COLLECTORS ARE A BREED APART, obsessed with perfection and savvy about investing. It isn’t just the thrill of the chase, though that’s part of it. Extensive research, negotiating skills and timing are critical to getting a sweet deal, and once a collector masters those skills, collecting catapults from a fun hobby to a lifestyle.
Our San Diego collectors say the greatest reward is the knowledge that they possess a piece of history or an item of exquisite beauty. For this story, they have opened bank vaults, security gates and guarded doors to secret buildings to reveal their prized treasures.
Name: Jeff Figler
Collects: Sports memorabilia
Prized possession: A Honus Wagner baseball trading card purchased during an online auction for six figures Traders consider it the “king of cards” because a mint-condition Honus Wagner was sold for more than $1 million dollars —the highest amount ever paid for a trading card. Wagner retired from baseball in 1917 as the National League record holder in career hits, doubles, triples, runs, stolen bases and games played. His image was used by the Piedmont Cigarette Company to promote tobacco products without his permission. According to baseball legend, he didn’t approve of smoking and had the cards recalled. Today, there are fewer than 50 in existence.
“I was in an auction, and I really wanted that card,” says Figler. “There are different ways to bid. I usually bid once in the beginning and wait until the end. Sometimes the phones are constantly busy. Do you give up? No. You put the phone on speed dial.”
Name: Larry Bianchi
Collects: Eclectic wines
Prized possession: More than 2,000 bottles, estimated at $500,000, are stored at Fifty Seven Degrees, a temperature-controlled wine storage facility in San Diego.
“A personal favorite is Hedges Cellars out of Washington. I have some older pieces I love—a 1934 Henriques & Henriques Madeira from Portugal and some Ports from the 1950s, which I really enjoy. Part of the thrill of collecting wine is that you never know when you’ll be amazingly surprised or horrifically disappointed. You can reduce the latter by being careful and checking the provenance of the bottle. Recently, I pulled out a 1978 Cos d’Estournel, a Bordeaux from St. Estephe. We thought it would be over the hill. We opened up the bottle, and the wine was phenomenal. I love it when that happens.”
Name: Matthew and Iris Strauss
Collects: Their private gallery includes an art library and contemporary sculptures, paintings and mixed-media works by Frank Stella, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Andy Warhol and others.
Prized possession: Death Takes a Holiday by Julian Schnable, a controversial neoexpressionist some say is one of the most important new artists of our time. The vibrant, colorful painting depicts a skeleton riding a horse. Matthew Strauss heard that the art collector who owned the work had died and the painting was up for auction.
He called an art dealer and asked the indicated range. She told him $400,000 to $500,000. He put in a bid for $100,000 and, by a stroke of luck and good timing, was able to claim his prize.
“I fell in love with it,” he says. “It’s an incredible work from 1980. I’ve always depended on my eye and visceral instinct. Every time I pick up an art book, I see our paintings. I couldn’t afford to buy back my collection. We try to collect art that makes you look at art differently.”
Name: Steve Games
Collects: Toy trains
Prized possession: Owns one of the more complete Ives train collections and Ives train catalogues in the western United States, along with Lionel models and a variety of prototypes. He estimates the collection’s worth at six figures.
“I think my collection is priceless,” says Games. “But there are two kinds of value —the collectible value and the sentimental value.”
His favorites are the bright orange Lionel Southern Pacific Daylight and the Santa Fe Super Chief. “They were extremely important trains in American history,” says Games. “Lionel was at a point where they couldn’t sell enough trains to make money. In 1948, they came out with the Santa Fe Chief, and it sold more models than any other train they ever built.
“But the Ives collection, because those are older trains from the late 1800s to the 1930s, is much more valuable. There is the one-and-only LGB train, black with two engines and designed for a World’s Fair prototype. Part of what makes it valuable is that it was the only one ever made, and I can prove it.”
Prized possession: About 90 colorful surfboards are displayed at McLarty’s restaurant, Surf Taco in Pacific Beach. The boards range from $1,000 to one valued at $10,000.
“I’ve collected for 15 years,” says Mc- Larty. “I’ve got boards from the movie Big Wednesday and surfboards from all the big names in surfing. The boards made from balsa wood are the most valuable. I have a 1952 Velzy & Jacobs, a solid 10-foot balsa wood board in beautiful shape. When the sun shines on it, it gives off a warm glow, like a fine guitar. Dale Velzy recently died, and he’s considered the grandfather of surfing in Southern California. I wouldn’t sell it for less than $10,000. But I don’t want to sell it.
“I grew up in Imperial Beach, and my collection represents my lifetime, from balsa to foam. Boards went from long to short, heavy to light, and surfing went from being stylistic to extreme.”
Name: Jim Cooley
Collects: Vintage automobiles
Prized possession: More than two dozen vintage automobiles, valued at $50,000 and up, are displayed at the J.A. Cooley Museum, 4233 Park Boulevard, San Diego. Visitors will find an 1886 Benz, a 1913 Cadillac the size of a large boat, and a cinnamon-colored 1936 Model 810 Cord with curvaceous pontoon fenders. Also displayed: a 1910 Model 20 Hudson with cast-aluminum running boards; a 1918 Franklin sedan; and a forest-green 1905 Cadillac Model F, once owned by Ira Copley.
“I think I have the best public display of turn-of-the-century cars in the country,” says Cooley. “When you collect something, you become fanatic about preservation. You begin to research things and get caught up in it. I don’t feel I own anything—I’m just taking care of it.”
Name: Dixie North
Collects: Arabian horses (she has 80). North recently paid more than $100,000 for French Psylk, a two-year-old chestnut mare that won the Canadian national champion title.
Prized possession: Padrons Psyche, a red chestnut Arabian with white markings, purchased eight years ago in Indiana for $3.5 million
“There was a divorce, and they couldn’t afford to keep him,” says North. “He became available, and we were lucky to be first in line.
“He’s a top-producing sire, with a $5,000 stud fee. We collect the semen, freeze it and ship it all over the world. Out of one collection, we can get 10 to 12 mares in foal. He has his own pasture, his own handler, and he is groomed every day. We are always on the lookout for the next great mare that will produce wonderful babies with him.”
Name: J. David Archibald, professor of biology and curator of mammals, San Diego State University
Collects: Early editions of Charles Darwin books and scientific papers
Prized possession: First editions of all of the books and monographs Darwin authored. A pristine copy of Darwin’s most famous book, Origin of Species, commands six figures.
“Darwin’s publisher for most of his books was John Murray, who is still publishing today,” says Archibald. “I have collected almost all of the John Murray English editions and issues of his books, as well as his scientific papers.
“I would never sell the complete collection. Maybe someday when I’m much older, I might sell it if I feel I can no longer care for it properly.”
Name: Irv Brown
Collects: Connoisseur-quality mineral specimens
Prized possession: Brown has about 60 minerals, sculptural in form, worth more than $2 million, including Persian turquoise, pink tourmaline, burnt orange garnets, smoky quartz from Afghanistan in translucent colors that vary from gray to green, pink and lavender and gleaming crystallized gold.
“I collect the best,” says Brown. “What is important is lack of damage and aesthetics. Aesthetics can send the value of these things into the stratosphere.
“I go to shows, sometimes out of the country. You establish a reputation, and things open up for you. I did something I think was pretty smart. I went to work for dealers for free. I learned and watched and went to every museum. I read every book and looked at every collection. This hobby is so education-intensive. But you need to know what you’re looking at. I love this rock from India—doesn’t it look like the finest ice cubes?”
Name: Gita Dorothy Morena
Collects: Books and manuscripts by L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Prized possession: The original manuscript, valued at $100,000, was donated to the Library of Congress. Morena, the great-granddaughter of L. Frank Baum, inherited 14 first-edition books and a variety of personal items. Author of The Wisdom of Oz, she’s a therapist. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an immediate success when it was published in 1900. The book sold for $1.50; inside, there are whimsical illustrations by W.W. Denslow. The Cowardly Lion, sporting glasses, graces the green-and-red cover. Morena opens the book to reveal Baum’s inscription: For my son Kenneth Gage Baum, with Dad’s love. L. Frank Baum, Chicago 1900.
“The L stood for Lyman, and he didn’t like it,” says Morena. “Some of the Oz books are invaluable because they have these signatures. But it’s not the money; this is the family legacy, our heritage. He was an incredible person.