The Market Made Simple


Lately, there has been quite a bit of grousing and consternation on social media about the state of the market and the overall health of our hobby. There seems to be concern about a perceived decline in prices in general and an almost as strong a concern or contempt about the soaring prices of high end items that are beyond the reach of most collectors. I am a simple country neurosurgeon, not a big city TV market analyst, so what am I doing addressing this issue; wouldn’t this be better handled by those with years of intimate market experience such as Ted Hake, Tom French or Tom Slater? Certainly they would be much more qualified to appraise your items but I have been giving this quite a bit of thought over the few years and did quite well in my economics class 40 years ago, so what the hell. I think I offer a different perspective which may be more useful to the average collector rather than the pure investor. I have been collecting over 50 years through three of the hobby’s eras which I present below. Much of my collecting has been in geographically isolated areas with a low population and little direct exposure to the organized hobby. I have always been an auction catalog nerd, dutifully recording the prices realized in my catalogs dating back to the mid 1980’s and sadly, still pack a handful to study on airplanes. Over the last ten years I have been active in resale which has really put my theories to the ultimate test.

Other collecting hobbies such as coins, stamps and possibly sports cards are much more stable with yearly price guides that match the market for all but the top items. There are a number of reasons our market and prices are more volatile. Those hobbies have much larger collecting populations and with few exceptions the supply and known examples well known to their collectors. They rarely have unknown pieces come into their hobbies but in our hobby previously unknown items appear regularly; three previously unknown Teddy Roosevelt pins were sold on eBay in the last six months alone. Additional market chaos is provided by the potential that a horde of a rare item will turn up causing the price to topple. In those other hobbies the vast number of collectors buffers the hit to some degree. A little over ten years ago a woman in California found a cache of unsold vendor pins: Wilson “Stand by the President” and Harding West Coast Visit pins. This small number of examples precipitated an 80% price drop in the Wilson and more than 50% drop in the Harding. It is hard to know if or when these prices will recover.

Like any commodity, the price for an item is set by the economic theory of supply and demand. For this to be true the product has to be universally available to all interested parties. Our market has never been completely fluid or mature. Supply is the easiest variable to study objectively. Unfortunately, we never know what is out there hiding in an attic waiting to hit the market so we can only look at what comes to market and how. I will look at supply as our collecting patterns have changed over the history of our hobby. The first era preceded me and I will not “out” any of our emeritus collectors for their input but my depiction is based on hearsay and is therefore open to valid criticism. I am not sure when this era ended but I suspect it ended with the rebirth of APIC in the sixties. Prior to that, most collections were built locally through flea markets, antique shows and estate sales. Collectors traded with each other and there were early meetings but on a scale of numbers the organized hobby was quite small; I have been told most collectors viewed their items with more sentimental than monetary value and that items were often priced by size. I suspect some of this is less than accurate. From a market standpoint, there was little open market and with few collectors the supply probably exceeded demand.

The second era came as the organized hobby grew with regional and national meetings as well as several national mail order auctions and fixed price catalogs. The collecting population grew but in many areas the availability of items was limited so supply to these collectors was limited to shows and catalogs. In Montana, I may not have encountered any political items for many months and these were invariably a few Whitehead and Hoag pins from 1900-1908 and a couple common litho’s from the 1940’s and 1950’s. I literally have never seen a Davis pin in the wild in Montana and almost no other substantial pinbacks from the teens or twenties were distributed in my region. I suspect this problem existed elsewhere and the grumblings I have heard from southern collectors supports this hunch. When I moved to Maryland I couldn’t comprehend the number of politicals that were available in the “wild”. In short, many items that were regionally rare were more common in other parts of the country; this created an obstructed market and with demand for items that were regionally rare but nationally more common resulted in an artificially elevated price.

With the launching of eBay in the mid-90’s, there was no longer a regional restriction on sales in the “wild”. Antique dealers and people in general could list their items for sale to the highest bidder anywhere. Golden era items that were previously only available to much of the hobby in mail order catalogs or at APIC shows were now listed frequently. This resulted in a significant infusion of items into the market. This should have been reflected in a significant decline in prices in our organized auctions and sales. I think this was somewhat blunted because many of the more senior and serious moneyed collectors failed to take advantage of this resource and continued to use catalogs and APIC sales as their primary source. In addition, other collectors outside the organized hobby found this a readily available resource so this created some rise in demand. This resulted in a drop in prices on eBay but prices in our national auctions and shows didn’t suffer to the degree I would have predicted. During this period there was a mismatch between prices realized on eBay and in our specialty auctions.

In the last 10-15 years, most of our hobby has begun to collect on-line; even our auctions have shifted away from catalogs. At this point I suspect our supply chain has fully matured and items that were regionally rare are now more available resulting in the price level of these items to fall significantly. The difference in price realized for items in the $25-200 range are now similar on eBay to our prices inside the hobby. Prices for many of these items has fallen more than 50%. Truly rare items have weathered this storm. Their availability has not substantially increased, but demand for them or the resources to purchase them seems to have increased.

In addition to the increase in items related to the internet, the supply has also increased because many very sizable collections have come to market over the last couple years. Surprisingly, the market has absorbed this influx better than I had expected. This is likely because these collections were heavily weighted in high quality and rare items. The more common items in these collections, if there were many, probably suffered the market forces but flew under the radar and failed to draw the attention of collectors.

I suspect the influx of items before 1950 on eBay will flatten out and the prices will stabilize in the near future. Sadly, I do not think items for John and Robert Kennedy have reached that point. Both were icons and I believe many women in their teens and twenties saved their memorabilia to a greater extent than casual observers did with items in earlier elections. These women are now in their 80’s and these items are likely to come to the market in the next ten years. I fear the supply will overrun the demand. This can already be seen in the classic “Youth for Kennedy”4 inch litho which is now on eBay essentially every week with a significant decline in its average sale price.

Demand is a much more nebulous force to define. People have expressed concern that prices are down because the hobby is losing numbers. We have always been a hobby of old white men, which is the case in any collectibles category. Yes, each year we seem to lose icons and it is far from apparent who will fill their shoes and more importantly their place in the market. As long as I have been associated with APIC, there has been hand wringing about how to grow the hobby and bring in young collectors. Each of us at one time was a young collector, but I suspect young collectors have been relatively invisible to the “old guard”. APIC membership has declined by 50% over the last 40 years but I am less certain that this reflects a true decline in active collectors. The current membership is roughly 1500 but the PME group on Facebook now has over 4100 members. When I attended my first National at age 23, I’m sure my presence went relatively unnoticed. Young collectors lack two assets that make them a regular and visible player in our organization: money and time. As we age, we have more disposable income to spend on our hobby and more free time to attend events. The internet has made some young people in our hobby more visible but many can anonymously compile collections from their living room on their laptops without becoming APIC members. Hopefully as they age, their presence will be more obvious within the hobby and their interests and spending will increase, but I wouldn’t recommend betting your retirement on it.

Collecting is a strange obsession which is NOT shared by everyone. It is poorly understood by those who don’t suffer from this affliction. Certainly we are all aware that it was not a ticket to middle school popularity. If you did manage to catch the eye of the opposite sex, showing off your collection and worse elaborating on its merits unlikely resulted in a sustained relationship let alone a second conversation. I think there are still young people out there with the bug but the computer world offers so many alternatives to collecting that they may pursue other hobbies. Hopefully, with the increasing passion in the political arena lately some will turn to collecting but this is far from certain.

In addition to active APIC members there is a large cohort of collectors that are independent, either by choice or the lack of knowledge that we exist. This cohort plays a large role in maintaining the background demand and buffering market shifts. According to the major auctioneers, this group of unaffiliates makes up many of their participants including some of the heaviest hitters. There are also political items that overlap with other hobbies adding to demand and pushing prices up.
Many hobbies have a higher price point such as historic flag collectors.

Given our collector base is so small, the addition of a few “serious” collectors with similar interests can artificially push up the price of items in the short term. I think this is currently happening with Teddy Roosevelt material. This often results in frustration from some of the more longstanding collectors but in my opinion is GOOD for the hobby even if it pushes some items beyond my price point.

The demand for items is also affected by trends and personal preferences in our hobby which are unpredictable and often short-lived. Popular candidates have always attracted specialists which in turn has driven up prices by focused demand. Some candidates like TR and Lincoln have sustained long-term popularity while others have waxed and waned. For many years there were a large number of FDR collectors and prices for rare pieces were relatively higher than those for other candidates but there now seems to be fewer FDR specialists. Twenty years ago the “Montana Silver Dollar Club” pin was selling for over $2000 but now has settled back to about $600 without a significant number entering the market. I personally think Ronald Reagan is currently having a run of popularity because those young people affected by his persona in the eighties have now hit middle age with its nostalgia and resources. Like the FDR boom I am not sure the demand for Reagan material will be as sustainable as TR and Lincoln.

There is another phenomena that effects all luxury markets called the “Snob Effect”. Sorry, political memorabilia is a luxury item; it is a want not a need. Simply put, there are collectors that will pay very high prices for status items similar to buying Gucci loafers. Mark Evans, may he rest in peace, had always disparaged “Cello Snobs” who he felt pursued pinbacks based on their price rather than their historical significance. I think we all have to admit we suffer to some degree from this syndrome. A Cox and Roosevelt jugate sells for substantially more money than one would expect based on its graphics and rarity (approximately 80 examples are known) but there is a certain “club” status to being an owner.

Now that we have discussed the traditional factors effecting supply and demand we should look at some other factors that significantly impact an item’s price. As in any hobby, condition has a significant impact on any item’s value. Our hobby has not fallen prey to formal condition grading and condition is still subjective and descriptive, ”different damage impacts value differently and often inconsistently”. Each of us factors the importance of condition when assembling our collections; some collectors are very condition conscious and others are able to tolerate a bit of “patina”. Surprisingly, the market seems to devalue damage on very rare and expensive items to a greater degree than similar damage on relatively common items especially pinbacks. This is a phenomena I have never really understood but I take advantage of this market glitch.

Each election cycle brings new candidates and excitement in the hobby. The 2020 election was the 14th election during which I have actively collected. In every one of these elections there has been a boost in demand for items from the current election with often non-transparent information on the true rarity or availability of the items. This has often resulted in prices reaching surprising levels. Unfortunately, over the next 8-10 years demand seems to wane, an item’s availability becomes more apparent and the prices for the majority of the items fall and stabilize. A factor to which many have attributed this volatility is collector involvement in pin manufacture and design. This is a very controversial topic in the hobby and there is certainly no consensus. Vendors produced and distributed most of our most treasured items of the golden age so limiting one’s collection to campaign authorized items would certainly limit the scope and beauty of our collections. It would be foolish to ignore that many are skeptical of more recent vendor items and shy away from them as this clearly affects the pool of interested buyers. My barometer has always been what market the vendors were targeting. If they were targeting the campaigning public, I embraced the item but if they were targeting the collector market I avoided them. With modern elections, I found it difficult to make this distinction so I opted to limit my collecting to elections prior to 1964 as there was almost no collector market prior to that time.

Another problem that effects the market both directly and indirectly is the presence of brummagem items. They directly affect the market when a collector holds off bidding or buying an item when their authenticity cannot be assured; this is frequently a problem on internet sites not related to APIC. How many of us would aggressively bid on an “Al and Joe Let’s Go” jugate on eBay without a good picture of the Wager backpaper? I think the presence of convincing reproductions even holds down the overall value of the item regardless of the source. Brummagem items indirectly affect the market by having collectors become discouraged and leave the hobby after getting burned by inadvertent purchases of reproductions. Brummagem education is the most valuable and important role APIC plays in our hobby.

My general recommendations regarding the market are as follows. Don’t collect as an investment; collect what you love and ignore the background noise. If your offspring do well selling your collection wonderful, but if they don’t it’s not really your problem. If you are buying for resale, condition is very important and try to pay no more than 50% of your expected resale price. Try to avoid jumping onto “hot” trends in the hobby as these prices are rarely sustained, that goes for both “hot” candidates and current elections. Let the market settle. On a related note, I have strong reservations about pursuing Trump items as they seem particularly overpriced. Given his ego, I would not be surprised if he uses surrogate bidders to keep the value of his pins “huge”.  The single most important rule in collecting is always buy the BEST item you can afford; one $100 pin will be better in the long run than ten $10 pins.

Pins that are truly rare and have weathered the market

Item                          90’s                2000’s            2020

Cox/Roosevelt           7000              43000            47000

Hughes                    1200                1400               1700

TR dinner pail           1000                1500               1200

Mckinley                   NS                  1200                2900

Pins that have not fared well

Item                        90’s              2000’s          2020

Taft hearts                565               363                223

Coolidge                 2600             2300               850

Bryan                      2600             1150               750

Smith                       230                215               185

Davis                        325                266               125

Willkie                      200                160                 75

Hughes                    325                 180                75

I am happy to appraise your items (406)217-2017