The Artful Collector: The Process of Building a SF/F Art Collection, Part I

Some collectors begin a collection and then keep at it for their lifetimes. Only death can, or will, separate you from what you love . . . and what you love remains largely the same for as long as you call yourself a collector. Doesn’t matter what the category of collectible is: once you’ve decided on your “niche” (and sometimes this focus comes early), you stick with it. Could be baby dolls or books. Other collectors, either by choice, or opportunity, follow a completely different path. You not only change WHAT you collect, but HOW you collect it. Sometimes those changes are evolutionary, and sometimes they are radical. . . for both the WHAT and the HOW.

Jim Burns "Neutronium Alchemist The Neutronium Alchemist, paperback cover, 1996 Acrylic on board 20 x 49 in. Signed lower left This piece was used as the cover of Book Two in the Night's Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton, Tor Books, 1998.
Jim Burns “The Neutronium Alchemist” pb cover, Bk 2 Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton, Tor Books, 1998. Acrylic, 20″ x 49″ Acquired through trade 2006, we sold it 2008.

This week I am going to focus on those kinds of collectors, the ones who change WHAT they collect, over time. . . and how change leads to the building of new Collections.  . . . . which will be followed by the “HOW” collections are being built today (upcoming, Part 2)

Note that I did not say “. . . leads to the building of a Better Collection.” Because I am not a critic, here—just an observer. If you are expecting to read “buy this, and not that” you’ve come to the wrong place. Changing WHAT you collect, or selling off items from your collection and replacing them with others (turn over) doesn’t necessarily lead to a “better” collection. What it does lead to is an opportunity to express your tastes in a new way. And THAT is a very exciting prospect for any collector!

The Process of Changing WHAT You Collect

To onlookers any changes may seem radical (just as to non-collectors, any collecting passion may seem bizarre) but quite often to the collector those changes are simply evolutionary; what you once loved, you still love, you’ve just grown pickier, more sophisticated, more “focused” in what you want. Sometimes, as when we ended up selling Burns’ Neutronium Alchemist (above) it was simply because we needed more wall space, the time had come to trim down the collection (by then we had 14 paintings by Jim Burns in our collection (!) and, last but surely not least, we already owned Book 1 in the series, which (for some reason, and after deliberation) my husband decided he preferred to Book 2). In such way do practical as well as aesthetic decisions change a collection . . . could be one at a time, or by the dozen.

Other times, collections are simply outgrown or, putting it more gently, grown “beyond.” Our motives and interests are not fixed; they are constantly in flux and influenced by experience, observation and even “trial and error.” Sometimes the change in what we collect is driven by boredom; you can get tired of living with the same visual stimuli day in and day out. Sometimes, change is triggered by the prospect of collecting things that might grow in market value over time, as opposed to, say, collecting objects that carry emotional value (to you), but are otherwise valueless. Sometimes change is involuntary (parents throwing out your comics; fire; theft) and sometimes it’s a matter of changing priorities (you need the space or your budget shrinks). Sometimes it’s just a matter of someone coming along with an offer you can’t refuse.  🙂

Don Maitz "Sword of the Lictor" Vol 3 of Gene Wolf's "Book of the New Sun" purchased from the artist 1989, sold 2009 to a collector who owned Vol 1 & 2
Don Maitz “Sword of the Lictor” Vol 3 of Gene Wolf’s “Book of the New Sun” purchased from the artist 1989, sold 2009 to a collector who owned Vol 1 & 2

Most interesting to me, are those collectors who move from collecting field to collecting field over time, or who are able to maintain and grow several specialized collections, simultaneously. Importantly: BOTH situations enable you to START OVER, to gather objects that express your tastes – in a way that never existed in the same way, before.

Narrowing the FOCUS

There is a collector I know who, when we first met, still had a room in his house devoted to the display of his beer can collection—even while, right around the corner, there was a a growing and quite formidable, collection of cartoon and underground comic art. Within a couple of years of our friendship the beer cans were gone. And a few years later so were the cartoons and drawings by Robert Crumb . . . because by the 1980s we were friendly competitors for SF/F art. And when I started up Worlds of Wonder in 1991, he became my client, as well. Ultimately, this major collector of illustration art, Richard Kelly, wrote an essay “The Evolution of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration Art” which perfectly captures the process and motivations for changing what a person collects, and the way that change enables the formation of new collections. I excerpt the beginning of his essay here, and urge you to follow the link and read the whole thing when you get a chance:

Tom Canty "Dandelion Wine" Ray Bradbury cover, Bantam 1990.  Watercolor and inks, 14" x 22.5" Kelly Collection de-acquisition, 2000.
Tom Canty “Dandelion Wine” Ray Bradbury cover, Bantam 1990. Watercolor and inks, 14″ x 22.5″ Kelly Collection de-accessioned work, 2000.

“The Kelly Collection of American Illustration was started in the late 1980s with my first purchases of works from the “Golden Age” of American Illustration, dating from 1890 to 1935. Although I’ve always been an innate collector, I didn’t have any original art until the early 1970s, when I bought a Doonesbury comic strip from the Jane Haslem Gallery in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter Bob Lewis, a neighbor, introduced me to science fiction and fantasy art, as well as a wide range of cartoon and underground comic illustrations. As a result, by the time I had made my first purchase (a Mead Schaeffer illustration), I was juggling four separate collections. I soon realized that I was not doing justice to any of them and needed to pool my resources in one area. By the early 1990s I had decided to deaccession the earlier collections (with Bob’s help) and to concentrate solely on original works from the heyday of America’s great illustrators . . . Now, after fifteen or so years of steady collecting, I have built up a collection of roughly 350 original illustrations. Looking back, the shape of the Kelly Collection today is the result of conscious decisions made early on in the process.

Narrowing the collecting focus exclusively to American illustration may have been our most important decision since it allowed us to concentrate all of our available resources on a much smaller range of artists.”

The important points here: “de-accession” and “conscious decisions.” The selling off of ALL SF/F illustrations, and all works that did not fall between the years 1890-1935 would appear to be a radical move. But it was not; it was actually “evolutionary.” The process of consolidating, “pruning,” and refining enabled Kelly to set a new course for his collection.

Gary Ruddell "Sugar Rain" pb and magazine cover, sold and then bought back
Gary Ruddell “Sugar Rain” pb (1989) and magazine (2000) cover, WoW sold to client 1992 and then bought back for personal collection 2000

And because of that new direction, I was able to buy back a painting that I had sold to him 8 years previously, and that WE (as collectors) had always liked. . . and which fit perfectly into OUR collection, if not his. That painting was Gary Ruddell’s “Sugar Rain.”

Whatever prompts the narrowing of focus, it is inevitably accompanied by a dissatisfaction, a growing sense of impatience, with whatever it is that once delighted you, but no longer “satisfies”—whether it’s bowls filled with matchbooks and swizzle sticks, or small scale model cars, or even some pieces of original art.  Suddenly, whatever you’ve got. . . is not enough, or “not quite right.” Your tastes, your aesthetic sensibilities, demand more. You find yourself applying new criteria to each acquisition, asking yourself questions like “do you really need another one of those?” or thinking “this isn’t good enough.”

When Serendipity Lends a Hand 

Not all new collections spring from the desire to change; sometimes random events, CHANCE opportunities come along. You spend 20 years completing your collection of Amazing Stories, let’s say. 🙂 And then a collector shows up who wants them all. Perhaps another collector brings you an offer for a foundation piece, or a group of paintings, the heart of your collection, and it’s an offer you just can’t refuse (unless you are crazy, and you aren’t THAT crazy). The past 10 years has brought the phenomenon of collectors dedicated to very niche areas of collecting; their zeal for amassing ALL paintings of a kind, whether by publisher (Ace); author (Silverberg, George R. R. Martin; etc) or character (Doc Savage) has made it difficult for anyone else to enter that collecting area. Most recently, there has been a fever for TSR/AD&D™. On the negative side, there are also less fortuitous events that can change what you collect . . .like maybe your house burns down, and with the insurance proceeds you are free to start over. Maybe an uncle dies and leaves you his collection of toy soldiers.  You get divorced and poof your model train collection is gone. WHATEVER. Through the vagaries of chance, you find yourself in a position to start over.

I look around at the great art that available today, and wonder what I would be buying, if I were starting over, and had only the resources I had, let’s say, in 1988. I know that my tastes haven’t changed all that much in four decades . . .the same themes and subject that appealed to me in 1970, still appeals to me now. But four decades ago, and even in 1988, the only art that had the kind of subject matter I liked happened to be featured on the covers of books and magazines. HOW do you build a collection when those kinds of paintings, produced solely for publication, aren’t being painted anymore?  

That’s the question I will deal with in the second part of this post. . . so stay tuned next week.

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