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Rinker on Collectibles: When Does a Collectible Hit its Bottom Price?

by Harry Rinker (03/11/13).

When asked about the influence of the Internet—especially eBay—on the antiques and collectibles market, the shift in the antiques and collectibles supply and demand is one of the first points I make. Prior to the Internet/eBay, auctioneers, collectors, dealers and others in the antiques and collectible trade could only best guess at the survival rate of a specific object.

Phrases such as “one of three known” or “only a dozen survive” were common place. These phrases promoted a comfort level that rarity, seen as synonymous with scarcity, was a measurable commodity.

A media release from Heritage Auction send out on March 7, 2013, was headlined “1942 Casablanca six sheet, one of two known, tops Heritage Auctions’ Movie Poster event” contains these two paragraphs:

“‘There are few films as beloved as ‘Casablanca,’” said Grey Smith, Director of Movie Posters at Heritage Auctions, ‘and few titles that collectors covet more. Given the status of the film and the rarity of this particular poster – there is only one other known to exist – and you have the makings of something special.

“Another rarity that is just one of two copies known, and should also prove exceedingly popular with collectors is the one sheet for MGM’s 1932 classic ‘Tarzan the Ape Man, by far the rarest Tarzan poster known. ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ also represents the first film that starred Johnny Weissmuller in the title role that would go on to become his most famous….”

I am one of a few resident skeptics in the trade. When I see “one of two copies known,” I shout, “prove it!” Even the “Casablanca” six sheet was produced in quantity. How does Heritage know there are not a dozen other examples stored in the rafters of an old movie theater or hidden in the dark recesses of a studio warehouse?

A June 1992 “Rinker on Collectibles” column reported that a McLoughlin Bros. “Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall Street Game” from the Seigel Collection sold for $30,800 at the June 6, 1992 Noel Barrett Auction. The game was sold as the only example known.

Prior to selling the game, Barrett was contacted by another individual who owned a copy of the game, a fact Barrett failed to mention during the auction. The purchaser was not happy when the information became public. An unsubstantiated rumor spread that an agreement was reached between Barrett and the purchaser resulting in a refund of part of the purchase price. In the intervening 20 years, additional copies of the game have surfaced. “The only example known” was a lie. As Paul Harvey (Aurandt), host of The “Rest of the Story” radio program, loved to end his program, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

[Author’s Aside #1: “Rinker on Collectibles” is now in its 27th year. This is Column #1362. Several years have passed since I looked back at early columns. What made reading the column about the $30,800 sale of the Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall Street Game fun was that my focus was on the ridiculousness of the price paid and not on the existence of additional copies of the game. The second- and third-highest prices for games sold at the Seigel Collection auction were $7,300 and $5,170. The information about the existence of additional copies of the game did not surface until several weeks later.]

The Internet and eBay wreaked havoc with traditional supply-and-demand beliefs. The survival rate for objects was far higher than anyone thought. America’s attics, basements, closets, sheds and barns were treasure troves. The trade had only mined the surface.

As goods flowed into the Internet marketplace, new questions arose. One example is: what is the value of the next example of an object when everyone who is looking for one has one? On the surface, the logical answer is nothing. Value is buyer dependent. If there is no buyer, there is no value.

If true, the corollary is that an object can reach a point where it has zero value. This has not proven to be the case. Instead, there appears to be a bottom value at which any antique or collectible will sell. The keys are to (1) understand this bottom value and (2) determine when it is reached.

[Author’s Aside #2: This column focuses on the common, above average and some hard to find objects in a collecting category. It is understood that the masterpiece (ultimate unit) and upper echelon objects in any collecting category are immune from radical downward spikes in value. While a decrease in value can occur, it is minimal compared to the bottom value depth that common, above average and some hard to find objects achieve.]

I was known as the Beanie Meanie during the Beanie Baby craze, the naysayer whose “this too shall pass” lament was pooh-poohed by the Beanie Baby penchants. Many Hummel collectors hold me in similar esteem. When selecting a collecting category that demonstrates a dramatic decline in value from its secondary market high thanks to the internet, I always cite Hummel figurines.

An e-mail from an Internet seller responding to one of my recent “look at what happened to Hummel figurines” comments first called my attention to the possibility of bottom value as a concept. The e-mail began with a simple premise: Hummel figurines are selling. The writer explained that she was buying Hummel figurines at estate sales for prices ranging from $10 to $15 and offering them for sale on a variety of Internet sites between $25 and $35. The writer’s sell-through rate was better than 75 percent.

While “The Price Is Right” is a television game show franchise, it also is a business maxim. Apparently, there is a price at which every object will sell. So long as an object appeals to a collector, is decorative or conversational, or usable, there is a buyer for it.

TRIVA QUIZ: What year did Bob Stewart’s “The Price Is Right” television program, produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, premier and who hosted it?

Bottom value is a stable value, a price that makes an object so attractive that its impulse buy factor is extremely high. It is something worth buying, even if the buyer has no immediate use for it. It simply is too good to pass up. Use, whether display or functional, comes later.

[Author’s Aside #3: The late 1980s economic recession identified the principle that there is a price at which ever antique and collectible will not sell. I discussed this concept in previous “Rinker on Collectibles” columns.]

Bottom value is more than a bargain. It is a steal. Although investment value plays no role, buyers perceive the object as greatly undervalued or, at the very least, fairly valued.

Affordability is a key. In an era when the competition for discretionary dollars is fierce, bottom value allows individuals to assemble small collections or accent displays at a reasonable cost. However, affordability as it relates to bottom value is different from the role affordability plays in the establishment of new collecting categories. Bottom value is about the sustainability and long-term future of a collecting category. It is not about jump starting a collecting craze.

Bottom value is a too-good-to-throw out value. In the cases of Pattern and Depression glass, bottom value returns the pieces to their initial functionality. Pattern glass goblets priced in the $5 to $10 range are cheaper than new. They also offer a variety of forms and designs not found in contemporary glassware.

There are several methods to spot bottom value. The easiest is to watch buying patterns. When objects from collecting categories identified as being in decline start selling through, pay attention to the pricing structure that is causing this to happen.

An end to price decline is another indicator. The objects continue to be offered for sale at affordable and attractive price points. There always will be a buyer for a Bailey’s of Hollywood Hopalong Cassidy child’s cowboy hat priced at $10. Novelty alone will sustain the price.

Bottom value does not ensure nor should it imply the renaissance of a collecting category. It also provides a price range within which similar objects sell. It is highly possible that the same values will apply in 10, 15 or 20 years.

My next challenge is to start assembling a list of collecting categories to which the bottom value concept applies. Number one on my list is Hummel figurines. What are your thoughts? E-mail them to me at harrylrinker@aol.com or leave an observation in the comments section below.

TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER: “The Price is Right,” hosted by Bill Cullen, premiered in 1966.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2013

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