Those of us that collect viewing stones, bonsai pots, etc. have likely had a long history of collecting things. As KJ can attest, I have a collectors mind and I like to collect many things.
With over 5,000 classical and jazz records in our collection – you can say that we have a record collection. They vary in age – 1940s through the 1980s. Some of historical significance and others of little value other than to me.
We have also amassed a book collection as well; though not as bad as this photo. I have authors that I love to read, technical books on my field of study, those given the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and of course books on things that we collect or are thinking about collecting.
Over time we collected small bonsai pots and we then progressed to collecting viewing stones and accessories such as dobans, suibans and small bronze accessories.
If you at this point in the article are saying “I can surely relate” then this article is written for you. Let’s discuss some of the practical sides of creating a collection.
Collect With a Purpose
Here are six guidelines (ours not necessarily yours) to building a collection.
- Collect what you like. This is rule number one for us. We collect what we like, what we are drawn to and what brings us joy. What we collect may not be what you collect or even like, but that is OK with us.
- Educate yourself. To collect without educating yourself on what you are collecting seems foolish but believe me many people do just this. When we started to collect small bonsai pots, I would spend about an hour per day researching them. I would buy and read any books we could find even if it meant buying them overseas. We talked to anyone that would listen to us to gain more knowledge about these containers. If you consider this work, then perhaps you are collecting the wrong things.
- Know who sells what you like. Once you begin to collect it behooves you to learn who sells what you like and get to know them as best you can. This includes dealers, shops, individuals sellers and other collectors. The side benefit from this is you also educate yourself. This point goes beyond knowing the seller by name – truly get to know them. Who are they, what do they like, why do they sell the items that you collect – show them your passion. In doing so, you may find a friend.
- Comparison shop. This works for certain types of collections such as books, albums, etc. With some collection types it can be more difficult. We find viewing stones in the later category; well at least most of the time. It isn’t like there is a shop on every corner much less one in every city. However, it still pays to compare when possible. Good examples of this are the Green Club at the Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan. If you have been here you know it is loaded with suiseki, bonsai pots, and the like. What you need to learn quickly is that the prices can be significantly higher here than at the same proprietor’s shop. It is expensive to be a dealer at the Green Club and prices can reflect that. Holding out to near the end of the Kokufu show can bring wonderful bargains, or perhaps we should say reduced prices. Prices from a store front may be significantly higher than those from a collector. You get the point. So how do you obtain better prices – see points 2 and 3.
- Build a superior collection. This is where most of us fail including us. To build a superior collection we must not be random in adding to our collection. When you see a superior collection – every piece belongs. How many times in the early days of collecting did we buy lots of things; this was especially true in our bonsai collection. Over time we learned to only buy the best of what we could afford. One incredible tree was worth much more than 10 so-so trees. It is hard as we all want to build our collections quickly, but all of us could use more patience in adding to our collections.
- Collect what you like – see number 1 above!
Before You Buy Ask Yourself These Questions
- Why do I like it? This helps to avoid impulse purchases. You know those times that once you get your purchase home you ask yourself “why did I purchase this one?” That wastes money that could have been applied to an item that increases the value of your collection.
- Determine what attracts you to add this item to your collection. Is it the subject, its color, the shape, its historical nature or simply the artist? We recognized very early when we starting collecting stones that our value of them went up if the daiza, or stand, was made by Suzuki Koji. Understand what it is that attracts you to add to your collection. Having this understanding will help you avoid wasted resources, time and money, and allow you to build a better collection.
- Does the item you are collecting help to take you to a special place. For those of you that are members of BCI, you might have seen the short article I wrote about a stone we purchased from Kyoto, Japan. The stones attributes reminded me of my mother who had just passed away. Now whenever I see that stone I’m reminded of my mother. The final sentence in our article sums up this point for me: “A good stone, like a great Mother, provides us with a lifetime of memories which can be recalled and enjoyed even in their absence.”
- Lastly, evaluate and understand what it is that you admire about it. Is it the technical knowledge of the collection, its artistic beauty, that it reminds you of other experiences or things you love? If the item doesn’t fit into things that you admire you should probably be asking yourself why am I collecting it?
Document Your Collection
This is likely the greatest failure for all of us who collect. We don’t take just a bit of time and record in writing the details of the item we just collected. As most professional collectors know, provenance can add significant art value to any art piece. This is true for almost all art forms.
We have a friend who is a wonderful painter living in Memphis. We first met Danny Broadway at an art show that my sister invited us to. We love his work. KJ and I were at his gallery one day and saw this painting.
The title of this piece is called Dixie Chain Gang. You might look at it and wonder why is this colorful piece named as such? We did too so we asked Danny to tell us the story. He described that he had studied what happened to African Americans in jails back in the 1920-40s in America. He had found a photograph of a number of young men who were in prison and in a chain gang – they were literally tied together in iron chains working outside. This old black and white photographed had inspired him to paint this colorful portrait of four men with musical instruments. He was transforming their sadness into joy, their chains into freedom.
We were struck by how more meaningful this painting was by knowing the story behind it. Our documenting our collection is important for us and for the future. At some point our collections are going to be inherited by someone else or broken up and distributed so it would be helpful for others to understand its history.
Here are a few things to think about recording for each piece in your collection:
- Object characteristics
- Location of origin
- Location of purchase
- Prior ownership history, if available – this is also known as provenance
- Date acquired
- Date created, if applicable
- Was it collected in a memorable moment? For example, did a once in a lifetime trip to Japan allow you to add something very important to your collection.
I recall one summer hiring an intern to enter our entire album collection into a database that I created. Yep, they entered over 5,000 albums and their associated data into this well designed database. This leads to our final point: keep a paper copy of your collection history.
All of the money spent to create the collection database went into the proverbial trash when the computer crashed and our backups were lost. We highly suggest if you use computerized records – print them out!
In the next few days we will post again about collections but the focus will be on the thousands of private collections and how they are never seen by anyone other than the owner. What a shame.
Sam and KJ