Antiques as investmentsI've often wondered: if I buy antiques and collectibles instead of more traditional "assets", how am I likely to fare? I love old stuff: I like art, I like antiques, and I'd much rather spend my money on that stuff than on mutual funds. I recently looked at the tanking values of Precious Moments and Hummel figurines but what about other, less kitschy rarities?

Of course, there are plenty of indexes that track the performance of art. But the problem is that they tend to focus on really, really rare stuff. Sure, Picasso's and Rembrandt's have gone up in value but since I can't afford them, who cares?

I just stumbled upon a very cool opportunity to look at how prices for some less rare objects have changed since mid-1960s. At an auction, I purchased a large lot of vintage ephemera, including sixty-five auction catalogs for Parke-Bernet Galleries of New York, which was a leading auction house acquired by Sotheby's in 1964, and since folded into that company's operations. Inside each catalog, I found a print-out of the "prices realized" for each lot. I looked up a couple of the more interesting (and easy to find comparable items) on eBay and other sites to answer the question: How have mid-range antiques and collectibles held up as an investment over the years?

Here are a couple of examples:

  • On January 28th, 1967, Parke-Bernet Galleries sold 'American Field Sports, A Chance For Both Barrels', an 1857 Currier & Ives color lithograph measuring 18 3/8" x 26 5/8" for $300. Today, that same print is offered by one site for $4,850, and by another site for $5,000. Unfortunately, gallery list prices often provide an inflated view of a work's value. The print sold for just $977.50 at auction in 2004. That works out to a total return of 226% over 37 years, for a compound annual growth rate of 3.24%. If you like Currier & Ives, that might be a nice bonus to add to the pleasure you derive from looking at it on your wall. But by itself, it makes Currier & Ives prints a historically poor investment.

  • On May 16th, 1967, Parke-Bernet Galleries sold a Kodak Number One camera from 1888, for $130. The Kodak Number One was the first camera sold by Kodak and, according to the auction listing, "revolutionized the photographic industry by making amateur photography easy and popular." Today, this camera is worth a lot more. How much more? It's so rare that a replica from 1988 recently sold for about $300 on eBay. The original 1888 edition camera sold for $25 at retail, but today it's worth about $2,000, according to an email from Tamarkin Camera, an auctioneer specializing in cameras. So over 40 years, the value of the camera has gone from $130 to $2000. That's an annual rate of appreciation of 7.07%, good enough to whip inflation and quite a few asset classes. Plus, you got a pretty cool conversation piece for your living room.
What does this mean for the future? In the 1960s, vintage cameras were in their infancy as a collectible and the growth of that market has helped drive up prices. Currier & Ives prints were already highly sought after by 1967, and that seems to have hurt their appreciation in the 40+ years since.

What does this mean for collectors today? What lessons can we take about what categories have strong appreciation potential and which ones are best left at the flea market? Next week, I'll be picking the brains of a few leading antiques experts about the collectibles of the future.

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