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What's the deal with collecting?

That’s right: Strange as it may seem in this world ofeBayandAntiques Roadshowand entire publishing houses that put out nothing but price guides, there are still plenty of people who will assert with pride that they do not collect anything at all. I was astonished to learn recently that a fellow I know—a professional folklorist, no less—considers himself, as he told me, to be “the opposite of a collector. If I had an old family heirloom and I brought it in toAntiques Roadshowand they told me it was worth $30,000, hey, I’d sell it on the spot!” In fact, he says, “I can’t even watch that show without thinking, ‘Sell it!’ ” He is confounded, he says, by a friend’s hobby. “What are you going to do with this collection of 400 pocketknives?” he muses (his point being, I suppose, that even the most accomplished whittlers make do with far fewer). “And then, what are you going to do with it when you die?”

If you've ever been outbid on eBay, you know collectors have plenty of money to throw around.

That, it turns out, may become more and more of an issue in the future. According to a 2006Wall Street Journalarticle titled “Who’s Going to Want Grandma’s Hoard of Antique Gnomes?”—the headline says it all, really—collectors may be an aging breed. The article indicates that young folks these days are too preoccupied with technology to chase after low-tech, noninteractive things like baseball cards or marbles or toy trains. A study by a marketing firm discovered that “of the estimated 37 million Americans who identified themselves as collectors in 2000, just 11% were under the age of 36,” and “most were over 50.” In other words, it seems that what will eventually happen to Grandma’s gnomes and those 400 pocketknives and my old radios and Victrolas and everything else people collect is less likely to be that they will be preserved and cherished by future generations than that they will end up being dumped on an ever-shrinking market.

This prospect alarms many collectors, naturally, but there are those who take a much more Zen approach to the issue. When their time comes, they say, their collection will simply be sold off and dispersed to other collectors; that is, it will not be destroyed but rather recycled, in a fashion. And not everyone is ready to say that collecting is a dwindling pastime. Wilson Hulme was in perhaps as good a position as anyone to forecast the future of collecting. The chief curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, he was also a dedicated philatelist, and stamps are, depending upon whom you ask, either the most popular collectible in the world today or the second-most popular (the other contender being coins). Hulme, who, sadly, died a few months after I spoke with him, told me not only that collecting is as popular as ever—even if certain items sometimes go in or out of vogue—but that there are a great many more people out there who, as he put it, “may not call themselves collectors, but they are.” How could he tell? “When I ask people if they collect something, they’ll say no, but then I ask a few more questions, and it’ll come out that there’s something they have a lot of,” he explained. “Everything from thimbles to dolls, glassware.… I know people who have a lot of pewter picture frames around the house—not just a dozen or two. They don’t think they’re collecting them; they’ll say they just like the way they look.”

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