Collect for Free: Buy Collections

Though I have written frequently about selling a collection, it occurred to me today, I actually have bought more collections than I have sold. In fact, it was until I had bought a collection or two that I gravitated from being a militaria accumulator to becoming a focused, developed collector. The time will come for you when someone says, “Why don’t you buy me out?” It’s best that you have considered a few things before that opportunity knocks.

Tips for Buying a Collection

Selling is easy…After you have made the decision to part with your collection, you just have to arrive at an agreement with a buyer. But buying a collection, takes finesse. It can be sort of like going fishing. You need to know where to look, what bait to use, and then you still have to work with the fish to get a bite on your hook. And it doesn’t end there…what seemed like a firm, positive bite, could wiggle off the hook before you reel it in.

Plant the idea. First thing you need to do when a friend or acquaintance tells you they want to sell their collection is to bounce that hook a little. Get some more information—but don’t let them get away. You will generally have one chance, so learn how to recognize when someone is making overtures of selling. “You know, I am starting to cut back,” might actually be a potential seller sniffing around. When you hear something like “I’m not buying as much as when I was younger,” set that hook! Tell them, straight up, “Hey, you are talking about cutting back, but I am interested in buying your collection.”

That will usually be a shock. That collector hadn’t really thought of selling it all, but you just gave him or her something to think about. Set the hook: “It might not be time for you to sell, but why don’t you think on it for a couple of days and we can talk again.” The key here: Don’t allow too much time. That person will think about it, and within two days, they will decide either it is time to sell or not just yet.

Follow-up. Two days later, contact that buddy. “Hey, let’s get together and talk about your collection.” Make some sort of arrangement to talk, preferably face to face, but at bare minimum, on the phone. Don’t rely on email…you can’t judge emotions in a person’s response via email.

When you have the conversation, lead with, “I am really interested in buying your collection” and pause. Let the potential seller take control of the conversation. Perhaps they will hesitate and say they aren’t quite ready. Be empathetic. “I understand…this is a big decision” will go much farther than any sort of pressure.

No matter how the conversation goes, you have to lock yourself in to the deal. “I understand you might want to get opinions on value from others, but I am only interested in buying the entire collection. Any outside deals for pieces of the collection, and I am out.” In fact, I have found it advantageous to give some “earnest money” at this stage. A few hundred, thousand, or whatever fraction of the total cost will imply a contractual agreement in the seller’s mind.

Be honest about value. The days of picking some widow’s pocket of her husband’s dagger collection or wall of guns is gone. The internet has leveled the playing field for the seller with the buyer. Anyone with a keyboard can get an idea of value. Tell them, “I know this collection is probably in the neighborhood of a few hundred, thousands, tens of thousands.” If they don’t have a price in mind, give them a week or two (don’t go too long…play with a fish on the line and they will find a way to get off…and usually land in someone else’s net!). Be honest with them that you know the value and they know the value (or can fast determine it). Tell them, “Once we agree on a retail value of the collection, I am going to pay you 60% of retail (or 50 or 40…whatever makes the deal work).” That will be enough info for this first meeting. Make an appointment to meet again to close the deal. Remind them about your earnest money and that you are already in agreement they are going to sell to you, now it is just a matter of, “for how much.”

This is really important. A potential seller will contact another dealer or collector hoping to just get an opinion on value. Often, it results in the sale to that second person because the potential buyer did cement the deal in some real, tangible way. Handshakes disappear. A check for $1,000 is real…it will keep a potential seller on your line.

Make the Deal. On the appointed day, be prepared. In addition to boxes, packing material, and some mode of transportation capable of taking the entire collection home, come with cash in hand, ready to make the deal. Cash speaks volumes over checks and promises. Leave the checkbook behind. Reel in that seller! Stacks of $20s, $50s or $100s have a phenomenal influence over hesitant sellers. Count the money out. Let them see it. Close the deal. If they hesitate, don’t flinch. Scoop up the dollars and pronounce the deal is about to end. And mean it. Be nice, but let them know that your time is valuable, theirs is not the only collection to be purchased, and that you made your best offer in good faith.

Once the cash has changed hands, then it is time to pack. And pack swiftly, systematically, and preferably, without too much discussion. Many sellers will want to talk to you about every piece—what it meant to them and how it will make your life better. Be pleasant, but firm. Explain how this is all very interesting, but you have very limited time to pack. You goal has to be, “Pack and move.” If you linger, listening to stories, you are providing the opportunity for seller’s remorse to seep in. That’s dangerous. A deal and a good relationship can unravel. It’s better to be firm and perceived as just a bit unfriendly then it is to spend hours listening to stories that result in, “Oh, I want to keep this item,” or, “I remembered I promised this piece to a friend…”

WHAT ABOUT THAT “Collect for Free?”

With the collection bought and paid for, now you have the pleasant opportunity to cherry pick items for your own collection, and decide what to do with the rest. I have bought entire AEF doughboy collections to get one Tank Corps uniform, albums of photos for a handful of “keepers,” and libraries of books to get the few volumes I really wanted. I sold the remaining items in each of the collections at a reasonable mark up (usually about 40%), thereby making the items in my collection virtually “free.” Buying a collection, if done correctly, can be the way to grow your own collection by leaps and bounds, without having to tie up too much cash for long periods of time.

Most importantly, though, remember what the person selling has invested, not only money, but of themselves in building their collection. Respect their passion for their collection and for the knowledge they gained while assembling it. They have bit on your invitation to buy their collection, but that doesn’t make them a fish. Rather than jerking them in, being compassionate—and understanding that selling is often a painful, sorrowful event—will make you feel better about the deal once it is done.

Pursue the passion,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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