The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 27, Number 10, March 10 2024, Article 8


In a February 29, 2024 email to clients of Holabird Western Americana, Fred Holabird gave this perspective on the collectibles market. Published here with permission. Thank you. -Editor

Fred Holabird The Collectibles Market is Still Changing!

Over the past couple of years, we have seen great changes in the collectibles markets. Our company sells well over 60 different categories of collectibles. I seriously doubt there are others like us. We also specialize in finding new customers – an exceptionally important concept in trying to build a strong market, because competition is what makes price. With literally tens of thousands of customers getting notice of our auctions, it is up to the customers to determine the market price.

Times are Changing

Over the past two decades we have seen the interjection of the online auction business. It has completely taken over the old-fashioned rooms full of bidders. We knew it was the future when it started, and we jumped onboard, quickly using several different online platforms and settling with the best.

Ebay got it all started. At first, it was an excellent way to sell. But over time, as fees increased, it became apparent it was not profitable for large scale auction houses to use these services. Indeed, when eBay Live was in business, they told us we were their largest per-sale customer, and the ability to upload our auctions was so time consuming and difficult, we were lucky for their team to get it done in a few days before an auction, regardless of overall lead time.

The same formula has taken place over the last decade with online live-auction platforms. Through time, fees have increased, and in some cases are way out of proportion to the services provided. This resulted in the formation of timed auctions. The concept is simple, and if the buyer audience is huge, the concept should work – theoretically. Indeed, at least one collecting category - the biggest, numismatics, has turned to this sales format very successfully. The costs are a small proportion of what a live sale costs. And I mean small – nothing close to what a live sale costs, and perhaps up to a 70%-plus savings. This is not something to sneeze about.

Lets discuss briefly the markets, then get on to the topic of collectibles at live and timed sales.

The Hottest Categories

Everybody wants to know what's hot? Its simple, and has almost always been guided by the sheer number of collectors.

  1. Numismatics.
    • Coins are the second largest collectible in the world, following only religious items, which generally do not have collectible value. This category has more cash-paying collectors worldwide than any other. It thus makes sense with a large audience that competition should be keen. Its hot. Parts of this market can cool off – especially coins with direct ties to their silver or gold content. If the precious metal markets are flat, so will the sales. We have even seen dealers and collectors not willing to pay 20% back of spot in a weak market, for fear the price will drop precipitously within the week.
    • Tokens. We seem to have a very hot market, and I seriously doubt any other company sells the number of collections we do. Some geographic or topical sub-genres can cool off from time to time, but the field is still hot.
    • Medals. A similar comment to the above. Medals are hot. There is not a standard guide to pricing here, with a few exceptions, and collectors simply set the prices through bidding.
  2. Philatelics. Ok, another funny word like numismatics … many ask me why don't they just say coins and stamps? What the heck – it doesn't matter, this is the third giant collecting field in the world.
    • Stamps. Handled exactly like coins and in a very parallel manner, inclusive of the mass market sellers, stamps are hot. Condition and rarity guide the way to value.
    • Covers. A very diverse market, basically hot in all directions and sub-genres. Rarity and demand guide the way. First day covers are the comparison to collecting pennies, nickels and dimes out of circulation. It is the bottom level. High-end, rare covers make collectors weak-kneed.
  3. Picking a third category is tough – too tough for me, so I will list a few that we see in our company results and from the number of collectors competing.
    • Rare railroad collectibles. Passes, railroad lanterns, railroad locks and keys. These categories are all strong. The weak part of RR collectibles is general paper ephemera.
    • Antique bottles. Forget the common stuff, just like most categories. Rarities are exceptionally hot.
    • Gold specimens. But do not expect to pay under spot metal price.
    • Native American jewelry. The art of some of these pieces is so astounding, it is a wonder there are not museums full of it.
    • Probably a couple of others that I forgot

Markets Some Consider Cold

  Fred Holabird cold market

Let's face it. Collecting today has radically changed, and buying habits have also greatly changed. Some of this was due to the 2008 economic crash, of which some of these categories have not yet recovered. These include (though there will always be exceptions within each genre, especially for the great rarities):

  1. Post cards
  2. Antiquarian photographs
  3. Pressed glass collectibles
  4. Ceramic collectibles such as wall pockets etc.
  5. Hollywood memorabilia
  6. Autographs
  7. Some antiques in general. Antique and historic trunks are an example.
  8. A few I've forgotten

Other categories seem to have faded or changed through the Covid pandemic and in the aftermath. These categories include (as above, there are exceptions with the great rarities):

  1. Stock certificates
  2. Rare reference books, and rare books in general
  3. Modern toys
  4. Antique furniture
  5. Various segments of the art business, such as signed prints, early or historical engraved prints, etc.
  6. Various US early gold rush material
  7. Wild west collectibles (starting to come back)

The Summary here is simple: the markets are always changing, and what was once popular, may not be today. It is easily recognizable by the number of bidders on these items in any of our sales. Many collectors fail to recognize this, thinking these old markets still exist, and that the dealers or auction houses do not know what they are doing. Oh? Try selling it on your own. You'll see, quickly.

Appraisals and Certificates of Authenticity. The IRS instituted new regulations regarding appraisals, and I doubt most appraisers have ever read them. First, and foremost, any appraisal over one year old is worthless in general. Technically, it is invalid, but can offer some insight. With drastically changing markets, any appraisal over a year old must and will be viewed with skepticism. Also, many appraisals and certificates of authenticity we see do not have a date, name of the company, nor company address. These are perfectly and completely worthless.

  Fred Holabird bids

So How Do You Determine Value?

Buyers set the price, period. Once upon a time, pre-2008 market crash, and for decades before, the seller could set the prices, and thus establish what was perceived as market value. But not today. Competing collectors set the prices. I firmly believe an open market, generally with no reserves, is the only way to go. It allows for full-scale collector analysis through the open bidding process. This said, there are very important components to any public sale. The most important one is that if there is only one item in a special category in the public sale, the market may not ever see it. One item is generally not enough to draw world-interest. It often needs a full collection of 50 or more items to draw the necessary attention. Perhaps, and arguably so, the second – or tied with the first – is marketing. If the company doing the sale does not spend the time understanding and implementing advanced marketing methods, the items may never be noticed by the world collecting community. Thirdly, markets differ from place to place, and genre to genre to genre. One auction house or dealer may be far better at selling specific collecting categories than others. The only way to break through this trend is through advanced internet and print marketing. We do this extremely well, but not all possess the ability to do so for a number of reasons, much of which revolves around cost.

Will Collectibles Collectors Ever Accept the Timed Sale Medium?
As timed sales have begun to take over the numismatics field, at an internal sale cost far below that of live auctions, it became time to examine if this sale concept could work for other collecting fields.

The first thing to understand is that a live, internet sale is very costly. Each platform gets a percentage from the auction house. Many of the platforms also get a percentage from the buyer. That means the platforms get a BIG piece right off the top. The old days of a live sale being able to offer ten percent commission to a collectibles customer are long over. The costs have overcome this pricing model. The ten per cent model can only be thought of when items of approximate million dollars are sold, which can ride the rest of the auction on its back. The alternative? Spend half a million dollars and develop your own platform, then another half million in marketing it. Has this been done successfully? Yes, at least once.

The Single Item, Online, or ebay Effect (there are several similar sites, so I use this term as a sales mechanism).

Many sellers still think online selling costs are cheap. They are not. When we closed our online store and active single item auctions several years ago, our out of pocket costs for the entire last year of operation were 17%, plus our internal labor cost to list, pack and monitor sales. This was absolutely uneconomic. It does remain economic for some categories. Of late, the great majority of our online sellers that call me have told us their markets have all but disappeared after Christmas.

The New Timed Online Sales Medium
We have been experimenting with the new timed sale medium for about a year with admittedly mixed success. It was originally utilized specifically to move out old inventory that had been offered multiple times with no bids, even at greatly lowered prices, which clearly meant that the market for these collectibles was getting weaker through time. We have been lucky, and have consignors who recognize this, and have asked to convert to cash. In at least one instance, an outstanding retired dealer fully recognizes the old markets are gone, and we had to establish new markets, which we have been doing. The only way is through low starting prices that will draw (and make) new collectors. This cannot be accomplished with live auctions because of the huge increase in costs.

We, and other houses, simply cannot front the costs of selling items into the marketplace at low price levels, particularly items selling for under $100. The structure of the new internet market sales pricing is simply far too high and costly.

How are Collectibles Categories Affected by Timed Sales?
Numismatics? No problem. They are already used to it! Philatelics? Mostly ok, too. Antique bottles? Generally also seems to do fine. Other categories we are still experimenting with. Lets take a look, and comment on the why.

Stocks. The markets were beginning to go flat. There were many advanced aged collectors who dropped out of the market over the past decade. The lack of trade shows also had its effect. I have other comments that may or may not be valid, including the lack of interest today in history, both from the lack of teaching in schools, and in the iphone overtaking life. Its sad to see people with their faces pulled to the iphone screen instead of looking up into all the wonderful aspects of life itself, inclusive of history. The only way to get this market going is to start the lots low.

Post Cards. This market was in the tank. We have sold about a million post cards (ok, maybe really half a million) in the past decade. It's coming back. But we have to feed the market at low prices to stimulate collecting, just like stocks.

Will collectors be ready for this change to timed auctions? Some never will. The key is the audience and competitive bidding.

Number of bidders, bids
We have a huge audience. And I mean huge. Tens of thousands of customers. Some only want expensive items, Some of these folks, so far, do not look at the timed auctions. They only look at the live sales. It has the illusion of the best material being in the live auctions. This is a false illusion, as many of the items in the timed sales are unique, or nearly so, but do not carry the price power of certain other rare collectibles.

Many folks bid on items they want. Others bid for resale. Others bid for the fun of collecting. It is an impossibility to predict who will bid on what in advance in advance.

Bidding in the timed auctions is parallel to that of the live auctions. Most bidders prefer not to show their hands (a poker term) until the day of auction. You may not see much action in front of auction day. In timed sales, most of the lots get bid on in advance because of the low prices. Many think, perhaps properly, If you don't bid, you cant get it cheap. But by the end of the auction, there may be an average of three bids or more on each lot! Our live sales often average four or more bids per lot, showing good response and thus demand.

In summary, the timed sale is the wave of the future. Online auction platforms are beginning to price themselves out of business. I expect to see a huge decrease in the insta-online auction house over time. In a similar manner, some collectors do not understand they have a choice, and can actively choose to participate in auctions where the platform does not charge a surplus over and above the auction company's commission. The company we use as our main platform does not charge the customer an extra charge. Virtually all of the competing platforms of what I consider significant stature charge a premium. Why do collectors put up with this? Its simple- they like the format. But at some point the excess charges will cause customers to wake up.

We hope to continue to use the online timed auctions, which allow us the opportunity to gather more and more new collectors. But this format does not work with most online auction platforms because of hidden, and in my opinion, very excessive costs.

  Fred Holabird

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Davisson E-Sylum ad Sale 43 2024-02-18

Wayne Homren, Editor

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