Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2014

What Is Going to Happen to All My Stuff When I Die? Advice for the Collector's Executor(s) - Part I

This three-column series is based on two premises.  First, the collector dies without a will.  Second, the collector left no plan with a spouse/partner, child, or friend on how to dispose of his/her collection.  This column series will not discuss the dilemmas and challenges faced by a collector when disposing of a collection while he/she is alive.

Auctioneers, appraisers, and consultants, especially those involved in collection dispersal management, are well aware that it is common for a collector to die without a will or disposal management plan.  Even if a collector has a will, it often does not include a collection dispersal plan.  Without an advanced plan prepared by the collector, executors face a monumental task in respect to maximizing the financial return from disposing of a collection.

Before discussing the consequences of what happens when a collector dies without a will and/or a collection disposal plan, it is worthwhile to consider how this situation arises.

[Author’s Aside:  If you recognize yourself in what follows, consider this column series a call to action on your part.]

There are five basic premises as to why collectors fail to make adequate provisions for the dispersal of their collection.  The first premise is collectors think they never will die.  Collectors have an “I will live forever” mentality.  I am 73 years old.  I have outlived each of my parents.  While I should feel vulnerable, especially given my weight, I do not   When asked about my philosophy regarding life, I cite the principle that if the good die young, I am leading a life that should allow me to live to one hundred or more.  There are those who agree.

Collecting is an addiction.  Once collectors are hooked, it is extremely difficult to quit.  The select few that do are atypical.  The following situation is far more common.  A collector makes the decision to dispose of his/her collection.  The collection is sold, hopefully for more than the collector paid to acquire it.  Within weeks, a few months at the most, the collector begins to feel the frustration and dissatisfaction associated with collecting withdrawal.  The urge to collect anew becomes overwhelming.  The collector achieves peace only if he/she starts collecting again.  In some cases, the collector may reassemble a new collection identical to the one just sold.  Far more likely, the collector will select a new collecting category and collect with the same degree of urgency and enthusiasm that he/she devoted to the initial collection.

Once collectors are addicted to collecting, they have difficulty fathoming a time when they will not collect.  While I have argued there is a collecting gene in the DNA, a safer assertion is the urge to collect (not to be confused with the urge to save) is inherent in the American character.  This urge is not limited to Americans.  It exists around the world.  It is just more developed in America.

What constitutes the ideal collector’s death?  Forget the question’s morbidity.  Consider it.  I would prefer to drop dead while in the course of buying another object for Linda’s or my collections or during the process of sharing my collection with others than meet the Great Collector in the Sky or the Grim Reaper, far more likely in my case, while attending an auction or other venue where my collection is being sold.

Objects never die.  A collector is a temporary caretaker of an object until it passes to the next owner.  The period of care may last a few weeks or a lifetime.  Time is inconsequential.  The key is that if objects never die, why should the collector?  The argument is not logical.  Yet, it is in the back of every collector’s mind.

The second basic premise is that objects are animate.  Once again, this defies reason.  Objects by their very nature are inanimate.  They have no soul, life, or breath.  Do not tell collectors this.  While they may not openly admit it, they know differently.

Objects are living, breathing entities.  They achieve life by the stories inherent in them—who made them, how they were made, how they were marketed, how they reflect the culture, society, and technology of their time, how they were used, why they were saved, and what they meant to the person who saved them.  Collectors have an innate curiosity about objects.  They want to learn as much about them as possible.   The search for answers to the above and other questions takes a lifetime.

Objects become collectors’ best friends.  They are ideal friends.   Objects are forever welcoming, always delighted when a collector’s eyes favor them.  When handled and embraced, objects provide warmth and glow that transcends that of human contact.  Objects never argue or disagree with collectors’ decisions about them.  They are wonderfully compliant.

Objects are highly personal, a reflection of collectors’ consciousness, personality, preferences, and prejudices.  Two collectors who focus on the same collecting category will assemble two very different collections.  Collectors treasure the individuality created by their collections.

The relationship between collectors and their collections is private and personal.  While collectors may share the objects in their collections with others, they rarely share their collecting philosophy.  Collecting involves object intimacy and secrets.  Collectors do not share their collecting motivations with a spouse/partner, children, or friends.  They feel no need.  Further, collectors never want to be put in a position where they have to justify what they buy or why they buy it.

The third basic premise is that recordkeeping is not fun.  As a result, collectors pay little attention to it.  Collectors make a majority of their purchases without requesting a sales receipt.  If they do receive a receipt, the sales information is minimal.  Likewise, sales receipts have a habit of disappearing into an “I will tend to this someday” file.  When was the last time you attended an auction and found the collecting records of a collector offered as part of the sale?

The antiques and collectibles trade is a cash and carry business.  Collectors understand this.  Cash means no records.  This contributes to the privacy aspect of collecting.  It also fuels the hidden desire within every taxpayer to cheat the IRS.  Denial is futile, with apologies to Star Trek’s the Borg collective.

Recordkeeping is time consuming and unpleasant.  It is not one of the joys associated with collecting.  Most collectors compartmentalize the failure to keep records with an “I will get to it when I retire” or “I never forget when I bought something or what I paid for it” argument.  When collectors die, the information dies with them.

The fourth basic premise is that collecting is not about the money.  Collectors have no desire to face the realities of object acquisition, display, and storage costs.  They understand the only time an object has financial value is when bought or sold.  Between these moments, an object’s monetary value is latent.  Collectors’ lives are better when the focus is on an object or a number of objects and not peripheral financial issues.

Objects have emotional rather than financial value for most collectors.  Collectors fall in love with objects.  The level of love varies little.  Collectors may have favorites, but their most favorite object is most likely the next one they buy.  While collectors may fall out of love with an object, it is a rare occurrence.  This is because collectors view their collections as a whole, not in terms of individual pieces.  Collections have a unity.  The removal of any one object disrupts that unity.

The final basic premise is that collecting is not about the money to most collectors.  Given a choice, collectors prefer to die surrounded by their collections.  Their collection is among the things loved the most.   Dying with a collection intact is the ultimate proof that the collector’s collecting was not about money.

These five premises help to explain why collectors die without a collection dispersal plan.  Understanding why the collector left no will is simple.  It falls into the “I never can find the time” category.

The next column in this series will discuss three basic truths about the value of collections at the time of a collector’s death and a collector’s desire to leave a legacy.  The final column focuses on dispersal issues faced by the collector’s executor.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet.  Check out www.harryrinker.com.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live and is archived on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

SELL, KEEP OR TOSS?  HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group, $17.99), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via www.harryrinker.com.

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