Making the Common Seem Rare

Right after New Year’s Day, I posted here about my inability to get rid of my old comic book collection. Actually, it’s not just comics, there are other curios such as this sketch on the left by Bob Brown, from a larger portfolio that used to come out annually in the early 1970s from the now defunct Academy of Comic Book Arts.

On your right is another obscurity, a copy of Private Detective Magazine, a late 1940s pulp that was part comics and part fiction writing, with a lot of ads for venereal disease home cures interspersed.

Poking around on eBay, I learn that these things, though not highly valuable, have appreciated in real terms substantially since they were purchased. I assume that is because they are considered rare. But are they?

What I was most struck by in my original post was that a number of RBCers volunteered that, like me, they have been hauling around boxes of comics for many years. This reminded of something a guy who sold diamonds told me: “The secret is to make people feel that diamonds stay in the family forever, because let’s face it they are just shiny rocks and they are common in nature”.

Unlike Faberge Eggs or copies of the Gutenberg Bible, some things we might wish to collect may seem rare in our minds only because they are rare in other people’s minds. Maybe the comic curios displayed here aren’t really rare, they just seem that way because lots of other collectors also thought they should hold on to their own copies, and still do.

In social science there is a “file drawer” formula that calculates whether a “significant” result in a study is actually significant. If you have a finding that has less than a 1 in 20 chance of being spurious (i.e., it seems out of the common), you publish that as a finding. But if 19 other scientists did the same study and found no effect, and kept their study in a file drawer, your “rare” result is in fact not special at all.

I wonder if some economist hasn’t already or will in the future develop a similar estimation method for “rare”, collectible objects such as my comic oddities. What level of hoarding by other people convinced falsely that something is rare is sufficient to prove that what you consider a valuable, rare object is in fact common as dirt and therefore valueless?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Making the Common Seem Rare”

  1. And the irony is that if comic book collectors believed that the curios weren’t rare, they would feel comfortable throwing them in the trash, which would make the curios rare.

  2. It doesn’t matter how common something is in the world if it’s not common in the market. If thousands of comic book collectors all have copies of Uncanny X-Men #137, but only 12 are willing to sell theirs to the thousands of other comic book collectors who only have #136 and #138, then that’s a valuable issue. They’re collectors, not speculators. They’re buying something to have and keep, not have and sell later for a profit.

  3. I’m no economist, but it seems to me that what counts is not absolute rarity, but rarity on the market. If people are hoarding them rather than selling them, then the demand may exceed the available supply, and they are effectively rare. One could say that common as dirt is not necessarily valueless, or that, if enough dirt is hidden in cartons in basements, it isn’t common.

  4. I collected comics from 1980 until about 1990, resulting in about thirteen long boxes worth of books. After that I carted them around from place to place, figuring that I’d eventually cash in big. In 2005, being somewhat newly divorced and looking at yet another move, this time from my bachelor pad into a new apartment with my girlfriend, I made an executive decision and sold nearly all of them. My total haul? Four hundred bucks.

    Now I probably could have made more if I had parted the collection out on eBay instead of selling them all to a dealer, but not that much more. Not enough to compensate me for my time and aggravation, not to mention renting another storage unit to store them in.

    In the end, I was tired of dragging them behind me everywhere I went, like some four color Jacob Marley. Getting rid of them felt good and I was happy I did it.

  5. Greg and Henry: You are certainly right that rarity on the market is a separate issue than rarity in the world. But I think of the Hunt brothers trying to corner silver, and how all those families in India with silver necklaces they had passed down for generations but then sold when the Hunts drove the price up….and course the Hunts lost a pile of money. That’s why if you are buyer, you want to know if something is rare on the market because it’s truly rare, or if there are massive stores of it outside the market that could potentially flood in if market conditions changed..even if you just want to hold a comic forever, you don’t want to pay $500 for something that is selling for $5 a year later.

  6. Online markets like eBay are making this problem less acute, by making it easier for people both to find out how much stuff they have lying around is worth, and to sell it. eBay effectively increases both supply and demand, with ambiguous effects on price–but for most categories of collectibles the increase in supply seems to be the more important one, with prices falling.

    Still, it is hard to tell how many of most collectibles are out there. There’s a common pattern in online collectibles markets–if an item that hasn’t been on eBay (or wherever) in a while is listed and bid to a high price, two or three more will almost always be put on sale in the few days afterward, and will very rarely command nearly as much as the first one did, since the illusion of great rarity is gone.

    On your own comic collection, I’d suggest finding a high school or college kid who’s into comics and work out an agreement for him (OK, maybe her, but probably him) to do the legwork of listing them online and sending them out in exchange for a percentage of the profits. From what you’ve posted, your collection would be sufficiently interesting for a comic fan to look through through that a deal shouldn’t be hard to work out.

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