Terminology II: What is Rare?

rare Tom Sawyer

In the world of collecting, like in anything else, there’s a language used by insiders. From video gamers to traders in the stock market, talking the talk can be half the battle.

Knowing the vocabulary and applying it can be a way to feel like you’re “in the know.” Last week I wrote about the term “antique.” In the interest of moving you into “the know,” the second blog of the series defines the term “rare.”

When a collectible is rare, its price goes up. “Rare” is a word used to denote scarcity. A rare item is uncommon or unusual.

The antique market works like any other market where price is determined by supply and demand. If an item is popular and there aren’t many of them to be found, the price rises. People want the item and there aren’t many of them, so, those who are able, are willing to pay more to get a hold of the thing. A limited-addition doll or watch or video game console, that is popular, can be sold on eBay for a higher price than the original retail price. Demand is high, supply is low, and the price favors the seller.

But just because you or your friends have not seen something before, or have only seen one or two of them, does not mean the item is rare.

Rarity is determined on an item-by-item basis:

A car made this year may be rare because there were only 500 of that model made.

A Roman coin used from the middle of the third century BC until the middle of the third century AD was in use for a remarkably long time. Even though it is extremely old – an item from antiquity – that coin may not be rare. It may be of little value because there are plenty of them around.

An item is rare if few exist in the world today. A one-of-a-kind item is the rarest and can bring the highest price on the market, given there’s a demand for it. If you have a one-of-a-kind molded sandwich, the likes of which no one has ever laid eyes upon, you have a rare molded sandwich but, since no one wants your sandwich, that rarity doesn’t guarantee any kind of value.

So rarity implies that something is difficult to get a hold of, or scarce. Rarity can add to the value of an already sought-after collectible, like a vintage car, well-known fine art, or a popular book. A rare book from the turn of the century, that was never popular in its own right, isn’t valuable. A rare painting by an unknown artist from the 19th century isn’t valuable. A lithograph of a Van Gogh, printed in limited number and well received by the public, would bring a high price. A first edition of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer is rare and valuable.

Rarity can add to value, but it isn’t a measure of value in itself. Rarity implies scarcity and can raise the price of an already valued item.

Click here for “Terminology !: What is Antique?” article