Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Between Naps - October 2010

One of Rob Dewolf's passions is collecting cards of Cleveland Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie. A former minor league baseball player who advanced to Triple-A in the Padres organization, Rob's current job in the newspaper field requires him to get up at 4 a.m., six days a week. Hence the name of his column, which happens to be when he finds time to write about various aspects of the hobby. Rob lives in central Ohio with his wife and daughter.

Rarity doesn’t always mean that value is in the bag

by Rob Dewolf

Every so often I'll look at a card or piece of memorabilia in my collection and think, "Man, that should be worth more than it is."

This thought isn't sparked by regret, disgust or even puzzlement. I understand why the level of value often pales in comparison to the level of scarcity. Yet sometimes I'm left shaking my head.

Case in point: One of the coolest Cleveland Indians items I own is a shopping bag from Fishers Foods, a small grocery chain in my hometown in northeast Ohio. The brown bag is probably from the late 1960s or early '70s and features drawings of a full-size Chief Wahoo. It's in wonderful condition, and every time I look at it I marvel at how it survived.

I LOVE this thing. Ever since I bought it from another collector about 20 years ago, it's been one of my favorite Indians items. I'm pretty sure there can't be many around -- I mean, come on, a 40-year-old grocery bag? In near-mint condition? I ought to get it slabbed.

It's so "rare" and hard to find that I bet if I put it on eBay I'd get ... maybe $20? That's what I paid for it back in 1991, and I know the seller wasn't letting it go just for what he paid. My guess is he had $5 in it.

So how can such a rare, possibly unique item not be the cornerstone of the Dewolf retirement fund? Sadly, there's just not much demand for a decades-old brown-paper bag that features a drawing of a politically incorrect Native American.

Rarity is only half the equation when trying to figure out the value of a collectible. You've got to have demand, too. That's a pretty simple concept, one that I first learned in my eighth-grade General Business class when we covered the laws of supply and demand. Simple, yes, but still easy to forget and sometimes hard to accept.

Sellers often are most likely to develop amnesia when it comes to establishing the price of an item, choosing to remember only the rarity aspect.

"You know there can't be many of these out there," is a common refrain.

"You're right," I sometimes reply," and there probably is an even smaller number of buyers."

But again, I understand how easy it is to get caught up in the lure of scarcity.

I'm a sucker for Indians items that originally were sold as souvenirs. I don't know why, I just like them. Sometimes, though, you wonder what the manufacturer was thinking.

Case in point II: a balloon in the shape of a dirigible that was sold during the 1948 World Series. The one I have is unused and in the original packaging, leading me to believe that someone brought it home from the game as a present for his kid, who looked at it and immediately tossed it into the toy box.

Again, pretty rare item and very unusual. And worth probably less than an old grocery bag.

That's not to say that there's little to no value in a collectible when demand isn't terribly strong.

Case in point III: The pride and joy of my Indians collection is a 1948 World Series ring. My guess is no less than 50 and no more than 100 exist.

Rarer than the ring, though, is the original artwork for the award. The former Balfour executive who sold it to me explained that the company typically would draw up a handful of possible ring designs and present them to the management of that season's World Series champ. The brass would pick a design from the presented artwork, and the chosen one would be kept in Balfour's files.

The ratio of artwork to actual rings is at least 1 to 50. Yet a ring ($3,000-$4,000) will sell for seven or eight times what the artwork would. Why? Because it's not cool to wear an 14 x 18 drawing of a World Series ring on your hand. Even though the artwork is worth more than, say, a souvenir balloon from the same year, the value just isn't proportionate to its rarity.

Long ago I adopted a philosophy that if I wake up tomorrow and my baseball collection is worthless, I'll still be happy that I own each and every card and piece of memorabilia. Because of this, it's easier to focus on compiling and enjoying a collection rather than worrying about its value. So the whole "This should be worth more than it is" thing is more of a musing and less of a malady.

That said, I'll still look at my 1950s Chief Wahoo yellow necktie and wonder how I was able to buy it for only $30. There just can't be many of them "out there."

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