The hobby of collecting includes seeking, locating, acquiring, organizing, cataloging, displaying, storing, and maintaining whatever items are of interest to the individual collector. Some collectors are generalists, accumulating merchandise, or stamps from all countries of the world. Others focus on a subtopic within their area of interest, perhaps 19th century postage stamps, milk bottle labels from Sussex, or Mongolian harnesses and tack.
The items collectors collect may be antique, or simply collectible. Antiques are collectible items at least 100 years old; collectibles are less than antique, and may even be new. Collectors and dealers may use the word vintage to describe older collectibles. Most collectibles are man-made commercial items, but some private collectors collect natural objects such as birds' eggs, butterflies, rocks, and seashells. Items which were once everyday objects may now be collectible since almost all those once produced have been destroyed or discarded (see Ephemera). Some collectors collect only in childhood while others continue to do so throughout their lives and usually modify their aims later in life. Philately, phillumeny and deltiology (collecting postage stamps, matchboxes and postcards) are examples of forms of collecting which can be undertaken at minimal expense.
Collecting is a practice with a very old cultural history. The Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty collected books from all over the known world at the Library of Alexandria. The Medici family, in Renaissance Florence, made the first effort to collect art by private patronage, this way artists could be free for the first time from the money given by the Church and Kings; this citizenship tradition continues today with the work of private art collectors. Many of the world's popular museums--from the Metropolitan in New York City to the Thyssen in Madrid or the Franz Mayer in Mexico City--have collections formed by the generous collectors that donated them to be seen by the general public. The collecting hobby is a modern descendant of the "cabinet of curiosities" which was common among scholars with the means and opportunities to acquire unusual items from the 16th century onwards. Planned collecting of ephemeral publications goes back at least to George Thomason in the reign of Charles I and Samuel Pepys in that of Charles II. Collecting engravings and other prints by those whose means did not allow them to buy original works of art also goes back many centuries. The involvement of larger numbers of people in collecting activities comes with the prosperity and increased leisure for some in the later 19th century in industrial countries. That is when collecting such items as antique china, furniture and decorative items from oriental countries becomes established.
Some novice collectors start purchasing items that appeal to them, and then slowly work at acquiring knowledge about how to build a collection. Others (more cautious or studious types) want to develop some background in the field before starting to buy items. The term antique generally refers to items made at least 100 years ago or more. In some fields, such as antique cars, the time frame is less stringent-—25 years or so being considered enough time to make a car a "classic" if not an antique. Traditionally in the area of furniture, the 1830s was regarded as the limit for antique furniture. However Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and some types of 20th century furniture can all be regarded as collectible.
In general, then, items of significance, beauty, values or interest that are "too young" to be considered antiques, fall into the realm of collectibles. But not all collectibles are limited editions, and many of them have been around for decades: for example, the popular turn-of-the-century posters, Art Deco and Art Nouveau items, Carnival and Depression era glass, etc. In addition, there exists the "contemporary collectibles" category, featuring items like plates, figurines, bells, graphics, steins, and dolls.
Many collectors enjoy making a plan for their collections, combining education, stimulation and experimentation to develop a personal collecting style; and even those who reject the notion of "planned collecting" can refine their "selection skills" with some background information on the methods of collecting.
Collectors' magazines are one of the most popular means to learn more about the field. Attending conventions and collectibles shows is another way for a collector to familiarize him or herself with the possibilities. These shows will often include seminars on a variety of subjects such as artists, companies, decorating with collectibles or how to insure a collection. For example, the NCC (National Council of 56 Clubs) has individual member clubs that host regional gatherings each year for collectors of Department 56 lighted villages.
A collector may find and join a local club for people who collect plates or other limited edition items. Collector publications frequently list the location, date and time of club meetings as a service to new collectors. Collectors who have already narrowed their collecting horizons to the creations of a particular producer may want to join a club that focuses on this producer's work. A potential collector may wish to chat with collectors with similar interests in specialized forums via the Internet. Fellow collectors are usually very happy to share information with new collectors; this includes information about where they have been successful in acquiring their collectibles, where they have struggled and what they are looking for. Collectors' forums allow for an open exchange of information, sometimes with experts available to answer questions and offer guidance. In addition, several web-sites specializing exclusively in the selling and trading of collectibles have been launched in recent years to help collectors manage their items as well as compare, connect, and trade directly with others.
Learning from retailers and direct marketers is considered a great way to gain an education in collecting. Collectors may establish a relationship with a retailer that specializes in limited editions. Those on direct mail literature mailing lists can learn a great deal from the support that many dealers supply.
Collectibles experts tend to agree that a collector should begin keeping a record as soon as they start collecting, of all details of purchase and price. Without this information, prospective buyers and insurance appraisers may not take the collector's word. It is also recommended to take a photograph or video of each item or groups of items where each may be easily identified. Records can be made in a format suitable for the collector, from a simple spiral notebook to a computer software program designed for collectibles. In addition to the information the collector records, it’s a good idea to keep all written material and certificates that came with the collectibles-—receipts, flyers and stories, care and handling instructions, etc. They will help to document a collection for resale or replacement in the future. At least one website now exists where collectors can permanently register their collections in an online database with a photograph and description of each item. The collector can affix an inconspicuous identifying tag or seal that is virtually impossible to counterfeit. Having such a record of the collection stored separately is good insurance in case of a disaster such as fire and is an aid to law enforcement in thwarting thieves.
When it comes to insuring a collection, the first step is generally to check one's present homeowner or renter's policy to find out how extensive coverage may be in the case of fire, burglary, or other risk. Some policies carry a fairly high maximum payment for items such as collectibles, while others offer very little of this type of protection. Compare the amount of coverage available with the value of the collection. If the homeowner’s policy is deemed inadequate, collectors have the option of contacting insurance companies that offer special policies for collectibles. It is essential as well that one determines how the value of items would be assessed by an insurance company: on replacement value, purchase price, or some type of "depreciated value."
A collector is most likely to obtain the best price for additional coverage or riders on a collection if they work with an insurance agent who already does business with them. Approaching an agent with a request for coverage just on a collection—unless it is extensive and valuable—is not likely to kindle a great deal of enthusiasm on their part. Other collectors might be a good source of information on insurance protection. Caring for a collection requires two main tasks: security and cleaning/maintenance. Display valuables out of reach of children and pets, and in environments where heat, humidity, and sunlight are controlled. Avoid fire hazards, and make sure there are sufficient smoke detectors in good working order. Collectors with extensive holdings may want to consider an alarm system with sensors and electric eye equipment — especially if they living in a crime-heavy area or if the home is well known as one that contains many valuables.
In terms of maintenance and cleaning of collectibles, the proper advice depends upon the medium and the delicacy of the item involved. Many firms supply Care and Handling sheets with their products, and these should be kept for future reference. Collectors can call or write to the Customer Service Department of the manufacturer of an item if they are in doubt as to how to care for it. In general, it is considered good advice to keep hand-painted items out of direct sunlight to avoid fading. Hand-painted items of terracotta, pewter, and some other materials should not be handled any more than necessary, to avoid smudges or chipping. Never put a collectible plate or other item in the dishwasher — most are not dishwasher safe. Porcelain collector plates may be carefully washed by hand with a mild soap, and spray-rinsed. Most porcelain figurines may be lightly dusted or spray-washed and rinsed with mild soap and a gentle spray of water. Do not immerse figurines in water. To avoid problems with dust and dirt, many collectors favor frames and display cases with protective glass, especially for valuable or intricate items.
The retail price of a collectible is valid only at the moment it was purchased. Once the collectible comes into the buyer’s possession, its value is linked to what is called the secondary market. Once a collectible is purchased, most of the costs associated with the retail price (i.e. advertising, production cost, shipping cost, etc.) must be deducted from the retail cost to determine the object’s immediate value on the secondary market, thus, retail cost is not equivalent to secondary market resale value. Depending on several different factors, individuals, auctioneers, and secondary retailers may sell a collectible for more, the same, or less than what they originally paid for it. These factors include, but are not limited to, condition, age, supply, and demand.
The 1960s through the early 1990s were major years for the manufacturing of contemporary collectibles. While some individuals purchased contemporary collectibles to enjoy and use, many purchased them as investments. Speculative secondary markets developed for many of these pieces. Because so many people bought for investment purposes, duplicates are common. And although many collectibles were labeled as "limited editions," the actual number of items produced was very large. The result of this is that there is very little demand for many (but not all) items produced during this time period, which means their secondary market values are often low.
There is no secondary market for an item unless someone is willing to buy it, and an object's value is whatever the buyer is willing to pay for it. Industry leaders believe that the secondary market is important for several reasons: primarily to allow experienced collectors to upgrade their collections, to stimulate the market and encourage new collectors, and to provide a means for monetary appreciation. To upgrade a collection, a collector may wish to dispose of things they no longer enjoy to produce the capital to buy other things. To stimulate the market, collectors may obtain some good quality pieces that have been traded in the past. They have an opportunity to learn the history of the hobby by owning some of the items that have been favorites in the past. Another reason is to make money, by selling an item with appreciated value.
A price guide is a resource such as a book or website that lists typical selling prices. The first price guide was the Stanley Gibbons catalogue issued in November 1865.
The Internet offers many resources to any collector: personal sites presenting one's collection, online collectible catalogs, dealer/shops websites displaying their merchandise, Internet trading platforms, collector clubs, autograph club, collector forums and collector mailing lists.
Finding retired editions has become much more convenient with the advent of Internet auctions and trading. It has never been easier to track down a retired piece, and to reach out to dozens of dealers using e-mail or their websites. Most retailers tend to focus on one or two specific lines. Their activity in acquiring inventory adds liquidity to the market, and their sales of retired pieces are important to establishing a trend in value that is more consistent than random sales between individuals that may not be meaningfully documented.
The public and dealers alike use Internet auction websites to buy and sell collectibles. The thrill of "winning" an auction, and the convenience of shopping from home have contributed to a shift in volume from in-store sales of retired pieces to auction/mail order sales through such auction sites.
When buying expensive retired pieces, an escrow account for funds transfer may decrease the buyer's chance of losing their money. A form of fraud on the buy side involves swapping a defective piece for a good one bought via auction. In this case, the buyer, who may have a repaired piece, or a slightly defective one, buys a mint condition piece from the edition via auction and ships the defective one to the seller, demanding a refund on the auction. Sellers should record item numbers and other details about the piece before shipping so the seller has the facts they need to avoid this scam.
An alternative to collecting physical objects is collecting experiences of some kind, through observation or photography. Examples include bird-watching; transportation, e.g. train spotting, aircraft spotting, metrophiles, bus spotting, see also I-Spy; and visiting continents, countries, states, counties, and national parks.