Taking My Hacks

When Rare Becomes Esoteric

Joe Orlando

We are hobbyists, and true hobbyists collect what they like, first and foremost. The approach is similar to what happened to Jack Black's character in the movie Shallow Hal. If we think a collectible is beautiful, interesting, and desirable, then it does not matter what anyone else thinks. That is all true, but there is one overriding factor that impacts our decision ... collectibles cost money. As hobbyists, we have a tendency to say that it doesn't matter what anyone else sees, but most of us know that it does.

So, how does this impact us as buyers?

Yes, we absolutely should collect what we like, what appeals to us, but unless you are made of unlimited resources, we have to consider how others may or may not perceive the items we spend money on. Of course, the higher you venture up the value scale, the more this becomes important to you and me. It's one thing if you decide to buy something for $250 that you know has a limited audience, but it's another when you decide to take out a home equity loan to purchase a $50,000 piece.

There are also layers to the subject. Some players have very mainstream appeal, like Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan, but the piece itself does not. Are we talking about a 1933 Goudey or a 1920 W516-1 Babe Ruth card? Is it a Michael Jordan signed basketball or an autographed dinner menu? Other times, the issue has to do with the subject itself, whether we are talking about a person or a sport. For example, is it related to baseball, boxing, or bowling? Each sport has a different-sized following. To be fair, some names transcend sports, but most do not.

It gets really interesting when rarity becomes a factor. To make matters worse, it can be difficult to decipher whether an item crosses the line from rare to esoteric.  Usually, rarity is something that drives the appeal and value of a collectible up, but it can actually work against the popularity of an item in some cases. There are instances in every collectible field when an item is so rare that it almost discourages collectors from attempting to acquire it. In the card world, there are sets that are clearly tougher than others, ones that even feature the kinds of names that everyone knows. That said, without mainstream acceptance, the rarity is almost rendered irrelevant.

One of the key questions is whether or not the particular collectible at issue is part of a list that matters. In other words, is it a rarity within a popular set or theme or is the entire list one that hasn't caught on with most collectors? Like most of you, I have faced this dilemma before and decided to roll the dice when I should have put the brakes on. It is our money and decision ultimately. While most of what I have collected in my life would be defined as fairly mainstream, there have been moments when I refused to take off my rose-colored glasses and ended up paying for it in the end.

As much as we may not want what others think to matter when we buy collectibles, it does and it should. This doesn't mean we should buy things we don't want or like; it just means that we have to be aware of the potential financial impact later on when buyers become sellers. The roles will be reversed someday, no matter how long we keep the items in our possession. 

Never stop being yourself as a collector. We collect things we like and that's the way it should be.  Just bear in mind that, someday, we won't be here anymore and our collections will have to go somewhere, whether they are handed down to family members or sold. We can collect whatever we want, but don't expect a great monetary return if you decide to ignore mainstream market appeal because the masses decide what is on the most wanted list, not you or I individually.

Never get cheated,

Joe Orlando

Joe Orlando
PSA President