The Interesting Dichotomy Of Lower Prices, But No Willing Sellers

June 7, 2024

One of the basic truths of the antiques and collectibles trade is the simple understanding that an item is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it at any given time. This is incredibly hard for some collectors to understand, especially if they have been away from the market for a long time and to come to the realization that their beloved treasures are now worth a fraction of the price they paid. On the flip side, this can also work in reverse. I had many childhood friends who left some of their favorite childhood toys and video games at their parents house only to discover that today some of these items are worth their weight in gold. This is a good time to remind readers that change is the only constant in the antiques and collectibles trade, and it should be noted that it is almost impossible to predict these changes over the long term. That said, it sure doesnt keep the starry-eyed speculators from trying. One of the more interesting problems a collector can have is if they are willing to pay the current perceived market price of an item but cannot locate one for sale. For instance, right now certain pop culture collecting categories are down double digit percentage points since selling for or at above record high prices back a few years ago. I have multiple collectors coming to me claiming as they look over recent completed auction sales they are willing to pay more than what some of their favorite collectibles sold for at auction. Sadly, however, there are currently no willing sellers. And herein lies a somewhat unexpected problem: when prices fall quickly, very few would-be-sellers and collectors want to part with their items. Price memory is real, and it is defined as believing that current and future prices are directly correlated to past performance. It is also one of the many ways speculators and investors make bad decisions, not only when attempting to invest in collectibles, but also traditional financial assets and even real estate (side note, I like index funds for this reason). Some collectors operating in the antiques and collectibles trade are not financially savvy, nor do they need to be. Speculators and investors, however, should possess some level of financial prowess to make good decisions in regard to the items they are choosing to buy. Dealers also need to make good financial decisions to be able to stay ahead of any unforeseen market curves and ensure they do not overpay for their inventory. If a market drops by double digits in a short amount of time, most dealers will need to adjust their prices accordingly in hopes of recouping capital or, if possible, hold their inventory until the market rebounds. From an investment standpoint, the antiques and collectibles trade currently finds itself in the cross hairs of an economic hangover that saw prices surpass record highs just a few short years ago and an environment where certain markets are struggling to remain relevant in an age of higher than normal interest rates and increased inflationary pressures. This is having a profound impact on the amount of available supply that is being offered on the market at present time. Case in point, the market for graded, factory-sealed vintage video games was tracking record highs in 2021. Unfortunately, few fellow experts in the trade would dispute my assessment that the market for these items was most likely being manipulated in one way or another at that time. This contributed to the market falling substantially, and while today you can still find graded factory-sealed vintage video games being offered at auction, the breadth of selection is nowhere where it once was simply due to the dropoff in prices. Anyone who paid tens of thousands of dollars for some of these games (when they do come up for auction) is getting less than one-tenth of the original sold price. They would likely be better off waiting to see if the market recovers before cashing out, unless, of course, they need the money. However, if that is the case, one has to ask why are these collectors tying up their funds in non-liquid items in the first place? Regardless, this is creating an interesting phenomenon in some of these markets where collectors would be willing to purchase items at their current market prices, but, unfortunately, very few sellers are willing to sell. This same dichotomy has appeared many times before in the market for antiques and collectibles but is sadly not overly discussed by a lot of hype-driven news media outlets that love to report only on record high prices. Back when the graded coin bubble that monopolized the mid- to late 1980s burst, this same scenario played out. Collectors, dealers, and even some investors were clamoring to buy graded coins at their new low price point but were disappointed to find any actual number of willing sellers. I remember reading an article back in the day that claimed the graded coin bubble was a myth simply because demand for coins was still at an all-time high after the speculative bubble burst. The article conveniently forgot to mention that most starry-eyed speculators who paid a premium to get these shiny graded metal discs were too disgusted with the current market environment to even consider selling their holdings at what often amounted to a 60 to 70 percent loss. So this all begs the question, where do we go from here? Believe it or not, there is still some opportunity left in some of these overheated markets that are now cooling at below zero temperatures due to a lack of ultra high demand. While it is true that investors and collectors need to realize the high price points achieved during the pandemic-era boom most likely will never be achieved again, that does not mean investing opportunities in these markets are gone. What is it going to take to get some of these starry-eyed speculators to sell into this current market environment? Unfortunately to answer that, we need a crystal ball, and the best I can come up with is a Magic 8 ball. However, more demand usually equals higher prices, and that just may do the trick. Please use caution out there. Investing in antiques and collectibles is not without risk. Shawn Surmick has been an avid collector since the age of 12. He currently resides in his hometown of Boyertown, Pa., and is a passionate collector of antiques and collectibles. His articles focus on various topics affecting the marketplace.


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