museums would rather have money than art.”

What is a collectible, and what isn’t?

Collectibles are groups of items originally made in quantity, like coins, stamps, and sports cars. Valuable collections contain items that you can’t find at the mall. They are rare, in good condition and desirable.

What’s the difference between a collector and a hoarder?

Most collectors are students of what they collect. They know everything about it. They track what they have and know what they want. They have a plan, and organize the collection systematically, cataloging items. Hoarders acquire without direction and don’t throw anything away.

Does having your collection displayed attractively separate the serious collector from the amateur?

No. (I’m wrong again.) Having your collection attractively displayed means you have an eye. It doesn’t mean you know what you are doing.

What’s the best way to dispose of a collection?

Ideally, collectors should make arrangements while they’re alive to sell items in their collection individually, so their kids aren’t left trying to sell items they don’t know anything about.

Join me next week when Jim Halperin shares the reasons behind why we collect.

Syndicated columnist Marni Johnson is the author of two home and lifestyle books.