Motivation and Cultural Shifts Affecting the Procurement of Collectibles
The act of collecting appears to be part of the human condition as evidenced by its longstanding presence in our lives throughout generations. It has been estimated that there are close to 73 million people in the US, almost 35% of the population, that engage in act of collecting. It is estimated that the total market growth is about 3% when taking into account the new collectors that enter into and out of the market, as well as considering the appreciation of the actual collectibles themselves.
There are many types of collectibles, the more common categories including antiques, toys, coins, comic books, posters and stamps. Antique collectibles are typically used to describe items that are older. A curio is typically a smaller item that is considered strange or unusual. Then there are the mass-produced manufactured collectibles that are designed specifically to be collected.
Any object can potentially hold an intrinsic value to the collector. Conversely, what is collected may not have anything to do with its monetary worth. Understanding the factors affecting the collector and the collectible amassed can help guide industry decisions. Truly, industry should pay attention as people who amass collectibles take a lot of time to collect them, and spend a lot of money to help preserve their items like buying individual plastic sleeves for comics and by and using storage facilities with climate control. Truly, collectors are very loyal to the art of collecting, often going to great pains and expense to ensure the authenticity of their purchases.
What a collector chooses to accumulate is dependent on several factors. The act of collecting seems to feed a human need and thus collectors tend to be motivated by three main reasons. They may collect for financial reasons, emotional ones, or because of popular cultural shifts and past experiences. People may collect certain items for the financial aspect, another item for emotional, self-soothing reasons, and another item because of a childhood experience.
Of course, one item can feed more than one motivation and be influenced by the individual’s past experiences. The value of the collectible item is dependent on what the item is and other factors such as the rarity or uniqueness of the item, the condition of the item, the demand, and history of the item. For certain collectibles, such as coins, the actual value of the metal has an impact.
Many collectors point to financial reasons as their main motivator. Indeed, by definition, when discussing a “collectible” it is typically in reference to or defined as an item that may have been purchased at one price point and then is sold for a different, appreciated amount. This is a sentiment echoed by many stating their collections are or referring to them as their retirement. Many people will say that their collection is a means to an end, stating that their “treasures” will someday be worth a lot. And indeed, many collectors sell their collections just upon retiring or passing it along to their children or grandchildren. In this realm, there are influencing factors.
Stamp collection used to be popular from 1930s-1970's. At that time, culturally it was important to pass something down to your children or grandchildren. Many stamp collectors, tending to be 60 years old or older, either sold their collections to fund their retirement or willed it to their children or grandchildren. This industry reached its peak in the 1980’s. With the advent of personal computers and the practice of emailing people rather handwriting letters, stamps declined in their collectability.
Further, the generations that followed tended to be more into sports cards, coins, comic books and video games. Sadly, those children did not appreciate their inherited stamp collection as much, and tended to sell them. It will be worth observing if this trend continues or if it is likely to repeat itself with coin collections, which seemed to replace the procurement of stamps. As of today’s writing, coin collectors tend to be 50 years old or older.
Another cultural shift, the digital revolution that began in the 1980’s, also affected the collectible industry as in comic book collections and other “hard to find” items. These collections saw their values drop with the advent of on-line sales. No longer did one have to go to comic book conventions around the country or even around the world. Today, collectors can simply log on to places like e-bay or other on-line forums and find a dizzying array of the desired item. Therefore, rarity has taken on a different meaning. We are no longer limited by borders or oceans, distance or time.
Admittedly, collectors can grow attached to their financial investments but an initiating emotional need can also drive the collector. Psychologists suggest that many people collect things as a way to maintain control or as an escape. Searching for desired items may provide a distraction from whatever else is going on in their lives. Collections can allow people to hang on to memories that remind them of a time that evokes a strong feeling. For example, many women hang on to their Nancy Drew Book collection as it reminds them of a time of wonder, or of their happy childhood. Every time they go to the basement and see their collection, it makes them think about that nice time in their lives. The time they spend searching for more books, they are reminded of this chapter in their lives.
Some psychologists suggest that often collecting an item can fill an empty spot for some, acting as a salve for some perceived insecurity. Industrious companies understand this and take advantage that often times, it is not the monetary value of the item, but the emotional connection that drives people to buy items. People collect things that help them relive a certain time in their life or a special event such as a wedding. In this way, they can stay connected to that part of themselves or to ensure that emotional experience from the past extends into the future.
Many stores also use this nostalgia in their products to help people recapture those magical memories. Companies such as Rediscover Handbags Etc. for example will use a book cover or theatre bill in creation of a tote or handbag.
Further, psychologists indicate that people can collect almost anything, the collection doesn’t even have to be an item. Napoleon Bonaparte was famously considered to be a collector of countries. Thought to be affected by “short man syndrome”, it has been postulated that he was aggressive and domineering to contradict his own perceived physical shortcomings. With each “collected” country, it has been mused that it acted as an affirmation of his power.
A cultural shift has provided the genesis for a just such a new, non-item collecting trend. The collection of experiences has been driven mostly by the Millennial generation due to changes in the housing market. The so-called Baby Boomer generation is living longer and therefore living in their homes longer. The Millennial generation are coming into adulthood and wanting to build their lives, but because the Baby Boomer generation are not exiting their homes, there is a shortage of housing. As such, housing has become more expensive and in general the Millennials are acutely aware of resources getting scarcer. Alongside the housing issue, the impact of climate change and excessiveness has become more apparent to this cohort.
A simpler lifestyle known as Minimalism has been embraced by the Millennial generation. Minimalism has driven the so-called “Tiny House” trend and the rejection of material goods. So instead of collecting items, this large group of people have shifted to finding experiences more meaningful.
Many are choosing to collect vacation experiences. Many entities in the travel industry have taken notice and seized upon this opportunity in their marketing. For example, the state of Utah pushes the collection of their “Big Five” National Parks experiences in their advertisements by promoting the visitation of all five parks. In fact, the entire travel industry encourages the collection of travel experiences by detailing the number of continents and countries visited in their descriptions of tours. Many on-line websites and forums have tools to help keep track of all the countries visited, and all the experiences collected. This makes sense as we know experiences can influence and shape our lives.
Psychologists also discuss how personal life experience can be a factor in collecting behavior. They have long observed that people who grew up during the Depression are known to have strange collecting habits, often having a difficult time disposing of anything due to a fear that it will not be available later when they need it or want it. One man explains that his mother who grew up after the war when food was scarce, kept the garage full of canned goods, adding to the pile every week and having a difficult time throwing out the expired cans. He remarks that she became incensed whenever her children did not finish what was on their plates at meal time.
Poverty can drive what and how people collect. One woman explains her collection of Barbie Dolls by saying that as a young girl, she had always wanted Barbie Dolls like all the other girls had but her mother did not have a lot of money. She did get one Barbie Doll from a relative as a Christmas gift and instead of replacing it with time, the woman and her mother just kept drawing the eyes back on, gluing on pieces here and there as they fell off. This woman was deeply impacted by the deprivation she felt as a child and it drove her amassing behavior in adulthood with her Barbie Doll collection. She felt successful with each Barbie doll she purchased, perhaps connecting herself to the little girl she once was, telling her that she was deserving of new dolls.
It can be clearly seen that whether a person collects out of a financial motivation, for emotional reasons, or both, cultural events and life experiences can exert a strong impact on the collector and what is collected. This can be seen with evolution of poster collection.
While there were some limited posters in the 1800s, the emergence of the modern-day type posters as we’ve come to know them didn’t occur until the first and second World Wars. Their purpose was two-fold. One main purpose began with the job of advertisement or propaganda about the war. Another utility was to entice potential recruits to join the military and help their country.
This relatively cost-effective form of advertisement remains constant and many posters continue to be used in promotion of upcoming events. The entertainment industry, including the movie and music industry, use posters as an important tool in their advertising arsenal to this day.
Movie, Broadway and Theatre posters, especially vintage posters, tend to be highly collectible especially those of films that were released before the 1940s. Part of that is due to rarity as not many of these survived. In the 1920s, as movies became more popular, the related posters served mainly as advertisements rather than a collectable item.
Often, they were used as a decorative piece as the movie or production moved from theatre to theatre. The major film studios would typically throw them away once their film left the theatre. Broadway type shows would often take the posters down and reuse them at the next venue but they became damaged in this process. This practice continued for decades but that all changed with the 1977 release of the iconic movie Star Wars. It was then that a strong interest in owning these portraits became apparent.
Very few people that experienced the Star Wars movies phenomenon cannot immediately visualize the poster with Princess Leia next to Luke Skywalker, holding up his Light Sabre against a backdrop of Darth Vader’s face. That one movie spawned a plethora of collectibles, but the collection of movie posters has been credited to this event by many.
Currently, the collection of all posters has remained stable. It has been postulated that the collection of Vintage posters hits all the motivations. Financially, they can increase in worth, they recall perhaps a happier time and because it remains an affordable way of collecting art. They do not require much space and are highly portable, fitting in with the new cultural norms emerging today.