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The Hidden Treasure In Hobbies

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The Hidden Treasure In Hobbies
Subhalakshmi Dey - 02 July 2021

Once upon a time, in a world far, far away, markets ruled the common folk. All sorts of markets, really – stocks, bonds, mutual funds, commodities – everything that sounded sinister and forbidden and adult-like. People would flock to them like lost sheep, wild and restless, searching for a light that would signal them back home. They were all obsessed with what they called “securities”, prices of which rose and fell, and with each high and low, bits of paper at first, and later, zippy electronic blips on computer screens, would be created. Each creative stroke led to more.

But beyond the pale of the ordinary lived a tiny group of people who pursued, collected, lost sleep-over and became wide-eyed about extraordinary things – film posters, wine bottles, sports memorabilia, railway engine models, coins, fountain pens and, in the case of a certain Tom Hanks, ye olde typewriters. Like knights on a quest, these ‘collectors’ longed to extend the scope of their treasures. For most, it was a life-long chase.

Cut to this century, to Twenty21, when the Jedi are still coursing through the multiverse – no, universe would not suffice – searching the frontiers for their precious baubles. That micro-community still exists, and unusual things are still being pursued, often without a plausible reason, mostly for sheer love, or, in a few stray cases, for the value that they might generate over a stretch of time.

We are talking about gatherers of ephemera here, the motley lot who swear by their collections.

The M word – market, for the uninitiated – does not really apply to them, as organised buying and selling rarely happens in their rarefied domain. That, and a few other norms, needs your undivided attention.

  • No organised market, no regulatory agency, no transactional infrastructure.
  • No efficient price discovery – deals struck privately between seller and procurer are often marked by secrecy – almost always, prices remain unknown to the rest of the fraternity.
  • No easy liquidity – for a seller, locating a buyer is a mammoth challenge; so instant liquidity is nearly impossible to secure.

The absence of a proper exchange – so completely different from a stock or commodity exchange – makes this, hence, such a difficult proposition, according to some of those who have been collecting stuff for years – posters, match box covers, coins, stamps and the like.

So we ask, What would be the gains? The losses? The risks involved?

This article has been woven around a few of these dauntless ones – people who have been trying for years to spread awareness about not only the precious, barely-understood-or-reciprocated rarity of their hobbies, but also the efforts that go into making the ordinary masses aware of their value – that is, if they ever were to cash in on them in the first place.

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The absence of a ready market does appear a little intimidating but as a fountain pen collector with a decades-long track record insisted, it is this very fact that contributes to the compelling charm of these ephemera.

“If vintage pens were available off the shelf, wouldn’t they become akin to diamonds, which would seem like shiny pebbles that only a few people would stop and pick up?” asked Suvobrata Ganguly, who otherwise goes by the name Chawm.

His love affair with fountain pens is no secret. “I have around 7,000 pens – pieces that helped create the times we live in. They teach me about precision, craftsmanship, passion, dedication, knowledge, creation. To merely say ‘It is fascinating!’ is putting things mildly.”

It’s always a wonder how the pricing system works in a market as rarefied such as this where, despite chequered history and thriving practice, there is a definite lack of structural organisation. What factors are usually considered before deals are struck, and how do collectors safeguard themselves against unfair pricing practices?

The answer isn’t entirely surprising, but definitely includes a lesson or two. “Prices are determined by the measure of desperation on the part of the collector,” says Chawm simply. “The ingenuity of the seller, of course, plays an equally important role, and the type of the pen, the manufacturer, the period, the rarity, the condition, the look and feel are all considered while arriving at the price. But the pricing decision is mostly more emotional than rational,” he smiles.

Seeking authenticity of these transactions throws up greater surprises. “There is no system of certification,” Chawm says, perhaps a lot more serious this time. “There is no metric to establish the provenance of a pen. Nor are most dealers capable of providing documentary evidence to support their pricing strategy. It is, in all fairness, a free for all, and the only way collectors can safeguard themselves is by acquiring more knowledge.”

The absence of the ready market no doubt underscores a marked absence of liquidity. In such a scenario, what can influence the market dynamics? Is there a legal angle that can govern these transactions? “No collector worth his salt buys his pen with the intention of selling them,” states Chawm, rather emphatically.

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“It is not an inflation-adjusted, dematerialised security that you are investing in – it is something on the other side of the spectrum, a true passion play. Naturally, it is neither about the return nor about the gain that may or may not arise in the future. That said, it is a small world, and most collectors get to know each other. And the internet has been a great facilitator lately. Pens are regularly exchanged, bought and sold even within the circuit, though such transactions are mostly not marked by an underlying profit motive. Besides, dealer friends are always just a call away these days!”

So what issues should be considered if a collector has to monetise his assets? “Well, the biggest worry that all collectors have,” muses Chawm, “Is a single thought: once we pass away, what happens to the collections that we have spent all our lives to compile? The answer is that these mostly end up with ragpickers, who often destroy priceless pens to extract the gold nibs and throw away the rest.

“Only a fraction of the collections makes their way back to the dealers. Spouses and children rarely share one’s passion and are often envious of the objects collected which, they feel, had stolen their spouse or parent away from them. Naturally they extract their vengeance the moment the collector breathes his last,” he states while referring to Prof KC Janardhan’s museum of handwriting, calligraphy and writing instruments. “I guess I will send my treasures for safekeeping there,” Chawm smiles, and I return home bubbling over with even more questions, and a thirst for knowledge quenched only the slightest bit – that is, if I could dare presume.

While speaking of treasures, the story confronts the word, ephemera. Clearly, it alludes to items that exist (or utilised) for a brief while, and in the practical world encompasses baubles (collectible memorabilia seems to be an appropriate term) that only a select group of aficionados pine for. It derives from the Greek word ephemeros, which essentially means ‘lasting for a day’. In short, here is a matter that evinces interest for just a while.

Kaushik Maitra, an avid collector of posters, could not agree more. “Very often collections that take years to build fall by the wayside, mostly to be fleshed out by unscrupulous elements who disassemble them with the intention of selling the trove in bits and pieces,” he laments, supplementing our conversation with a bit of personal experience drawn from his interactions with other people of his ilk.

Numismatist’s Treasure: Some rare Indian coins from the personal collection of Kumar Chatterjee

“I have found out that collections sometimes tend to fall into wrong hands, obviously a result of a quick sale, all of it done chiefly for pecuniary reasons,” he notes, adding that family members, who may well be unaware of the intrinsic value of a collection, sometimes tend to dispose of the lot all too hurriedly. Maitra, who started collecting stamps and coins in his childhood – and had handed over his treasure to his cousins long ago – knows. The scion of the family that started Sulekha, an ink brand that dates back to Raj era, now assembles old advertisement posters, a number of which pertain to his own trade. “What I had commenced some years ago for professional reasons has now assumed bigger proportions,” he says, referring to the posters that proclaim the benefits of Sulekha inks. “I adore these posters. They have thrown open a new world to me. I was quite unaware of a lot of things till some years ago.”

Maitra fondly recalls his interactions with collectors over the years. Many of them, he says, are interesting people with a passion rarely found in others. He also warns against what he says is a growing propensity towards ‘popular sub-culture’.

“Well, yes, collecting items like film posters is much in vogue these days. There is a growing tribe of people who have become serious hunters of film memorabilia. I know of at least one case where posters of Satyajit Ray’s films have been acquired by a well-known Hollywood institution,” he says.



Penophile’s World: A Mont Blanc from the personal collection of Chawm Ganguly

However, it is the oddball – read: a collector of absolutely ‘whacky’ items – that captures his attention the most. “Imagine a collector who spends his time with bottle openers, which he may have sourced from many countries. I once met an enthusiast who had more than a hundred porcelain dolls. Many of these beauties were sourced from Japan and Germany, some dating back to the First World War,” he says.

It is not merely about the physicality of the collections, though, offers Sounak Chacraverti, an independent art curator and archivist, who feels that a collector’s prized possessions are, in a manner of speaking, an extension of his persona.

“Take a film poster, for instance. Here is an identity card that introduces you to the makers of the film and the subject itself – that is, the film. It is not only an advertisement and promotion strategy but it also familiarises the viewer with the aesthetic taste of the filmmaker. It actually serves as a tiny trailer for the film!” he says.

“I collect and exhibit rare film stills, posters and film merchandise, but let’s admit it, the film archiving situation in our country is quite pathetic. With the exception of a few individuals in Mumbai and Kolkata, who have been trying hard to save invaluable film memorabilia, most people either do not have the passion or the means to actively pursue their collection dreams,” he says.

If this is the case, then how does the market work? Surely everyone would like to boast of owning some authentic Ray merchandise. “Well, the system is entirely auction-based. As far as the general public is concerned, the market is very weak. Maintenance of posters is often a very difficult task. And how much can one buy, where can one keep these things safe? The rarer the poster is, the higher is the price. So, the financial considerations are very critical,” says Chacraverti.

The poster trade has a very niche clientele and the demand-supply concept is very different here. Demand does not always determine sales. “You also need to find the right buyer. It is a limited market with just a modest number of individuals based in the major metros. And that is exactly why we depend on exhibitions so much,” he says.

Exhibitions, nevertheless, are often a big draw, especially if there are rare (and, therefore, stellar) appearances of sought-after items. Archival exhibition of film stills, for instance, are a hit with specific groups of enthusiasts. The 100th birth anniversary of legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray – he was born on May 2, 1921 – could have spawned several such exhibitions. But the pandemic curtailed such plans.

As the story builds up, it touches upon the most ubiquitous hobby – philately – and finds an echo of preservation crisis that the poster collectors share. Susanta Saha, whose lifetime collection is captured in 33 albums with about 29,000 stamps in them, nods vigorously when asked if the market works through auctions.

“The annual exhibitions and online channels are the only two ways how we manage to get our point across. With the rampaging pandemic, this is especially true for now. It is not easy for the philately trade,” he notes before adding a dash of realism to the conversation.

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“With the advent of the Internet and the spread of mobile technology, stamps have started to disappear. Collecting, preserving and displaying them is not an easy pursuit these days. There is a feeling that the art is dying. Nevertheless, I draw strength from the fact that there are annual shows and various other exhibitions. These play a role in keeping the trade quite buoyant. Additionally, shows help us to greatly expand our reach. The market for stamps is mostly auction-based, but such events are usually announced prior to the exhibitions.”

Saha started collecting stamps – from about a hundred nations and many of the Indian stamps dating back to pre-Independence times – as a 10-year-old. The size of his possession started escalating from 2007, thanks mainly to the philately websites that were shaping up those days.

Philately, both as a hobby and as a trade, will grow if more people get attracted to it, Saha says, referring to Germany which, he notes, has more than seven million collectors. “The fact that a neighbour or a friend is a philatelist can influence an individual to a great extent. This leads to a spin-off effect, if you extend the canvas. People start exchanging stamps, for example, at a faster rate,” he points out. The real world, he adds, is now shadowed by social media.

“Social media platforms are increasingly active these days. But you need to tread carefully if you are using these platforms to do your trades. If you are a seller, for instance, you must take pains to find the right buyer. Choosing just about anybody will not help your case in the long run. So you must select the right candidate by checking out group descriptions and examining professional profiles thoroughly. An individual’s history may well reveal a lot – you can get a fair idea of such a trader by noting his stamp collection story,” he suggests. AstaGuru, which conducts online auctions of art, watches and sundry categories of fine collectibles, particularly refers to demand and supply situations in niche markets. Prices, says Jay Makhijani, who is an advisor for luxury watches, are decided purely on the basis of the demand-supply ratio concerning a particular model or a series of a given brand. And lesser is the production, the greater is the demand for acquisition.

But how does one map this demand-supply dynamics? “Let’s say the production of steel sports wristwatches by a certain company is 10 per cent of its total global production. Under such circumstances, the existing clients of the brand would be most keen on them and would be quite inclined to acquire them. Then there would be new clients who want to get on the waitlist. Finally, there would be traders. These three groups make up a competitive ecosystem, which essentially drives the demand,” Makhijani says.

Philatelist’s Wealth: Some rare stamps from the personal collection of Deepak Sharma

For collectors, there is another challenge – fighting unfair pricing and other unethical practices. Most authorised dealers, Makhijani says, are very fair in their dealings with the collectors. “If a collector spends a large sum on a Patek Philippe in his boutique, he automatically becomes eligible for the allocation of rare or limited-edition timepieces produced by the brand down the line. There are no shortcuts to become a collector. It takes years of relationship building and great dedication towards a brand,” he says.

There is a fair bit of elitism in certain kinds of collections. Vintage cars, for instance, is typically a wealthy individual’s playground. There appears to be a strong case for ordinary citizens, who have great scope, but not always great opportunity, to indulge in fine collections.

Saha has a solution here. Chasing commoner things – coins for instance – is a lot easier than, say, exotic watches. “Even school children can find interest in coins and stamps. In fact, parents and teachers can act as guides and even influencers. The impact will be very positive. There will be great learning involved as well. What I mean is that a terrific collection need not always be grounded in elitist notions,” he explains. While elitism, or the lack of it, may be a point of discussion, simple things like newspapers and magazines can be a collector’s pursuits, too. There are people who have doggedly assembled newspaper snippets over the years, especially on subjects of their choice.

Nilanjan Dey, a mutual fund distributor, for example, has collected clippings of news reports on the asset management industry for about a quarter of a century. He started in the early 1990s, which he points out, coincided with the Indian government’s decision to allow foreign investment in mutual funds. “The domestic asset management space was earlier dominated by the Unit Trust of India and a few public-sector fund houses. Kothari Pioneer, the first private player, and Morgan Stanley, the first overseas player, changed all that. And private enterprise in fund management has never looked back since. Even in those early stages of growth, the print media tracked these players and followed their activities very seriously, and I started collecting these reports as I was very interested in investing in funds at a relatively young age. In a way, these clippings trail the birth and the progress of private participation in funds,” he says.

A collection like that will never find a ready buyer, not when news is heavily digitised these days, Dey states, admitting that it would not be easily monetised too as these assets have been extremely difficult to preserve over the years. “Newsprint suffers from natural wear and tear. Imagine yellowed bits of paper in files, many of them torn at the corners and smudged here and there, and you will get a rough idea,” he warns, adding that there is no mutual funds museum in the country despite “the very interesting history of fund management, replete with M&As, sell-outs, regulatory interventions, and to top it all, colourful characters.”

It is difficult for the contemporary investor to even conceive what the industry looked like during, say, 1991-1993, when the primary market boomed, or in 2000-2001, when the dotcom bubble became inflated beyond imagination. Newspapers followed all these trends and covered the players, big and small. “Many of them such as Jardine, Dundee, Foreign & Colonial, Alliance or Fidelity, for instance, do not even exist in India any more. I am sure that clippings of news reports have historic worth, but to arrive at a monetary valuation of the collection is an impossible task,” Dey points out.

Digitalisation gives eternity to anything, almost, but the feel of the touch, smell and sight cannot be replicated. And, it is this physical collection that makes hobbies an asset often worth unimaginable pricing. The spectrum of collections that fetch great money in the market may range from Ganesha statuettes, folk arts, manuscripts dating back centuries to sports memorabilia, old property deeds, old maps, obsolete musical instruments, rare photographs and recorded musical performances. But the odd ones, too, may unfurl into a gold mine.

Ephemera is indeed a storehouse of possibilities, but it needs care. As a certain Albus Dumbledore once said, “Ah, collectibles! They are beautiful and terrible things, and should, therefore, be treated with great caution.”

***

High on Demand in Ephemera Market

1. Comic Books: Comic books are still a very popular co llector’s item and the more vintage and rare your comic book is, the more is its worth.

2. Coins: If you have a coin collection you think contains classic rarities, figure out how much your coins are worth before you consider selling or auctioning them off.

3. Stamps: Rare stamps are some of the best things to collect to make money. If your collection is organised, it will likely sell for more money.

4. Dolls: If you are holding onto collectible dolls for years – perhaps because you want to pass them on – you might be sitting on a goldmine of collectibles.

5. Action Figures: From vintage figures with their charming, hand-painted parts to more modern ones that are simply rare, these collectibles can net you a nice haul.

6. Books: If you have first editions or classics, you might be able to fetch some cash for those collectible books. Books can be highly valuable due to a number of reasons and factors that include rarity and binding quality, according to auction company Sotheby’s.

7. Sports Memorabilia: Collectible sports memorabilia like jerseys, caps, shoes, various gears, tournament tickets can strike big money in the market.

8. Watches: The vintage-watch-collecting market can yield a nice price for old watches. From wrist watch to grandfather clock – the market has discerning buyers for all sections.

9. Recorded Music: A personal collection of unpublished performance by renowned artistes hold mammoth financial value in the market. You must be well-versed with the copyright rules before going to sell your collection.

10. Old Gadgets: Old typewriters, music players, turntables, Apple products, vinyl records can fetch great money in the collectible markets.

***

Note Before You Try to Sell Your Collections

  • Anonymity: Most owners of precious objects keep their identity private. Transactions generally occur in secret negotiations between agents of buyers and sellers or through public auctions under the same confidentiality procedures.
  • Indeterminate Holdings: Most collections are built one piece at a time over many years and items from collections that come up for sale are often sold individually, rather than as a set. So, it is impossible to know how many pieces an individual collector might own at any time.
  • Changing Values: Prices of collectibles are generally estimated by the amount paid for a similar piece in a public sale, usually an auction by one of the premier auction houses.
  • Quality & Quantity: The number of objects in a collection is not an accurate indication of worth due to the wide variation in the value of a single object.

subhalakshmi@outlookindia.com

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