Nearly all collectibles follow the same path on their way from junk to high priced treasure. Once a collector learns this path it is a fairly simple matter to predict what is going to be valuable in the future. Having this ability to predict the future opens up wonderful opportunities. An impressive collection can be assembled for just a few dollars.

As I write this, Mid-Century Modern is in vogue and pieces from the ‘70s and even ‘80s have become increasingly popular. By the time you read this, all these items will be even more popular and more costly to obtain. These pieces, like others, are on the path to becoming valuable collectibles.

Literally anything can become a collectible. All it takes is a few people who decide to collect something. We may look at some items and think “who would want that?” But this is exactly what was once thought of Mid-Century modern, advertising signs, industrial, kitchenware and everything else that is popular now. At one time, auctioneers couldn’t give away chrome kitchen table and chair sets. Not all that many years ago kitchen items from the 1960s and ‘70s were considered yard sale junk. And Melmac dinnerware? It sold for a song at auctions, if at all. Every antique and collectible was considered junk at one time or another. It’s hard to picture what we love today as something that was once considered rubbish, but it’s true. So, how did these things become valuable? Why are collectors willing to pay big prices for something no one wanted a few years ago? The answer is that a few collectors noticed how attractive these items were and started to collect them. It’s as simple as that. Here is how the collectibles cycle works:

The Warm-up Stage:

When an item stops being junk, at least for a few individuals, and starts down the path to becoming a collectible, it has entered “the warm-up stage.” In this stage an item isn’t really a collectible yet, it has merely been noticed by a few collectors. A very few people begin to collect it. Depression glass was at this stage a few decades ago. At that time it could be purchased by the box for a couple of dollars. It was valued to some degree, but not much. It could be found everywhere and very few people were interested in it at all, so it was dirt cheap.

The Attractive Stage:

In this next stage, more collectors begin to enter the market. At this point the number of collectors is greater, but the supply still far exceeds the demand. For this reason, prices go up, but remain cheap. There is no reason for any of the collectors to pay very much because they know they can find whatever they want for practically nothing. Depression glass entered this stage when a few pieces began to leave box lots and realize a couple of dollars on their own. Most pieces could still be had for under a dollar, but pieces such as pitchers, butter dishes, and tumblers began to cost more.

The Collectible Stage:

In this stage the collectible is finally recognized as a collectible and prices begin to increase, first slowly, then more rapidly. There are no box lots anymore, but prices are still very reasonable. Price guides appear as do articles in various magazines. To illustrate this stage let’s look at our example of Depression glass again. The best pieces, such as serving pieces, bring higher prices than before and lesser pieces, such as plates, cups & saucers, and so forth bring higher prices as well. Dealers will get interested at this stage and start buying a few pieces to sell in their shops.

The dealers become interested because there is now enough of a demand to justify spending some of their money on this new collectible. This helps to push up the value further.

The Established Collectible Stage:

Over the next few years the values increase until the collectible enters the next to last stage. In this stage the collectible is fully established. Our example of Depression glass reached this point in the 1980’s and ‘90’s. It has since become less popular and dropped in price, but it was one of the “in” collectibles for years. During this time the prices continued to increase, but more slowly. There were no more sudden and dramatic increases in value, except for new finds within the collectible area. The market calmed down and values stabilized. A few new collectors entered the field, but not enough to seriously increase demand. For this reason, the prices went up, but not very quickly. Even so, the values eventually became high enough that Depression glass fell out of favor for many. This brought the prices back down to a degree.

The Museum Stage:

Gradually, with the passage of time, the collectible becomes rarer as pieces are accidentally destroyed. During these years the collectible crosses the century mark and becomes an antique. After the passage of many years the values will have become so high that collectors will be thrilled to own a single piece, rather than trying to establish a collection. Collections, at this point, are left mainly to museums.

Not every collectible makes it to this point. Some get less popular instead of more and the values go down instead of up. This has happened with both Depression glass and Victorian furniture, although Depression glass is currently making a comeback.

Predicting The Future:

Every antique and collectible moves through these stages. The speed varies, but once a collectible has entered the warm-up stage it will generally travel on down the path. There are exceptions to this rule as cited above, but as a general rule, the path remains true.

Some fad collectibles gain popularity and then fizzle out before they become established collectibles. “Created collectibles,” such as collector plates, tend not to follow the rules. These aren’t true collectibles in that they don’t become collectible over time. They are specifically created to be collected and therefore don’t follow the same path. A quick example of this is Beanie Babies. They were all the rage many years ago. They skipped right to the collectible stage and then fizzled out. Most true collectibles will, however, move along through the various stages.

The lines between many of the stages are blurred. It is not always possible to decide exactly which stage a collectible is in, but a general idea is all that is necessary to make a wise purchase.

Watch the collectibles market and note what is gaining recognition. As soon as a rising collectible appears, begin to buy. This is a great way to assemble a nice collection for very little cash. You may read the signs wrong and get burned, but if you do, the loss will be small. We are not talking about investing thousands of dollars here, we are talking about spending a few dollars at a time. Even if your purchases don’t increase in value, your collection will still be something you can enjoy for years to come. An inexpensive collection is a thing of joy and if it appreciates in value, so much the better.