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Tess Vigeland: We talk a lot on this show about being fiscally rational in these tough economic times. Pay off credit cards. Take control of your mortgage. But most of us spend at least a little money on stuff that’s irrational — stuff that seems frivolous but, hey, it makes us happy. Well, some people spend a lot of money on that kind of thing. We call them collectors. As Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano reports, for them, this recession can be the best of times and the worst of times.
Michelle Philippe: I remember these! Somebody had one of these.
Rico Gagliano: To me, this is the sound of happiness.
That’s the satisfying click of a vintage Viewmaster viewer, being admired by my colleague Michelle Philippe. You probably had a viewer as a kid. Looks like a little toy binocular? You drop in flat round reels of tiny photographs or cartoons, and you see them in 3-D?
Philippe: Oh! It’s Huckleberry Hound!
Well, for collectors like me, this is no mere toy. It’s an obsession. Proof? I bought this small plastic viewer — for 185 bucks. Now, it is a mint-condition, internally-illuminated “Model D” with focusing ring and 7x magnification. But still, 185 bucks.
Here’s the thing, though: yes, collectors like me are compulsive. But we’re not indiscriminate. The larger economy does change our buying habits, and the prices we’re willing pay. And lately, prices have gone way down. Not just for the stuff I collect, either.
Mark Kronquist: We’ve been through downturns before, but I’ve never seen anything like this.
That’s Mark Kronquist. He collects, among other things, antique cameras and lenses. He says his hometown of Portland, Ore. has been flooded with cheap collectibles as people struggle to make ends meet.
Kronquist: A gentleman yesterday, he had a case of wonderful old Kodaks and Zeiss Icon pieces and things. And you know, you a couple years ago wouldn’t have been able to touch one of the Zeiss Icons for $500, and the whole case was $550. The sad thing was, he needed the money to make a mortgage payment on his condo.
The sad stories — and the deals — aren’t confined to Portland. Craigslist is among the world’s most popular websites for classified ads. And CEO Jim Buckmaster told me by email that in the site’s “collectibles” section there are 90 percent more “for sale” ads than this time last year. Collector Mark Kronquist says the opportunities are unprecedented.
Kronquist: There’s so much stuff that seems to be being sold by so many desperate sellers that it’s astounding.
So for collectors with cash, this is a golden age. But there’s a flip side. To finance their habit, some collectors also sell collectibles — common items or duplicates they get stuck with. That’s tougher to do as the market gets saturated and buyers get pickier. Anthony Leckington is a Viewmaster collector. Last year he sold about $7,000 worth of Viewmaster schwag online. This year? He figures it’ll be more like $1,000.
Anthony Leckington: For a while, Europe was buying a lot from me. Because the dollar was so weak. But now that their monetary amounts have evened out, it seems like the European market has dropped off as well.
His other income has taken a hit, too — he’s a freelance handyman, and business is down 25 percent. He says it has put a dent in his collecting habits. But — and here’s what’s interesting to me — only a dent.
Leckington: I might have to put a hiatus on it, but I’m not going to liquidate my collection by any means.
And according to experts when it comes to true collectors, that attitude is par for the course. Catherine Saunders-Watson writes about antiques and collectibles. These days she’s editor-in-chief of ToyCollectorMagazine.com.
Catherine Saunders-Watson: Collectors don’t stop buying. They might slow down the pace, but they don’t stop. I had a friend who was a collector of African American historical things. He’s always broke. He said, “You know that — collectors are always broke. But if something great comes along, you’ve got to figure out a way to buy it.”
I kind of know the feeling. My 401(k) dropped about 10 percent over the last month. Yet I just spent $60 on Viewmaster reels. I don’t expect you to understand.
In Los Angeles, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace Money.
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