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Rinker on Collectibles: The Flaw of the Rule of 25

by Harry Rinker (07/13/12).

On, June 25, 2012, I received an e-mail from Shawn Surmick. It read: “My… question centers around a supposed Rule of 25… It states that an item that is popular now will be worth money and sought-after in about 25 years, when collectors who have grown up with these items wish to collect and own them again. This basically applies to toys and pop culture collectibles. This rule shows up on toy and comic book forums a lot, but I cannot find anything else about it. I would appreciate your thoughts on the subject.”

Approximately 20 years ago, I wrote the first of many columns in which I discussed Rinker’s 30-Year Rule: “For the first 30 years of anything’s life, all its value is speculative.” Initially, I developed the rule to explain the pricing phenomenon involved with limited and collector edition collectibles. As the years progressed, I found the rule applied to objects in most new collecting categories as well as spouses, children and grandchildren.

Rinker’s 30-Year Rule focuses solely on intermediate value. It does not imply nor was it every meant to suggest that in 30 years everything would become collectible. It was postulated as a control and counter to the 1980s limited/collector edition literature that suggested that not only would every product become collectible over time, but that it would also increase significantly in value.

The limited/collector edition market speculative bubble burst in the early 1990s, prior to the advent of eBay. The death knell rung long before eBay was flooded with product. There is no song entitled “Pennies on the Dollar,” a matter of some surprise given the many themes explored by country music. The title would apply to a song written about the secondary market value of limited/collector edition items.

As much as I want to believe there is a collector for everything, there is not. Objects and object groups become lost over time. Survival is not a sufficient justification for collecting. Good taste and common sense often prevail. As my mother Josephine Prosser Rinker often reminded me, “You cannot save everything.” I know. I tried.

In fairness to the proponents of the Rule of 25, I acknowledge they are arguing in favor of popular and not all objects. On the surface, their argument makes sense. First, collecting is memory driven. Collectors buy back their childhood beginning with toys and then moving on to clothing, movies, music, television and other pop culture memorabilia. Second, the Rule of 25 proponents are short-term rather than long-term focused. They accept the concept of one generation collectability. Their concentration is on an aging generation who grew up and played with the material. What that generation’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will collect is irrelevant.

“Rinker on Collectibles” readers are familiar with my One Generation Collectibles concept: “What is going to happen to the value of an object when the generation who grew up with and remembers it dies?” When I first posed this question in the late 1980s, collectibles dealers rose in protest. More than 20 years later, few question it. I cite my favorite cowboy hero, Hopalong Cassidy, as an example.

While the Rule of 25 appears valid on the surface, it is badly flawed. First, trendiness is the prevailing theme in today’s marketplace. Few styles last a decade. Many fads and crazes are gone within a year or two. How long did the Beanie Baby craze last? While memory may suggest more than a decade, the answer is approximately seven years. Ty produced the first Beanie Babies in 1993 and stopped producing them in 1999, when the speculative secondary market collapsed. A revival a year later proved short-lived. Today, commonly-found Beanie Babies sell for a dime to a quarter at yard sales and three dollars or less at flea markets and antiques malls.

It takes longer than a decade to establish long-term collectability, especially for toys. Ideally, a toy should remain popular and in production for 10 to 15 years, long enough to impact two juvenile generations. If the object is popular among young adults, it needs to be linked to a use and/or decorating craze that lasts 15 to 20 years, a virtual impossibility in an age when Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn change their decorating schemes every six months.

Second, rules that apply to one generation do not apply to that of its children or grandchildren. Generations think and act differently. I like to think that my generation—remember that I am in my 70s—is a reflection of that of my parents and grandparents. Nostalgia clouds one’s view of the past. However, I am fully aware that my generation’s beliefs and values are very different from those of my children and grandchildren. Maybe this is why I do not sleep as well as I should at night. My children’s and grandchildren’s focus is forward. They are not backward lookers. “My kids and grandchildren do not want my things” is a common Baby Boomer and Generation X lament. By 2040, it will be the hue and cry of Generation Y (Millennials).

Third, the more popular something is, the more examples are produced. The more items produced, the higher the survival rate. This always has been the case. Prior to 1980, the mothers of the world either discarded the vast majority of their children’s things when they left the nest or handed them down to the next generation, who subsequently used them until there was no use left in them or repeated the process until the landfill was the obvious next option. After 1980, Americans became collectible conscious. The concept quickly spread to Europe and then to other parts of the global community. Individuals saved things rather than discarding them. Collectors began buying new and hoarding things. Are the Rule of 25 proponents such individuals?

A common belief arose stating that objects, especially those that mimicked or were part of an existing collecting category, automatically would increase in value of over time. Time was 10 to 15 years; in some cases five or less. Speculation ran rampant, worse in some collectible categories than in others. The toy community was vulnerable. Holiday Barbie is just one example.

Today, eBay and other sale venues are flooded with material people hoarded in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The results almost are universally the same—pennies on the dollar.

Fourth, Rule of 25 proponents have not done market research. When subtracting 25 from 2012, the answer is 1987. When visiting a flea market or antiques mall, look for objects made in 1987. Some of the top toys of that year were Cabbage Patch dolls, Puffalump Bears, Mattel’s Captain Power, Muppet Babies Happy Meals Toys, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers. How many of these did you find? The answer is not many. Their presence at antiques toy show also is limited.

Check eBay. Ignore the “Buy It Now” prices. These are meaningless. The only values that count are sell-through prices. What percentage sold through above their initial purchase price? The number will be higher than you think. However, the final profit will hardly justify the economics of buying the toys 25 years ago, storing them for the duration, paying eBay its commission, and factoring in the time to catalog, list and complete the sale.

The results will be worse if market research is done for 1987 comic books. For every winner, there will be dozens of losers. No one has a crystal ball that guarantees even a 50-percent predictability rate.

Fifth, collectors want items made after 1980 in C8 (excellent) or better condition. If an object has been used, its collectability is questionable. If its packaging is missing, its value is minimized. Memory is Christmas-morning driven, not the day after Christmas.

In summary, the Rule of 25 is a pipe dream—a fantastic notion or vain hope. For every case in which it applies, there are hundreds where it does not. The Rule of 25 is what drove millions to invest in Beanie Babies. It remains the dream deftly hidden in the advertising literature of the collector edition manufactures and blatantly touted by the hosts of cable channel home shopping networks.

Proponents of the Rule of 25 can cite examples of where it applies in the collecting realm. What they fail to admit is that its application is atypical rather than typical. Rule of 25 believers are being duped.

Thus endeth the lesson for today.

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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. 2012

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5 Responses to “Rinker on Collectibles: The Flaw of the Rule of 25”

  1. Ken Hatfield says:

    Well done, Harry. As a former comic book collector, I know from personal experience how right you are. Luckily I never speculated & only bought the books I was interested in reading. I got my value out of them that way.

  2. nick ryan says:

    Hi harry, I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding rule 25 or any rule for that matter, however I disagree with your comment “After 1980, Americans became collectible conscious. The concept quickly spread to Europe and then to other parts of the global community”. Why do you think Collectible conscious spread from America to Europe, I have proof, my whole family as far back as I can remember and beyond from my grandmother & mother and other family members, that those previous generations were also collectible conscious – and that predates 1980 by a considerable age.

    Amongst many things, my mother gained her mothers pewter collection and has expanded this. And whilst I hear you say they are not sold as collectibles, the mere fact that she has continued to collect those and many other items has also inspired her to collect more modern mundane items which will in turn pass down through me & my sister’s children NOT with speculation of huge future profits but as memories to be shared by future family generations. Often these items support family stories.

    People have been collectible conscious for years & years, long before the 1980′s in all parts of the world, otherwise, for example, where have all of these autographs of famous people come from?

    All the best, Nick

  3. Terry Mangum says:

    Harry you are once again right on the money. At our auction business, we are constantly explaining this to people. Most want to “shoot the messenger” and leave to find someone who will tell them what they want to hear.
    If the buyers of Beanie Babies, Die Cast Cars and Collector Plates had spent the money on gold and silver coins they would today have dollars on the pennies and not pennies on the dollar.
    Terry – Capitol Auction

  4. Janet Robinson says:

    It will be interesting to see if the Beanie Babies get a little boost in 2018 (1993 + 25 years). The past three collections I’ve looked at for purchase, and have passed on, have included at least 100 or so of the darn things, in their original packaging…and I know of two other collections sitting boxed up in garages. Landfill? Scary!!

  5. Dan Harvey says:

    I have a question I hope you can steer me in the right direction…I bought some time ago, a DC Collectible Superhero Set of 4 10oz. Glasses at a local thrift shop; which contained the images of the following:
    1. Batman: The Dark Knight
    2. The Flash: The Crimson Comet
    3. Superman: The Man of Steel
    4. The Green Lantern: The Emerald Archer…..wait….the Emerald Archer?
    Yes! That is exactly what I said! The glass shows the image of The Green Lantern, complete with his ring…but it says that he is the Emerald Archer! The only Emerald Archer I ever heard of was The Green Arrow!
    I have been trying to find out whether this obvious flaw is worth something maybe down the road a few years. No luck. I did find another exact product on EBay with the exact same flaw…
    Depending on how many were made BEFORE the flaw was found out and redone, do you think this is something to hang onto; or thrown out with the trash?
    Thanks for any help you can assist with!

    Dan

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