Not long ago, if you’d asked me, “Hey, Eric, how do you plan to pay for the down payment on a house or your son’s college education?” I would’ve said, “No problem. I’ll just sell my comic-book collection.”
Like a lot of other Gen X guys, I grew up thinking comics were investments. It sounds delusional, but when a guy pays for his daughter’s wedding with a single Spiderman comic, it feels less risky than a 401(k).
It’s not just comic books. Gen Xers are notorious hoarders of treasures from our pop culture youth. We’ve held on to vinyl records, old video games, baseball cards and action figures, assuming we’d be able to cash in someday and retire on a private island.
There’s plenty of evidence that we’re not delusional. A Super Mario 64 video game sold for $1.56 million last summer, and a Boba Fett action figure, the toy we all got for Christmas in 1980, sold for $204,435 in March. People are making millions selling baseball cards.
But not everybody gets lucky. Barry Smith, 53, has collected over 1,200 comics since he was a kid. When he lost his job and needed emergency funds, he decided the time was right to sell. His best offer was $500.
"I’m not too proud to admit, I cried a bit," Smith says.
Is your garage or attic filled with boxes of Gen X trinkets worth millions? Maybe. But before you get too excited, consider these questions.
1. Have you used it, like, at all?
“What collectors really want,” says Charlie Essmeier, a longtime seller of rare vinyl records, “is to find an album that someone bought, played once and decided that they didn't like and never played again.”
Best case, you never removed it from its original factory-sealed packaging. But even if you’re a human being who prides himself on his collection and used that vinyl only lightly, that doesn’t mean you’ve got something in “mint” condition.
“The difference between a 9.4 grade and a 9.8 is probably imperceptible to a mere mortal,” says Rob Salkowitz, 55, a business analyst and author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. “But it can mean a 10-times-or-more difference in the potential selling price.”
2. Are you sure it’s rare?
Let’s say you have a copy of the first Star Wars comic from 1977. You think you’ve got something worth a fortune! And you do if it’s got the 35-cent price tag. Those comics were printed in a limited run and have sold for up to $32,000. But you probably have one of the more common 30-cent copies. That’ll get you about 80 bucks.
Most collectors have no clue what’s actually valuable. Have a copy of Paul McCartney's 1971 album Ram? If it’s the stereo version, it’s worth $40. “But a mono copy can go up to $5,000,” says John Marshall, a vinyl expert who’s appraised millions of records. The picture sleeves that came with many 45s are worth more than the records. The actual record of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” will get you around $10, “but the picture sleeve it came in can now sell for up to $18,000,” Marshall notes.
3. Does somebody want to buy it? Not theoretically but with money?
“A collectible is only worth what someone else will pay for it,” says Michael Sommer, 44, who runs the sports-card collecting blog WaxPackHero. In other words, it doesn’t matter if every antiques pricing guide on the internet says you’re sitting on a gold mine; if you don’t have a buyer, it ain’t worth squat.
That’s exactly what happened to me. I recently got one of my most valuable comics appraised, Spiderman #122, a 1973 issue that’s been valued at ten thousand dollars. The dealer offered me 50 bucks.
I might’ve gotten more if I’d waited. Or maybe not. “Any item can sell for a totally different price, higher or lower, on any given day,” says Alex Winter, the president of Hake’s Auctions, one of the largest pop culture auction houses in the country.
If you realize you have nothing but junk, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Some investment platforms, such as Collectable and Otis Wealth, allow you to buy and sell equity shares in high-end collectibles like sports cards and comics. It’s like investing in the stock market, but with the stuff you collected as a kid.
“Shares are often sold between $10 and $100, and you can buy multiple shares,” Sommer says.
This option may not make you the next Warren Buffett, but it’s better than being a sucker with a dusty box full of future recycling.