The Artful Collector: Collecting Strategies Part 5 “Living Dangerously”

There is one strategy for collecting that I haven’t yet mentioned. It is not only potentially the most expensive, it is also the most dangerous.

Buy What Everyone Else is Buying

Pick any one of these (in no special chronological order): 007, the Adams Family, zombies, Nightmare Before Christmas, Beanie Babies, fairies, angels, gargoyles, vampires, more zombies . . . there are always fads, trends,and popularity as elements to be considered when collecting. And you’re thinking “I’m gonna miss out!” I better buy every Barbie I can, sign up for the series even if I don’t like them, subscribe to the magazine and keep every issue, pristine. Everyone is buying Lone Ranger lunchboxes, tin toys, Dan Dare comics, model airplane kits, old telephones, you name it. And bragging: oh, yes. That’s the clincher.

“I bought this for a pittance, and now it’s worth a bloody fortune!” Better jump in!! Better get ’em when they’re “hot.” Don’t let the market pass you by! Buy them now! Star Wars action figures, Talking Elmo, Terminator Robots, anything Disney.

Furbies. Remember the talking Furby? No? Why not? Or, pogs. Remember POGS? Why not? Because that was the 1990s, and this year it’s Dr. Who, or Xena, or Beauty and the Beast, or Harry Potter, and next year – guess what? – it’s not. I’ve known people who have set aside $500 a year for YEARS to buy that year’s favorite toys. Waiting in the rain outside Toys R Us, just to get those Talking Elmos, Garbage Patch dolls, whatever. Not to play with the toy, oh, you NEVER OPEN the toy. It must remain sealed, MIB (mint in box). I know, I’ve bought and sold a few myself 🙂

For those who can’t afford originals, or true rarities, not to worry: market research has you covered. Understanding that “collecting” is a phenomenon that has lasted a couple of thousand years, and that collectors have a strong itch to collect something unique, ie., “exclusive” or “limited” in some way, and that people (thanks to consumerism) are attracted to products which feature characters made iconic by popular culture, and – finally – figuring rightly that an expanding population means there won’t be enough true rarities to go around . . . marketers have found the answer: the democratization of collecting. Take it out of the hands of the nouveaux riches, and put it into the hands of people who spend their weekends in shopping malls.

I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time here on what the industry calls “manufactured collectibles” since I’d like to spend a blog or two on this, sometime. Suffice it to say for now that where an itch is perceived, it will be scratched.

First we have Christmas, and Christmas trees. Because of Christmas, we get Christmas cards, and – thanks to a dearth of mantels over the fireplace in American homes combined with burgeoning numbers of cards – we have no place to “show them off.” Enter the Christmas card TREE. Perfect. Looks like a Christmas tree, and shows off the cards, like ornaments – an attractive reminder of how popular we are. Christmas is a good holiday for showing off our materialism, so is Halloween. Because of the popularity of Halloween, marketers figure…why not Halloween ORNAMENTS that could be placed on Halloween TREES? Are you still following me, here?

Good. Then you’ll have no problem at all in figuring out how, and why, everyone decided they needed a SNOOPY ornament for their Halloween Tree

Peanuts - "Snoopy as Dracula" Polonaise glass ornament for Halloween
Peanuts “Snoopy as Dracula” Polonaise glass ornament for Halloween by Kurt S. Adler, 1999

 

or a SNOOPY Easter ornament tree to hold their Easter ornaments. Ah, consumerism, 1999-2001. Ah, made-for-the-market collectibles!

Peanuts - "Snoopy and Woodstock Easter Ornament Tree" 1999
Peanuts – “Snoopy and Woodstock Easter Ornament Tree” 1999

So. Have you bought THIS year’s Christmas/Halloween/Easter card tree yet? Why not? What on earth are you waiting for? It’s SNOOPY. And you know how “collectible” anything “Snoopy” is. Plus it’s a HOLIDAY. And you know how many collections are driven by holidays! Plus (pick one or more): it’s cheap, it’s colorful, it’s easy to store, it’s a limited edition, it’s only available for a limited time, it’s popular, it’s branded, and 15 years later it’s…..worthless. Yeah. You can buy that Dracula Snoopy any time you want, today, for $25-50.

So why did you have to buy them back in 1999? Because everyone was buying these kinds of manufactured rarities. Artificial rarity….you heard right.

But wait (as they say when selling those knives on TV) . . . just about the time you’ve finally broken down and bought that Star Trek plate, for four times what you could have paid The Franklin Mint for it a year earlier, the next week everyone else is selling theirs on eBay for 50% less. What’s up with that? But by then the next hot hot hot collectible has come along, and you feel compelled to jump on that wagon, too. Does this mean that no one is going to be buying Halloween ornaments in the future? Or TREES to hold their holiday cards? No. What it means is that….GUARANTEED…. in 2014, if there is still an eBay around, there will be someone offering a MIB (mint in box) Snoopy Dracula ornament, from 1999. And IF there are still collectors out there, and IF there were fewer of them produced than the number of collectors for them now, then MAYBE, just MAYBE, you can get back what you paid for it.

Because unless you are part of that exclusive club that makes the rules for games like these, or you are very very lucky, you are never going to profit from following the crowd.

If you are tempted to speculate in this way, because you are witness to what seems like a product created on the basis of fad/trend/popularity…. watch out!! This is a dangerous game, even a sucker’s game (if you really believe a limitation of 2500 (plus 10% more A/Ps) makes a lithographic print into a “special limited edition” apt to be worth more someday, instead of just enjoying as a decoration). It’s also extremely risky territory for amateurs . . . who want to get in on “the action”. It’s not as much fun as you think to have stacks of unopened Disney and Hallmark and xxx boxes of collectibles under your bed for 20 years. Or spend the proverbial rent money believing the market values touted for “retired” or “out of print” or “discontinued” or “rare” objects are real. The Beanie Baby craze is only one example of how markets can run amuck. You don’t have to buy counterfeits, or believe bogus sales reports, or buy a dozen (as an investment) to come out a loser. All you have to do is FOLLOW THE HERD. Believe the hype, and be greedy.

"Guardian of the Skies" one in the Michael Whelan Dragon series from Franklin Mint, c. 1996
“Guardian of the Skies” one in the Michael Whelan Dragon series from Franklin Mint, c. 1996

The collectibles market crashed some time ago. Yet people are still hoarding toys, collectible cards from games, and all sorts of Franklin Mint Lord of the Ring pocket pocket knives and watches and limited edition sculpts of dragons on pedestals from designs by Michael Whelan. BUT….Google, and you’ll find ample demonstration of ways to lose money by collecting what everyone else is collecting. If you like living dangerously….go right ahead. There will always be a “hot collectible” around. [and note: if you missed out on subscribing to that Whelan series of Dragons, each selling for $200+ back in 1997 or so – don’t fret. You can buy them all on eBay, starting at $26.-$100]

But in my opinion, if you are determined to be a gambler, the better way is to BET on your ‘good taste’ and love what you are buying – whether it ever appreciates or not. In which case, you just might get lucky. (see my previous blog on collecting “The Easy Way” (loving what you collect).

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