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What makes something 'collectible'?

What separates a retro ‘hidden gem’ worth thousands from the other 99% of aged junk?

It’s a word you see all over auction sites and used to describe, perhaps, seemingly worthless trinkets and ornaments: “collectible”. It seems like a fairly ambiguous label, so what actually makes something desirable in the eyes of the hypothetical collector? What separates a retro ‘hidden gem’ worth thousands from the other 99% of aged junk?

 

Rarity

This one is simple enough – the fewer of a particular item that exist, the more restricted the supply of that item is, and so is likely to be worth more. Many of the most famous examples of rare collectibles are down to mistakes in manufacture, such as coins minted with errors then quickly taken out of circulation, or the Inverted Jenny stamp – a US Postal Service 24-cent stamp that was issued in 1918 and features a graphic of an aeroplane, erroneously printed upside down. An example was sold at Robert A. Siegel’s auction house in 2007 for an astonishing $977,500.

Historical significance

A fairly common object may still possess “collectability” if it holds some sort of historical significance – the most obvious way this happens is if the object provably belonged to a famous person in the past. Less obvious ways are often to do with how certain objects evoke certain historical periods in their design, manufacture or finish – “Atomic Age” furniture is now prized for its retro appeal, and certain manufacturing marks on glassware give away the period during which they were created.

Notoriety, endorsement and timeliness

Some items become collectible through sheer coincidence, and some of these events can be tragic or gruesome – after 9/11, World Trade Center memorabilia became collectible, for example. Anniversaries of important events can also add value, as can the endorsement (or, on the contrary, stated opposition) of a celebrity. For example, baseball player Honus Wagner stopped a tobacco company using his name and baseball card to sell its products, and one of Wagner’s cards sold on eBay for $1.1 million, almost 100 years later.

 

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