what makes something collectable?

BUYERS AND SELLERS of anything considered collectable often fail to achieve their goals of financial success because they do not understand a few basic concepts concerning the nature of a collectable—any collectable. Because this a record collectors website, I will refer to records in this essay, but you can substitute almost any other collectable and the comments remain virtually unchanged about what makes something collectable . . .

Although collectable is the spelling listed first for the adjective by the Oxford English Dictionary and is standard spelling in British English, the dictionary observes that [collectible] is also valid and this has come to be the common spelling in the United States:

Without demand, there is no practical need to know anything else about a supposed collectable in the sense of buying and selling and determining value.

“A manufactured collectable is an item made specifically for people to collect. The terms special edition, limited edition, and variants such as deluxe edition, collector’s edition, and others fall under the category of manufactured collectable and are used as a marketing incentive for various kinds of products.” (Wikipedia)

Here are some definitions of collectable (or collectible): “suitable for being collected” is Merriam-Webster Online‘s offering. It is pointless and tells us nothing.

The editors of Wikipedia offers a better definition: “A collectable or collectible (aka collector’s item) is any object regarded as being of value or interest to a collector (not necessarily monetarily valuable or antique). There are numerous types of collectables and terms to denote those types:

•  An antique is a collectable that is old. 

•  A curio is a small, usually fascinating or unusual item sought after by collectors. 

•  A manufactured collectable is an item made specifically for people to collect.


Following Elvis Presley’s death in August 1977, an enormous market for “collectables” most of it reeking of kitsch emerged and was fed a vast array of items that had never been associated with Elvis during his life. Such as these incredibly tacky whiskey decanters by McCormick. Few of these items have achieved any value as collectables; in fact, many of them are worth less now than they were when purchased new!

Collectables and the kitsch factor

On the About.com website there is an articles titled “Collectibles Definition: What is a Collectible?” by Pamela Wiggins. In it, she asks the question, “What’s the difference between antique and collectible?” She then answers:

“Some people say age and others use the kitsch factor to separate antiques from collectibles. If you use the US Customs Service definition, an antique is 100 years old or more. By my definition, however, items made prior to the early 1920s when styles distinctly changed from flowing and frilly to more modern and angular are antiques and objects made after that time are collectibles.”

So, summing them up, a collectable (my preferred spelling), is any thing/object that holds the interest of more than a few people, each of whom wants to possess and own that thing/object.


This page is a collection of sixteen tin buttons available in vending machines in 1956–57. These were auctioned as a lot in 2009 for $275, which seems a rather reasonable price to have paid for items that would take years to find individuallyIt should be assumed that anything related to Elvis from the ’50s has collectable status to someone.

Parameters that define a collectable’s value

It is paramount that you understand that a collectable is defined by a variety of factors:


How many collectors want it NOW is the most important aspect of determining collectability. The longer that NOW lasts—that is, the longer that the demand lasts over a period of time—the more meaningful that demand becomes in determining both collectability (and sometimes, actual rarity) and value.

Without demand, there is no practical need to know anything else about a supposed collectable (in the sense of buying and selling and determining value). There is no economic incentive to know its condition, availability, etc.


How many copies are currently known to exist in the hands of collectors and sellers. Figures for actual supplies will always be estimations, because no one knows what’s in the hands of people not actively involved in record collecting.

This is a useless point when it comes to really rare records: the likelihood that a non-record collector would own a rare R&B 45 or privately pressed punk/psych LP is rather unlikely.

A manufactured collectable is an item made specifically for people to collect. The terms special edition, limited edition, deluxe edition, and collector’s edition fall under the category of manufactured collectable.


How many are available for sale at any given moment. That is, if a record is valued at $300, and you go running around from store to store, from record show to record show, offering $600 for a copy and no one can find a copy to sell to you, what is it worth at that time?

The advertisements on eBay have been a great revealer of just how common records are—records that appear in price guides for $4-12 may not sell on eBay for 99 cents minimum bid! Records in price guides listed at $750 may sell for $2,000 every time they pop up in NM—which is perhaps once a year.


The mantra in the real estate business if Location! Location! Location! then the mantra in the fields of collectables should be Condition! Condition! Condition! After the demand and the supply are accounted for, the assigned value of a collectable or its asking price is usually determined by its condition.

Condition—and to a lesser extent, age—are secondary in defining collectability. Although, in some few fields condition has a different meaning: for instance, in collecting rare blues records from the pre-WWII era, finding any copy in anything approaching collectable condition (and here I mean VG or better) can be impossible.

Most of these records were purchased by poor black music lovers, handled poorly, and played on old, beat-up record players, often with needles well past the point where they were sharp and not doing damage to the record on each play.

In this case, a blues 78 could be relatively common in well-played (over-played?) condition but not known to exist in NM condition. So, in that case, the condition would define the rarity, yes? No?

Condition does play a HUGE part in establishing a value for any collectable.


The Beanie Babies phenomenon of the ’90s was perhaps the greatest example of a blatantly manufactured collectable becoming a national obsession with non-collectors in cultural history, far surpassing anything conceived of in the wake of Elvis’s death.

Supply + demand = value

An article titled “Economics Basics: Supply and Demand” on the Investopedia website states, “Supply and demand is perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and it is the backbone of a market economy.” They continue”

Demand refers to how much (quantity) of a product or service is desired by buyers. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price; the relationship between price and quantity demanded is known as the demand relationship.

Supply represents how much the market can offer. The quantity supplied refers to the amount of a certain good producers are willing to supply when receiving a certain price. The correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the market is known as the supply relationship. Price, therefore, is a reflection of supply and demand.”

Wikipedia lists four basic laws of supply and demand that has some relevance to collectables:

1. If demand increases and supply remains unchanged, a shortage occurs, leading to a higher equilibrium price. 

2. If demand decreases and supply remains unchanged, a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price. 

3. If demand remains unchanged and supply increases, a surplus occurs, leading to a lower equilibrium price. 

4. If demand remains unchanged and supply decreases, a shortage occurs, leading to a higher equilibrium price.

Why rarity is often unimportant

The word rare gets bandied about with such frequency in any field of collectables that its sheer ubiquitousness makes it an almost meaningless word! But it does have a meaning: Merriam-Webster‘s third definition is the one that is applicable to this article, and it defines rare as “seldom occurring or found : uncommon.” Which tells us the obvious.

The Google dictionary says that it “not occurring very often.”

The second definition of rare at Dictionary.com is “thinly distributed over an area; few and widely separated.” The other definitions they offer are irrelevant to this essay.

If the de facto mantra in the real estate business is Location Location Location then the mantra in the fields of collectables should almost always be Condition Condition Condition!

I went to the trouble of searching out these definitions to give the reader an opportunity to see that the term rare can be somewhat nebulous. Rare has no numerical value; it can be relative.

With a record that is highly sought after and rather rare, the rarity naturally boosts the value of that record. But that is not only not always the case, it mat rarely be the case. Millions of records have been manufactured over the past 100 plus years. The overwhelming majority met with little commercial success.

A first, minuscule printing was done with countless records and when it didn’t sell, it was forgotten, destroyed, tossed into dumpsters. Making many a record very rare indeed.

But, just as no one wanted them THEN, no one wants them NOW! Hence, there are countless really rare records that still have no value because they are not collectable.


Elvis’s fifth and final single for Sun was Mystery Train / I Forgot To Remember To Forget. By the time RCA Victor took control of all of Presley Product and reissued this record on their own imprint, it had reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s C&W survey, indicating very healthy national sales that could have easily been in the six figures.

Are there any really rare Elvis records?

As an example, let me use the two biggest record-seller of all time: Elvis. With a few exception, it would be inaccurate to describe any commercially issued record in the US by either to be rare

There are some, but most (not all) Elvis rarities are promotional records, label variations, or printing and pressing errors. Even the worse selling titles by these two artists still sold tens of thousands of copies. Hardly what one would consider rare, yes?


The bootleg record phenomenon of the ’70s can be argued to be an instance of manufactured collectables, especially those issued with limited colored vinyl editions. This cool picture sleeve for Sun 223 is a fake, a bootleg. Several creative entrepreneurs had very attractive sleeves such as this designed and manufactured in the ’80s for the collectors market. Most of them were for those Presley 45s that had been issued without authentic sleeves by Sun (five) and RCA Victor (fourteen) in the ’50s. None of them were sold as anything but boots by their manufacturers, all of them are highly sought after today and sell for at least $50 in NM condition!

Elvis legendary Sun sides are generally accompanied by the word rare. The actual sales figures for those records were clouded in obscurity and second-guessing for decades. Rumors than total sales had surpassed 200,000 for the five records by the time RCA Victor signed Elvis in November 1955 have been around for a long time.

Given the recent RIAA Gold Records awarded to Sun 209, That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky (in 2004), and Sun 210, Good Rockin’ Tonight / I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine (in 2005), would seem to indicate that the 200,000 number may be rather conservative. Why Colonel Parker would have kept quiet on this remains a moot topic.

The Sun single that sold the poorest was 215, Milkcow Blues Boogie / You’re A Heartbreaker. Yet, since 2010 (essentially the past four years), more than forty 45s and thirty 78s of this record have sold on eBay! While that indicates it is far from common, it also indicates that it is far from being rare!


POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I just want to address the fact that there are all sorts of ‘collectables’ for all sorts of collectors. The type of items found in this article are not the type of items that this site will be addressing: “Graceland Too auction ends quickly as contents sold together.”


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