Collecting can be fun, just don't let it cow you

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I RECENTLY spent four days in Dallas with about 100 avid collectors of Haviland, a porcelain china produced in the Limoges region of France.

Attending the Haviland Collectors International Foundation Conference as a guest of my mother, I met an attorney who owns 52 complete or near-complete sets of the tableware. I heard about a woman with 1,200 pieces of Haviland stuffed into her 1,100-square-foot apartment. I spoke with a man for whom collecting represents his career, his investment portfolio and a big part of his social life.

Suddenly, what I used to call my mother's obsession with dishes was looking nearly sane by comparison. But as my convention comrades and I learned about pattern numbers and back marks, I got to wondering about the mind of a collector.

What drives a person to spend time and money attempting to complete a set of anything? How do you avoid turning a passion into a dangerous obsession that ruins your financial life? Collectors are auction veterans, so can they give the rest of us some clues into how to survive your child's school fund-raising auction without getting sucked into a nasty and expensive bidding war for the cow statue decorated with students' handprints?

Some collectors get hooked when a treasured piece or partial set is handed down from a previous family generation, the collectors told me. Collectors are convinced there's a gene for this coursing through many families.

"My sister does bells," one Haviland collector told me. "Thousands of them."

For Sharon Green, acquiring her 52 sets of china has provided the order and control lacking in the real world.

Green spends her days as a litigator in Las Vegas, guiding clients through complex legal cases. She has endured even more stress in her personal life: One of her two daughters was murdered more than two decades ago in a case that was never officially solved but that showed links to a serial killer. She also has gone through two divorces.

Green looks at collecting as a way to find completion.

"Part of the motivation is to fill in the holes," she said. "With the china I'm trying to put an entire set back together, and I do sort of lose interest in a set once it's absolutely complete."

For Green and other china collectors, too, it is a way to resurrect and learn about an elegant era, when people recognized the importance of a bone plate and a demitasse.

"For my grandmother and my mother, it was a way to think of themselves as living more graciously than they ever really did," she said.

Successful collectors use their knowledge of their subject to avoid overpaying for any particular piece.

And if they let an object pass them by, their social network with other collectors is always there to provide ways of bidding on it later.

On a wider scale, Internet auction sites have created much better price discovery for collectors, said veteran Chicago auctioneer Leslie Hindman. "Nothing is inaccessible anymore, and that can help you temper what you're willing to pay," she said.

And what about that class cow with the painted handprints?

Experienced collectors focus on the future value of a piece to help them set price limits.

Now just picture that cow a decade from now. Is it prominently displayed in the foyer or shrouded in a bed sheet in the attic?

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at

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