Collectibles: Enjoyable Investments or Rorschach Tests?
by Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr.

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The French have always maintained that “you are what you eat.”  But in the United States, you can tell a lot about people by finding out what they collect.  I have one friend who has over 300 statuettes of owls and a name and a story for each one.  It is rather weird when he, with glassy eyes, explains the qualities and special features of each bird.  Then there are the people who collect Netsuke, those exotic Oriental ivory carvings showing an amorous couple in some of the most acrobatic positions imaginable.  There must be a lot of collectors of Netsuke, based on the number on display in antique shops.  Wine collectors are perhaps the most passionate of all, since at some point the wine can no longer be collected and must be consumed.  Then there are the old New Yorker magazine covers, guns, (old, modern, shotguns or rifles), hunting knives, toy soldiers, vintage cars, and car models.  All have their collectors--and each tells you something about its owner.

One more intriguing way of finding out what people collect is to wander around London, using Oxford and Regent Streets as base points and then browsing in some of the small stores in the narrow off-streets.  These are shops dedicated entirely to snuff boxes, or ancient pill boxes, and those with Napoleonic era toy soldiers arrayed in battle formation just like at Waterloo.  Other shops house collections of old maps, stock certificates, old keys and maritime clocks.  One of the more unsettling collections I have ever run across was in a brownstone house in Hoboken, New Jersey, where there were 20 large grandfather clocks.  They were all working, reasonably well synchronized--and all were chiming.  I wasn’t there for the grand finale, but at noon and midnight it must have sounded like a boiler factory.  I have always maintained that a man will never have a good night's sleep once he acquires a collection of grandfather clocks or a harem.

In the early 1980s when inflation was running at over 12% and stocks were widely treated with contempt, one of the features in almost every city in this country was the “Collectible Show.”  A major convention hall would have hundreds of booths with “Collectibles That Will Protect You Against Inflation” on display.  Not only precious metals, gems, coins and jewelry were being offered as hedges against inflation, but also Beatrix Potter figurines, painted plates, ceramic jugs in the shape of pirate heads or whatever--the greatest collection of junk imaginable.  These were all being touted as investments, intended to protect the buyer’s purchasing power against the ravages of inflation.  That era was the absolute peak for gold, one-carat flawless blue ‘D’ diamonds and most of the rest of those “investments.”  I learned then that if a person is to collect something, it must be because one loves those artifacts and any potential price appreciation must be considered a questionable and secondary consideration. 

I collect two things, one of which has fortunately (and with no investment judgment of my own) turned out to be a good investment.  I have 24 prints of nautical scenes by John Stobart, all of which are now valued above the prices I paid.  I bought them because each has a special meaning for me, and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to look at them.  They also have a way of drawing me and other viewers into the scenes.  Stobart’s Nantucket Sleigh Ride shows a harpooned whale towing a whaleboat and its crew through heaving seas, while the whaling ship in the distance, under full sail and with decks awash, is desperately trying to keep up with its longboat and prize.  Some viewers have commented that they felt distinctly nauseous when seeing it.

The other articles that I collect are Caithness paperweights.  I must have over 40 of them, depicting artistic interpretations of various planets, outer space themes, and hostile intergalactic encounters.  They also have a way of drawing me in.  They start my imagination going and sometimes I am not aware of how long I have been involved in my flights of fantasy.  I have no idea what they are worth, and I really do not care.

These and the prints are my collectibles, although I do have a start on several other things.  I have a walk-in (and dine-in) wine cellar in my house, but it is less than half-stocked.  Because of the bull market, the prices for well-known vintages have soared, and I refuse to pay for them.  There seems to be less “value” in wines, which I believe applies to the stock market as well.   I also have about a dozen framed stock certificates on my walls, which have historical significance for me.  The International Mercantile and Marine certificate was issued by J.P. Morgan’s American Company, which was set up to build and operate the Titanic and her two sister ships with British Crews.  Everyone considered the British to be better seamen, but the Titanic was really an American ship.  The Confederate States of America $1000 bond was one of the first convertible bonds--into cotton.  All my stock certificates have historical significance, except for the original Playboy Enterprises Inc. certificate before they put clothes on Miss Ray.

In conclusion, what people collect does say a lot about them and that would be the Rorschach Test feature.  I have no interest in statuettes of owls and only a gymnastic curiosity about the exotic Oriental figurines.  If some people collect certain things as an investment, they either have to be highly qualified experts or just plain lucky for it to work out.  But I think people are particularly fortunate if they collect certain artifacts because they truly enjoy them and can savor them like old friends encountered regularly.   I feel that I am fortunate in my collectible collections--the Stobart prints and Caithness paperweights--as they are a constant source of fascination and enjoyment to me.

Raymond DeVoe is the publisher of the DeVoe Report, which is read by more than 100 financial institutions all trying to get high-level insights into the direction of the equity markets.  A member of the investment banking firm, Legg, Mason, and Wood, he started his career as a salesman before becoming a research analyst.

This essay is reprinted from Zindart's 1998 annual report, pp. 10-11.   See
1998arpicks.htm (#7) for more information.


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Copyright 1998 by Raymond DeVoe, Jr.

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