By John Adams-Graf
“I am thinking of selling my collection,” the call began. “Who would you recommend handle the sale?” Though I have written and lectured about the idea of collection liquidation many times, I am surprised how many veteran collectors are at a total loss when it comes time to sell. Regardless of the reason for the liquidation of a collection, my first question to anyone wishing to sell a collection is always the same.
“Do you have an inventory of your collection?” is too often met with deflecting answers. I have … “a lot of helmets,” “a couple of Jeeps” or “a lot of guns” are not inventories. And yet, no matter how much money some may spend building superior collections, rarely do they take the time to do an inventory. I get it. Inventories aren’t fun.
Certainly they are not as much fun to compile as acquiring, researching and displaying new treasures. Inventories are methodic, systematic, item-by-item listings. This can, at first, seem fun — like rediscovering your collection all over again — but believe me, after the first page or so of listings, it turns into drudgery. Regardless, if you are going to be a responsible collector — responsible to the history the items represent and to the family or friends who will have to deal with your collection should you happen to be hit by a bus — an inventory is an essential part of the hobby.
What is it?
An inventory can be as simple or complicated as you wish to make it. The important thing is to identify every piece of your collection, assign a number to it and tag it (there are a variety of methods ranging from hanging tags to more museum-like identifications applied with reversible ink), and then list it — either on an electronic database or a pen-and-ink form.
Many like to include additional information on their inventories. Categories like “Where acquired,” “price paid” or “historical notes” are all commonly included in collection inventories. Electronic databases usually accommodate a photograph with each entry. An inventory can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. The important thing is that it is a listing of all items in your collection and assigns a unique number that is recorded on the inventory and applied to the item.
So why do it?
When I was kid, we took inventory every year on New Year’s day. We closed our grocery store, our seven-member family divided into three teams of two (with Dad running interference), and we began counting. “Ten at 59 cents,” “16 at $1.59” and “229 at one penny (yes, being the youngest, I had to count the boxes of Bazooka bubble gum.” It took all day, but at the end of the day, Dad would combine all the team’s sheets. After tabulating the comprehensive inventory, he knew — exactly — the net worth of the stock in our store.
Our store inventory provided a value to everything within the building. That was the sole purpose of that inventory. It didn’t help us locate cases of Jiffy Cake Mix or even indicate how many cases of tomato soup were in the basement. It simply provided a retail value of everything at the moment of time. Dad would use this information for taxes, determining insurance and figuring the “worth” of the business on which to base investments in the coming year.
Your collection inventory can do that as well. It can be a record of what you spent to help determine how much insurance you should have, provide guidance for disposal opportunities or to just keep tabs on your spending habits. Most collection inventories, however, go a bit deeper than just identifying costs. An inventory is an opportunity to record details for someone other than yourself to identify items.
For example, if you have 20 K-98 bayonets in your collection, listing “Bayonet, K-98” on your inventory without assigning a unique number will probably cause confusion when trying to decide if a listing was for that Czech re-issue or for the one with SS unit-engraved blade. Sure, you would know the difference. But remember, inventories are often most useful for others when you aren’t available to provide quick identification.
Which brings us to an important reason for doing an inventory. We all want to believe we are going to keep our collections until the day before we die. On that day, we are going to call a friend who will hand over a stack of money and take everything off of our hands.
Well, in my experience, it doesn’t happen like that. More likely, it is one of the three “Ds” of collection liquidation: Death, Debt and/or Divorce. You might avoid two of the three, but the last one is going to catch up to you.
If you don’t think you will need an inventory of your collection because you have plenty of money and a loving spouse, your heirs will, inevitably and most assuredly, need one after you join the groundhogs six feet under. If you don’t want your loved ones cursing your name or heaping your relics into a bonfire, make things easy for them —work on an inventory of your collection.
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