Editors' pick: Originally published May 11, 2016.
At one point or another most of us have daydreamed about finding buried treasure up in the attic. Whether it's an old china set, some dusty candlesticks or a copy of the Declaration of Independence, there's always that hope that maybe up among the rubbish is something of real value just waiting to be discovered.
After all, what could be better than a climate controlled treasure hunt?
That dream extends into collectibles. From pogs to marbles to Cabbage Patch Kids, most of us tried to collect something at one point or another. For a fewm the passion kept going, until today a few folks have the kind of pop-culture artifacts that will amaze archeologists from future civilizations.
For the time being, you can probably leave those shoeboxes where they lie though, because the truth is that those old prizes rarely retain much value over time. No matter how high profile, most collections sooner or later become little more than old curiosities, remnants of a fad that only really made sense in a specific time and a particular place.
Yet perception often lags. When it comes to many collections, people's belief in their value as an investment lingers long after that ceases to be true. What drives the kind of passion that can send prices for laminated cardstock soaring, and what can bring that tumbling back down to Earth? To understand that, it's helpful to look at ten collections that are worth less, sometimes a lot less, than many people think.
10. Coca-Cola Memorabilia
As Jim Griffith, an antiquarian and the dean of education for eBay, explained, a few rules guide the price of collectibles. First and foremost is the oldest of all: supply and demand.
"It would be a mistake," he said, "not to ascribe to the collectibles market the general rule of market value historically."
That particular rule hit the market for Coca-Cola collectibles hard.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, America seemingly couldn't get enough of Coke brand merchandise, and the company obliged, pumping out paraphernalia from clocks and coolers to more exotic fare, such as the iconic gas station pumps and even flatware sets. (Contrary to popular rumor, however, the Smith & Wesson Coke bottle grip was simply named after the shape, not a marketing partnership.) Prices soared for even the most mundane of items as collectors and novices alike grabbed every red and white TV tray they could.
This also brought prices tumbling back down when those "collectibles" were on the shelves of every single dime store in the country. Today, the more elaborate pieces will still fetch a good price, such as the vending machines listed for over $1,000, but most of those Coke-stamped products are now just inexpensive curiosities, available for $5 here and $10 there... if the seller's lucky.
With Americana popular around the same time as Coke-brand merchandise, everyone can picture this mid-century craze: Smallville, U.S.A. houses decorated from front to back with American flags and eagles in every shape, size and permutation. Americana collectors slept under Uncle Sam sheets, ate off of patriotic plates and hung their pictures in freedom frames.
Today? Not so much.
"The frenzy of buying American collectibles and American antiques from the mid- and early-century definitely has taken a downturn," Griffith said.
As with virtually all collectibles, the rule isn't absolute. While prices will chase fads for most items, the really high quality or unique pieces will always retain at least some of their value. In fact, for collections past their prime, the truly valuable pieces may even go up in value as sets begin to fade away. As Marsha Dixey, consignment director with Heritage Auctions, explained, value of a collection has more to do with the run of the mill pieces than the truly outstanding ones. Collections become worthless, she said, when the majority of its pieces become little more than knick-knacks that anyone can get.
"What things don't have a value anymore that people think should," she said. "is one of those things that's totally driven by the collector group that's no longer interested and has dropped out of the marketplace."
By the time 99% of the pieces are available to anyone who wants them, it ceases to have value as a collection and instead is about singular artifacts.
Where supply and demand is as old as the concept of trade itself, another major factor in eroding value is something brand new: the internet. It's what wiped out collectors of Roseville Pottery, and it will be back later on this list.
For years, Roseville Pottery was a collecting craze. While the company itself went out of business in 1954, Roseville's work continued to circulate, gaining value over the years as its work grew in popularity. Whether acquiring pieces at antique shops or roadside dealers, collectors prized every Roseville find they could claim, and as a result, prices shot through the roof.
Until the internet came along and put a stop to all that, by taking the mystery out of the pot.
"One of the things that eBay and the internet did was pull the cover off years of false scarcity in the market," Griffith said. "Suddenly the actual supply situation was revealed. Prior to the internet and sites like eBay, I could go searching in my car to different antique markets and shops, and it was rare. With the internet, I could connect to every piece of Roseville in the world."
What the internet revealed was how much prices depended not just on supply and demand, but also on regional supply and demand. A piece was as valuable as the supply of Roseville pots that the buyer could find, regardless of how many existed in the wide world. When the local antique store has just two pieces in stock, that can drive up some hard bargains. When shoppers can go home and Google up 800 more, not so much...
Another success story brought low by the internet, for a period of time in the '80s and '90s, Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light," was absolutely everywhere.
Now, to a degree, Kinkade's work was value-driven. His paintings are legitimately attractive, sometimes downright beautiful, and he was doing something with colors and warmth on canvas that didn't really exist in popular culture at that moment. Yet Kinkade was a victim of his own success, creating an entire company out of reprinting his paintings, complete with dedicated franchise galleries across the country and a $110 million IPO in 1994.
By its peak, Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries had 350 locations across the nation, before its bubble burst in a slow collapse began in the early 2000s, culminating in a bankruptcy filing in 2010.
What happened? A combination of the two factors we've already discussed: market glut and the internet. As Kinkade flooded the country with his prints, the value of the product in stores increasingly became an illusion. Prices represented how likely you were to find another Kinkade around the block -- "local scarcity" as Dixey put it, not how much the piece was objectively worth. The bubble would burst sooner or later, and internet marketplaces did the trick. Once prospective buyers could reach the thousands of works that T.K.S. Galleries had been pumping out for over a decade, the rest was just a matter of time.
Most people have heard the name "Hummel" before. One of the most popular collectibles in American history, Hummel figurines are virtually synonymous with meticulously sorted rows of tchotchkes painstakingly assembled over the years.
Hummel first started producing its porcelain figurines in 1935 after the drawings of a German nun, Maria Innocentia Hummel. After GI's returned from Germany in the 1940s bearing gifts of these for their wives and girlfriends, the collections began to catch on, because there was enough scarcity to create a legitimate secondary market. No one could go to the shop and just get another, you had to hunt for what limited supply was out there.
Over the course of the 20th Century, Goebel, the parent company that owned Hummel, decided to break that model. Endless special editions and limited runs proliferated, all based on the proposition that pieces would continue to appreciate in value. Hummels were sold as an investment, while the very act of selling them in bulk undermined the scarcity that made them valuable in the first place.
Like with Thomas Kinkade's work, eventually buyers could readily find excess product, either from the manufacturer or a flooded secondary market. The value plummeted, and today, while some few retain their value, most are little more than paperweights.
If flooded markets and the internet have dragged down collections' value, what causes it in the first place? There must be some good reason why otherwise sane people shell out sometimes millions of dollars for a few colored pictures on musty paper.
The reason, Griffith explained, has much to do with emotion. It is often, he said, about a "shared cultural moment." Collections, especially pop culture or mass produced works, are about the things we form an attachment to en masse. Hummel represented the end of the war years while Thomas Kinkade marketed his paintings to spaces where young couples would splurge on vacation.
A collectible is ultimately a personal decision that something has value far greater than the cost of its commodity, and prices can shoot up when society decides to embrace that collectively.
"There is no greater evidence of that," Griffith said, "than the explosion of the comic book industry into both collecting and media. The idea now that our biggest blockbusters are all based on comic book heroes is not coincidental to the fact that today's audience were all comic book readers when they were younger."
Unfortunately, despite the impression many people have of lost riches in the paperbacks of their youth, the reality is far more mundane. Aside from the highest value items, comic book collections are worth next to nothing these days. (Although Dixey disagreed with that, arguing that comic books "are probably more solid than if you went out and purchased a very fine piece of Chippendale's Furniture.")
For some reason in the mid-century, the idea of memorializing shared moments on dinnerware became huge.
Nevertheless, plates commemorating ideas such as the Statue of Liberty Centennial, the World Series and Norman Rockwell's paintings exploded as collectibles, often fueled by QVC and late-night television.
The trouble is that, with no one company acting as the gatekeeper for any of these products, there was never any market scarcity to begin with. Unlike collectibles like Hummel figurines, whose manufacturer could have chosen to produce less, plates such as centennial and Norman Rockwell collections were simply stamped out by any company that had a potential buyer.
Although billed as a collector's item, these are products that never had any real value to begin with. Today, as the eBay listings show, these are all but worthless, with products such as the Statute of Liberty Centennial Plate selling for $0.99 and most Norman Rockwell ones going for $5 to $15 apiece.
Cards are another quintessential collector's item. Today much of the collector's world has shifted to trading card games, where the granddaddy of them all, Magic the Gathering, can still command enormous value. (A single card from that game can still fetch upwards of $30,000.)
Baseball cards, on the other hand, frequently disappoint.
It's not that baseball cards have no value. As long as the sport remains popular, so too will its cards. It's that they have far less value than people assume. While rare or exceptional cards can still fetch a bundle, most baseball cards are worthless. The disappointment settles in when people realize the difference between their expectations and reality. Those carefully hoarded collections from their youth, stacked up pieces of cardboard tucked away and sat on for 20 years, will fetch... well, maybe the price of lunch.
The reason goes back to cultural moments. America simply doesn't have the love affair with its pastime that we once did. When baseball resonated on an emotional level with almost everyone, collectors could sell their cards to almost anyone, and prices reflected that. Today, as interested has waned, so too has demand.
"Those cultural moments change very quickly," Griffith said. "If you think back, it was a year or two ago, the Seth Rogan movie The Interview and all the brew-ha-ha about Sony Pictures not releasing it. That was an interesting cultural moment, it popped up very quickly and then suddenly there were posters on eBay of this movie which looked like it may not be released which were selling for hundreds of dollars."
Today, those posters will go for a few bucks. Baseball fanaticism lasted a lot longer, and may someday be back, but for now, few of those cards are much of an investment.
"Almost 20 years ago now, Beanie Babies came along ,and it created a furor," Dixey said. "It started at a price point where people could afford to buy it... and then it escalated."
Dixey had a front row seat for the Beanie Baby explosion.
A brief fad, America practically lived and died on beanie babies for a period of time in the late '90s. For many Millennials, it stands out as the concept of collections as investments-turned-junk bond, and today we still talk about the market for these little plush toys in awe (the most expensive of which went for several thousand dollars).
As Slate's Mark Stern wrote of his own experience shopping for the plush toys in 1999:
The Britannia bear wasn't just a toy, we explained; it was an investment, projected to be worth thousands of dollars within a decade. Our father capitulated and bought us each a Britannia bear, which we dutifully kept in mint condition with the tag intact, reveling in its rarity while dreaming of the day it would be a hugely valuable collector's item.
One month later, the company that developed Beanie Babies abruptly announced that it would stop producing the toys at the end of the year... Today, the Britannia Beanie Baby sells for $10 on eBay.
Entire books have been written on the Beanie Bubble, but suffice to say that unless you're sitting on one of the Princess Diana bears (priced on eBay at an aspirational $343,000 to $450,000), that collection is worth, maybe, the gas money down to the Salvation Army.
On the list of nice dreams, add the idea that the old Fraggle Rock lunch box you used to use for ham sandwiches and Gatorade might help send your kids to college. Now dispense with that notion altogether, because no matter how fiercely some people might seek to line their walls with them, these products just aren't that valuable.
"I had some experience oh 15, 18 years ago with lunch boxes and bought and sold quite a number of them," Dixey said. "There were some that were indeed rare, and they were bringing lots of money."
"Then, all of a sudden, some things started coming out of the woodwork," Dixey added. "You go back to the old adage of supply and demand. All of a sudden there's a glut of them and it brings the price down."
One of the biggest questions in this space is, consistently: why people have such a mismatch between value and expectations. Part of it is simple lack of research, but part, Griffith said, is the very human habit of wishful thinking.
"I did a lot of time in the '70s as a picker going around to different homes with another antique dealer looking for merchandise to buy and sell," he said. "What was amazing to me was how many people thought that what they had was way more valuable than it really was, and there was no real way to argue with them, nothing to point to."
Today, increasingly, the bubble is bursting with advent of internet information.