Collectors love a challenge.  Challenges appeal to collectors’ strong sense of gamesmanship – the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage.

[Author’s Aside #1:  In this age of political correctness, I hesitated briefly before using gamesmanship.  Is gamespersonship the correct term for the 21st century?  If so, I could find no dictionary definition for the word.  Further, the definition of gamesmanship is not sexist if read correctly.  Hence, gamesmanship it is and so be it.]

I offer a challenge to those collectors with a sense of adventure, humor, and downright contrariness.  Create a collection that includes objects worthy of being collected for which no more than $3 is paid for any object in the collection.

[Author’s Aside #2:  The challenge only requires that the purchaser pay less than $3.00 for an object.  There is no requirement that the object be worth $3 or less.  If the person accepting the challenge pays $3 for an object worth considerably more, it is a valid purchase from the challenge perspective.  The focus is squarely on the purchase price and not the fair secondary market retail value of the object.]

The challenge is not to create a collection where the average cost is $3.   The collection cannot contain one object bought for $1 and another for $5, hence creating an average purchase price of $3.  There is no price grace.  Each object must cost $3 or less.

When preparing this challenge I gave careful consideration to the proposed value.  At first, I was going to propose $1 per object.  This is possible.  I have an extensive $1 per object collection.  But, I did not to make the challenge less difficult.

I considered $5 but rejected this amount because it made the challenge too easy.  I have never been a “let’s split the difference” person.  As a result, $2.50 was out.  I am a rounded number guy.  After careful consideration, $3 per object became the clear choice.

Forcing collectors outside their traditional comfort zone is one of the reasons why I developed this challenge.  Those accepting the challenge will not be able to do it by buying objects at antiques malls, flea markets, and antiques shows.  Craigslist and eBay offer limited buying opportunities but only with the understanding that shipping and handling costs must be included in the $3 per object cost.

In a way, this challenge allows collectors and others to rediscover the root sources of so many of the things that eventually appear in the trade’s traditional sale venues.  The key is to purchase items as “they are coming out,” that is to say making their first appearance in the secondary sale market.

The challenge also restores the love of the hunt – its expectations, joys, disappointments, and successes.  The more limits a challenger places on what the collection contains, the more difficult the hunt will become.

[Authors Aside #3:  It is assumed most individuals taking up the gauntlet will not be content to assemble a hodgepodge collection consisting of a little of this or a little of that.  The challenge is not about assembling the biggest pile.  Others have done this.  It is about creating a collection of objects that when assembled have a unifying theme in addition to the fact that each cost $3 or less.]

There are multiple buying opportunities.  The first are charitable and community garage sales.  Recently, my wife Linda and I attended a community garage sale conducted by the Wesley Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas.  The sale was held in a school building associated with the church.  Each room housed a specific group of objects. Clothing, china, furniture, glass, jewelry, and toys are a few examples.

The sale began at 8:30 AM.  Linda, our host Allen Lea (director of The McFaddin Ward House), and I arrived around 11:30 AM.  I do not believe all the best stuff is gone from a garage/rummage/yard sale in the first 30 minutes.  I enjoy arriving late.  It gives me an opportunity to test my skills in discovering treasures that early bird buyers overlooked.

To the credit of the organizers of the Wesley Methodist Church sale, things were priced to sell.  The organizing committee wanted a clean building at the end of the day.  Judging from the shopping carts people where wheeling to the checkout line, there were plenty of bargains.

I spent a total of $4.  I paid $2 for a 1950s Murano glass ashtray.  When my Aunt Loretta Rupert lived in Cape Coral, Florida in the 1970s and 1980s, she went to hundreds of garage sales.  Her favorite find was another Murano glass ashtray to add to her collection.  Her collection numbered in the hundreds.  This funky collection was extremely tacky, which is what made it fun.  Ever since, I always get a big smile on my face when I encounter a 1950s Murano glass ashtray.  I could not pass up the opportunity to buy one for $2.

In the well-picked-over toy room, I spotted a light turquoise vinyl carrying case titled “Ballet Box” which featured artwork work of young girls in pink tutus practicing ballet moves.  It was manufactured and distributed by Travel Toy, a division of Prepac, Inc, New York City.  I love pieces that speak decade.  This one shouted 1950s.  I could not resist buying it for $2.

The Murano glass ashtray and the Ballet Box triggered the concept of a $3 and under collection organized by decades.   Starting with the 1880s, I plan to create a small collection of material associated with each decade through the 2010.  I have a running start on the 1950s section.  I was temped to title the collection “Junk Through the Decades” but do not want to imply a negative connotation.  The Murano glass ashtray and ballet shoe carrying case are not junk.

Community garage sales are great places to find older items for little to no cost.  People seeking items for reuse have no interest in them.  Young adults have no idea what most of the older things are or why someone would want to save them.  Again, I generally go to community sales in the waning hours of the day.  Sellers usually are willing to take any amount offered.  On more than one occasion, some have said “just take it, I want to be rid of it.”  It is hard to argue with this price.

Some local auctions still sell box lots.  Although the days of the $1 box lot are over, it is still possible to buy box lots between $10 and $20.  When inspecting the box lots, look for lots that contain a minimum of five things you can add to your collection.  This allows a bid of $15.  If successful, take what you want and leave the rest.  Price out each piece at $3.

Do not buy box lots with high-ticket items in them.  Watch what the buyer does with the items in the boxes.  Chances are he/she may also discard what he/she does not want.

[Author’s Aide #4:  Picking through the remains of an abandoned box lot is a form of dumpster diving.  Dumpster diving is a skill set that lends itself to building a $3 or less collection.  There are dozens of pieces in my collections that I acquired this way.]

Make friends with estate sale managers and liquidators.  When an estate sale ends, the manager usually calls in a liquidator to buy the remains.  In most case, the liquidator is paying pennies on the dollar.  The per object cost is often less than dollar.  If an estate sale manager is willing, put together a pile of lower priced material and offer $1 or $2 per item.   More often than not, the estate sale manager will accept the offer.

A local Michigan liquidator takes estate sale remains to a large warehouse, puts the objects on tables, and sells most at “your choice for a $1.”  A little knowledge on the part of the buyer goes a long way.

Paying less than $3 for an object does not make a person a cheap buyer.  It indicates that he/she is a smart, frugal buyer.  The goal is not to buy objects for investment but display.

[Author’s Aside #5:  When Linda’s and my grandchildren Sofia and Marcel Goldberg-Hererra lived in Reading, I used to take them to garage sales.  I gave them $10 each and challenged them to fill up the car trunk.  The $3 challenge is similar in nature.  The only difference is the cost is bit higher.]

Every collector should have a fun collection, one that is free from the normal collecting pressures.  I have several “just for the fun of it” collections.  If this article inspires you to start a $3 or less object collection, I would love to know what you have chosen to collect and how it is going.  Share your collection and the adventures associated with it by emailing me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.