> Fascination, Accumulation, Obsession, Realization & Liquidation

I’ve been chewing on this list for some time now. The idea for it started incubating from a conversation I had years ago with a couple of guys who were selling their father’s huge collection of antique silver, pottery and glass. Before we settled on the deal, I asked them if they were interested in keeping any of the pieces — for sentimental reasons — and both of them snorted pretty much at the same time.

“There’s no good memories of this stuff,” one of them told me. “Dad used to leave family dinners early. His excuse? He had silver he needed to polish.”

From those bitter words I developed a set of questions I’ve used many times since then. People contact me about all kinds of collections – art, coins, stamps, sports cards, comic books, etc. – and very often, they tell me that their grandfather (or dad or uncle) “was a really serious collector.”

So I ask them this, as gently as I can: “To build his collection, did he 1) lose friends, 2) go into debt, or 3) neglect his family?” Because if the answer is “no” to all three, it’s probably not that great of a collection.

Now I know that’s a bit of a generalization, but in 25 years in the business, I’ve found that this ends up being accurate more often than not: People will inevitably offer sacrifices to the idols they worship.

Eventually, though, those same people – or their heirs – will come to understand what we all know in our hearts. Stuff is just stuff. It seems important only while we’re obsessed with it.

And that leads me to the five stages of collecting.

(You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They’re often thought of as being consecutive, but they’re not, necessarily. The five stages of collecting, however, are.)

Stage 1: Fascination

This is the “that’s cool” or “aww, how cute” stage. At this point, a budding collector may purchase one or two similar items. They might join an enthusiast group online. When they shop, they’ll casually look for another example of the piece they already have.

Stage 2: Accumulation

This stage is a process, and it usually catches someone a little off-guard. Maybe they run out of space on their curio shelf. Maybe they catch themselves accidentally buying two of the same piece. Perhaps they start spending money on storage or display supplies. At this stage, a family member might tease them with “Okay, you have a problem.”

Stage 3: Obsession

Here’s where it can get ugly. Not everyone reaches this stage, to be fair. And plenty of people maintain a healthy balance between their collection and real life. But the fascination and accumulation stages are gateway drugs to Stage 3. It’s the “gotta-buy-another-safe” or “don’t-ever-touch-these” stage. It’s when you automatically choose time with the collection over time with the kids or grandkids. It’s the point at which you start becoming known first by your hobby – “Harvey the coin guy” or “Gwen the Hummel lady.” Sadly, some of the best collections I’ve ever handled came from people in this stage, and some of those people – sure enough – lost friends, went into debt or neglected their families.

Stage 4: Realization

As I mentioned earlier, at some point a collector – or, more often, a collector’s heir – reaches the understanding that stuff is just stuff. That you can’t take it with you. What’s more, you can’t really confer your passion for collecting whatever you’re collecting to your kids or grandkids. They may appreciate the value of what you’ve collected. They might even admire your dedication to becoming an expert in your field. But there’s almost zero chance they’ll take up that hobby with the same fervor, a fact that leads almost inevitably to Stage 5.

Stage 5: Liquidation

I’ve long since lost count of how many collections I’ve sold off – art, jewelry, coins, stamps, baseball cards, books, firearms, militaria, trains, pottery, glass, silver, toys, autographs … the list goes on ad nauseum. And most of those pieces probably went off to build up other collections of those people in Stage 2 or Stage 3. But it’s all just stuff. It all goes away, one way or the other. However passionate a collector might have been, liquidation is nearly always the end stage of collecting.

It’s interesting that the most satisfying outcomes often happen when the collector is the one who liquidates the collection. When they come to the realization that they’re done. That their beloved obsession — their addiction — has run its course. There’s even a palpable sense of relief on the part of the collector, as though they’ve escaped a sort of captivity. And, in a way, they have.


This list was developed merely from my observations over the last couple of decades. I judge nobody for his or her passion, whether or not that person is mired in Stage 3. I’ve been there myself with baseball cards, stamps, coins, books … you get what I mean. To be candid, I hope that 100 percent of the people attending our auctions online are Stage 3 collectors.

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