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When Collections Lose Value: Why Some Collectibles Don’t Hold Their Prices

by Liz Holderman (02/13/12).

A 1995 Beatles price guide listed this 1964 single of “She Loves You” for as much as $175 in mint condition. It sold for $23.50 in February 2011.

It is disheartening to discover that a prized collectible you bought 20 years ago is no longer worth what you paid for it. We expect appliances, electronics, cars and household furniture to depreciate. But we always thought art and antiques were great investments. And most of them are. The sad truth is, though, that many collectibles can lose their value over time. Here are the top reasons why:

1. It’s Not as Rare as You Thought: The Internet has definitely changed the value of collectibles because it has opened the market to the entire world. People used to search for baseball cards by attending trade shows, subscribing to catalogs and traveling to other cities to shop. An elusive card could bring top dollar. Now, that same card might be found in a dozen listings online, from locations all over the planet. With that much competition, prices have to drop.

2. It’s Priced Itself Out of the Market: In the early 1990s, flow blue porcelain was a hot commodity. Many people showcased the beautiful antique china in dining rooms and display cabinets. Dealers knew it would easily sell, so they bought all they could find. And quite often, they bought from each other. Every time a piece resold, it had to go up a little bit in price so that the new seller could make a profit. After a while, buyers reached a point where they just wouldn’t pay any more. Like any pyramid deal, the market for flow blue eventually collapsed under its own weight and many dealers are stuck with pieces that are now worth much less than they paid. Other once-popular items, like lawyer’s stacking bookcases, Vaseline glass, chintz china, tin lithographed toys and firkins have experienced a similar decline. You’ll often find them with top prices because sellers are trying to recoup their investment. But check back in a year and that high-priced item will still be for sale.

This 13-inch Royal Daulton Flow Blue platter sold for $51.23 in November of 2011. Twenty years ago, it would have brought two to three times that amount.

3. It’s Reproduced so Much, Everyone is Afraid to Buy: Reproductions are everywhere. And even if you are an expert and can tell the difference between a real piece and a fake, those fakes have hurt the market because people are afraid to invest in something that just might not be authentic. Paper products, like posters, advertising and tickets have seen a giant drop in value since laser printers became commonplace. Majolica, mechanical banks, autographed celebrity photos, bronze sculptures, holiday collectibles and Tiffany lamps can all suffer from the fear of reproductions and counterfeits.

4. It’s out of Style: Fifteen to 20 years ago, decorative arts from the ornate Victorian era were extremely popular. Yard long prints, velvet-covered fainting couches, 150-year-old samplers, generic tintypes and common beaded purses sold for much more than what they can bring today. Now, many young buyers are more interested in décor with the minimalist appeal of Mid-Century Modern or the Industrial look. We all know that home decorator magazines and blogs can greatly influence a temporary style or trend. Old purple bottles, rusty clocks, lunch boxes, architectural pieces, vintage cameras, distressed linen and the like can experience brief surges in popularity (and price) just based on a great photo spread and a smart designer’s idea. And fads like Beanie Babies? They only create false markets that never remain stable.

5. It Depends on Where You Live: Examples of value might not hold true in every part of the United States because tastes vary across the continent. Country and primitive decor is very popular in some areas and not in others. The same holds true for items as varied as mining artifacts, Venetian glass and folk art. Depending on location, vacation homes could be decorated with a rustic cabin look, local university memorabilia, a tropical theme or French cottage chic. Thus, regional collectibles can have vastly differing values. The prices of pottery, blonde oak furniture, British antiques, Indian blankets, Matchbox cars, figurines and almost everything else can be affected by geography or even city size. That is exactly why many antique dealers travel across country to stock their merchandise.

Tintypes of certain subjects can still bring very high values, but generic topics have dropped in popularity. This cased tintype sold for just $10.99 in July of 2011.

6. Ouch! Maybe You Just Paid Too Much: Buying for your own collection is not the same as buying for resale. We’ve all been happy to find a piece for which we had been searching forever and were more than eager to pay the asking price. A willing seller found a willing buyer. But making a quick sale 10 years later might be different. Published price guides were often used as bibles in decades past. Sometimes, the proper research went in to the values printed in those guides (and the good ones described that process). But often there was no explanation as to how the numbers were determined. Were they asking prices or actual sales realized? Were they all from one region? How many comparable samples were used to derive each value? Were they artificially inflated because the author was getting ready to sell his/her extensive collection? Out-of-date price guides are especially dangerous because people often incorrectly assume that values have increased due to inflation.

In 1989, before Internet sales became prolific, the author of this article happily paid $500 for a “rare” first edition of L. Frank Baum’s “The Emerald City of Oz.” This one sold online for $167.30 in May of 2011.

7. The Economy Makes a Difference: Collectibles are luxury items and aren’t essential to daily life like food and shelter. They unfortunately drop in necessity (and thus value) when the economy falters.

Is there any good news for avid collectors? Most happily, yes! First and foremost, buy what you love and don’t worry about eventually reselling because that’s not the point. But for those of you who think you might want to resell some day, here are some positive parting thoughts:

• A true one-of-a-kind collectible will actually sell for higher prices online today because it can be advertised to a broader audience.
• Good publicity can raise the value of memorabilia. Commemorative anniversaries (like Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee) usually result in at least a temporary peak in interest. Documents signed by John Adams saw a large increase in desirability after the HBO mini-series about him appeared in 2008.
• A distressed market is the time to buy.
• The popularity of certain items runs in cycles and can easily come around again.
• Condition and workmanship still matter and that will never change.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.


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10 Responses to “When Collections Lose Value: Why Some Collectibles Don’t Hold Their Prices”

  1. SFitas says:

    Great article thanks!

    • Pat W. says:

      Excellent article and when you think about it, it really makes sense. My question is about Japanese Imari. I have avidly collected for years. Is it still good or has it decreased in value?

      • Liz Holderman Liz Holderman says:

        Pat – The genuine Imari from the 17th and 18th centuries can still sell for very high prices. It is sought-after by designers and collectors. But I think the newer Imari (the name now represents a style rather than a region) has experienced a decline. The pieces from the early 19th century still seem to sell very well, depending on the rarity and quality, but the many reproductions from China have hurt the modern market.

  2. kathyt says:

    Great article, came at the right time. I have lots of collectables that I’m working on selling and I’m finding that some are not worth as much I had thought. I’ve adjusted my prices to reflect this. Thanks

  3. John says:

    This article makes a great point regarding the depressed value of traditional antiques and collectibles, though things go in cycles. What was up, is now down, what was down is now up. As a shop owner I am starting to see an increase in sales and the prices I am getting for most items, maybe the economy, maybe an uptick in the market for antiques. Who knows, all I can say is just buy smart!

  4. Pat W. says:

    Hi John, What is selling in your shop? And…in what region of the country are you located? Thanks.

  5. Jeanette Mayhugh says:

    Great Article. Like your Website… new to me but will check in often. I agree with John. We have a large mall in North Texas and have also seen a surge in business and sales. I feel in part because of TV shows like The Pickers, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, etc. Also, due to the economy, people are dragging things out of their attics and closets to turn into cash. Lots of new stuff. We often have to be the ones to tell them some of their items aren’t as valuable as they may have been 10-15 years ago.

  6. John says:

    Great thoughts, but on the “online” comment I disagree, to much fraud has been comitted and still is happening, everyone has a different limit, but I tend to think around 1000.- to be lost is for most of us too much to have a nice evening after.
    So maybe ebay and other auction platforms will disappear again!? I can certainly not see it happen but I for one would not miss it a bit!
    Thanks you

  7. Carolyn Coddington says:

    I’ve been yard saleing and thrift store buying for around 3 yrs. now and then reselling on ebay for a very handsome profit.That is until about a year ago when our economy really started effecting collectors.I was selling but selling so little that it was all going out to list my items.I still go picking but I’ve stopped selling until our economy gets better.It is a very good time to find interesting things because people are trying to make a buck to survive.Its a great time to get a deal and I will never get tired of looking:)

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