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Collectibles: Which Ones Pay Off and Which Ones Don’t?

If your “retirement fund” is in the form of a bunch of G.I. Joe comics that you are certain will be worth a fortune someday, we’re sorry to say you are likely in for a letdown.

Almost everyone has at least a few “collectibles” stashed away in the hope that they will eventually be worth a lot of money. But many people waste time collecting the wrong stuff (Happy Meal figurines), while items with true collectible value go unnoticed. Here are a few tips on what may—and may not—be worth big bucks years from now.

Collectibles to Skip:

  • Mass-produced trendy novelties. This includes Beanie Babies and novelty cards such as Pokémon. While some have made money on such toys, over the long run they are rarely a solid investment. “Beanie Babies had exceptional marketing done by the maker and as a result, they saturated the market,” says Michelle Isserman, an antiques and collectibles appraiser based in St. Louis and New York. “They became so common that they lost their ‘rarity’ and thus their value.”
  • Limited editions. “As a general rule I avoid so-called limited edition collectibles,” says Bernie Shine of the Shine Gallery in Los Angeles. “These are items that are produced specifically for the collectors market. While they sometimes increase in value over time, more often they do not. Purchasers normally take great measures to care for and preserve such items, and the number of any such items produced is usually the same as the survival rate. The supply changes little, yet the demand often declines.”
  • Common baseball cards (even most autographed ones). As with the other mass-produced items, these cards are too plentiful to be truly collectible. Even a player’s signature doesn’t boost the value much if there are many other identical cards around. “So called limited edition autographs, where people do signings for baseball card manufacturers, are going to be virtually worthless,” says Joe Maddalena, president of Profiles in History, a dealer of guaranteed-authentic historical and entertainment autographs and other collectibles. 

Collectibles to Save:

  • The “first” of something. Manufacturers ramp up production on a product line once the item becomes popular, so the first of a series may be the least plentiful—and thus the rarest. Savvy collectors grab an item before it’s hot. “Often times it is the first in a series that is the most valuable item in the series and the hardest one to locate, especially years after it was made,” says Isserman. “So if you don’t plan on buying the complete series, buy at least the first one.” Shine points out that many firsts—from the first Mickey Mouse items or the first line of Star Wars cards (the blue set) or action figures—went on to greatly increase in value.
  • Personally autographed items. As opposed to the mass-signed baseball cards, anything with a unique autograph is more likely to be valuable. You’ll need to prove it was actually signed by the person in question, though. These days, it’s common for signatures on autographed photos to be actually imprinted by computer. Your best bet: snap a picture of the signing in progress, if possible.
  • Hard-to-find sports or Hollywood items. Lots of people now regret having thrown away their rookie Mickey Mantle cards. Likewise, old Hollywood items are in big demand on the collectible circuit. “Vintage Hollywood glamour photography by George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull and others are still grossly undervalued and are a tremendous investment,” Maddalena says.
  • Mistakes or misprints. Your baseball card has the player’s name misspelled? That might be a good thing. Many such “duds” go on to be highly coveted by collectors.

Final Collecting Tips:

  • Condition is key. The experts recommend protecting your items from the elements and sunlight. “And keep all original packaging and paperwork,” Shine says.
  • Don’t try to follow trends. Saving the same thing as everyone else will only make you one of many people trying to unload that item years from now. Instead, just collect things you like—the more unusual or unique the better—and you just might get lucky.
  • Be patient. “Collectibles that are hot today may look outdated five years from now but they may be really popular once again fifty years from now,” Isserman says.” Today, furniture, lighting, and accessories from the 1960s are hot and their prices have skyrocketed but in a few more years the 1970s and all the items that typically depict the 1970s will be all the rage. It seems to me it takes a span of fifty to sixty years for an item to hit a higher ‘collectible’ value.”

By Bobbi Dempsey for MainStreet