The Artful Collector: Collecting Strategies Part 1 “The Completist”

I came to my role as dealer in SF art in a very old-fashioned way….as a fan.  And I’ve still got ‘fandom’ in my blood.

Queen Jane, posing for posterity in the popular "Game of Thrones" prop chair, at Renovation, the 69th World SF Convention, Reno, NV 2011
Queen Jane, posing for posterity in the popular “Game of Thrones” prop chair, at Renovation, the 69th World SF Convention, Reno, NV 2011

I mention this only because dealers in many collecting arenas don’t start that way nor are they personal collectors of what they sell.   They may become experts in their field, and take pleasure in being in the business they’re in, but they have no personal attachment to what they buy or sell; this is just how they make a living.  The equivalent would be commercial artists who ‘dabble’ in SF/F illustration, for whom such commissions are just another “job” – they don’t really have any special liking for the imagery or feeling for the traditions of the field – they are “hired wrists” and it’s really not important to them how they apply their skills, so long as the assignments keep coming (versus those artists whose careers have been shaped by their immersion in SF, whose professional lives are fully integrated with SF/F publishers, art directors, genre conventions, and related industry honors and awards.)

My father would be a good example of the non-collector dealer.  He was a well-known rare coin dealer (and called himself a numismatist), but other than attending meetings of the Bronx coin club in his 20’s, he never aspired to a coin collection of his own and didn’t have a personal collection of coins “on the side” after becoming a dealer.   In fact, while he enjoyed living with rare antiquities, sculpture and art – there was nothing he owned of material value that he would not have been willing to sell or trade for something else, if the opportunity arose – and he saw profit in it.  As a result, I grew up with an ever changing home decor; one day a Roman statue would be sitting on a pedestal in the hall, the next day it would be gone.  Paintings, framed sheets of 16th music, 3000 year-old Ushabti’s, would come and go.  He once came home from work one day shirtless . . proudly exclaiming that he finally been able to “sell the shirt off my back”.   Another day, he came home with 1700 classical record albums completely filling his car, roof to floor and trunk (those were the days of vinyl)…he had traded coins to someone for them, because he loved classical music.  He also loved ancient Greek coins, but felt no particular urge to own them, personally.

So, starting as a fan, or collector, is not a requisite for being successful as a dealer.  But that kind of history does put you on different footing with “customers” – who can be torn between thinking of you as a competitor and a ‘kindred spirit’ . . .  in on the game, together.   Yet, the question arises, from time to time: just what game are we in?  Just as our tastes are dissimilar, collectors are not all alike when it comes to their strategies for building their collections.

Gotta Have ’em, and Have ’em All

A well-known dealer, author, and collector, Robert Weinberg has been active in the sf/f marketplace for books and art for just about as long as anyone I know. And he once stated, with all gravity, that there probably weren’t more than about 2000 examples of pulp art still around. At the time, this seemed like a reasonably large number. That is, until we realized that it would only take 100 collectors, at 20 artworks each, to eat up the world’s supply. This wasn’t a big deal when there were only about six of us actively in pursuit of Virgil Finlay (yeah, this was awhile ago).  But now that this field of collecting has expanded, a collector with a big appetite is considerably more problematic.  You can, with enough money, time and zeal, literally control certain areas of the market, or artists’ outputs.

I’m not saying you can be a ‘completist’ in the same way as you can be with books, stamps or coins or collector plates.  Because as rare as paintings by known, early 20th century illustrators may become, their real number – while finite – is still unknown.  There is always the chance that some heretofore unknown painting by Margaret Brundage will pop up, found in someone’s attic in Chicago.  There are also other collectors who will prevent it: when you are collecting items that by definition are “one of a kind” (as is the case with original art), all you need is one person (like me) to say “no” – and your collection will be forever incomplete.  NOT SO with first edition books by certain authors, publishers, and known edition sizes.  Only very rarely are there truly one copy only known to exist.  All of which can be a real downer for those collectors who strive to acquire a complete collection of some type of thing (a “completist”).

If you collect anything, you’re sure to have met this type of collector, because they’re so commonly encountered.  They bring the concept of collecting to a whole new level of obsession.  Do they deserve our scorn, our pity, or our respect?  I’m not sure.  Scorn is hard for me to conjure up for anyone who is so passionate about what they do.   Pity, perhaps. . . if only because so many completists are doomed to failure. Respect, yes . . . because attaining such a goal demands single-minded focus, dedication and perseverance. And let’s also add to this: compassion. For whom among us – if we love a kind of thing – is not attracted to the idea of having every one of them?

Complete S. King 1st eds, signed. Note slightly sagging shelves
Complete S. King 1st eds, signed. Note slightly sagging shelves

You might be thinking, hey – this is one collecting strategy that is impossible (and nutty) when it comes to illustration art.  But you’d be surprised how often I’ve persuaded collectors to buy the cover paintings for a trilogy  – just so they can own “the complete set”.  Indeed, any books that are numbered, in a series, are prime suspects for completists.  And when they haven’t all been available, through damage or destruction, collectors have gone so far as to commission the artist to recreate the missing book cover. Then there are collectors (for example) who already keep lists or collections…like all the Hugo-award winning novels through the years…and who decide that owning the cover art for each of those books would be fun (broadening the search to any edition of the book would make such a collection possible).  Plus of course there are all the ‘favorite author’ collectors, based on their bibliographies: publications related to Lovecraft, to Heinlein, to Robert Silverberg, to Bradbury, to Philip K. Dick – just to name a few.

First known use of the word “completist” was in 1951, according to and things have become ever more complete in the world of collecting since then.  Why buy anything one at a time when you can have “The Complete Works”  – whether it’s Rudyard Kipling or Woody Allen movies – instantly?   For completists who need guarantees, there are subscriptions; publishers who specialize in “made for the market” collectibles are experts in the care and feeding of completists, whether it’s “special edition” leather bound books from Easton Press, or Danbury Mint’s Christmas Ornament Collector’s Club.  For collectors who are impatient, there are other collectors who will put together full sets for you.  Why hunt for items when you can rely on others to hunt for you?  Just type in “complete set” on eBay – I just did that today and up popped 298, 007 results.  Top of the list: a rare complete set of 1st editions of Wizard of Oz in dustjackets, $150,000 or best offer.  Bottom of the list: a 2012 TOPPS complete set of football die0cut game time giveaway promo cards, starting bid of $.01.

Completism is so common as a collecting strategy (indeed, I’m married to someone who is a completist when it comes to books – see above photo) that I felt it was only right to spend some time on this strategy – if only to get it out of the way so we can move on to strategies which (to me) make more sense when it comes to art collecting.


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