Selling a Collection: Some Lessons Learned

It seems there is a lot of talk about “selling a collection” these days. Whether it is the uncertain economy, life adjustments or simply a change in interests, the fact is, many collectors are divesting themselves of years of accumulation. I am one of those collectors, having sold two collections during the past two years. My experiences of gathering the items, contacting potential buyers and negotiating prices may help you decide how you might want to sell your collection when the time comes.

A ‘Mountain’ of  Stuff

    My Dad spent a good part of WWII as a military policeman at Camp Hale, the training facility of the 10th Mountain Division. Some of my earliest acquired WWII items were skis, poles and wool ski trousers that Dad brought home from the war.

    Though I have been collecting militaria since I was a young boy, I didn’t start collecting U.S. WWII Mountain Division items until around 1995. My decision coincided with the rise of the Internet and eBay. In a matter of about five years, I was able to assemble a significant collection that included five fully equipped mannequins representing different stages of the 10th’s development and deployment, weapons, accouterments and groupings. The collection occupied the entire second floor of my small, three bedroom-home.

    The high-point of the 10th Mountain Collection came when I partnered with Kevin Kronlund of Spooner, Wis., to recreate a Camp Hale scene at the Military Vehicle Preservation Association’s (MVPA) 2005 International Convention. My mannequins and accessories coupled with Kevin’s T-15 Weasel and Snow Tractor captured one of the Convention’s awards.

The Three D’s of Liquidation
    Having worked with a number of dealers, I have learned to recognize the three D’s that lead to collection liquidation: “Death,” “Debt” and / or “Divorce.” I have witnessed dozens of collections sold and most fall under one of those headings. For me, though, it wasn’t one of the three D’s that motivated selling my 10th Mountain collections.

    It wasn’t too long after the MVPA Convention that I decided to relocate to Missouri. The 10th Mountain Collection went into Rubbermaid tubs to make the trek south. Moving from a small house into a duplex meant I had less room for display. It wasn’t debt, death or divorce that motivated me to sell. It was space. I didn’t have enough room to display and enjoy the collection.

    It actually took some time to come to the conclusion that I wanted to sell.  And here is the first lesson: Before contacting potential buyers, decide you WANT to sell. This is crucial. If you aren’t ready to sell, you will be wasting your time and that of anyone you contact to buy it. Selling a collection is not a fishing expedition—it is a business decision, plain and simple. You have to break your emotional ties with the items to be able to sell them.

    It took several months to decide I was really going to sell the collection. I went back and forth… first pulling out “a few cool items” to keep, then realizing that was not the way to break the emotional ties. Furthermore, most of the “cool items” were just the things a buyer was going to want. So here is the second lesson: Don’t cherry-pick your own collection.

    When you try to sell a complete collection, a buyer is probably looking at a huge pile with an eye for a few key items that will help him quickly recoup his investment. All of the common items (in my case, tubes of ski wax, stacks of ski leggings, piles of goggles and multiple mountain rucksacks) are just filler. Rather, the prime pieces included the identified mountain jackets, officer’s groupings and named Purple Hearts that were going to be the fast turn-around items for the buyer.

    I decided on a price before I contacted any potential buyer, but made sure I asked about their terms before I ever invited them to view the items. This is an important step in the process: Decide what you think is a fair price BEFORE you contact a dealer.

    You are selling the collection. Research what you think it is worth and don’t rely on blind offers. But bear in mind, you are selling to a dealer: Don’t expect retail prices. He or she needs to be able to buy at wholesale.

The Big Day

    After deciding I was ready to sell and determining a “magic price” for the collection, I contacted three different potential buyers. I did not give them a complete inventory, but did send them photos of the collection when it was displayed and, because it was already packed in tubs, was able to say, “It fills 20  20” x 26” x 18” rubber tubs.” In retrospect, that was a crucial step to help the buyer realistically envision the scope of  the collection. Too many times, I have heard people say their collection would “fill a semi-trailer” only to pack it up into about 10 rubber tubs. Collections are ALWAYS larger in the eye of the owner!

    Of the three dealers I contacted, only two expressed any interest and asked a few more questions. I used that as cue to ask THEM questions of my own. First, what was their standard rate of pay? One answered, “I look over the collection and make an offer.” The other answered, “I examine the collection, make a rough estimate of how much I think I can sell it for and then offer you 60 percent of that price.” That was a straight-forward answer and appealed to me. 60 percent of retail seemed like a fair offer to avoid having to lug the stuff around from show to show, deal with dozens of small buyers and listing it on eBay. A date was arranged for a visit.

    After the dealer arrived to examine my collection, I made my first mistake. I hovered around him as he looked at it. I volunteered information as he picked up each piece, telling him why it was so meaningful.  It didn’t occur to me that wasn’t important to him at that point. He didn’t travel to my home in Wisconsin for a day-long session of “relic sex.” Rather, he was there to make an informed, quick evaluation and decide whether or not he could make a profit with the items.

    Because I wasn’t completely detached from the collection yet, I needlessly dragged the process out to many hours. By the time I quit talking, the dealer just wanted to get out of the house and back on the road. But, rather than just running, he regrouped and asked for a few moments alone so that he could do some calculations. It was hard for me to leave him alone with the collection, but I excused myself and left him with his notes, calculators and my prized collection.

    It only took him about 15 minutes to calculate a rough estimate (remember, I needlessly kept him occupied for about four hours while I talked about each piece). He showed me the amount for which he thought he could sell the collection and what 60% of that would be—the amount he would pay me.

    It was about a thousand dollars lower than what I considered my “magic price,” but he was telling me he could pay me right now and load up the collection. The convenience of immediate payment and immediate liquidation was enough to convince me to accept his terms.

    Acquiring the collection took me about 10 years. Selling it took about five hours.

The Second Collection

    My time in Missouri came to an end just a couple of months ago when I decided to relocate to my beloved Minnesota. The move would require another boxing of my collection and library. When I moved to Missouri a few years earlier, I transported more than 60 boxes of books. During my years in Missouri, though, I realized I only accessed the books that dealt specifically with artifacts or vehicles. The basic military histories, memoirs, diaries and historical studies remained untouched. Having read each one, I found no need to look at them again—they became a sort of “historical security blanket” occupying valuable real estate in my office. In addition, I realized that when I needed a basic historical rundown on some event when I am writing an article or working on a book, I rely on the Internet rather than a printed book. So, after considering all this, I made the decision to sell another collection—this time, my military book collection.

    Again, I contacted three dealers. This time though, I indicated right in my initial contact that I had a collection of 30 linear feet (an easy measurement of occupied shelf space) military history books primarily focused on WWI and WWII packed in 10 16” x 18” x 20” cardboard cartons that I wanted to sell. I invited each dealer to examine the collection, determine a rough estimate of retail value and pay me 50 percent of that price. One dealer responded and said he was not interested at this time but did refer me to another dealer. One never replied. And the third replied that he was interested, the terms were fair and he could examine the collection the next day.

    Learning my lesson from the earlier sale, I hauled all of the boxes into a room before the dealer’s arrival. When he showed up at the appointed time, I took him to the room, invited him to make himself comfortable and told him I would be in my office. I suggested he take his time to examine the collection, do his calculations and come and find me when he was finished.

    It took him a little more than 40 minutes to go through the 10 boxes. After joining him, he explained how he had segregated seven boxes of books that he thought he could sell. With that, he told me how much he could pay me for the seven boxes. Though it was $150 short of my predetermined “magic price,” it was close enough. Within 15 minutes of accepting the offer, the check was in hand, the books loaded into his truck and the deal was done. In all, it took 55 minutes.

    This second deal went so smoothly because I remembered the lessons of my earlier 10th Mountain collection sale:

1.    Before I contacted any potential buyers, I had decided I wanted to sell. I imagined what it would be like without these books in my office. I went back and forth evaluating the merits of selling or keeping them. I addressed any second thoughts before I contacted anyone.

2.    I didn’t cherry-pick the collection. Sure, there were some darn good books in the group that I might have wanted to keep or that I thought I could sell individually for full retail, but I realized that is the strength of those key items that makes a sale of a complete collection possible. I had to leave the few princes in the boxes to sell the rest of the toads.

3.    I had decided what I thought was a fair price before I contacted anyone. In addition, I established the terms of the sale before inviting any dealer to view the collection.

4.    I accurately communicated the scope of the collection. By telling dealers how many cartons and linear feet the books occupied, they could envision how much space it would take in their store, and what size vehicle they would need to transport the collection.

5.    I gave the dealer “space” to evaluate the collection. I realized that the potential sale wasn’t about me. My stories about each item weren’t going to help my goal of selling the collection. I left the dealer alone with the items to think and evaluate without my interruptions. I kept my emotions out of it, remembering that for the dealer, this was a business deal.

    Do I miss the 10th Mountain collection and the books? Sure, a little. But I was done with them. They gave me years of enjoyment. It was time to sell, and I am glad it went as smoothly as it did.

    But just because I sold a couple of collections doesn’t mean I am done collecting. In fact, as I type this, I glance at my WWI Tank Corps collection and my library, evaluating just how much space is available. It’s hard to keep a collector down!

Keep finding the good stuff,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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