By Ian Buxton

Best buys?

Ian Buxton looks at the how and why of collecting
We might, in our more cynical moments, conjugate the verb 'to collect' thus: I collect, you acquire, he hoards.The language tells us a lot: my 'investment' is another man's waste of money; my 'rare volumes' someone else's old books. Just to confirm the point, while I've clearly got the collecting bug, I find myself looking with some bemusement at collections of whisky."What's the point?" I ask myself, "if you can't drink it." So I set out to ask some collectors what and why they collect, what they get from it and how they do it.One motivation might simply be investment and, given the state of most of our pension funds these days, a modest speculation in collectable bottles could pay off. For example, the Glenmorangie 1963 vintage bottling is offered today on specialist websites for anything up to £799. Yet, at launch, it had a UK retail price of £59 and initially was a slow seller.But that was 20 years ago, the single malt market was still developing and the idea of collecting bottles had hardly caught on. £59 seemed a lot to pay for a bottle of whisky (it's roughly the equivalent of £120 today). But, with an annual rate of return of nearly 14 per cent, this would seem to a great investment.However, it's not that simple.You have to get someone to pay you £799, your money has been tied up for more than 20 years and if you are ever tempted to open the bottle the investment is gone.There is still plenty of interest, however.Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies says the market hasn't significantly slowed despite the economic outlook."We have an active collecting community. Despite the recession they're still buying especially the Eurozone." "But you have to be prepared to drink your whisky," he says."Like any 'investment' prices can drop as fast as they rise and if you can't afford to drink a bottle, it might be best to steer clear." Another important hint from Sword is that you must be sure of the whisky's provenance. The various electronic auction sites are a happy hunting ground for collectors but there are pitfalls.A good source of advice for first-time buyers is Serge Valentin's website www.whiskyfun.com.If you do no more than read his tips for online buying then you stand a chance of avoiding some of the more blatant scams that are ready for the unwary.Books are also an investment. Considering that, unlike a bottle, you can open a book, enjoy it and put it back on the shelf without destroying the value there has to be something to say for books as a long-term collectible.But books are a somewhat rarefied taste. Other collectors prefer whisky ephemera and one of the most impressive collections around belongs to retired Scottish Customs & Excise executive Jim Brown, who has been collecting whiskythemed postcards, billheads, invoices, letters, labels and small collectables for more than 20 years.Today he has more than 5,000 pieces and will spend part of his retirement cataloguing them, transcribing the written material and researching the rarer pieces in preparation for a comprehensive book. For Jim, collecting began as a taste of Scotland.On joining the Customs service he was posted to England and, as he explains: "I thought it might be nice to maintain a link with home, so I began by collecting postcards. Next thing I knew, the collecting bug just grew and grew." Today the appeal is both historic, as the collection offers a rare view of the artistry of old labels and cards, and aesthetic."You are putting your hands on a piece of our heritage, often from a totally lost distillery," says Jim "and the objects are both fascinating and beautiful." So collecting can be a time machine. Not hoarding, then, but conservation.