Your grandmothers' collection of rosy-cheeked tots cowering below umbrellas or playing "ring around the rosie" aren't worth the crates you're packing them in? Blame Germany.
This saccharine-sweet ceramic cherubs first appeared in 1935 as physical manifestations of drawings by German nun Maria Innocentia Hummel. When U.S. soldiers returned from Germany after World War II, they brought these keepsakes home for their wives and children. The German company that created them, Goebel, ratcheted up production and began selling them at dime stores such as Woolworths for $4 to $5 a pop. That low purchase price led to a huge secondary market, high-priced Hummels and manufacturers who wanted a piece of the action.
In the '60s and '70s, the figurines made their way into Hallmark stores and airport gift shops and prices skyrocketed, with the "Umbrella Boy" figurine retailing for $1,500. As more were produced and countless "special editions" cranked out, Hummels' resale value sank like a ceramic anchor.
"People were buying them looking at what they sell for at retail, but they could be 50% to 70% less on the secondary market," Kahn said. "The bubble burst on Hummels because a lot of the old collectors became dinosaurs -- they're not with us anymore -- and the new collectors don't appreciate them, so it's the old supply and demand problem, where there's more supply than demand."
That supply just keeps growing as the generations that collected Hummels die off and leave behind thousands of their diminishing-value dust-collectors. Goebel shut down in 2008, but Manufaktur Rodental GmbH bought the brand last year and began producing more in limited supply. Though Kahn's firm sold a Hummel for more than $1,100 on eBay earlier this year, Kahn says most go for $50 or less -- with prices continuing to plummet as estate sales add to the stockpile.
"The only way a Hummel passes away, so to speak, is when it gets broken or chipped," Kahn says. "So 60% to 70% of all the Hummels ever made are still out there."