Worthologist Steve Ellis: Netting rare lures

A Japanese buyer walked into Steve Ellis’s shop, the Fishermen’s Spot, in Van Nuys, California, looking for fishing collectibles – particularly lures. The buyer came with bait – a half-inch stack of traveler’s checks, the one on top for $1,000.

“It was the mid-1990s, and there was a huge influx of money into the market,” said Ellis, who is Worthpoint’s expert on collectible and antique fishing lures. In fact, on another trip, the very same Japanese customer tried to enter the country with more than $10,000 in undeclared cash. U.S. Customs’ officials seized it. “I had to help him get a Japanese-speaking attorney so he could get his money back,” Ellis said.

When Ellis started collecting lures in the early 1980s, the market was simple. Ellis was running his family’s bait-and-tackle shop and swapping for the old lures. “The old handmade lures had character and class. I’d hang them up in the store as decoration,” he said. Occasionally a collector would come in, spy one or two of the old lures hanging, and offer Ellis three or four lures for his one. “I really didn’t understand what I had, how valuable they were,” he said.

Ellis started to learn, at first through a local club where fishermen gathered to compare and swap lures and then, as the market began to emerge in the 1980s, at regional and national shows. Gathering that knowledge and being ready to pass it on is why Ellis has become one of Worthpoint’s newest Worthologists.

The heart of the market is wood lures from the late 19th century through the 1930s. Some trace a key moment for the market to the day in 1898 that Michigan beekeeper and newspaper publisher, James Heddon, was whittling to pass the time while waiting for a fishing buddy. Heddon tossed his whittled piece into a millpond, and a bass struck at it. And so the James Heddon and Co. was born.

The world of lures – populated by bite-ems, runts, wobblers, tangos, dingbats, orenos, crazy crawlers and Punkinseeds – changed dramatically as money poured into the market from the 1980s on, Ellis said. “At first, prices weren’t outrageous. We didn’t have the speculators. Then it became an investment, and when you have investors instead of collectors, it is a different story.”

In 1901, Heddon made a high forehead underwater minnow lure; in 1998, it sold for $9,800. Recently, a rare, five-hook, high-forehead lure sold for $30,000, Ellis said.
“Heddon is probably the biggest name,” Ellis said, “but it isn’t the only one.” A giant and rare, handmade Riley Haskell musky minnow lure, from 1859, sold in 2004 for $101,200.

It isn’t only the rare antiques that saw big price jumps. Japanese collectors, for example, were most interested in lures from the 1950s and ’60s. Prices for Heddon lures doubled and tripled in the ’90s with even bigger increases for rare colors, especially in plastic baits.

The craftsmen at Chubb Creek turned out lures in singular styles that are popular in the marketplace. An angler ordering Chubb Creek lures could custom order any color. “You got some weird stuff, odd colors and with that, high prices are paid,” Ellis said.

The wave of money and the emergence of Internet trading were bound to take their toll. “Once there was so much money, we began to see counterfeits,” Ellis said, “lures that had been touched up or repainted.” A simple way to tell if a lure is a counterfeit or a repaint is to put it in a closed plastic bag for a while. “When you open it, if you smell paint, it’s bogus,” Ellis said.

The counterfeiting, the dot.com bubble bursting and the economic downturn in Japan and the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks all led to a drop in the market. “The truly high end held its value and the low end, well, that market was always cheap. It was the middle that felt it the most,” Ellis said. “Since then, I wouldn’t say that prices have recovered as so much as readjusted. Condition is the key.”


Click here for Steve Ellis’s The Fishermen’s Spot

Click here for how fishing lure are made

Click here for the American Museum of Fly Fishing

The Museum’s permanent collection contains more than 1,200 rods, 400 reels and 20,000 flies, including the oldest documented flies in the world.

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