Ever wonder how vigorous markets in collectibles — stamps, coins, beer cans, match covers, baseball cards — got started? Numerous economists I’ve put this question to have no idea and cannot point to any research in this area.
What we do know is that these collectible marketplaces usually do not start from one “producer” or “entrepreneur”. They spread as informal marketplaces in neighborhoods and often evolve into regional or national conventions where exhibits and trading go on in tense earnestness. Word of mouth and correspondence connect buyers and sellers. A couple of years ago, one Honus Wagner mint condition baseball card sold for over $400,000 — more than the Pittsburgh Pirate star made in his entire career.
We also know that collectibles are a way of creating wealth from things that had no intrinsic value. Out of circulation, old coins and stamps can’t buy you a newspaper in a store. But they can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to collectors. Nineteenth century whale-oil lamps or matchboxes don’t bring in much money for any functional uses today. But they can bring in a tidy sum for hobbyists who are trading with their counterparts.
About twenty five years ago, 19th century weather vanes suddenly became valuable. So much so, that thieves would climb carriage houses at night and take them down into the black market. A “swooping eagle” weather vane today is worth many thousands of dollars.
It occurred to me recently that there are no collectible markets arising out of our country’s citizen activities to make our democracy work better or to improve it. We have watched or read about the last half century’s struggles for civil rights, environmental safety, consumer protection, civil liberties and equal status for women.
In the Thirties, epic confrontations occurred between labor and corporate management, as with the historic sit-down strikes in Flint and Detroit, Michigan by auto workers. Mass demonstrations against atomic power and the nuclear arms race swept the country in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
Millions of Americans have the memorabilia from these events -colorful buttons, evocative wall posters, provocative T-shirts, marching signs and many kinds of props. Were these to become collectibles, in the sense of being part of a trading mart or newsletters or magazines describing the offerings, or exhibiting conventions, some significant benefits could follow.
For example, this new wealth could help fund the activities of citizens groups. There is no reason why, over time, buttons and posters could not command prices comparable to early or rare baseball cards. For these are markets made by the minds of people and their values. Youngsters interested in collecting these items -say headbands or armbands from historic marches — might become interested in the citizen movements they represented and, perhaps, become more active when they grow up. Many young stamp collectors became more interested in geography and travelling in this manner,
Moreover, citizen action collectibles generate motivation, a spirit of the possible in a democracy, an appreciation of how a small number of determined civic-minded Americans brought us such blessings of liberty, justice and safety that we have received over the past 200 plus years.
Collectibles also remind us of how much more we have to do to make our democracy responsive to the demands and pressures of the 21st century.
How can this world of citizen collectibles get under way? Maybe some enterprising, empirical economist can write an article in a learned journal to point the way.
Until that happens, here are a couple of suggestions. A scattering of modest small shops can open in suitable communities offering many of these artifacts for sale. Citizen groups can stimulate early interest by having fund-raising auctions featuring these items.
Perhaps, most fundamentally, all citizens who have such products in their bureaus, closets, boxes, pockets of old coats or attics should assemble them. Above all, watch your attics! As many a former pre-teenage baseball card collector can agonizingly tell you, piles of those now very valuable cards went up in flames when Mom and Dad brought some spring-cleaning to the family attic.