Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Plasticville Profiteering - Market Unreality

We went on a tour of our local antique stores over the long weekend, which prompted me to follow up on a previous post. There are several things that affect the value of a collectible item (any kind of "collectible" item, from postage stamps to Beanie Babys). Some elements are the inherent in the item itself:
  1. Condition
  2. Rarity
  3. Desirability
  4. Historical Importance
  5. Materials
Some depend on the market forces
  1. Growth or shrinkage of core market
  2. Change in availability 
  3. Increase or decrease in overall popularity
  4. Introduction of competing products
And after our little tour, I'd like to add another -- context. As I looked over items whose value I was familiar with, all I could think of was MisterKitty's excellent essay about buying comics in flea markets and antique shops, "The Crazy Grandma Price Guide."   
You hand her a stack of beat up Charltons [comic books] 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.
Amen to that. But most people shopping in these stores don't know that. So context matters. Take an item out of its normal market, and the price goes Crazy Grandma. 

Case in point: at the recent York Train Show I purchased an old Plasticville Super Market. The item's fairly commonplace. My cost? Eight dollars. Plasticville structures, in addition to the conditions listed above, have four basic things that affect their value.
  1. Complete - while very simple plastic structures, many Plasticville buildings have pop-in doors, chimneys, stair railings, and other small pieces that are easy to loose or break.
  2. Original box - many Plasticville structures ended up permanently installed on train tables or Christmas displays so often the boxes were tossed.
  3. Loose - again, many structures were placed on train layouts, and often glued together. Obviously, unglued buildings are closer to the original condition and therefore more desirable.
  4. Rarity - some models are rarer than others, and some color combinations of the popular items are less common. All affect value.
My Plasticville Super Market is a common model in common colors. It is not glued, and all the original parts are there, but there's no box (that's OK -- it's going on my layout). So all told, eight dollars was a fair price.

I saw it this weekend at a shop for $35. Same color, all original, but glued together and missing the box. The average antique/flea market shopper probably wouldn't know much about the Plasticville market, and so would have no idea whether the price was high or low. If it was worth it to them, they might buy it. 

But at a train show, in the midst of hundreds of like items, that kind of pricing wouldn't fly. Sure, there's plenty of bargains to had at flea markets, but watch out -- there's plenty of Crazy Grandma pricing, too.

 - Ralph

Day 51 of the WJMA Podwatch

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