Can investing in collectibles really work?

Don't run out and pour your life savings into baseball cards.

Matt Stamey / Topeka Capital-Journal / AP / File
Christine Rende, 10, shown through glass, checks out old baseball cards at a 2003 sports card and collectible show in Topeka, Kan. If baseball cards – or Star Wars action figures, or comic books – give you joy, then that's their true, reliable value.

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 investing.

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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