PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- You can't overestimate or overvalue the U.S. buying public's love of collectibles.
Roughly four years ago, we ran a seemingly innocuous story about a handful of completely worthless collectibles that took on a life of its own. Millions of you read it, websites including Yahoo and MSN picked it up, collector sites argued with it and the story itself required a bit of updating when artist Thomas Kincaid died. Still, it struck a nerve by pointing out the negligible worth of items including Hess trucks, Hummel figurines, Precious Moments items and, yes, Kincaid's prints and paintings.
It even had enough legs to inspire an NPR outpost in New Hampshire to interview us about it last year, nearly three years after its original run.
The problem is that it did only half the job. It warned buyers away from buying dud collectibles unless they really enjoyed the items, but failed to mention where collectors could redirect their investment if they were still trying to turn a profit.
Our experience with the last piece tells us there is no sure thing, especially if you're motivated solely by the prospect of making a quick buck. There are some niches that make it easier for collector investors to sort the gems from the junk, though. The Certified Guaranty Co., for example, helps collectors by grading comic book quality and grading criteria. Wine aficionados, meanwhile, can consult Wine Advocate and Bordeaux market forecasts to see if they should keep cellaring their vintages or just drink them. Art collectors are all too capable of tracking trends through Sotheby's, Christie's and Freeman's auctions.
"Collectibles" investors, however, have to contend with a fickle auction market led by eBay, which handles roughly $3 billion a year in collectibles sales on its own. While sites such as Kovels.com offer guidance, "collectibles" and the companies that make them are pawns of supply and demand. It's how you lose $100,000 investing in Beanie Babies, but it's also the big reason why many of the most lucrative collectibles weren't produced as "collectibles" at all.
We consulted with the folks at auction tracking site What Sells Best and found 10 examples of collectibles that made a killing for their sellers. If you have similar tastes or interests, there may be some riches tucked away in your collection as well:
10. 1892 Candlestick Telephone
Sale price on eBay: $12,550
Classified as vintage electronics, this phone was produced by the American Bell Telephone Co. less than 20 years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his first telephone. It was the dominant phone style in the United States through the 1930s and still makes a cameo in It's A Wonderful Life on NBC each holiday season, but it has quirks that make it little more than a steampunk oddity today.
Forget the wires and rotary dial, smartphone guy. There are still folks walking this earth -- and writing this article -- who've dealt with each of those encumbrances during their lifetimes while using telephones. The real drawback, which kicked it out of U.S. households by the 1940s and '50s, was its separate mouthpiece and earpiece -- the latter of which was just attached to a cord and held to the caller's ear as they held the rest of the telephone in their other hand. If cellphones seem to still be having a tough time with hand-free calls today, consider that they were practically impossible roughly 120 years ago.
As antique electronics go, this phone fetched a price near the high end. Still, there are products that come in with a much higher monetary and sentimental value. A 1940 Seeburg Maestro jukebox, for example, sold for $13,100 on eBay in 2009 and would still be considered a rare find today. Few items top the 1894 Schaeffer Electrical Meter that sold in 2011 for $32,600, though.
9. 1897 Hickory Bicycle
Sale price on eBay: $16,600
We've said it before: Sports memorabilia and historic sporting goods really sell. That said, it takes a keen eye and a deep knowledge of the items being collected to separate the average autographed photo from an important artifact.
When Maxwell Tonk set out to build this bicycle in 1897, he decided to do by using steam to bend pieces of hickory into shape. He then laminated the whole frame and patented the process. It's still a novel means of building a bicycle, and there aren't a whole lot of other bikes in existence that can claim the same heritage.
Maybe riding on a frame with all of the best traits of a nice, sturdy dining room table has lost its appeal over the years, but it's tough to argue with the results. Hands up if your forged-metal childhood bicycle has held up nearly as well over far fewer years. No? That's why it's not worth nearly $17,000.
8. 1891 Carpenter Electric Tea Kettle
Sale price on eBay: $19,228
Look at that date and keep in mind that commercial light bulbs had only been introduced little more than a decade earlier. With that in mind, this particular kettle managed to beat the early and slightly inefficient -- but widely distributed -- version sold by British firm Crompton & Co. by nearly two years.
In the tea-drinking world, this kettle is the spark that powered generations of hotpots. It powered demand for electric kettles and eventually led to the instant hot water dispensers at the kitchen sinks of some of the more technologically advanced homes on the modern landscape.
In short, it's just as notable an artifact in the domestic world as the complete skeletal structure of an early hominid would be in archeological circles. Consider this the missing link between the Victorian stovetop and the modern studio-apartment's efficiency counter space.
7. 1875 Remington typewriter
Sale price on eBay: $19,228
The typewriter that comes to mind when most Americans picture one -- and they're doing so less and less -- was invented in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule in Milwaukee, Wis. That crew sold the patent for $12,000 -- less than the cost of this one typewriter -- to investors who then struck a deal with E. Remington & Sons to produce them for the buying public.
Remington was a sewing machine producer at the time, but it managed to crank out the first Shoes and Glidden Type-Writer in 1873. Now known as the Remington No. 1 or Model 1, it was made until 1878, when it was replaced by a Model 2 that could type uppercase and lowercase letters and allow a writer to see what he or she was typing.
This model's name is the reason every similar machine after it was called a typewriter. This model is the reason we still have QWERTY keyboards to this day. This was the typewriter when it was released. There simply weren't others. Try going into a Best Buy today and ordering "the tablet." Do you realize how many hours would be consumed by the barrage of questions that followed? When you ordered "the typewriter" in 1875, people knew what you were talking about.
If none of this has made clear just how important the Model 1 was, consider that it went to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 to be hailed as a huge technological breakthrough. Only one other technology overshadowed it: Bell's telephone.
6. 1993 Magic: The Gathering Alpha Black Lotus card
Sale price on eBay: $27,302
This is a diamond in a card-game world with a whole lot of rough.
The downside to being a casual Magic, Pokemon, Yu Gi Oh or other card collector is that it's really tough to find one of any value. As the games became more popular, sets went into mass production and the market was flooded with just about every iteration imaginable.
But Magic creators Wizards Of The Coast planned ahead. After Magic debuted in 1993, the company began compiling a "reserve list" of cards they vowed never to reprint. The list covers a select number of cards made from 1993 through 1999, including a particularly valuable group known as the "Power Nine."
Those cards were available only in three sets printed from 1993 through 1994. They're so powerful in the context of the game that they've been either restricted in tournament play or banned from tournaments outright. The Black Lotus, in particular, is considered extremely powerful for its ability to shift a game's balance of power quickly in the early stages.
Some players absolutely love it, some loathe it, but the Black Lotus itself is so revered that enlarged versions with specialized art are handed out as tournament trophies. There were little more than 4,000 produced in total and only 1,000 produced as part of the Alpha series. Considering the amount of time passed, attics cleaned out and yard sales held since the Black Lotus' debut, many of those have been roughed up or disposed of altogether.
If you find yourself at an auction with a reasonably preserved version of this card staring you in the face, play it cool and hope it hasn't made its way online.
5. 1951 Maurice "Rocket" Richard rookie card
Sale price on eBay: $30,100
Sports cards are a tough investment as well, but baby boomer retirement is going to put a whole lot of patently obvious gems into play.
This Parkhurst version of Montreal Canadiens legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Maurice Richard's rookie card is a tough find as it is, never mind as a Professional Sports Authentication grade 9 mint-condition version. It's great for whoever sold it and probably just as wonderful for the person who shelled out for it, but it's also an anomaly in a corner of the collectibles world that's getting shadier by the day.
Sports trading cards are a dicey proposition for buyers who not only have to deal with a market that's volatile under the best of circumstances, but with duplicitous dealers facing federal investigation for rigging auctions, bidding up their own items and tampering with collectibles without disclosing changes. Fraud is so common in the memorabilia world that Peter J. Nash, known to older hip-hop heads as Pete Nice from late-'80s, early '90s group 3rd Bass, has dedicated an entire second career to it on his blog, Hauls Of Shame.
Even high-value cards once considered the safest bets in the industry are now huge risks. A Honus Wagner card once owned by hockey star Wayne Gretzky was sold to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick in 2007 for $2.8 million. That card was featured in an ESPN documentary and is at the center of a federal case that alleges the broker who sold the card to Kendrick cut the sides to improve its condition. The owners of the company named in the indictment, Mastro Auctions, have since pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges.
We realize there are still people out there hoping their Mickey Mantle rookie card will put their kids through college. They should proceed with caution before pursuing that dream.
4. Tommy Johnson's Alcohol and Jake Blues and Ridin' Horse
Sale price on eBay: $37,100
Vinyl records are hitting a nice little revival and, according to Nielsen Soundscan, have jumped from little more than 4 million sales in 2012 to more than 6 million last year. That's only about 2% of the overall album market, but it's growing and has grabbed music lovers' attention.
It's also made it near impossible for old-school crate diggers to get a deal on rare records anymore. In the case of this 78 by seminal Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson dating back to 1929, one enterprising collector in Johnson's home state of Mississippi nearly had it for $4,000. A technical error with eBay's Buy It Now feature kept the bidding going and jacked up the price by more than eight times that amount.
While it takes a well-rounded music scholar to not only recognize Tommy Johnson and his influence on early 20th century blues, but to scour eBay for his extremely rare albums hoping one pops up, sometimes music collection isn't about the music at all. Sometimes, it's just a matter of the same dumb luck that leads to someone buying a stamp with an upside-down image or a pack of baseball cards featuring a baseball player holding a bat with an expletive written on its knob.
That kind of collecting happens more than music fans would like to admit, with a recent example featuring a promotional copy of the Beatles' single Love Me Do featuring Paul McCartney's last name spelled "McArtney" on the label. That went for nearly $11,000, which bought someone a whole lot of boring, unsatisfying conversation.
Collector: "See, it's spelled 'McArtney.' Can you believe it? 'McArtney!' What rubes!"
Collector's put-upon friend: "That's great. I'm going to freshen up my drink. Do you have anything stronger than grain alcohol?"
3. Breaking Bad mask
Sale price on eBay: $41,400
There's a good chance viewers are going to remember AMC's recently ended meth drama Breaking Bad for years to come. They'll remember Bryan Cranston's chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maker-and-drug-kingpin Walter White and may even remember it as Cranston's dark turn away from his role as the dad on '90s sitcom Malcolm In The Middle.
What they'll have a harder time remembering are those few days or so when Cranston wore a rubber Walter White "Heisenberg" mask to the 2013 Comic-Con and on the talk show circuit while promoting his show's final season. They won't care that co-star Aaron Paul made out with it, or that Jimmy Fallon wore it during an interview.
That's why, if you're the maker or owner of that mask, you have to sell that little collectible immediately. We can't give the folks behind this eBay auction enough credit for realizing that some entertainment industry memorabilia will never be as valuable as it is when the show or movie it is from has reached its peak popularity.
Maybe Walter White's hat will find its way into the Smithsonian alongside Fonzie's jacket from Happy Days or Jerry's puffy shirt from Seinfeld. This mask's minutes of fame ticked away with each news cycle leading up to the Breaking Bad finale. We're not saying it doesn't have value, but it may be hard to top that $41,400 price for a while.
2. Antique Chinese horn cup
Sale price on eBay: $77,100
Of course, there are just folks who collect items for their inherent historical value and turn their homes into private museums. It's not exactly a rare practice, and pieces of those private collections find their way into museums on loan or through donation regularly.
This cup fashioned from ox horn and carved into the shape of a flower is believed to date back to 19th century China and the Qing Dynasty. The roughly 10-ounce cup came with a bit of wear and some repaired chipping, but that didn't stop the price from soaring from its starting point of just $9.95.
But that's what you're up against when buying artifacts sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes you're competing against collectors, sometimes against museums, sometimes against national cultural organizations. It requires a great deal of skill, a lot of commitment and the anti-Indiana Jones attitude that it doesn't belong in a museum, but to whoever's willing to pay for it and house it. Best of luck with that.
1. The Forgotten Oz Girl
Sale price on eBay: $100,075
As paintings go, this is on the low end. Andy Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) sold for more than 10 times that last year, and works by Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso each fetched more than $140 million.
This painting, however, falls right into collectible territory thanks to its ties to Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The girl depicted in it is a living porcelain character in Baum's book and was left out of the 1939 film because of time constraints. Apparently, this was considered by some to be a grave offense on par with having Judy Garland burn Kansas to the ground when she came back home. Painter Natailia Babi undid the damage by painting a sad portrait of the poor, forgotten character that made someone feel sad enough to throw six figures at it.
In fairness, the Wizard of Oz is one of those brands that -- like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Coca-Cola or Norman Rockwell -- is like catnip to collectible makers and buyers. There are plates, figurines, paintings, dolls and other tchotchkes all bearing the likenesses of characters from the film and all claiming to be rare or limited-edition keepsakes.
We'll warn, however, that even this lightly trod portion of the Wizard Of Oz universe is starting to draw attention. Last February, Disney began stocking Wizard Of Oz "China Girl" dolls in its U.S. online store for $179 apiece. It produced a "limited edition" (sound familiar?) of 500 and sold out within two days. A few folks saw that as an instant business opportunity and began posting the dolls to eBay with asking prices of $225 to $544.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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