As a nation of hoarders -- um, collectors -- sorts through boxes of Precious Moments and Beanie Babies, it might be time to admit we've been had.
Welcome to the fickle world of collectibles, where today's Bradford Exchange commemorative plates are tomorrow's skeet-shooting targets.
So what is actually worth collecting?
People need to make a distinction between something that they collect for fun and for an investment, said Paul Runze, co-owner of the Collectors Gallery in Woodbury. Runze's store sells Department 56, Snowbabies, Hummels and Lladro -- all treasured names for many collectors but, like a new car, usually worth a lot less after it leaves the showroom.
Retailers have to walk a fine line because many brands might be valued in personal collections as "home decor," but they are not an investment, said Eric Bradley, editor of Antique Trader magazine, based in Iola, Wis.
"People seem to think that because they're collecting something, the value will go up," he said.
Unfortunately, the antiques and collectibles market, which took a major hit when eBay came on the scene, is poised to take another body blow as baby boomers' parents pass on their collections.
"The boomer generation doesn't want to collect the whole set like their parents did," Bradley said. They want one or two great pieces and sell the rest. "There is going to be a tidal wave of stuff coming on the market, selling at rock-bottom prices."
People drawn to collecting
Something in our psyche loves collecting. Whether it's rocks, shells, state quarters or Cracker Jack toys, it often starts when we're kids. Freud believed that collecting stems from trying to maintain control and prevent lost possessions. Mark McKinley, a psychology professor at Lorain County Community College in Ohio, said collecting "calms fears, erases insecurity and establishes order."
To prevent your collection from getting out of order, experts suggest planning ahead. Think about friends or relatives who have devoted tubs, then closets and maybe even rooms to house their collections. Where will you store your collection if it expands to that level? How will you display it?
Be a seller as well as a buyer to maintain control. If you can afford to buy only mediocre pieces in the beginning, sell them to get a really great piece as you learn more about the value of your collection.
"The one great piece will increase more in value than 10 average pieces," Bradley said.
Think about what will happen to your collection when you die. Do you really want to spend so much time and money amassing things that don't interest your loved ones? John Kavanaugh of the eBay dropoff store I Sold It in Edina gets calls every day from adults wanting to know how much they can get for Grandma's or Grandpa's collection.
How do people know if what they're collecting is worth something? Collectors always say, "Buy what you like." Apparently, we Americans like a lot of stuff. We've been buying gobs of it for years and look where it's gotten us. Now Target has several aisles of big plastic storage tubs to contain our booty. PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" has evolved into A&E's "Hoarders."
Although many of us collect for the fun of it, secretly we all hope that someone, someday, is going to pay big bucks for, say, our frog collection. While there's no skill in trying to find a frog in every port, collecting as an investment takes time.
Not everyone wants to take the time necessary to research the value of individual pieces or a collection, but the key to value is demand and scarcity, Bradley said.
Collectors today have to be smarter than marketers. The words "limited edition" should be a red flag rather than an invitation to buy. Is "limited" 500, or will they keep making them until the demand dries up? Robb Hignite of St. Paul, an avid collector of more than 30 different items from dictation machines to Royal Dux porcelain, laughed when he saw an angel labeled "collectible limited edition" that was No. 1,242 of 55,000.
Buyers can get a sense of value by checking prices of finished auctions on eBay or a more professional site such as Live Auctioneers (www.liveauctioneers.com).
"Read everything you can about an item before you buy, because your initial investment sets the tone," Bradley said.
Not all dolls are dolls
Fortunately, not every collectible has faded into ignominy. Transformers toys from the '80s are popular now because the recent movies with Shia Laboeuf prop up interest. They don't even have to be in the original box, as long as the cards and the pieces are all there, Kavanaugh said.
On the other hand, Shirley Temple dolls have fallen from favor because, unlike Barbie, little girls today aren't playing with them. The only people who want them are the collectors who already have them, said Hignite of St. Paul.
Bradley speculated that one doll being sold today that "has legs" as a collectible is the Bratz line.
"It's a unique design, the dolls have 'tude, and there's controversy because of the copyright infringement lawsuit" with Barbie maker Mattel, he said. "It's a legitimate collectible in 20 or 30 years when today's 10-year-olds start getting nostalgic for their youth."
Gals, just clear out your husband's now-worthless Starting Lineup collection to make room.