Collectable Collecting - what's going on?
October 4, 2013 6:16 AM   Subscribe

There's been some discussion recently about what a bad investment Beanie Babies turned out to be - but what about other products sold as 'collectables'? Have there been any studies or articles on these products and those who buy them, or has anyone here done so? I'm curious as to whether people primarily collect them because they like them or because they see them as an investment. Is anybody getting rich from selling their old Franklin Mint plates or Ashton Drake porcelain dolls?

I've been fascinated by this ever since I would see the ads for 'limited edition' sculptures, jewellery and knick-knacks. As a child, a chain of jewellery stores would sell 'collectable' figurines such as Lladro or Pocket Dragons, complete with 'certificate of authenticity' and instructions that the packaging should be kept so that they would be 'worth something' in the future. (My mother bought a newborn porcelain doll from a Sunday supplement ad as she collected them at the time- when we tried to sell it on eBay, boxed and certified, it sold for £10. This was before the reborn craze, however.)

I'm aware how powerful 'limited edition' and 'collectable' are as persuaders - and I used to enjoy the process of collecting things as a child, albeit 99p bear figures from the local market - but I am curious as to whether people collected as a view to recouping an investment, and how often does this come to fruition? (I note that there are in face some Beanie Babies that remain relatively expensive on the secondary market.) Is there a subculture around collecting these?
posted by mippy to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Collectibles are rarely a good long-term investment. Even at the very high end, like the art market, the average outcomes aren't so great. (Felix Salmon has written some very good stuff about how the art market actually functions.)

In terms of the more 'everyday' collectibles like what you're talking about ... it seems to me there are these occasional fads, like in the late '80s / early '90s when everyone was collecting comics and baseball cards and Beanie Babies and Pogs and God knows what else. If you were a very savvy 'trader' who bought things and sold them a year later, you could have done well in these things, but I suspect 99% of buyers were longer-term collectors like teenage me who now have boxes of comics and cards in our parents' basements that have sentimental value but zero cash value.

The real money is in collecting something that no one considers a collectible at the time, and being lucky enough to have it turn into one. Some of the baseball cards that my dad put in his bicycle spokes in the '50s are worth a fortune now if you have them in well-preserved condition, but no one does. It would have been an odd person back then who thought to collect and preserve them. So I suspect the secret to success in collectibles is just to be kind of a odd duck who sees aesthetic or sentimental value in something everyone else is treating as a cheap consumable. If it's labeled or sold as a collectible, that's a good sign that no one will ever pay more for it than you did.
posted by pete_22 at 6:38 AM on October 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

Collecting to collect is one thing. Collecting expecting to recoup an investment is a legitimized form of gambling called speculation. I've done both and I much prefer to collect for personal pleasure.

If you're a speculator and you're collecting anything that's labeled "limited edition" or "collectible" you're a damn fool. Those things are mass produced. Technically they are limited to an edition of tens of thousands... or more.

The reason truly vintage baseball cards fetch the prices they do is because there are so few of them which survived being played with. Because that's what they were - things to be played with and traded.

My anecdata: I started a small collection of Beanie Babies in the late 90s because the person I was dating gave me one early on. I thought it was cute and got her one, then she went looking for a particular one and we found out there was competition for them. So we stalked shops. Eventually I tired of having them, particularly after we split and I sold my little collection - for a profit and bought a used car. I haven't followed anything about Beanie Babies since then, but I'd assume a couple of the ones I had would be worth some kind of premium today, but not enough that I would have carted them all over the country with me.

I've seen some Lladro sell for good prices at some auctions, but I think it depends on the figure, who is in the audience and a variety of other factors.

In general though - it's the things that were meant for every day use that truly become collectible with age - not anything sold as a collectible.

Go to an auction and you'll see what I mean.
posted by FlamingBore at 6:40 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

We did well with Beanie Babies back in 97/98. This was pre-Ebay. There was an online bulletin board where people congregated and my wife made a few thousands bucks over that few months when Beanie Babies were so hot that you could not find them in the store. She left her credit card on file with a selection of Hallmark stores across the county - the early adopters that already were online then. They would just take one of everything they got in and ship it to us, and then my wife would resell then online at a huge markup. It was a fun for a few months but it was obvious it was a bubble so we didn't get stuck with 1000 beanies. We made some cash and got out.

Today, people look at everything as a potential investment, and they are far more likely to hang onto stuff and treat it like an investment, which sort of kills the future market if everybody is doing that. When I was a kid in the 70s it never occurred to us to buy baseball cards and not flip them against the wall, thereby bending the corners and ruining the future collectability of the cards.
posted by COD at 6:46 AM on October 4, 2013

My rule of thumb is that anything marketed as a "collectible" is not worth collecting. True, valuable "collectibles" get that way mostly by accident. Someone (or some company) simply created a product which, for various reasons, over time became an important "thing", entirely outside the control of the creator.

Think: Original Fiestaware. Original Barbies.

Beanie Babies were entirely a manufactured "collectible" complete with production manipulation to create the air of "collectibility". American Girl dolls are the same thing.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:03 AM on October 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

There was also some interesting discussion in this thread on the Blue a little while ago, and the linked articles.

Is there money to be made in collectibles? For the marketers, sure, and probably for a tiny subset of the purchasers. Everyone else just shores up the profits of those lucky few.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:06 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If you're a speculator and you're collecting anything that's labeled "limited edition" or "collectible" you're a damn fool. Those things are mass produced. Technically they are limited to an edition of tens of thousands... or more.

Yes, this was my point. To me, this is clear. I'm interested in those for whom it is not - and, secondarily, whether there actually are high-value 'collectables'. I don't want to go into this stuff myself - I used to collect Blythe dolls and what prompted me to think about this was learning a few weeks ago that apparently the market has completely bottomed for all but customized dolls. I'm just fascinated by things like Mary Kay (there was a fantastic article about it in Harper's a while ago, interviewing those who thought they would make a fortune) and people being sucked into pyramid schemes and such.
posted by mippy at 7:36 AM on October 4, 2013

Response by poster: (I sold my Blythe collection in 2011, and it funded a trip to Scandinavia for my 30th.)
posted by mippy at 7:39 AM on October 4, 2013 is a nice site to browse for articles on collectible whatnot and collecting.
posted by kmennie at 7:41 AM on October 4, 2013

True, valuable "collectibles" get that way mostly by accident.

Just to add to this, there is also the possibility that the collected object has a value outside of its collectability. Either it is useful, is in itself valuable (think gold coins or jewelry), or is so unusual as to be a historical object.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:43 AM on October 4, 2013

secondarily, whether there actually are high-value 'collectables'

Certainly: fine art, wine, vintage cars, stamps and antique jewelry are all basically beanie babies for rich people. Plenty of people buy art as an "investment" rather than -- or at least in addition to -- because they actually enjoy the art. A limited edition lithograph plays to exactly the same psychology as a limited edition collectible figurine; it's just classier because it's a lot more expensive.

(There was a mefi post not too long ago about artists who try to attract buyers by misrepresenting themselves either as newcomers to the field, or as having had gallery showings that later turn out to be exaggerated or not as described. It included an anecdote from an art dealer about a couple who "absolutely fell in love with" an aluminum sculpture that was represented to them as having been shown at some famous gallery; later on they discovered that it had really only been parked there for a few hours during a cocktail party or something and the dealer without a trace of irony said something like "now they're stuck with this terrible chunk of aluminum". Same chunk of aluminum they 'fell in love with' earlier.)
posted by ook at 8:10 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, just to clarify:

- I know that there are strong collector's markets in areas such as jewellery, stamps etc. and that a 'limited edition' print or lithograph will hold its value. It's quite easy to find out information about this world, though - I recently read Simon Garfield's The Error World on stamps, and The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark.
- I'm aware that many of the things which are 'genuinely' collectable or valuable now are so due to a case of scarcity eg. original Kenner Blythe dolls which were only issued for a year now fetch $2000 or so. Also, I'm aware of the historical/celebrity etc. connections which can affect value of these costly objects.
- What I'm interested in are stories or studies of collecting things produced specifically as collectables, which are accessible to the general market (or, at least those who can pay £99.99 in three easy instalments). Figurines, plates, Thomas Kincade prints, that kind of thing. Are there documentaries, longform articles, studies, personal stories? Who is collecting these things and why? The only depictions I've really seen of this kind of thing are piled up home shopping boxes on Hoarders.
- Also, whether things which are produced by collectables companies ever do end up at a value that exceeded their retail cost.
posted by mippy at 8:21 AM on October 4, 2013

Certainly: fine art, wine, vintage cars, stamps and antique jewelry are all basically beanie babies for rich people.

I disagree. For things with a finite supply there are genuine collectables. If you have a rare Ferrari or a Van Gogh, prices may go up or down, but its value is not going to suddenly bubble to the point of being almost worthless like beanie babes.

Anyway: to your question - a really good article from more than 30 years ago on how the modern diamond market was created. And why we're all suckers if we buy into it.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:33 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bankrupt by Beanies Is a short documentary you might find interesting.
posted by The Deej at 8:37 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might want to look at the Wade figurines put out by Red Rose Tea. They sell them around here (US, New England) at flea markets in buckets for something like $1-$2. I sometimes pick them up just because I think they are cute, but I did pay $8 for Little Bo Peep and $5 for a giraffe.

According to the Red Rose Tea site, they heard about a Canadian collection being sold for $100,000, but don't give any details (scroll down to bottom, and there is also a book listed at the bottom, The World of Wade).

You can buy new sets after they've stopped issuing them in tea boxes, but they aren't worth much on Ebay. However, older figurines are a bit higher. For instance, a Queen of Hearts Nursery Rhymes figurine is $16.99 for buy it now. Not exactly vacation-level money, but more than 99 cents at which others are listed.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:55 AM on October 4, 2013

A story - my uncle is a rare coin dealer. And he estimates that 9 out of 10 calls he gets to examine "rare coin" collections before estate sales and the like are not even worth the time he spends on the phone asking questions about the collection. He has the conversation down to a science and can generally understand what is in the collection after just a few questions with the caller. I only remember one of the questions he asked, which was along the lines "are any of the coins purchased from infomercials or ads in Parade magazine?" Unsurprisingly (this being old-folks land down in Florida) the answer is most often "well, of course."

However, if someone says they have a big glass water cooler bottle of pennies, he'll drive halfway across the State to snap it up. He buys the bottle of pennies by the pound and sorts out the valuable pennies - there is real value in rare pennies, much more than what he pays for the bottle. He sorts the good from the bad during Tampa Bay Buccaneer football games, often cajoling my father to help him with promises of rare and valuable pennies. It is actually much less hokey than it sounds and there have been some real surprises over the years.
posted by lstanley at 9:18 AM on October 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Here is a great Susan Orlean article from the New Yorker about Thomas Kinkade.
posted by rustcellar at 10:00 AM on October 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

@pete 22 (Felix Salmon has written some very good stuff about how the art market actually functions.)

Anything specific you can point to? This sounds interesting.
posted by FauxScot at 12:26 PM on October 4, 2013

Here's an article from 1991 about someone suing the Bradford Exchange for false promises about their collectible plates going up in value. Some interesting stuff about the company at the bottom:

Among the brightest of those golden eggs, according to Bradford Exchange advertisements, were three plates with Rockwell images issued in the late 1970s: "The Toy Maker," "The Cobbler" and "The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter."

At their peak, those plates - all issued for less than $20 - sold for $282, $200 and $210, respectively.

But at the end of 1990, the plates had dropped far below those highs and were selling for $100, $85 and $35.

Now, for instance, "The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter" is listed for $7.99 on Ebay.

Another article, from Kovel's, about what not to collect anymore, including Norman Rockwell plates.

Bradford Exchange is still presumably co-owned by Rick MacArthur, grandson of John D. MacArthur, and Rick's siblings.

We bought a few of these plates back in the late 1980's or early 1990's but didn't expect they would be worth anything, just something to decorate the kitchen. They probably went out in a yard sale or to Goodwill. There are just too many of these things out there to be worth anything. The lawsuit article above lists "limited edition" runs of up to and over 100,000 per run.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:50 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

@pete 22 (Felix Salmon has written some very good stuff about how the art market actually functions.)

Anything specific you can point to? This sounds interesting.

Here's a post from yesterday, right after I wrote that, and a few older ones:

Art, venture capital, and down-round phobia

The contemporary art bubble

Occupy Art

...or just browse all the "art"-tagged posts on his blog

The OP mentioned the book "the $12 Mil Stuff Shark" which I also recommend.
posted by pete_22 at 9:08 AM on October 5, 2013

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