Pitfalls of Contemporary Collectibles

I used to work for a publishing company, Tomart Corporation (www.tomart.com), that specialized in books and magazines on  “contemporary collectibles”  — items from the past 50 or so years.  If that sounds different to you, you’re not alone.  When most people think of collectibles, they think of antiques, coins, stamps, and other traditional categories.  But in the past 50-plus years, our popular culture has given us contemporary collectibles as a new category.

For example, kids’ meal premiums, like those that come with McDonald’s Happy Meals, which debuted in 1977, are a very popular contemporary collectible.  Barbie dolls, clothes and accessories, which first appeared in 1959, is another.  (At one time, Mattel could have been considered the world’s largest manufacturer of women’s apparel.)  For boys, there are Hot Wheels vehicles and playsets, which came along in 1968.  One final example is the Beanie Baby, that update of the venerable bean-bag toy which popped up on store shelves in 1993.

Examine these examples, and several common characteristics become apparent.  First, they are easy to find.  There seems to be at least one McDonald’s restaurant in every town in the country.  And most families eat out often enough that buying a Happy Meal — and keeping up with the usual pattern of a new toy a week — is no problem.

Second, they are relatively inexpensive.  Any child with a decent allowance can afford a toy like a Hot Wheels car every week or so.  Or compare the purchase of a Barbie playset with the acquisition of an antique table.

Third, information about them must be readily available.  During this period, technology has given us two tools to keep track of the latest developments.  The first was television; advertising made many people aware that these products existed and where they could be found.  In fact, the promotional products based on some television programs – think Davy Crockett and Zorro — became collectible categories in their own right.  The second was the Internet, which provided a powerful tool to find desirable items, research prices, and even check authenticity.

But there is one major pitfall in amassing contemporary collectibles.  For each of the examples I have given, the items themselves have no intrinsic value.  What is the recycled value of a Beanie Baby?  Virtually nothing.  And since the “beans” are synthetic, unlike traditional bean bags, they wouldn’t even provide a meal!  Compare them to stamp collecting; if your collection doesn’t appreciate in value, you can still mail a letter.

So if you do decide to seriously collect one of these pop-culture categories, remember one important fact – demand, and only demand, creates their value.  Materials, workmanship, no other factor enters into the equation.  If no one else wants what you collect, your collection will be worthless, at least in monetary terms.

Of course, if the only lure were making money there would be very few collectors today.  So if you want something and can afford it, by all means buy it and enjoy the pleasure it brings you.  Just remember your reward will most likely be personal satisfaction and not profit.

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