BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Christmas collectibles are out of the attic and basement, and the value of most of them will never match what they'll be worth to their owners during the next week or so.
If a lucky Christmas reveler got a $300 ounce of gold as a present nine years ago, they could cash it in today for nearly five times the price -- close to $1,400. If someone's eccentric art-collector aunt picked up a strange work showing artist Maurizio Cattelan poking his head through a museum floor as a Christmas gift in 2001, they would have taken home a $7.9 million check from
sold at auction earlier this year. Though your aunt's Hallmark Keepsake Ornament of Curious The Elf from the same year sells for only 99 cents on
-- after similar ornaments originally sold at retail for $10 to $30 -- it'll be hard to convince her that her beloved Christmas heirloom isn't as valuable as a lump of mineral or Italian art.
"If you don't love it, don't buy it," says Terry Kovel, head of the Kovels Antiques and Collectibles appraisal service that she co-founded with her husband Ralph in 1953. "That's the first rule."
Collectibles can be an extremely lucrative investment, with copies of 10-cent Golden Age comic book Action Comics No. 1 (the first appearance of Superman) selling for $300,000, $436,000, $1 million and a record $1.5 million this year and the 10-cent Detective Comics No. 27 (the first appearance of Batman) selling for $575,000, $657,250 and $1.075 million during the same period. However, even sought-after holiday collectibles such as Danish blue Christmas plates from
Bing & Grondahl
-- which were used primarily as platters for Christmas cookies and once quite rare -- fetch a maximum of $38 on
today after being worth several times as much decades ago. The difference, Kovel says, is that a flood of "limited edition" Christmas products unleashed in the 1970s created a seasonal culture of "collectible" mass production that drove down resale prices and stripped these products of all but sentimental value. She stopped just short of calling mom's beloved mementos "garbage."
"They're very decorative, but they're not great investments -- that's a better way to say it," Kovel says. "We did a book on the subject of limited editions, and we stopped printing it because companies kept churning them out and people stopped buying them."
Does the steep depreciation of holiday collectible prices really matter at this time of year, though? Does a market driven largely by sentiment care much for resale value?
spoke with Kovel and Lou Kahn, head of the Bakerstowne Collectibles appraisal and consignment service in West Hempstead, N.Y., about the value of five of the season's most beloved holiday baubles and why they're appreciated even when their price doesn't appreciate:
Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments
Introduced in 1973 with just a handful of options, Hallmark's annual line of ornaments has grown to 300 different designs including personalized ornaments, light and sound ornaments and licensed products featuring
That said, even the original 1973 yarn ornaments of carolers, snowmen and Santa Claus are selling for as little as 99 cents on eBay -- with the highest resale value at less than $18. By comparison, the 1973-2006 Hallmark Keepsake Ornament Value Guide sells at auction for $20 to $30.
"You're buying something at retail and when you do the math, the store's marking it up 100% so when it leaves the factory, it's not that valuable," Kahn says about the ornaments. "It loses so much value, and it's really not a collectible. But it's a nice piece."
It's that last part Kovels focuses on, noting that the ornaments are a great way to mark an occasion or event and will get lots of attention even if there's never a bid on eBay. She also confesses that she bought a Star Trek talking ornament that said "Beam me up" as soon as it was released.
"The Hallmark ornaments have done pretty well because they have a use: You hang them on the tree every year and people get hung up on them," Kovels says. "If you collect Christmas ornaments, that's not a bad one to buy."
trucks don't lack investment value because they're not popular, but because they're so popular that everyone who wants one can get one fairly easily.
That wasn't the case when Hess first released the toy during the holiday season in 1964, but production increased in the 1970s and 1980s to include trucks and miniature versions of those trucks. As the toys became less rare and more complex, with the simple tanker replaced by sports car carriers and fighter jet transports, those with boxes of them stacked up in basements found themselves in a bottomless collectible bear market.
"The older Hess trucks from the '60s and '70s are good, but then the '80s rolled around, they mass-produced the trucks, people started collecting them and now they really don't have much value at all," Kahn says. "You see the '80s, '90s and 2000s Hess trucks at flea markets."
Those flea-market trucks aren't selling for much, either. While a 1964 Hess truck was sold for $1,800 on eBay in November and two 1967 Hess tankers brought in more than $1,500 apiece earlier this week, the overwhelming majority of Hess trucks originally sold after the 1970s resell for less than $50 -- with many bundled in large lots of 25 to 300. Yet collectors aren't ditching them in droves, and Hess truck sales are still fueled by a built-in, easy-to-please audience of gasoline alley kids who've never grown up.
"Hess trucks have a breed all of their own: men who like trucks," Kovel says. "It's hard to give a collector something they collect because you're always giving the wrong thing, but as long as you know you can buy them that truck every year, you can give it as a gift -- I have a hunch that many wives do."
Department 56 Christmas village houses:
This Enesco-owned company's homes lie beneath Christmas trees and atop sawhorse-supported plywood across America as lamp-lit ceramic buildings are incorporated into snow villages and miniature versions of New York and London this time each year. Much like American real estate during the past three years or so, however, these buildings have a bit of a problem holding their value when it's time to sell.
"Department 56 pieces are not worth much, if anything," Kahn says. "I see them turning up in flea markets now, even before Christmas, selling for a fraction of what they sold for -- pieces with price tags of $89 to $100 selling for $10."
A recently "retired" $150 replica of New York's Flatiron Building has sold on eBay for half that price twice just this month, though other sellers have had better luck in getting as much as $147.50. A replica Empire State Building that originally sold for $180 has fetched as little as $9.99 online, though other versions have sold for $371 to $397. While specialty items such as replica Radio City Music Halls, Rockefeller Centers and St. Paul's Cathedrals still manage to fetch more than their original value in some instances, the majority of Department 56 illuminated houses sell at foreclosure prices -- with snow village houses going for $10 or less.
Low-end bargains may undermine the sometimes bullish specialty market for these little buildings, but city-centric collectors are getting a bit of a reprieve before the grinches crush their villages' housing prices Godzilla-style.
Much like Tchaikovsky's
, a handcrafted wooden nutckracker from Germany can be quite charming and delightful the first time you see it. Also like the ballet version, however, these products can seem a little less exciting the second time around and scarcely worth the hundreds or thousands to see it performed by the Bolshoi to eyes accustomed to versions performed by students at the local dance school.
Steinbach's faithful pay dearly for their products, with this year's crop of nutcrackers fetching more than $350 apiece. With notable exceptions, such as a Merlin the Magician Steinbach nutcracker that sold on eBay this month for $2,124, Steinbach products struggle to make back their original investment. Retail demand for original Steinbachs hasn't increased, but cheaper mass-market options and secondhand Steinbachs make it easier for folks to mark the holiday with a more frugal food crusher. Though many are posted on eBay and Craigslist for their original price, it's not uncommon to see them sell for $60, $50 or even $21, as overproduction and a stringent collection standard that frowns on flaws pulverize prices like well-roasted chestnuts.
"The nutcrackers are a great gift, but they've overdone it so much that they aren't going up in price," Kovel says. "I bought some of those because I had a grandchild that danced in
, so I was stuck."
Norman Rockwell Plates
Want to decorate your home for Christmas for less than the cost of the lights and star/angel on your tree? Just take $20 out of your wallet and cover your walls with 20 to 25 Norman Rockwell Christmas Plates. Yes, some plates like a 1974 "Scotty Gets A Tree" plate sell for $15 apiece, but the glut of plates issued by
The Bradford Exchange
The Danbury Mint
The Knowles/Rockwell Society
during the past few decades all replicate the work of an artist who died in 1978 and whose illustrations were widely distributed through magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post before then.
"The Rockwell plates ... forget it," Kovel says. "At one time the plates and figurines sold well, but people just got tired of it."
Ebay alone is littered with single plates selling for 99 cents, with lots of a dozen being posted for as little as $10. Collectors such as Kovel and Kahn don't question the beauty or appeal of the plates themselves but, like the Danish Christmas plates before them, the Rockwell platters and their collectors are the victims of their producers' overindulgence of Christmas cheer.
"I go to auctions and I see large lots of 500 to 1,000 Rockwell Plates going for ridiculously low numbers," Kahn says. "You could buy them, serve dinner on them and throw them out -- it's almost like buying a paper plate, because it's overproduced."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.