Class notes: How-to

How to build an important collection

Gregg Philipson, BS ’73, Founder of the Gregg and Michelle Philipson Collection and Archive

Illustration of a man tending to a collection of items.

Illustration by Dave Murray

Interview by Michael Flatt

Watch Video: Philipson on his life as a collector

Click to play video

Whether it’s rare books, ceramic cows or baseball cards, it seems almost everyone has a collection of some sort. The Philipsons, however, are no hobbyists. With artifacts numbering in the tens of thousands, their collection draws curators from museums like Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Rotating among various museums and the Philipsons’ home in Austin, Texas, the collection tells the stories of individual lives, primarily those affected by World War II and the Holocaust.

Philipson discovered his passion for collecting while researching his own family’s history. “I was trying to figure out how they came to the U.S., why they came, and find artifacts to support that,” he says. In the process, he learned that a large portion of his and his wife’s families had died during the war, either as soldiers or victims of the Holocaust. The items he found became some of the first artifacts in their collection.

The parameters of the Philipsons’ archive are loosely defined. “My wife would argue that there are none,” Philipson says, chuckling, “but that’s not exactly true.” The focus is Holocaust-era materials, but the collection also includes items related to other forgotten actors in history, like Jewish and African-American figures of the American Revolution. Some of their most sought-after pieces are original works by satirical artists like Arthur Szyk and Dr. Seuss, who was a political cartoonist during World War II. “We’re trying to tell not just the story of the Holocaust, but the story of specific people,” says Philipson. “You want to understand what drove people, like these artists, to do what they did.”

We asked Philipson what it takes to become a serious collector.

Do your homework
Sit down and research the environment of your subject. You have to understand what’s out there before you delve into it, otherwise you end up buying forgeries or counterfeit items. I made that mistake myself.

Build a network
Some of the best material I find comes from people I’ve previously done business with. If you just go to the online sources that everybody goes to, you’re going to pay higher prices and only find the common stuff.

Negotiate with care
I’m sure there are people who haggle, but I don’t. Sellers can take stuff so personally, it’s unbelievable. I may tell someone what I think the fair market value is, and go from there, but that’s it. 

Know what you want and don’t dillydally
One item I tried but failed to acquire was a baseball cap designed by Dr. Seuss while he was drawing ads for Esso Oil Co. The first time I saw it I bid too low and I lost it. Just a few days ago, another one appeared on eBay and I snagged it. I was not about to let it go a second time.