Your grandmother just passed away, and you're combing through her attic deciding what to keep, what to toss, and what to sell. And suddenly you spot it: a box of Hummels, the collectible figurines that debuted in 1935 based on the illustrations of one Maria Innocentia Hummel, a German nun.
According to renowned antiques expert Terry Kovel of Kovels.com, the figurines initially gained popularity in the United States because soldiers during World War II bought them in Europe for their wives, girlfriends, and parents, who "thought they were cute".
A hot secondary market soon developed and for a while, the values of Hummels rose, although Kovel notes that inflation was a major driver of that price run-up. Wanting to take advantage of the boost in values, Goebel, the German parent company of the Hummel brand, sought to cash in. According to Kovel, "Back in the 70s and 80s they started all this limited editions stuff: they had plates and bells, and you name it. They thought they could fool the public."
And it worked -- for a while. Kovel said many dealers marketed the Hummel memorabilia for its investment merits -- pointing to the strong track record of price appreciation. But as financial writer Felix Salmon once noted about the secondary market for Thomas Kinkade prints, "As a general rule, no retailer has ever consistently been able to make money by selling the proposition that his goods are going to increase in value after they're bought."
According to Kovel, the problem is that with much-hyped limited edition pieces, everyone who wants them buys them from the manufacturer when they're issued -- and then a secondary market never develops after that, and resale values fall. See also, for instance, Andrew Tobias' recent takedown of Franklin Mint collectibles.
The Downfall of the Hummels
Now, Hummels have succumbed to the reality of the "made for collectors" marketplace. In October 2008, Goebel ceased production of Hummels. In 2009, Manufaktur Rodental GmbH acquired the rights to the brand and resumed production, but on a much smaller scale. But even though production has been limited it has done little to boost demand for the tiny statues.
Prices, Kovel says, have "gone to hell." "If we have a Hummel whose book value is $325, they are now bringing about $50, sometimes less," wrote estate liquidator Julie Hall, the author of The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff, in an email. On eBay, ultra-rare Hummels still occasionally fetch big bucks -- 'Adventure Bound' was recently sold for $1,135 on eBay by BakertowneCollectables. But that's the exception. Many other Hummels don't sell at all -- or sell for less than $50, a once unheard of price for Hummels.
And what about those non-figurine Hummel-branded products, like plates and bells, that Goebel launched back when prices were going up, up, up? Forget about it: A lot of nine Hummel collectible plates from the 1970s through the early 1990s recently sold for less than $15 per plate. Contemporary Hummel figurines can now be found at discounters like Marshalls and Overstock.com although, collectors complain, the quality has gone downhill over the years as the company sought to cut costs.
As bad as the past ten years have been, the outlook for future prices doesn't seem to be much better. "A lot of young people kind of hate the things and think they're saccharine," said Kovel.
Hummels have "come and gone," said Hall. "People appear to want something clean, simple, fresh and very different these days," she said. "The trend is already in motion – we are seeing what was once the rage, Traditional possessions, not selling for much at all. The trend is clearly going in the direction of contemporary, or vintage modern."
Like so many things, demographics will be the driver of the Hummel market of the future: everyday, Hummel enthusiasts pass away and their treasures get dumped onto an already saturated market. Without any new collectors to replace them, Hummels are likely to continue their descent into poverty.
Kitsch and capitalism: The rise and fall of Hummel figurines