Copyright 2004 T. Sheil & A. Sheil All Rights Reserved
One of the most common words in advertising these days is collectible. The hobby of collecting has enjoyed an explosive growth since the 1970s. More and more people are involved. Today, there are more organizations and books for collectors than ever before. Though collecting has always been there, it is more visible today. People gather all sorts of things. Some people collect because they enjoy the items, and others collect in hopes of profiting from them.
Collecting stems from our primal past and our urge to accumulate. In prehistoric times, those who had the most were the ones who thrived. More water, more food, more pelts, more arrow-heads meant more success in survival. Likewise, primitive people collected trophies and items to mark occasions in their lives. Hunters and warriors took trophies after a spectacular hunt or battle. People gathered unusual items, such as raw gemstones or feathers from unusual birds. History records emperors and churchmen and philosophers who had collections of various things. Many a Roman centurion had a small collection of items from the faraway lands where he was posted. Military awards were first invented to stem the penchant of soldiers to collect more gruesome trophies.
In the last couple of centuries, collecting has seen some refinement. Art, stamp and coin collecting are long established. In these times, people collect any variety of things, and there are even organizations behind such specialties as telephone pole insulators, Mason jars and barbed wire. Yes, there are collectors of barbed wire! You would be surprised to learn of the unusual items which groups collect.
Recent years have seen a new kind of collecting. There was a time when most people collected for the sheer fun of it. Today, there are many who collect as an investment. The word Acollectible@ is so common because we live in an era when an item can become collectible before it hits the store shelves. However, many people buying these self-proclaimed Acollectibles@ have found that their treasure is not all that valuable. Imagine a Acollectible@ that nobody wants to collect. The novice collector is walking through a veritable minefield of cheap gimmicks, knock-offs and outright fraud.
Because so many new collectors have ventured into the field, I have put together the basic information that will give them a better chance to enjoy the hobby. Each type of collectible has its own standards and rules, but all collectibles work within a general set of guidelines. Knowing the guidelines is the first step to more successful collecting.
Recognition: in order for a collectible to have Acollectible value,@ there must be enough people who recognize it as such. You might treasure an item, but if there are few others who do, its value is minimal. Recognition means that there is a group who consider an item to have merit as a collectible.
Some collectibles get more recognition than others. For example, there are brand names which are widely recognized as having value. Items by Lenox, Lionel, Ives and Hummel are among them. There are others who get it through what they are. Collectors of telephone wire insulators, barbed wire and cigar tins recognize the item itself, brand name or not. How things get recognized could be an endless list. The plain fact is that when enough people recognize them as being collectible, their value increases.
Demand: the one force which drives prices most is demand It can also be the most capricious. Demand is a matter of how many people want a thing, plus how badly they want it. This can change on a whim. For instance, a toy train company made a flat car with a specific pair of diecast automobiles on it. Somehow, the item was pegged by train buffs as collectible, and prices soared. What had listed at $32 was seen on auctions for over $300. Even more surprising: the item=s Acollectibility@ rose dramatically weeks after production ended. While all of that company=s auto-carrying flat cars were a hot item that year, this particular one went through the roof. Just as suddenly, the value diminished. A Aglut@ of other trains on the market led to dumping, and the highly-valued car returned to its original value. Demand was the only thing driving up prices, since the item was neither rare nor having any special quality.
Demand causes those brief booms in value, and can fool people as to an item=s long-term worth. Whether in the short term or over the long years, demand is a large factor in setting a collectible=s value. As demand changes, so does the value.
Rarity: When an item is recognized and is uncommon or rare, its value tends to increase. This goes hand-in-hand with demand. The greater the demand and the rarer the item, the higher the value. For example, if 4,000 pieces of a collectible item were available and there were 4,000 collectors, it would not see a big leap in value. However, if there were 5,000 collectors, value would climb because demand exceeded availability. People would pay a premium simply because there are not enough to go around. If the numbers of available items were, say, 400 rather than 4,000, the price would jump even more. Were only 40 examples to exist, the desirable item would be outright exhorbitant. Imagine if there were only four of them per 5,000 collectors?
That is a simplified example. Nonetheless, rarity is a factor which can greatly affect value.
You might think a rare item=s numbers are unlikely to increase. Be aware that rarity is not always assured. For example, collectors of science fiction figures made in the 1970s thought they had something valuable. When the company reissued them for the movie=s re-release in the 1990s, the original production lost a lot of its Ararity@ value. There are cases where a reissue, restrike or even manufacture of reproduction can offset rarity. Loss in value will vary, naturally. It may be minuscule, it may be massive.
Some items will never lose rarity. If the manufacturer is gone and the tooling no longer exists, you have a greater guarantee of rarity. Likewise, some respected makers of collectibles will guarantee rarity by destroying the tooling once production of an item ends. For instance, Lenox always destroys the mold when it ceases production of an item. Even if another company tried to make a reproduction, it would not diminish the value of the originals.
Condition: naturally, an item in perfect condition has more value than one which has been damaged or worn. The closer the item=s condition to the day it left the factory, the more value it has. The worse the condition, the lower the value. In some cases, condition is like rarity. If few pieces withstood the test of time in good order, the value of the few fine examples increases geometrically. For example, trains by Dorfan had a flaw in their diecast alloy that led to Azinc decay@. After a few years, the alloyed castings started coming apart. Few trains escaped. The few that came through undamaged are extremely rare and therefore extremely valuable.
Condition involves many factors, such as how intact the item might be. A small nick or dent can mean a lot. Cracks, missing pieces, paint chips, etc. all add up the alter the condition, and therefore the value. Restoration can also change things. Generally, a piece in original condition, even if less than pristine, is worth more than a piece restored to perfect shape. For instance, hard core train collectors are unlikely to do a full restoration unless the condition is so bad that it has little value. Repair is allowed, but restoration is considered a hindrance to original value.
Stamp, coin and train collectors have established systems for determining the condition. Train collectors tend to use the system accepted by the TCS, rating items Mint, New, Like New, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor. Antique dealers tend to use the AC scale:, rating items from C1 to C10 based on quality. (Ten is the best, One the worst). Evaluation criteria differ from collectible to collectible. Here is where experience is a must. The rules that determine condition for baseball cards are unlike those used to evaluate trains, for instance. While organizations have printed guidelines, the art of evaluation is an acquired skill. I would say that while it can be fairly accurate, it is still as much opinion as fact.
Quality: innate quality can determine value. A solid gold brooch will have greater value by virtue of being gold, and no outside factors would be able to diminish it beyond a certain point. Quality is a blend of materials and craftsmanship. The better made an item is, and the better its materials, the more likely it will have greater value.
Authenticity: here is a big issue in recent years. What with the preponderance of reissues, restrikes, recasts, reproductions, restorations and outright counterfeits, the ability to authenticate an item can affect its value. Take the science fiction figures mentioned earlier. The production of the figures themselves in both runs was similar, so it is hard to prove an unpackaged item to be from the first rather than second production. In that case, being in an unopened package would assert authenticity. This is a small example. Depending on what you have, authenticity can be a bigger issue which is either easier or harder to prove.
Along with originals are any number of newer copies Though imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it also confuses the issue of authenticity. Several kinds of copies challenge the authenticity of the real thing.
Reissues: there are cases where a company will reissue a product, sometimes years after the original production run. The reissues are made on the same tooling as the original run. They are likely to be indistinguishable from the original production. Of course, later production may entail different materials or a slightly altered process, thus making the later issue distinct from the original run. Some companies who appreciate collectors will slightly alter the reissues, so as to protect the value of the originals. They may use different packaging, a slightly different color paint, or any number of things that were not done the first time. Not all companies seek to protect collectible value.
Recasts and restrikes: these are basically the same thing. The yare a new production using the original tooling. Usually, these are done by a company other than the original manufacturer. For instance, many companies who had made plastic toy soldiers are long gone. When they folded, other companies bought up their tooling and used it. These later-production pieces are recasts. Though essentially the same as the original, it is not the original maker. Spotting them can be difficult, since the same molds are tooling were used. Normally, the new maker will replace the original trademarks with its own. One need only look for the trademark to see if it changed. Of course, not all companies go to the trouble of doing that, especially of the original company is defunct. Things like color and type of materials can show up a recast. The new maker usually does things a little different. He might use a more modern plastic, or a different color.
Most vendors who sell recasts will label them as such, but there are those who sell recasts as originals. You need to learn your type of collectible in order to spot the differences. It differs for each type.
Reproductions and copies: a reproduction is a copy of the original, done on new tooling. Its intent is to be a copy of the original. Because reproductions use new tooling and newer manufacturing methods, an astute collector can spot them. These little differences tell the tale. It can be something as different as how pieces are connected, or the shape of a tab or clot. Color, materials, paint job, etc. are all indicators.
There are makers of reproductions who make no bones about what they are doing. They even mark their products so that everyone knows they are reproductions. Normally, the marks are placed on the underside, or in another place that is not obtrusive . By making items that are readily identifiable as a reproduction, they allow current collectors to have a version of the original, while protecting the original item=s value.
Granted, there are those who would sell reproductions and copies as originals. A shrewd collector is not fooled. He learns the original, right down to its flaws. A copy rarely makes a 100% score when it comes to replicating an original item. Differences in manufacture caused by new tolling or different methods stands out, as do matters of paint work, assembly, etc.
Counterfeits: these are outright fakes, made to be passed off as the real thing. The more the demand and the money to be made, the more you stand to encounter a fake. Items prone to counterfeiting are those which are cheapest to manufacture. For instance, it was hard to counterfeit toy soldiers I nthe 1930s because the bronze molds were expensive. Back then, one may as well make a whole new line of figures. Due to the cheaper silicon molds which almost anyone can make today, counterfeit lead soldiers are common. Like any fake, they have little flaws that will show them for what they are. However, the sheer number can be daunting.
You would not likely see a counterfeit of popular bean bag dolls at this time, since the profit would not justify the cost. However, there have been counterfeits in many other fields: coins, stamps, paper goods, tin soldiers, trains, militaria, railroadiana, etc.
The presence of recasts, reissues, restrikes, reproductions, copies and counterfeits affects the value of collectibles to varying degrees. Because they make the original less rare, they are capable of offsetting its value. Reissues and recasts have been know, in some cases, to halve the value or the original. It is all a matter of the dynamics of the particular fiedl of collecting. For instance, reissues of a popular train cut value of an item that had been very hard to find. People were not so much interested in the collectible value as the train itself. Once reissued, the train buffs stopped buying originals at premium prices.
How do you deal with the presence of new production and copies? The best defense is to know the original! No fake can stand up to the original, given enough scrutiny. Even if you do not care whether you have a recast or original, it helps to know the difference. This way, you will not get taken by an ignorant or unscrupulous dealer selling a reissue as an original, at the higher price. Spend time learning to identify the original. Learn who they were made, what nuances show up in their manufacture, what colors were used, etc. The better you know it, the less you can be fooled by a copy or fake.
A Few Authenticators:
Manufacturer=s Marks: these include not only trademarks and labels, but peculiar marks placed on an item during manufacture. It might be a serial number, part number, etc. Sometimes it is an odd mark placed by the equipment, such as a metal press with a peculiar flaw. Labels and trademarks can be faked, but it is harder to fake the other identifiers. Most counterfeiters do not want to go to the extra expense and time.
Size and Dimensions: honest makers of reproductions will sometimes alter one or more dimensions slightly, so they are easily revealed as non-originals. Makers of black powder pistols reproductions used to make the barrels slightly shorter or longer, for example. Things like this are not widely known to new collectors. However, placed side-by-side against an original and you can see a difference.
Colors: paint is a trip! Color matching is difficult at the best of times. Therefore, an easy give-away is a wrong color. Because of the way the eye works, color discrepancies are among the easiest to spot.
Paintwork: paint is a science all in itself, and color is part of it. Even if the counterfeiter manages a good color match, he as to match the peculiarities o the paint itself. Older paint formulas had different methods of application than today. They were generally thicker. The mass-painted technologies of old were awkward by todays standards. Therefore, colors are not as fine. A laser-crisp paint job was all but impossible. The lithographic and decorating methods of even 30 years ago tended toward certain flaws.
For instance, lettering would not be laser-crisp. The edge of lettering, examined closely, might reveal a jagged edge or a less than perfect line. Lettering would often be thick, and often could even be felt as if it were embossed.
Decals were prone to yellow, harden or become brittle. Some types faded. Modern decals to not have those problems.
The amusing thing is that a reproduction or counterfeit is often revealed because the paint work is too perfect!
Older paints had ways of aging. Some crackled or faded. The characteristics of old paint formulas over time are one means of authenticating.
Be aware that the different paint processes have ways of showing up. A modern airbrushing has a very different result that the older tricks of submersing an item or early spray painting technique. Lettering and other details are also useful for exposing that which is not original.
Manufacture: mass-production has a different result from individually-worked items. Most counterfeits are either individually worked or are done in short production. Most use later technology than the originals. Here is where fakes can be exposed.
Many times, a machine develops a characteristic flaw peculiar only to it. If a manufacturer had used that machine time and again, its products would show the flaw. Later copyists tend to miss these flaws, and so do not reproduce them. It is a case of the original being too good. Copyists have a tendency to reproduce everything but the flaws!
Older methods are hard to reproduce today. Modern machines do a cleaner job, and use less ponderous methods of assembly. A counterfeiter has to take his finished item and stress it to fake the older methods. This is often where a fake is exposed.
These are but two examples of how original manufacture is distinct from modern methods. By knowing how items were made, you can develop a knack for spotting things made more recently. It bears repeating: copyists rarely reproduce the flaws. When they do, they rarely do a good job of it.
Materials: the materials used today differ from those which were popular years ago. Our paints, metals, alloys and plastics have undergone refinement. Even getting materials made the old way is hard, since mass-producers have stopped making them in favor of the newer and better ones. A good example is Bakelite, the first popular plastic. Bakelite was everywhere back in the 1940s and 1950s. Now, superior plastics are available. Trying to find Bakelite is not easy. It is expensive and uncommon.
Many a fake and reproduction has been exposed because of modern materials. A piece of styrene stands out in a piece reputed to be from the 1920s. For electrical items, wires are a clue. Modern wire had better insulating materials. In fact, some older wire types that were common a generation ago are gone. You cannot buy them. They have not made them for decades!
Less blatant but just as telling are alloys. Modern aluminum is not the same as alloys used before and during World War II. Diecast and other soft alloys have changed, as well. Chemists and metallurgists went far in refining alloys, and the older ones are no longer made because of their flaws.
Counterfeiters are seeking fast money, so they are unlikely to use expensive materials. They use brass alloys in place of gold, and synthetics instead of silk. A cheaper material is a good sign that the item is a fake. Of course, there are many variables. Once again, knowing the original is important. Know the materials that were used. These are good clues for exposing a fake.
Wear and Tear: counterfeiters know that a pristine example of an old item is likely to stir up suspicion. To allay suspicion, they are know to fake wearing, scratches and aging. The processes for doing it can be quite sophisticated. An old example: Iranian rug merchants used to place finished carpets on the road, allowing cars and trucks to ride over them. This was supposed to give the impression that they were old, and thus more valuable. Manufacturers of Colonial-era type furniture will often Astress@ the items, adding small nicks prior to finishing. They want to give them an aged look. People wanting to give their home an older touch will buy them knowing that they have been Astressed.@ In this case, it is not done to defraud.
There are those who use the same type tricks to defraud. Unscrupulous makers will subject reproductions to various kinds of stressing and aging, hoping to pass them off as genuine antiques. Makers of smaller items can do the same thing. They will add nicks and scratches and even rust to make a piece appear antique, when it is actually of recent manufacture.
Things have a way of aging and getting scraped. Real aging is a process. Each different material used in an item has its own Atimetable@ for aging. By knowing how real things ago, you can expose artificial means to simulate the process. Once again, knowledge is your best defense.
If you are hoarding items with a view to selling them to other collectors, then you want ro preserve value. A hardcore collector wants an item in the original packaging, unused, with all included paperwork, clips, padding, etc. He prefers that the packaging be in perfect shape. In fact, for very hardcore collectors, the condition of the packaging matters as much as the item itself.
Even if you display or use the item, its value to a collector increases if you have the original packaging. The better the condition of packaging and all related materials, the more the item is worth. While it would not pay to save the boxes if you never intend to sell an item, it would pay to store them safely should you decide that you want to part with it.
How important is packaging? It all depends on the collector and type of collectible. For example, there is a brisk market in selling original Lionel boxes. For trains and a few others, the boxes and paperwork make the difference.
Keeping an item in pristine shape keeps its value. However, avoid some types of preservation,. Laminating paper goods will diminish value. Preservatives and other methods tend to erode value. The closer to original shape, the more desirable it is. A slightly aged original is worth more than a perfectly restored one.
There are many items sold to help the collector keep his goods in shape. Some are inadvisible. Though they purport to preserve the condition, they can just as easily alter it. Before using anything, make sure it is a method approved by collectors of that particular item.
The best way to preserve value is to keep the item safe and protected from damage. Learn what will damage it, and how to prevent it. Things like sunlight, cold, heat, dryness, humidity, rough handling, etc. can damage a piece. Through proper protection and preservation, your collectible can keep its value for years to come.
Casual: casual collectors do not have a fixed agenda for the hobby. They add things they like as they see them. While a casual collector may focus on one brand or genre of collectible, they tend to add in no special order. Casual collectors are satisfied wit ha few things they like. Many have several small collections. Things like original packaging and mint condition usually don=t count as much as having an item they find acceptable. The casual collector is not making an investment, but gathering for his or her own enjoyment.
Serious: serious collector are a varied lot. Generally, they spend extra time getting to know the products they collect, going prices and specialized knowledge about the collectible. Some try to keep packaging, paperwork, etc. to add value,. But just as many are unconcerned. A serious collector gathers the things he likes, but with a greater degree of care and deliberation. He usually has a plan and direction for his collecting.
Many serious collectors are Across hobbyists.@ They collect as part of another hobby. Slot car fans, toy train operators and plastic toy soldier collectors are likely to use an item as well as display it. While condition matters, the main goal is enjoyment.
Serious collectors are not seeking to profit, but to expand their collection. Many specialize within a class of collectible. They will accept good which are less than perfect if they feel they can restore them, but prefer better condition when possible.
Investor: whether investing or not, this type of hard-line collector gathers his goods with an eye toward maintaining and increasing value. Things like condition, packaging and the inclusion of paperwork matter to them. They tend to be almost as concerned with the package as with the product. Investors vary among themselves. Some display their items, and others keep them, packaged in a safe place.
Pre-collectors: these are folks who buy several of every item when it is new, then hoard it in anticipation of its increasing value. Pre-collectors are banking on the future value of their collectibles. They are as concerned as investors with perfect packaging, pristine condition, etc. Their hope is that their hoard will become more collectible in time.
Junker-hunters: usually found around hobbies like trains and slot cars, junker-hunters are the arch-tinkerers of the collecting world. They look for vintage pieces at the lowest price, seeking not only a bargain but the fun of restoration work. Junker-hunters get their biggest thrill out of making damaged things work again. Are they collectors? Oh, yes! They love to show off their handiwork. However, these are collectors who do it for the thrill of tinkering.
We have to look at acquisition in different lights. Those who buy new collectibles have a different set of circumstances from those who buy older items. Products like new Department 56, Bean-bag dolls, Lenox porcelain and Hummel figurines are sold much as any retail item. If you buy from an authorized dealer, there should be no problem. I have had good experiences buying new collectibles. Come to think of it, my wife and I had only one bad one, and it was a matter of a favor done rather than the actual buying.
New collectibles are ready to sell. Catalogues are available, and the items come to you in pristine packaging. Authorized dealers generally know the product lines and they can be quite helpful. Of course, authorized dealerships take a lot of the worry out of buying. No smart dealer would jeopardize his reputation or authorized status by cheap tricks.
The trickery comes when buying older collectibles. There are no authorized dealers. It is a crazy market with as much chicanery as a circus sideshow.
Dealers of old collectibles are a varied lot, as is everything else in the field. Pricing ranges from fair to over-the-top, and so do the items. There are vendors seeking to gouge out as much as they can, and others who give a fair price. They range from charlatans to honest dealers. How do you find the honest and fair ones, while avoiding the tricksters and price-gougers?
The only sure way of assuring that you get the genuine item is for you the collector to know the real thing, and know it intimately.
Once again, know the item and know the price guidelines! Learn how to estimate an item=s condition. Resolve not to pay more than you think it is worth, and have the self-control to walk away when the conditions of sale do not suit you.
The problem is not only dishonesty, but ignorance, as well. More and more people are offering collectibles for sale at shows and via online auctions. Many do not know much about the items they are selling. They do not know brands, condition, quality, etc. You need to determine the facts both by looking at the information given (if online), or the items themselves (if at a show). If ordering online, it may become obvious that the seller is not conversant with items he offers. In that case, you need to know what to ask him so as to verify that the item is acceptable. Ignorant dealers are not necessarily dishonest..
Be aware that professional dealers can also be ignorant of items that are outside their areas of expertise. For example, a toy train dealer who specializes in Lionel may be at a loss if he comes across a train by Marx. The same dealer would be totally outside his field, if he were handling toy soldiers. He would not know how to describe them in the ways used by experienced toy soldier collectors. Be aware that sellers occasionally are not used to items they are selling, and may misrepresent them out of ignorance.
Common mistakes include calling an item by the wrong brand name, misreporting its condition, or calling it something other than its accepted name. Ignorant vendors may price the item wrong, mishandle it and otherwise confuse the deal. A knowledgeable collector can sort through these errors by examing the item or description, and by asking the seller the right questions.
It is safer to assume that the seller might not know the item.
You are the difference between a good deal and a bad one. You gain proficiency by learning all you can about your collectibles, their prices and related information. This knowledge is your best defense against fraud, error, counterfeits and bad deals.
Buying older goods online or via catalog is tough enough, because you have to rely almost entirely on the vendor=s description. Photographs are no assurance, since they do not tell the whole tale. The buyer is pretty much at the mercy of the vendor, insofar as authenticity, condition, etc. That is not bad if you are buying from an honest, knowledgeable vendor. It can be a loss if the vendor is less than honest or less then knowledgeable.
On online auctions, a rule of thumb is to avoid sellers who have a rating less than 99%. Likewise, avoid items that are not accompanied by a clear photograph. Sales with blurry photos or no photos are better avoided. Always check the shipping prices and arrangements and do not hesitate to contact a seller if you have any questions.
Price Guide: these are usually small books, and they include a list of items and suggested collector prices. Other information might be a brief description of the itemand short inrorductory articles. The price guide is just that: a guide. The figures are estimates. Different publishers have their own ,methods for determining these prices. The common method involved visits to shows and sales, where prices of the items were compared and averaged. The result was an approximate amount. From what we hear, publishers are giving more attention to online auctions as an additional source of prices. Guides are an estimate: as ballpark figure. Oddly, insurance companies give them far more credence than serious collectors and experienced dealers.
Collector Guide: A more informative type of book ,the collector guide provides information on items, production, distinguishing features and anomalies. They also offer some of the history of the items. The collectors guides range from brief introductions to comprehensive studies with collector pricing information. They encompass everything from simple, slim single volume works to multi-volume encyclopedias.
Fan Book: Written about a brand, type or specific range of collectibles, fan books are intended to entertain. Their purpose is to regale readers with facts, anecdotal information and an easy-to-read history of the item, backed with copious illustrations. Most are penned by collectors hoping to share warm, fuzzy feelings about their collectible. Sentiment and nostalgia are poured into these books. While fan books occasionally yield good information, their actual purpose is to entertain.
Websites: Collectors have added to the proliferation of information on the Internet. Collector websites are a handy resource. Many include illustrations. Websites are a quick way to learn more about collectibles. However, be careful. Some websites are more reliable than others
Clubs: There are various clubs serving different collectibles. The better clubs have resources to help new collectors, Take time to find out which clubs serve your particular type of collecting. The Internet is the easiest place to look!
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