Can Collectible Investments Pay Off?

Kevin writes in:

I have a small collection of vintage baseball cards from the 1930s that have a list value of about $30,000. I started collecting when I was a kid and my grandpa gave me some to start with, but over the years I’ve bought many more, almost completing a Goudey Heads Up set. I have had them all graded. What I’m wondering is whether I should continue holding on to these or not. I know you’re not a baseball card dealer or trader, but I do know you know something about baseball cards and you’ll give me your honest take on the situation.

I’ve received so many emails from people writing to me wondering why their giant pile of 1988 Topps cards are worthless, so this baseball card related email was actually a breath of fresh air. It also has given me a good reason to spell out my perspective on collectible investments.

First of all, I would never rely on the long term future value of a collectible. The problem with such items is that they rely entirely on supply and demand, and with collectibles, there’s no real need for the item. Demand rests on the cultural interests of other people, which can shift over time. Fifty years ago, sports besides baseball were barely a blip on the national radar. Twenty five years ago, Garbage Pail Kids were in such hot demand you couldn’t find them on store shelves. How things change.

Similarly, I would never invest in any collectible where there is a large supply. Any time there is a “collectible” out there in large supply, the only reason that “collectible” has any value at all is due to a huge demand in that moment, and the public is fickle. Instead, focus on seeking out the truly rare items and don’t spend your time on the rest if you’re “collecting” for profit.

Second, even if you’ve covered the rarity issue, the future value of any such items relies on a continual interest in the phenomenon being collected. If that phenomenon decreases significantly or goes away, your collectible value drops dramatically. I once had a set of fairly valuable Star Wars trading cards whose value dropped precipitously over the past decade because that trading card game was on longer supported.

Having said those things, the best reason to be this kind of a collector is that the items you’re collecting have some personal value to you.

I can think of two distinct examples of this from my own life.

First, I, too, have a small collection of vintage baseball cards that have largely held their value over the last decade. They’re PSA graded, like yours are. For me, though, they have more value than what I could get for them on eBay because of the memories and stories associated with them. They make me remember family members and times watching baseball with them when I was young. They remind me of the first time I went to Wrigley Field. They’re aesthetically appealing to me and scratch that itch I have for vintage baseball every time I look at them.

That has value. I get value from those cards every time I look at them. Even if I sell the cards for a dollar loss at some point – and I don’t think they’ll ever be worth less than the pittance (or the gifting) that I originally paid for them – it’s still not really a loss because of the many instances of joy they’ve brought into my life.

Another example is with a small handful of original Magic: the Gathering cards that I own. These cards come from the very first set of this game, a game that’s selling more and attracting more players now than it ever has.

I enjoy these in a much different way. Rather than keeping these items in a PSA-graded case, I just keep them in protective sleeves and … gasp … actually play with them. These cards still come up on my kitchen table when I play with my wife or my friends and thus they still bring me quite a bit of enjoyment.

Are they losing value because of the play? They’re sleeved. I’ve played with them many times in sleeves and their condition seems identical to when I first sleeved them.

On the other hand, I am getting consistent enjoyment out of the use of these cards. It’s an item with collectible value that I also get to directly enjoy on a regular basis.

To me, regular enjoyment of a collectible item that retains at least some of its value makes the collectible item worth it. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who has an uncut sheet of pre-1970 Topps cards on his wall – I think they were 1965 Topps, but don’t quote me on that. They’re framed and hanging in his office. That sheet has some significant collector value and he could re-sell it for some cash any time he wanted to. Instead, it hangs in his office and gives him value almost every day.

So, here’s what it comes down to. Invest in – and keep – collectibles if they provide some additional value to you personally. Do they make you feel happy when you see them? Do you get to actually use them in some fashion? Do they serve as a home decoration? Those are great additional values that a collectible can provide.

Of course, without that additional value, I would suggest flipping the item as soon as possible unless you know the market for that collectible cold – and anyone outside of collectibles dealers doesn’t know it cold. Why? Collectibles are notoriously unsteady items to invest in, so if you have one that you’re not getting personal value from, I’d move those invested dollars into something at least a little more stable.

What about as a pure investment? I’d frown on it unless you are sure you can turn a quick profit or you’re picking it up with spare money for the personal value it’ll give you. Do not rely on a collectible as an investment that will support you in the future. Instead, do rely on it as something that has a good chance of retaining value while bringing regular joy into your life.

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  1. chacha1 says:

    Back when Beanie Babies first came out, a couple of friends gave me Beanie kittens, because they knew I am a crazy cat lady. Over a few years I accumulated a half dozen kittens, but I didn’t at all consider them an “investment” – it just made me smile when I’d catch sight of one draped over the top of a book.

    Fast forward a few years and we have a friend with a 5-yr-old daughter who loves cats. I gave all those Beanie kittens to our friend and they now live happily with that little girl.

    In short, I completely agree with you, Trent! If a person gets daily value from collectibles, why not keep them. But unless we’re talking about a curated, professionally-valued collection that could sell for big bucks at auction, it’s not really an investment.

  2. Mister E says:

    It’s tough to look at collectibles as an investment because their future value is based entirely on their scarcity.

    Amazing Spider Man #1 is worth a small fortune because in those days the vast majority of comics ended up in the trash bin at the end of the day. For many years now there are enough people buying every comic book released and sealing them off in climate controlled, moisture proof, non acidic, environments that no such scarcity is likely to ever exist.

  3. Andy Hough says:

    I have a lot of comics that I’ve kept for many years even though I rarely look at them any more. The vast majority of these I bought at less then cover price so I figure I got my value out of them when I read them. Some of them have appreciated a bit but most of them aren’t worth any more then when I bought them. I suppose I should go ahead and sell them but it is easier to just hold on to them.

  4. Michelle says:

    Depression era glass is a good example of what you’re talking about Trent. About a decade ago, it was HOT, lots of money being spent by collectors. Now it’s cheap, cheap, cheap. Most of the collectors were folks who lived through the depression and had fond memories of the glassware, and they had some money to spend on it. Now many of those folks are retired, or close to it, and don’t have the money to throw around anymore. The market has dried up. I’ve got quite a bit, because I love the way it looks, and I’ve bought it all in the last 2 years for not very much at all.

    I’ve never understood buying things as investments. You should buy things because you like them, and will get personal value from them. If you want to invest, then get into the stock market.

  5. wren says:

    I totally agree about the daily enjoyment being a big reason to collect things. Due to a death in the family, we are now going through dozens of boxes of a “collection” that never saw the light of day, is worth less than 1/10 of what the items sold for, and is not something any of us have any desire to have. There’s not even an emotional attachment of these items “being grandma’s” because we never saw her enjoy them. Considering the size and weight of this particular bunch of kitsch, it only took a dozen trips up and down her attic ladder to wish she had collected cards!

  6. Wes says:

    Ah, the great Beanie Baby Bubble of the 90’s.

    I remember getting one from an extended family member as a birthday gift when I was about 8 or so. This is before the things got “retired” and all that. I remember, as a young boy who basically just got a stuffed animal, thinking “there’s no way I can let my friends know I have this.” I put it in my closet.

    Fast forward a few months (the beanie baby crazy hit pretty fast), and someone at school tells me that the BB I have is worth $75. I insist to my parents that we must immediately go to the flea market to sell it that weekend. They explained to me that a stuffed animal is not worth $75, but I was persistent, so they thought “Well, let’s take him there and he’ll learn a valuable lesson.”

    So we go to the flea market, I find a BB booth, show the seller the one I have, and he says “I’ll give you 75 bucks.” My parents were flabbergasted, I was overjoyed, and my whole family learned an interesting lesson in the mechanics of market bubbles.

  7. Jen says:

    I am embarrassed to say I used to collect Happy Meal Toys. I had thousands of them because I loved McDonalds and ate there several times a week when I was a kid until several years after college. Somehow I am still healthy! Anyway, I had the Happy Meal collecting book and was convinced if each toy was worth the $1-5 it said in the book, I would be rich. Last year I moved, and sold most of them on eBay. I don’t think I even broke $100 and I ended up throwing out a lot of them:(

    I also collected stamps and recently found out they are all pretty much worthless, but at least they retain their original value! I’ve been using them on letters lately since I’m trying to get rid of my various collections.

    I have gotten lucky with my current hobby of collecting guitar picks. But just because something is worth money today doesn’t mean it will be worth anything when you decide you no longer want it!

  8. deRuiter says:

    Kevin, SELL! Sell now while there are still people alive with money and space who will buy them, who want them. Keep the cards longer and the collectors for those items will die, or use up all their money going into nursing homes, and you will have to toss the cards in paper recycling to get rid of them. Americans are moving away from collecting. They do not teach history in schools so the children know nothing of America’s past, it’s culture, it’s artifacts, they are not taught patriotism and to be proud of their coutnry and its history and they do not become interested in antiques. TV shows stress selling your house by stripping it of all personal items, collections, clutter, and furnishing with 3 pieces of furniture and a vase from Home Goods. Television teaches”stuff=bad, no stuff=good.” SELL! Use the money to retire debt, fund a ROTH IRA, prepay your mortgage, invest, add to your emergency fund. Use this wonderful legacy to make your life better NOW, before the value falls, or your house burns to the foundation and the cards are gone in a puff of smoke. As a part time business, buying things like collectibles at house, estate and yard sales, and turning them on ebay, Craigslist or twice a month at the local flea market, is a grand way to make extra money, to have a small business, to be independent. It’s fun, it gets you outdoors and meeting people, and you can earn considerable money this way, depending upon how much knowledge you amass, and how much effort you put into the business. Collecting and thinking you will make money generally doesn’t work. Be a “picker” and sell right away, not a hoarder and have your stuff tossed into a dumpster when you shuffle off this mortal coil. This kind of small business will also sharpen you intellectually, teach you how to succeed in business, teach you to confidantly deal with others, how to negotiate, how to speak up for yourself, WHILE EARNING EXTRA MONEY.

  9. deRuiter says:

    Kevin, A list value of $30,000. means you will be lucky to get $15,000. when you sell, which is still enough to fund a ROTH IRA for three years, or pay off a chunk of debts or prepay the mortgage. SELL!

  10. Interested Reader says:

    Auctions are also an option for selling, you can always put a reserve price so if it’s not met the card(s) aren’t sold for less than what you want.

    Also things like baseball cards are different than Garbage Pail Kids or Beanie Babies or even CCGs which are all more fad items or have a more limited auidence.

  11. Georgia says:

    I think I can agree with most of you. I collected Star Trek and my husband collected John Deere toys. After he died I sold his collection. I got less than he had paid for it. However, since he used his own money, it was still a windfall for me. And, it might have sold for less because he would go to toy shows and exhibit his toys, so some wear and tear. That meant he got a lot of enjoyment from his toys and lovely memories of being a farm kid. I don’t think I’ll get a lot for my Star Trek collection in these times.

    There was an article on MSN in the last week or so about this. It listed at least 10 items that used to be very hot, but are now basically penny ante stuff. The current times have a lot to do with that.

    Just a quick laugh. My husband would say we were a perfect pair (due to our collections). He said he was “down to earth” and I was “up in the air.” Compliment or dig?

  12. Maria says:

    Sell them while you can! I had a similar experience with the Beanie Babies. When they were at their peak, I took a bunch (in perfect condition) to a Beanie show, yes there were actual shows back then. Well I sold a few for $125 a piece and several others for $90. My husband had teased me before I went that no one would want them. When I got home I emptied my handbag of about $1,200 cash. He was shocked! I also collect Precious Moments and I can’t give them away at hard sales, so it all depends on the popularity and demand

  13. Lisa says:

    I remember back in the 90s when Beanie Babies were all the rage; I used to go antiquing in Pennsylvania and still recall the time I went into one of my favorite antiques malls to find out the old stuff had been pushed to the back half to make way for NASCAR and Beanie Baby collectibles in the front. (The sheer volume of those things should have tipped off anyone thinking the stuff would appreciate in value.) There were two women going through mountains of stuffed animals, obviously looking for what they considered the “rarer” ones. I spent about an hour trolling for antiques, and when I went to the door to leave, the younger of the two women was at the cashier with an armful of BB’s, and I overheard her say proudly to her companion, “This is my kid’s college fund!” Wonder what community college that kid is attending now. That was also the decade that a news story appeared in in Manhattan newspapers about a big rig hijacking in a NJ truck depot – it had stopped overnight before coming into the city, and was carrying a load of mini Beanie Babies for a McDonald’s promotion; someone stole a 40-foot rig of them thinking the stuff would continue to maintain its value! Final story, a friend bought the original Mutant Ninja Turtle comic books back in the 1980s, and held onto them while their value (formerly $1 each) soared to about 5 grand apiece, hoping they’d go higher. Prices, of course, crashed back to earth and she is now the proud possessor of 6 TMN turtle comics, circa 1988, worth about $1 apiece.

  14. Larkellen says:

    Trent, you are singing my tune w/this article. I run Estate and Garage sales as a business. Often people have collections of “collector plates”, beanie babies, Precious Moments etc. They really think they are going to make $1,000’s on them and I hate being the bearer of bad news that they will make far less than they originally paid for them. My rule of thumb is anything that was sold as a collectible is probably not worth a lot. It is the old “everyday” stuff found in attics and basements that actually bring good money.

  15. Bill in NC says:

    Mom thought she was investing in “antique” furniture.

    Almost all she bought had been stored in somebody’s barn for decades and were damaged by poor storage condition or insect damage or both.

    Most were not in original condition but either pieced together from different originals or extensively repaired somewhere along the way.

    In retrospect, since they were insured on separate riders, I would have gotten at least 4 times what I sold them for had I not fixed that gas leak and let the house burn down.

  16. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    If you’re thinking about investing in a “collectible” then that means everyone else is too. At that point it’s no longer a collectible. What makes something collectible is the fact that there aren’t that many of them, which is usually because no one thought about keeping them when they originally came out. Collect what you like because you like it. Keep it around for the personal value and if it ends up worth something, great!

  17. ctreit says:

    I agree that buying collectibles is a personal consumption preference. If you like the collectibles and you can afford them, go for it. The investment value is only secondary. Having said that, a neighbor of mine seems to be pretty shrewd with his collectibles. He has a collection of 45-vinyl hip-hop music which he sells for up to $1000 each these days. He has a collection of art books, some of which also go for $1000. And he reckons his baseball card collection is worth north of $200,000. Not bad, eh?

  18. If you do it strictly for fun, then yes.

    If you’re looking at it as an investment strategy, I’d be real leery of that.

    I had a baseball card collection for years and a coin collection and I was shocked at how little (if at all) it appreciated over time.

    Most of these markets are so oversaturated that you’re unlikely to make much of a profit.

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