Collector’s Minute: Changing Times and Market Trends

A 1954 Superman vs. the Robot lunchbox like this one sold for $11,500 in the 1990s. The value of Baby Boomer-generation items rose in that decade, but dripped when mortgages and college tuitions started eating up discretionary spending. The value of this lunchbox dropped to $7,500 in 2007, but has since rebounded, with one selling for $11,865 last October.

It’s a common conception among the general public that the values of antiques and collectibles march ever upward, that an item purchased in 1984 should be worth far more in 2011. While in some cases this may be true—such as in the top end of the market—it generally isn’t for more mundane items in the general market. Values for antiques and collectibles that ramp up quickly are generally a result of demand created by a fad or collecting trend driven by nostalgia, and often decline in value almost as fast.

There have been several such trends. One of the first national trends in the U.S. being the demand for Colonial and Federal furniture after the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976. Everyone wanted a piece of their nation’s history and demand grew so great for Colonial and Federal furnishings that it outstripped supply of the originals. Values were driven values so high (for the times) that furniture manufacturer jumped in to fill the gap with what came to be referred to as “centennials”; furniture that looked like the real thing but was factory made.

Another occurrence appeared in the 1980s as nostalgic Baby Boomers came into their “productive years” and bought up the memories of their childhood. Things like Coke machines, Lone Ranger lunch buckets, comic books, Baseball/Hockey cards and hundreds of other memories of childhood days rapidly ramped up in value as demand began to exceed supply. As the demand for such nostalgia began to top with $11,500-Superman lunchboxes, $600-Kool Aid Jugs and $20,000 juke boxes, dealers were forced to dig ever deeper into the attics, basements and barns of the nation to fill the need for Post-War relics. As in the 1980s manufacturers saw a lucrative market and geared up reproduction of 1950s memorabilia, soon antique and collectibles stores across the nation contained more reproductions than originals.

By the late 1990s, the boom was just about over, as Boomers—now saddled with mortgages, teenaged children and car payments—collectively began to sell off their prized possessions at a discount as values for all but the rarest of Post-War collectibles began to drop in value. Today a great many of these once-sought-after items now sell at 50-percent of their peak values.

Still, some items’ values keep on keeping on, as an example of the Mighty Superman vs. The Robot 1954 lunchbox that sold for $11,500 in 2000—which dropped in value in 2007, netting only $7,500—is once again gaining altitude, as one sold last October for $11,865.


Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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  1. Linda says:

    Oh so true. Items my parents collected in the 60s and 70s are of little interest to people of my generation (Boomer) and younger. If it no longer appeals to you, sell it now. There’s no guarantee than anything you keep will continue to hold value, much less increase.

  2. Bill Castle says:

    The items from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are now seeing the rise in value. Nostalgia collectors are always buying their childhood. Sometimes, that includes buying items they saw in their parent’s or grandparent’s houses growing up.

    Some items vary in price through the generations, but never bottom out. These are true classics, items which have intrinsic artistic value. I suspect there are items added to this list by every generation.

    The “made in China” issue effecting so many other areas of collecting are going to have negative repercussions on future collecting of items from this period. To be collectible, it is very useful for an item to be traceable to a manufacturer. That doesn’t happen as much right now. Perhaps this will improve as time passes.

  3. Joyce Rau says:

    Great points mad by Bill. For three years I have been taking antique research and collectible classes at a local high school. How soon I learned that everything I had been collecting was just junk. Take beanie babies for example, one would be lucky to get back what they paid for them. My kids wanted to hang on to them but won’t live long enough to see their rise again. We donated them to a childrens hospital, who were glad to have them. I agree with what Bill says, in most cases finding the manufacturer is key identification and value. Research is a real eye opener. Thanks

  4. Mary says:

    Lately, I see a number of items at local thrift shops that I can now afford since e-Bay has driven down the prices and current trends are leaving such items in the dust. Once considered hard to find (not the case any more) there is also much less demand for these items.
    Happily for me, Wedgwood plates and boxes of the lovely jasper ware kind with the white decoration against a darker background, are showing up for pennies compared to what they cost originally for retail sale, not to mention the crazy prices asked for Wedgwood at antique shows. These items are much too beautiful to stay down for long in my eye. I would be happy to have a room full of them and now I can afford them!!

  5. Susan Busa says:

    I found this article rather lacking in any value unless your are fortunate enough to own one of these two lunch boxes. I thought the writer would go into some detail on a variety of antiques and their holding value instead of generalizing on the markets ups and downs as we all know is the case.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      The article actually does cover other items and trends past and present, including furniture, coca cola memorabilia, sports cards,television memorabilia and comic books. The articles tend to focus on single items to illustrate the point of the article, the case in point for this article being Trends, fads and value.