Monday, July 28, 2008

Collecting Cliches

We were poking around one of those antique malls this past weekend, and I was reminded of the Crazy Grandma Comic Book Price Guide at

You hand her a stack of beat up Charlton [comics] from the 70s; next to worthless in anybody's estimation. However, the little old lady manning the antique booth has other plans. "These book for eight dollars each," she says apologetically. And what book would that be, you wonder? Why, the CRAZY GRANDMA COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE, of course!

Ever since those freaking baby boomers flashed on their own mortality and started turning every bit of their childhood into age-defying fetish objects, newspapers and Sunday supplements have been running inane little filler pieces all about how those old comic books rotting away in your attic are worth thousands of dollars. And maybe some of them are. But ALL of them are NOT. Beat-up Jughead comics will not put your grandchildren through college, lady.
So true. The articles they refer to (such as the Richmond Times Dispatch's "Love of collecting can pay off") tend to reinforce the perceptions non-collectors about collections by reciting the three collecting cliches:
  1. Collectible items are always worth a lot of money.
  2. Everything old is collectable (especially ephemara).
  3. Some people have enjoyed windfalls -- or even make a living -- buying and selling collectables.
So what is an object really worth? It depends on three factors:
  1. Desirability - most people tend to collect things from their youth. When collecting toy trains became an organized hobby in the 1950's items from the 1920's were hot. In the 2000's, trains from the 1960's are commanding higher prices than before, while the value of older trains has leveled off.
  2. Availability - How many are out there? Pulp magazines from the 1930's have a limited appeal, but every year they become scarcer, keeping the prices high (for some issues only). While they were published in the thousands, pulps were considered disposable entertainment, and many were either thrown out after reading, or perished in World War II paper drives. Those that survived are victims of their own cheap paper, which breaks down over time. Left untreated, a pulp magazine becomes increasingly brittle and eventually crumbles to pieces. It's a small collector's market, but the objects are in very short supply.
  3. Condition - This is part most crazy grandma's don't get. The more common an item is, the more important condition becomes. A tin toy Marklin Battleship from 1914 commands five figures -- even one with scratches and dents. Why? Because it's so rare (and desirable) that condition doesn't affect cost that much. A Matchbox car that's readily available can be worth maybe three figures if it's new and has the original box -- but beat to hell with most of its paint missing, the car's value drops to fifty cents (except in crazy grandma's booth).
Notice age has nothing to do with it. Something made just a few years ago could be extremely desirable and rare, which would drive up its price, whereas something very old that's in plentiful supply will never be worth much.

Age can indirectly impact value, as things tend to deteriorate over time, which can affect availablilty.

Understanding what really determines an object's value can really help the next time you're poking through an antique mall or flea market booth.

So what prompted this post? I found (and purchased) a copy of the Gold Key comic "Total War: M.A.R.S. Patrol" in an antique mall -- mint, in a protective plastic bag, for eight bucks.

- Ralph

Day 44 of the WJMA Web Watch.

No comments:

Post a Comment