Just Because It’s Old Or Rare Doesn’t Mean It’s Valuable
September 25, 2013

Just Because It’s Old Or Rare Doesn’t Mean It’s Valuable

The wave of reality TV shows where people find treasure and it turns out to be very old or rare has seemingly convinced a lot of people that the words “rare” and “old” are synonymous with “valuable.”

As someone who actually frequents antique stores, estate sales, garage sales and flea markets in the quest for treasure, I can attest that a lot of what you’ll find out there is actually way, way over priced. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t buying. But if you’re looking to find treasure on the cheap, most of the time you will end up on a fool’s errand.

Here is the root of the problem; rare doesn’t mean valuable. A used copy of a Harry Potter novel in hardback might sell for $5 at a used bookstore. Meanwhile, an old first edition of a book from 1888 might sell for $5 at a rare bookstore. Why would a novel that is 125+ years newer be worth the same?

Because more people will want to read Harry Potter than will want to read an old book, and it isn’t the age or the rarity that determines the value – but rather the desire of people to buy any said item.

eBay has really changed the game, too. Here is an example.

My grandparents had a set of old Shakespeare books. These were small, leather bound books that actually belonged to my great grandfather and were published in the late 1920s. My research has found that these probably sold for around $5 for the complete set, meaning these were quite a bit of money back in the day.

As the oldest grandchild, I inherited these, much to the dismay of a couple of cousins who thought perhaps the set be shared. The truth is that it was hardly worth even a small row.

The complete set, in excellent condition, can be found on eBay for less than $50, and typically there are plenty of listings. The question is why wouldn’t these books, which are fast approaching 100 years old, be worth more? And more importantly, why did all my relatives think these books had any value?

Blame the Internet – or at least the lack of it.

Back before eBay and other online auctions, there were antique stores and this basically set the prices. Someone like my grandmother may have seen the little books for sale for $100 or more and assumed hers were in fact worth that much. Now, in fairness, the antique store wouldn’t have paid her $100 or anywhere near that much, but most people don’t realize that antique shops buy low and sell high.

Items that don’t sell at the shop are likely more common, too. Basically anyone who wanted those little books had a set, and the antique shop had to hope someone who didn’t have a set and wanted it would buy at $100.

Then the Internet came along, and at first it was great for connecting buyers and sellers. But then what happened was that one person with the books saw that the set sold for $100 and listed his, and more people followed suit. Now with most “rare” books it isn’t that hard to find a copy.

Sure, some items still sell for a lot of money, but for the more common “rare” and “old” items the market has collapsed. This in turn is partially why eBay has moved from a one-of-a-kind type retailer to an Amazon retailer. The reason is that eBay makes money from completed sales not completed listings. Hence, if more books, antiques and bric-a-brac go unsold the online auction company makes less money.

The problem is that flea markets and antique shops still have plenty of items with high prices, higher than typically can be found online. This in turn convinces many who frequent these places of the value, but it is an inflated value.

For those who go to garage sales and, worse, estate sales it can be a losing game. As noted, I go to a lot of these and I have seen antiques with prices that are past what would be full retail. This is good for the estate seller (the person or company running the sale), but very bad for anyone looking to “flip” the item.

The best thing to remember is that any item is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, so for those looking for items to “flip” it might mean not jumping on everything you see. It also is worth remembering that old doesn’t mean valuable and rare doesn’t mean desirable.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer and has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and the fitness sports industry for more than 15 years. In that time his work has appeared in more than three dozen publications including Newsweek, PC Magazine and Wired. His work has also appeared on Forbes.com, Inc.com, Cnet.com, and Fortune.com. Peter is a regular writer for redOrbit.com.

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