Most collectors are at least amateur historians. The excitement of holding, owning, a real piece of history is irresistible. At the same time, the sense of discovery is truly addictive- especially when the thing that you discover has been overlooked, or even forgotten for a time.
All collectors are treasure hunters. We are looking for that lost or undiscovered item, and the discovery, and possession of that item satisfy something within us. It is not necessarily measured by financial value. It is more about our sense of connection, for a moment, to events and people of significance to us.
Our recent sale of an Alexander Hamilton document illustrated that. Many people took note of it, Many people dreamt of owning it. Quite a few people came to see it. A number of people bid on it. One person came to own it.
Why all the fuss over what is ultimately nothing more than an old, used, piece of paper? The answer is simple: because we wanted, even if only briefly, to touch the mystery who was Alexander Hamilton. We wanted to gain an insight to that famous man, who is so suddenly popular again today. The letter allowed all of us to be a little bit closer to the man, to his life, and to his times.
That is what it is all about.
So, the real question is, how do we get these treasures? It is possible simply to buy wonderful things. That is fine, but it takes away the thrill of discovering something previously lost, not noticed or understood, or something that has been forgotten. How do we even begin to find these treasures?
Step one: Specialize!
In my opinion, step one is to specialize. Find an area that appeals to you, and start reading about it, and when possible, buy books about it. You can find amazing books on virtually every specialty that you can imagine. Whenever possible, add them to your library. I have been collecting swords since I was 12. I now have over 200 books in my library on edged weapons and several more on their way from a sale back east even as I write. Some of them are on my areas of specialization: British and American Naval edged weapons. However, most are on other types of edged weapons. Just recently I realized that I have over 15 books on edged weapons of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Even though I own only one Indonesian knife, they come in handy on a regular basis, as I see different swords and daggers, and try to figure out what they are- and at times, what they are not! (You would be surprised by how often something being sold as Confederate is actually Philippine or Indonesian!)Your library is genuinely your best friend in collecting. An organization to which I belong has an unofficial motto: “Buy the book, wear the old coat.” An added benefit can be that books on collectibles frequently have very short print runs. Many of your books will be worth more than you pay for them only a few months after you buy them. The beautiful John Thillman book on sabers of the Civil War cost $80.00 when it first came out some ten years ago. One book dealer I know is offering a copy for $350.00.
Step two: Practice researching!
The next step is one that sometimes seems out of our reach. It is to develop research skills. Those skills are certainly not limited to libraries, and scholars rooting through musty volumes of ancient lore. We live in the information age, and certainly any time that you open your computer, you are using one of the handiest tools of our times. Some of my most intriguing finds have been from simply googling names. I bought a pair of early fraternal swords, entirely because they had the words, “Sacramento Commandery” etched on their blades. They also had the name of the original owner. I googled him, and discovered that not only was he a fairly early Sacramento pioneer, but that he was reported to have been murdered by person or persons unknown in 1873! Does that information increase the value of the swords? If so, it would certainly not be by much, but it does increase the interest of them, and the swords are in a rack to my right as I type these words.
Step three: Consult the other experts
The internet also offers wonderful opportunities for collaboration with other collectors or students of a particular area of collecting. I have bookmarked half a dozen online forums that I consult fairly frequently. They allow me to interact with people who in some cases are more knowledgeable that I am, or in other cases those who have just had different opportunities. I recently consulted an online forum on kukris, the wonderful curved fighting knife and edged tool of Nepal. There I found far more information than is currently in print on different types of older kukris, and especially those from the previously lost Nepalese Royal Armoury that was discovered just a few years ago. That was applied to my description of a really wonderful kukri that we will be selling in April. I also found online forums extremely helpful when I was researching some of the scarcer wings that we sold back in January.
Once you have begun to specialize, you will find yourself seeing things with greater understanding when you come across something in your field. That will not only make those things more interesting, it may also make them more valuable! You may even make some friends.