By Bob Schwabach
Originally printed in the Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1981
The floor has dropped out from under the Oriental rug market. Stamps look like they might be getting back
Things are not looking good in that vast area of hard goods called the “collectibles market.” This covers anything from the nut finger- barbed wire or telephone insulation – to those who think they’re more prudent and sophisticated and so bought diamonds and Oriental carpets.
The buyers money no longer is flowing into objects as if someone had sounded the red alert on the bridge. In old photographs, for the last few years, the hottest, fastest-rising market in all areas of collecting, the prints of such masters as Steichen and Steiglitz are down more than a third from the year before. Many pictures are not selling at all because no one is willing to meet the minimum bid.
In old watches, something like half the pieces put up for sale nowadays receive no bids, and Victorian silver is being looked at again for scrap value.
Good quality diamonds increased in value nearly 1,000 percent in the last 10 years. Too bad you didn’t buy then, because this year they have dropped a full third.
Zeppelin stamps, a collector’s standby, shot up to $7,500 for a set of three just two years ago. Those who have held them and waited for inflation to double their money now can get $4,000-$5,000 for a set, if they’re perfect.
Yet the little people with Avon bottles, John Lennon records, Billy Beer cans, and such will tell you that prices are going through the roof. There seems to be no evidence of this.
After Lennon’s death a few months ago ads began appearing in the New York papers offering the famous nude album– with Lennon and Yoko Ono nude together front and back – for $1,500 to $2,000 apiece. Stories appeared that collectors were buying the lot, yet when a reporter checked, a record dealer offered $10 if you were selling and a woman in New Jersey who had advertised her album for $1,500 admitted that no one had called.
The demise of Billy Beer, the short-lived effort of “first Brother” Billy Carter to cash in on his pot belly, made the label a rare item in this arcane area. Beer can collectors started paying $20 a can for Billy Beer, and the talk was that it would go to the moon. Larry Gagnon, a Los Angeles dealer in advertising memorabilia, offered a virgin six-pack for $7,500. He has had no inquiries.
None of this is particularly surprising really, and the decline in prices for collectibles is likely to continue. The problem is money. Not that there isn’t any of it around– there’s plenty– but that interest rates of 16-18 per cent in money market funds make it foolish to bet on a possible 20 percent rise in the value of some collectible, whether it’s a beer can or a diamond.
The increase in the prices of collectibles has been for the last five years part of a general pattern of a flight out of money and into things. It is the same flight that fueled the real estate market. In an era where inflation was running at 15 percent a year and threatening to get worse, it made sense to take your money and put it into things that had real , intrinsic value.
The question of what, however, brings a lot of different answers. Amy Finkel, a Philadelphia dealer in antiques and country quilts, says that deep down she always felt that stuff was junk, and by “stuff” she means the beer cans, Barbie Dolls, Avon bottles, and other trash that people have been acquiring.
“People love to collect things. I know they do, and they’re always going to collect things. My own feeling is that you save up some money and buy something decent – a nice piece of antique furniture – and it will hold value. You may not get what you paid for it if you have to sell, but if it’s a good piece you’ll get a good price.”
There are some general rules in the antiques and collectibles business, and some of these rules apply to any business. But the primary rule is: Don’t buy it unless you like it enough to be willing to keep it, because you might have to.
Norman Braun, a vice president of the Franklin Mint, probably the largest firm in the country in the business of manufacturing instant collectibles, says flatly:”No collectible should be purchased for investment. If you see something, and you like it, you should be buying for that reason.”
The second rule is: Over a period of time, only the finest and rarest pieces in any area of collecting can be counted on with any degree of certainty to increase or at least hold their value.
You also should buy in areas that have large established markets, and these markets have withstood the test of time. Chinese ceramics, for example; antiquities (Greek, Roman and Egyptian pieces), 18th Century American furniture, and European paintings by well-known artists.
But, you complain, these things are expensive. That’s right, and the reason they’re expensive is precisely because they have been proven to hold their value.
Even here, there are sizable risks. Picasso is selling for millions, yet no one really knows whether his art works still will be sought 50 years from now. The history of art is replete with painters whose work sold for many thousands when the fad was theirs, and for a few hundred a generation later.
In the 15th Century, authentic Greek vases from the classical period sold for as much as $50,000 each (the equivalent in our money). Five hundred years later – a moderately long wait – the same vases can be had for $500.
In other words, you’d better really like it, because you’re likely to have to eat it.