Living Rich: Becoming A Collector

Last week (in Message #291), we talked about how important it is to reward yourself whenever you’’ve taken a significant step toward your wealth-building goals. If you secure a new line of income, get a new account, get paid for a freelance consulting assignment, or even get a big raise in salary, you should give yourself a present. For some people, that could be a gourmet dinner or a weekend cruise.

For others, it might be an expensive toy — maybe a designer watch, a wave runner, or a motorcycle. I’’m not against vacations, toys, and dinners. They make life (and hard work) grand. But today, I would like to make an argument for another kind of reward — one that is tailor-made for wealth builders. I’’m talking about collecting. In my opinion, collecting is the best way to satisfy the material girl (or guy) within you. How good is it?

Let me count the ways:

1. You can collect whatever you like best. Just about anything.

2. Collecting is an intellectual pleasure. The more you learn about your collection, the better you’ll like it.

3. You can enjoy your collection as often as you like.

4. It makes you more interesting to others.

5. It makes you more interested in others.

6. Your collection will never desert you. It will give you a lifetime of pleasure.

7. There is a reasonable chance that your collection will become more valuable in time.

I started collecting about 20 years ago, about the same time that I got the idea that I should get rich. I don’’t know if there was any connection. If there was, it wasn’’t a conscious one. My first collection consisted of beer bottles. I liked beer and figured that saving the bottles was pretty much a no-brainer. Even if I got no pleasure from the collection, I’’d certainly enjoy drinking the beer.

As it turned out, I liked the collecting too. I liked the way the beer bottles looked standing next to one another. The different colors, the odd shapes, the interesting labels. I found myself wondering how beer bottles are made, why so many come in brown or green glass, and whether there is any reason for the different shapes. I was soon bringing exotic beer bottles back with me from every new destination I traveled to and browsing flea markets for the rare antique. I know a lot more about beer and beer production now than I did 20 years ago — and while I can’’t say that knowledge has improved my career, I can tell you it’’s given me pleasure.

Since then, I’’ve begun several other collections. I have a pretty nice collection of Latin American paintings and sculptures, early 20th-century European paintings, antique and current cigar lighters, Day of the Dead artifacts, Santos statues, naïve art, and first editions. That’s one of the problems with starting one collection. It doesn’’t end there. Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were all big collectors. John Paul Getty collected art and Malcom Forbes collected model soldiers and toy boats.

Figure out how much money you spend every year rewarding yourself with presents that perish or decline in value — and then promise yourself to spend at least half of that on a collection. You can collect anything — antique jewelry, cameras, ceramic coffee mugs, ashtrays, or whatever — and you will find that there are others out there doing the same thing. (You can easily find them on the Web.) Pick something that you like. It might be something that pleases you (such as landscape paintings) or something that has personal meaning to you (model trains, for example, because you’ve loved them since your first train trip across the country).

Avoid collecting what you can’’t afford (16th-century Italian icons) or what art brokers try to sell you. Your taste will change — and improve — as you gain experience. So start off small and build steadily. One hint: If you decide to collect art, buy unique pieces instead of prints (including lithographs). Prints are like condos — they do well in good markets but tend to collapse in weak ones. It’’s always better — both from a personal standpoint and from an investment point of view — to have unique, original pieces no one else has. But I wouldn’’t make financial appreciation my primary goal. Remember that this is about rewarding yourself and taking pleasure in what you collect. The first goal of any collector should be to buy what you like.