In 1988, Scott Bruce authored “The Fifties and Sixties Lunch Box,” published by Chronicle Books. A year later, House of Collectibles published his “Official Price Guide to Lunch Box Collectibles.” The two publications were two parts of an elaborate plan to create a $1,000.00 lunch box. Bruce announced his intentions in advance. He succeeded, one of the more macabre moments in collecting history. Bruce openly proved how easy it was to manipulate the antiques and collectibles secondary marketplace.
[Author’s Aside: I am embarrassed to inform readers that Bruce developed his game plan from my “How To Make The Most Of Your Investments in Antiques and Collectibles: The First Insider’s Guide to Manipulating the Antiques and Collectibles Markets to Maximize Your Investment,” published by Arbor House/William Moore in 1988. I am pleased the book is long out-of-print and extremely difficult to find on the used book market.]
Nothing has changed since I wrote this book. Speculators and/or investors continued to and still continue to manipulate the antiques and collectibles secondary market as the second decade of the 21st century ends.
I encourage readers to read Kyle Orland’s article entitled “Why is this copy of the Super Mario Bros. worth $100,000? We asked a buyer” found at www.arstechnica.com before continuing. The link is: https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2019/02/how-this-ultra-rare-copy-of-super-mario-bros-sold-for-100000/. It is amazing how much relates to what follows.
On October 3, 2019 I received an email from Jason Bailey, a reporter for “The New York Times.” He was researching an article about the retro game market, “which has seen some high-water prices in auctions and private sales this year.” He asked if I had time to chat with him about “whether video games have potential to join the more established world of comics and sports cards?” We talked for over half an hour.
Jason has interviewed me several times during the past decade. He usually calls when he wants an “objective” opinion about a collecting trend. Talking to those involved, he only hears positives. I point out the positives and negatives on a firm belief there are always “two sides to a question.” There are often more sides when discussing antiques and collectibles trends.
I informed Jason that I had been following the rapidly increasing prices for early video games in the collectibles secondary market for almost a year and was planning to write a column about it. Jason asked me not to scoop him. I agreed. When this “Rinker on Collectibles” column is published in late December or early 2020, Jason’s article will have appeared.
When interviewed by a reporter, only snippets of our conversation appear in print. The following is an expanded version of Jason’s and my interview. I am sharing it because it shows how much more sophisticated the manipulation of the antiques and collectibles secondary market has become in the 30 years since Scott Bruce’s two books and my book appeared.
Taking the high ground initially, I told Jason that there was a long list of positives already in place to create a possible long-term video game collecting market. First, the earliest video games are now 50 years old. As a result, games from the first 20 years fall outside Rinker’s 30 Year Rule—for the first 30 years of anything’s life all its value is speculative. In fairness to video games, the rule was meant to apply to the date of initial manufacture. I wonder if the timeline should start when a collecting category attracts collectors and not when the object in the collecting category was first manufactured. The secondary video game market is 10 to 15 years old.
To establish a viable secondary collecting market a number of key events must take place. The first event is the creation of a collectors’ checklist identifying which objects are important and which are not. Print is preferable, but online is acceptable. Simon Parkin’s “An Illustrated History of 151 Video games: A detailed guide to the most important games; explores five decades of game evolution…,” published by Lorenz Books in 2014 checks this off the list. The second is a price guide from an organization that collectors trust. Carrie Wood’s “The Overstreet Guide to Collecting Video Games,” published by Gemstone Publishing in 2017, fulfills this need.
The third is a group of closet collectors who are willing to compete actively to secure video games they do not own. As they become more competitive, the fourth key falls into place—the sale of video games through auction and/or private treaty sale through a nationally established auction house. In the case of video games, the auction house is Heritage Auctions of Dallas, Texas. It is impossible to get any bigger than this.
The fifth is an orchestrated publicity campaign to spread the concept that early video games are collectibles and, more importantly, desirable. The recommended article I suggested reading at the beginning of this column is a classic, one of the best hyped collection pieces I ever read. Eventually, the online and print media begin to run the press releases and hyped stories—the sixth key event. The national media stories add credibility to the hype. A bandwagon effect takes place. Individuals who previously had no interest in collecting video games want a piece of the action, especially if there is a profit to be made.
Four keys are enough. Six are enough to guarantee sure-fire success. The group behind creating and manipulating the secondary market for video games added two more. First, they created a grading service, hence the comic book and sport trading card connection. The fact that the owners of the grading service are the very individuals creating the speculation fever is the subject of great concern. Second, the Strong Museum of Play, the most important toy/play museum in the United States, created an International Center for the History of Electronic Games. in 2009. Its collection already includes more the 55,000 video games.
Time to play police officer and blow the whistle to stop and take a moment to think. Is the picture really as rosy as it seems? The answer is no. There are viable concerns that need to be addressed.
First, the secondary market for video games has not stood the test of time. The number of individuals currently involved in the market is limited compared to comic books and sports trading cards. Further the individuals manipulating the market are financial investors not collectors. They are interested in only one thing—selling for a profit.
Has the market returned to the latter half of the 1980s when the answer to the “who is the winner” question was not the person who paid so much for an antiques or collectible that they would never be able to recover what they paid during their or their heirs’ lifetimes, but the person who had the cash leading up the final fatal sale. Every speculative market eventually crashes. It can happen in less than a decade; for example Beanie Babies. Often it takes several decades, just ask any Hopalong Cassidy collector. Speculators do not love the objects. They love the money they represent. The have no guilt selling objects whose long-term worth is questionable.
Second, video games are generational. Individuals want the games with which grew up. No twentysomething gives a darn about video games from 40 or 50 years ago. They have no identity with them. When one asks the “who will care in 50 years” question, the answer is bleak – not cloudy or indefinite.
Third, electronic technology does not stand still. Modern video games and the devices used to play them are a far cry from the Atari hardware and games. Will the machines to play older video games and individuals who can repair those machines even exist? There are those who remember a generation who felt the handle-held pocket calculator would be around forever. There is no forever in collecting terms.
Virtual reality, the electronic advancement that will replace the video games, is already on the scene. The end of the Golden Age of classic video games is now. Video games may linger for a decade or two but they eventually will disappear as will the generations that remember them.
Grading and encapsulating video games, especially unopened packaging, assumes the video game inside is viable. Grading does not ensure this. Kodak 35mm color slides and WHS tapes did not hold up over time. There are mites that attach to and destroy CD and DVD discs. The long-term viability of a video game to retain its initial quality has not been tested. There is no guarantee the quality and playability of a video game will not deteriorate over time. I am betting it will.
Finally, all the hype is on early and prototype video games. No one knows the exact production numbers for any game. The numbers are largely best guesses. Further, there is no understanding of the survivability rate of video games. It will require a decade or more to sort out which are scarce and which are not. Most of the speculator/investors will be in and out of the market by that time.
Graded, boxed video games are not the next graded comic book and sports card market. When the dust settles, they will be more likely be compared to the early American brown furniture and Hummel markets.
I was known as the Beanie Meanie during the Beanie Baby craze. It is time for me to replace that mantle with a new one.
LANDMARK COLUMN: This column represents the end of 33 years of uninterrupted weekly columns. Since ROC #1717 and ROC #1718 are already written, it is safe to assume “Rinker on Collectibles” will continue. I have established some “final” cut-off points. The last on the list is ROC #1820, this column’s 35th birthday. Will I make it there or not? Readers will just have to wait and see.