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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