The Artful Collector: On a Sentimental Hunt

Toni Dolls, a favorite of little girls c. 1049-1953
Toni Dolls, a favorite of little girls c. 1049-1953

I’m weird. Something is definitely the matter with me.  My mother told me I had a Toni doll when I was young: I can’t remember a thing about it.  I once begged for a Gilbert chemistry set; I have no inclinations to own another now.  I saved Playbills from dozens of Broadway shows, for years (I started going to the theater, early), then when I moved out of NYC I threw them all out.  In short: What I collect today has absolutely no ties to anything I grew up with.  I told you, I’m weird. Because this is NOT normal.

  Nostalgia is a Key Factor in Collecting

“Familiarity” in many cases is strongly tied to memories, and strong positive memories often lead to nostalgia, or “sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal association.”  In some collecting areas, and ours is one of them, nostalgia is a very strong factor in motivating buyers to buy.  But it’s a feature of many others, as well – from metal lunchboxes to costume jewelry to toy action figures.  Memories of childhood, in particular one’s teenage years, affect our emotional response to many pop-cultural creations, including the covers to books, magazines and games.

1954 Superman metal lunchbox, #1 most rare, the 'holy grail' of lunchboxes
1954 Superman vs. the Robot, metal lunchbox, the #1 most rare, the ‘holy grail’ of lunchboxes c. $1300. in unused/mint condition, of which perhaps 6-8 are known

As one collector (I will call him Mr. B) wrote in a recent email “I have tended to collect things erratically based solely on what personal connection I may have to it – – in the end, that is really the only thing that is important to me. . . . Art to me has less to do with financial value and future worth (than) it’s direct impact on my feelings about/with it.”

Nostalgia is a powerful stimulator but it also is a generational phenomenon.  By that, I mean that because the desirability of a piece is strongly situated in time and place, for collectors who are driven by their personal responses to particular imagery, there are no substitutes.  Collectors become very specific, as in Mr. B’s assertion that “Paul Alexander is really the only artist I was looking for (John Berkey is another).  I have a fondness for specific books I grew up with, with his cover art (Paul Alexander’s) . . . ” In a following email when I offered him another title by the author he was seeking, but by an artist working in a slightly earlier time frame, Mr. B explained (my italics added for highlighting) “. . . cover is really wonderful – I think if it was one I grew up on, I’d be (interested).  But I think I’ll pass on (it) for now.”

That is how familiarity works: it’s not the author, it’s not the title, and it’s not the quality of the art.  It’s got to be that exact image recalled from the book that was actually in the collector’s hands, when it first was read.

When Sentimental Journeys Are Dangerous

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement when a collecting “bubble” just happens to touch a chord in your own psyche’.  Because the attraction is generational, you can easily be caught up in the frenzy, a giant wave of obsessive collecting.  You become blind to the “bubble” you’ve helped to create, you rationalize the prices you’re paying by pointing to the high level of collectors’ interest – because there is no other way, really, to deal with the cognitive dissonance that results from realizing you’ve paid too much.

One example of such a “bubble” is the vintage metal lunch box – an artifact of growing up in the 1950s, it became a major collectible in the late 1980s, and by the 1990s, some were selling for thousands of dollars. Because lunch boxes resonated with everyone who took one to school (and just about everyone did).  But today, few lunch boxes fetch more than $100, and most bring much less.  The only exceptions: those featuring a picture of something that is collected in its own right. A 1950s Superman lunch box or a 1960s Star Trek lunch box might bring thousands, for example—but that’s because Superman or Star Trek collectors want them, not because lunch box collectors will pay that much.

Hummels: "Apple Tree Girl and Boy"  Cute yesterday, Kitschy today
Hummels: “Apple Tree Girl and Boy” Cute yesterday, Kitschy today

Lesson?  Collecting is fun, but it is a perilous investment if you choose the wrong collectibles. Because, once that generational interest subsides, as it has for many, many collectibles, the prices rapidly decline.  A case in point would be “Hummels” – those ubiquitous figurines that GI’s brought home for their girlfriends after WWII because they were “cute”.  Inflation worked to drive the prices up, as did their popularity – then Goebel, the German maker of the Hummel brand, decided to cash in on its success by bringing out limited editions of the figures, as well as other products (plates, bells, etc).  Soon, prices rose as dealers talked people were “investing” in manufactured memorabilia.The same phenomenon could be seen in other arenas, from Beanie Babies to Thomas Kincaid prints.  The problem is that anyone who wants one, buys one as soon as they come out, and no secondary market develops – and without a secondary market, re-sale prices fall or are (for all practical purposes) non-existent.  The rise and fall of Franklin Mint collectibles are a prime example. This is why it’s so important for a collecting area to develop, and maintain, a strong re-sale market.

Taken to an extreme form, familiarity can also be blamed for art collections that turn out to be exceedingly narrow – whether the constraint is subject matter, author, or publisher (among only three possible variables out of the many that can restrict the contents of a collection).  Putting all your eggs, so to speak, in the same basket may be psychologically comforting . . . but it could be economical suicide if, for whatever reason, you have bet on the wrong horse.

When Nostalgia Loses Its Grip

Sooner or later, collecting based on nostalgia can stop being fun….especially when nothing available strikes you as being “better” or more interesting than what you already own!  It’s not fun to buy or trade, when there’s nothing left to buy or trade that is any improvement on what you have!  Let’s say you have made The Yellow Kid or The Hulk or mermaids (whatever; you name it) the focus of your collection and now you have excellent examples, that you love. So you are stuck: unless some other collector decides to let go of a piece you’ve always wanted, your collection is going nowhere.

Sooner or later, and especially quickly in those markets driven by sentimental nostalgia, the value of what you collect can rise to the point where you can no longer afford to add to your collection in a meaningful way, except by accident.  And then it stops being so much fun.

This is a sort of bittersweet outcome for people who are attracted to emerging fields of collecting – and have been collectors for a while –  and have had a “good eye”.  You can actually get to the point where the good news is that the art you own is worth many times what you paid for it: which of course is also the bad news! Because you can’t afford to acquire the best examples by these same artists – even if you could find them.  Sure you could sell for a profit but then what do you do?  You can’t find anything else that would satisfy you as well – because of your sentimental attachment to it – and yet you can’t afford to expand your collection, so that you are now a collector “in name only.”  What fun is collecting when you can’t “collect” anything?  Unless you are exceedingly wealthy, you start to lose interest.

And then….Sooner or later, the generation that appreciates what you appreciate starts to downsize, die off, or lose interest.  And starts dumping.  All those porcelain statues, collector plates, and lunch boxes come back to the marketplace in thousands.  People who wrote books like “The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff” (Julie Hall, 2008) will – you guessed it! – start writing about YOUR generation. It’s all a function of demographics.  While it’s probably impossible to gauge what percent of the recent drop in prices for collectibles on eBay, for example, may be due to this generational “pruning,” what is not in dispute is that younger generations have no interest in them: no interest at all in traditional collectibles such as silver tea services and flatware, and no interest in Franklin Mint plates, Hummels, David Winter Cottages, Disney cookie jars, or “smalls” like Precious Moments figurines.

"The Creeping Death" by George Rozem, The Shadow Magazine pulp cover, January 15, 1933. Oil on canvas. sold for $47,800, Heritage auction Oct 2008
“The Creeping Death” by George Rozen, The Shadow Magazine pulp cover, January 15, 1933. Oil on canvas. sold for $47,800, Heritage auction Oct 2008

Will collectors of sf/f illustrative art today be faced with the same dilemma, will younger generations of collectors – growing up with ebooks and computer games instead of printed books and magazines – be totally unmoved by illustrative art of the 20th Century?  Will they still love The Shadow, Doc Savage, Tarzan – let alone LoTR or M:tG ?   Because it is unfamiliar, there is no “nostalgia” – and without that, can this field of collecting be sustained?  I don’t know.  It will be interesting to find out.


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1 Comment

  1. Thankfully there is a long lead time on such things, but I do worry about so much of the industry being tied to MtG now. There is a definite bubble/inflation in that market, and I can’t say how much, but a lot of artists I’m guessing couldn’t do what they do without the income from MtG.

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