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11 Dec 2021

'It gives you a real thrill': collectors on buying and selling collectibles

From auctions to insurance to wills, collectors share what it takes to grow, maintain and make a profit from a collection
Fiona Wiggins with her book collection

Sign-ups to collectible websites have gone 'absolutely nuts' as lockdowns drove collectors old and new to snap up rare items. But how many of them will make money from their collections?

Victoria Lajer, managing director of rare stamp dealer Stanley Gibbons, says sign-ups to its website went 'absolutely nuts' during the pandemic. 'We saw huge numbers of new sign-ups because it's a nice indoor hobby,' she told Which?.

It's not just stamp collecting that's seen an uptick. Last year, top art sales included an original edition of William Shakespeare's 1623 Comedies, Histories & Tragedies for $10m, a 14.8-carat pink diamond ($26.6m) and a near-complete T-Rex skeleton ($31.8m), according to the 2021 Knight Frank Wealth Report.

Less esoteric items also proved profitable: a sealed copy of 1994 video game Super Mario 64 sold for a record-breaking $1.5m this year.

The typical collector isn't dealing in the millions of pounds, but could still be spending a lot of money. Some may be happy to spend this cash just for fun. Others could be hoping to break even, or perhaps make a profit - but can they?

Here, we talk to collectors about what it takes to build, maintain and sell a large collection.

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How big is collecting?

When we surveyed 1,114 Which? members in August, nearly half (46%) told us they owned collections of some kind. Stamps (34%), vinyl records (30%) and coins (22%) were among the most collected items.

Some may view collecting as just a hobby, but it can be expensive. Jewellery collectors were the biggest spenders in our survey, forking out an average of £875 a year on their collections, followed by art collectors (£771) and antiques collectors (£435). The most dedicated collectors spent much more.

Even if you don't consider yourself a collector, you might have accumulated things of value over the years. LoveAntiques.com says classic film memorabilia, for example, could fetch a fair price today. Items considered tat at the time, such as sets of Jurassic Park Pogs, can sell for hundreds of pounds now.

'There are books all over the house'

Fiona Wiggins (pictured above) likes books. On a sunny afternoon, you might find her nestled in a high-backed chair in her library, engrossed in a legal thriller, a true crime caper or a sci-fi epic.

She has plenty of choice, because surrounding her on the packed pine shelves is a collection of 4,000 rare tomes that Fiona and her husband, Tony, have amassed over their 28 years together.

Tony crafted the library - a room in the couple's Gwynedd home - from old church pews. 'We built the library thinking that would be good enough,' says Fiona. 'But there are books all over the house.'

Trace your finger across the spines and you might touch 16th century treatises on magic, early 20th-century volumes on Welsh folklore or leatherbound series of long-forgotten novels.

The couple bought some books just for their appearance, but many were selected for their rarity. Tony is a former antiques dealer so he has a good eye for what will appreciate in value - although as Fiona explains, this didn't always pay off: 'He only bought things he liked, and if he really liked them he would keep them'.

After nearly three decades of collecting with Tony, Fiona has keen instincts of her own. Before the pandemic, the couple would visit two auctions a month hunting hidden treasures.

They once bought an 18th century first edition (on Norse magic, naturally) for £72 and sold it to an Icelandic buyer on eBay for around £370 three years later.

'We have books we bought for £12 that are now worth £2,000,' Fiona told us. She estimates the collection's current value at more than £40,000.

But for Fiona, collecting isn't about the money: 'It gives you a real thrill to find something you haven't got already. And the older it is, the better. The more unusual, the better. It's the kick you get out of finding something new that's different, that you didn't know existed before. I think a lot of collectors will tell you that.'

Is collecting an investment?

Just one in six collectors we surveyed considered their collections to be investments. But Victoria Lajer finds the collectors she deals with do have value on their minds.

'Even though they say they think it's not going to be worth very much, I think they always hold that glimmer of hope that they're going to have some super-rare stamp.' Sadly, in general, this isn't the case.

What Lajer calls 'schoolboy collections' - the stamps collectors have kept since childhood - tend not to be worth much. The real rarities, such as Victorian-era Penny Blacks, are usually either passed down by (great) grandparents or bought at stamp shops.

But collecting can make you money. One stamp collector we spoke to recalled selling his boyhood collection in the 1960s for £200 - almost £5,000 today - which he spent on an engagement ring.

Tennants auction house in Yorkshire sold architect Roger Casson's private collection of polar exploration books for £220,000 in 2019. One collector we spoke to, Mike Peterson. believes he's made a profit from a collection inspired by his love of beer.

Still, if you're looking solely for profit, traditional methods of investment are far more reliable than buying collectibles, no matter how much top-end items end up selling for.

How much is my collection worth?

Whether you intend your collection to fund a ring, retirement or simply more collecting, you'll need to know what it's worth. And even if you don't plan on selling any time soon, you may need a valuation to get your collection insured, or for estate planning.

Robert Hungerford (pictured below) tracks eBay activity around die-cast cars in a hugely detailed Excel spreadsheet with thousands of rows and more than a dozen columns (as a retired accountant, Robert jokes that spreadsheets are second nature to him).

'It's fascinating to see how some models become very collectable, and then suddenly aren't,' he says.

Robert Hungerford with his die cast car collection
Robert Hungerford has collected more than 300 1/43 scale diecast and resin model cars. He estimates the collection's value at around £6,000.

If this approach isn't for you, you could call in the professionals. Jane Tennant, director of Tennants auction house, says: 'Auctioneers are able to give you a good indication of how much your collection is likely to achieve based on the current market.'

Auctioneer valuations can often be arranged for free. Tennant says that to give an accurate valuation, they will need to see your collection in person.

You can take it into the auction house or home visits can usually be arranged for larger collections. Think Antiques Roadshow but without the audience.

Valuations like these are informal. They're useful if you're planning to sell, but you may need an official valuation for probate or insurance purposes. Auctioneers and independent specialists can also provide these, but there is usually a fee.

Tennant says this would likely be charged in the high hundreds of pounds for a day's work per valuator, with complex or lengthy valuations taking multiple days and simpler valuations taking half a day.

How to sell a collection

As with valuations, there are a couple of approaches to selling a collection.

eBay is popular with some collectors. You can check recent eBay sales to see what items like yours generally sell for, which could help set a price.

Again, there are auction houses. Jane Tennant says buyers will be on the lookout for very rare items that haven't been sold at auction before. They'll be keen to know about a collection's provenance and even a collector's personal history with it. So if you travelled to Las Vegas to secure a record signed by Elvis now's the time to tell that story.

Some collectables will be subject to capital gains tax (CGT) on the difference between the price you bought and sold them for.

At 10% for basic-rate taxpayers, or 20% for higher and additional-rate taxpayers, CGT could take a big chunk out of your proceeds. But you can make profits of up to £12,300 a year before you need to pay tax - a combined £24,600 for couples who are married or in civil partnerships.

If your collection is expensive or large (perhaps hundreds of signed Elvis records), you could sell it off over several tax years to minimise your bill.

Some items are exempt from CGT altogether: individual items (or sets) worth less than £6,000; private cars that have never been used for business and wasting assets with a lifespan of less than 50 years.

How do I insure my collection?

Your home insurance may cover your collections, but watch out for T&Cs.

Contents insurance may cover collectables, but you'll need to mention specific high-value items (usually more than £1,000), and additional damage cover is likely to cost extra. You could turn to specialist insurers or insurance brokers.

Either way, you'll need a full inventory and expert valuations, ideally kept outside the home in case of fire and theft.

If your collection is particularly niche, you may have more trouble finding someone to value it.

Mike Peterson (pictured) owns a large collection of breweriana - what he calls 'relics of beer-drinking'. Looking around his home you'll spy glass bottles, ceramic jugs, branded flagons, enamel signs, advertising showcards and brewery mirrors. Mike has been collecting since 1977, and he edits the newsletter for the 250-strong Association for British Brewery Collectables.

He says: 'I've always regarded collecting breweriana as something where I would get my money back. And I'm 100% sure I have.' Over the past 12 years, Mike has sold parts of his collection to help to pay for three new cars and multiple holidays.

Mike's collection has never been damaged and he's not sure how insurers would react if he claimed on his home insurance. The niche nature of his collection has made it difficult to get an external valuation. To his knowledge, Mike is the only valuer of breweriana and would need to self-assess his collection.

How to leave a collection in your will

Due to the love and effort they've put into their collections, some of the collectors we spoke to are keen to keep their collections 'alive' after they've died.

One way to do this is to leave specific instructions for it in your will. You could gift it to a local museum or institution related to the collection, to a fellow collector, or to a relative who you know will continue the collection.

If you're less concerned with keeping it together, it's helpful to leave instructions on what your inheritors should do with it. Leave any insurance and valuation details with them, and instructions on where best to value or sell the items if you can.

First featured in December's Which? Money magazine

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