what makes something collectable?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 9 minutes.

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 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 the 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:

“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.


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.


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 in­di­vid­u­ally. It 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 mantra in the real es­tate busi­ness is “Lo­ca­tion! Lo­ca­tion! Lo­ca­tion!” then the mantra in the fields of col­lec­tables is “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 may 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?

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!


ATOG 1955 Haley 1000

FEA­TURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of then su­per­star Bill Haley with the up and coming young soon-to-be star Elvis Presley in 1955.


Elvis 1957 goldsuit standup 1000

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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