Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2019

Have Manufacturers Abandoned Collectors or Have Collectors Abandoned Manufacturers: A Chicken or Egg Collection

I am currently writing collecting category introductions for WorthPoint.com. A “Resources/Links” section is included in each introduction. The section’s goal is to list all major internet websites and publications specific to the collecting category in the “Resources/Links.” If a collectors’ club exists, it is included.

The late 1970s to 2000 was the Collectors Clubs’ Golden Age. Collectors clubs were so prevalent and important that I gave them a separate section in the category introductions in the price guides I edited for the Warman Publishing Company and its successive owners. Many included information on one or more collectors’ clubs. If a newsletter existed independent of a collectors’ club, it also was listed.

Many of the larger collectors’ clubs such as the Carnival Glass, Depression Glass, National Button Society, and United Federation of Doll Collectors had state and/or local chapters. Collectors’ clubs had annual and regional meetings, sponsored auctions, published newsletters, and even authored reference books.

Over 75 percent of the collectors’ clubs from this Golden Age have disappeared. I miss talking to the Chief Croaker, the president of the Frog Collectors’ Club. Many who survive have fallen on hard times, their membership ranks greatly reduced. Others continue to survive. In 2018, I had the privilege of being a guest speaker at a regional meeting of the Midwest Tool Collectors, a spinoff organization from a national collectors’ club that no longer exists. In July 2019, I am scheduled to be a guest speaker at the annual convention of the Aladdin Knights of the Mystic Light. I last spoke at their annual convention in 1990 when it was held in Peoria, thus providing me with the opportunity to tell people I played Peoria as a professional.

Noting the success of these collectors’ clubs, especially their annual conventions and auctions, manufacturers of products collected by collectors saw a marketing opportunity. In addition to individuals who bought objects for play or pleasure, there was a viable adult collectors’ market. Adult collectors would buy new product to avoid having to pay above the initial retail price should they desire to add an example to their collection later. These adult collectors often bought in multiples.

Manufacturers adopted a twofold approach. First, they produced product exclusively developed and packaged for sale to adults. In support of these products as well as encouraging the continued collecting of a specific product, manufacturers attended and supported national collector’s club conventions. Second, some manufacturers organized their own collectors’ club.

In the 1970s, Lesney, the manufacturer of Matchbox, began sending representatives to collectors meets, providing support for collectors’ clubs, and informally surveying collectors to find out what they wanted. The result was the creation of vehicles for collectors. The Yesteryear Black Y-1 Ford Model T launched the new line.

When Mattel acquired Matchbox from Tyco, it continued to provide support to Matchbox collector conventions. Mattel also created a number of “Limited Edition” series, including a limited-edition recreation series, as well as exclusives designed to appeal to the adult collector.

In 1991, Mattel issued its first Bob Mackie Barbie. The company even developed a “Mackie” face for Barbie. The last annual Mackie Barbie was sold in 2014. These dolls were not meant for play. They were not even meant to be taken out of the box. Adult collectors and to some degree doll speculators were the primary market.

[Author’s Aside: While most industry supported or designed product has not done well on the secondary market, Mackie Barbies are one of the exceptions. Will the same be true in 25 or 50 years? I doubt it. Barbie turned 60 in 2019, a longer than usual production life for any doll or toy. Will Barbie turn 100? I most likely will not live to know the answer, but my best guess is no.]

The Goebel Collectors’ Club typifies the second manufacturer’s approach. In 1977, Goebel launched its company owned and controlled Goebel Collectors’ Club. By 1979, numerous local chapters were organized to allow members to meet and socialize. Regional conferences and conventions followed in the early 1980s. In 1989, the name was changed to the M. I. Hummel Club to reflect a desire to focus collection attention on the M. I. Hummel line as opposed to the full line of Goebel products. The M. I. Hummel Club continues to survive despite the financial ups and downs of the parent company. The Club commissioned an annual figurine that is available only to club members. Although The Prudent Collector website (www.theprudentcollector.com) claims the M. I. Hummel Club has close to 100,000 members, the same number the Club claimed to have in the late 1970s, I am skeptical. Because of a variety of reasons not the least of which are a flooded secondary market and a rapidly declining collector base, the secondary resale market has collapsed with the exception of a few high-end pieces. This is not a situation that leads to a 100,000 person membership club even with the most ardent manufacturer’s support.

Manufacturers also recognized the value of a speculative secondary market. Although manufacturers made no additional profits from the resale of their products, they quickly realized that speculators would buy large quantities of new product, even to the point of trying to corner the market, and then offer it for resale at prices that were double or more of the manufacturer’s retail price. Manufacturers had no qualms about flooding the secondary market. They had the money. The buyers had the goods. The manufacturers were winners. The same could not always be said for the buyers.

If buyers wound up with products that they could not sell at or above their initial purchase cost at some point, the manufacturer assumed no responsibility for the secondary market downturn. Manufacturers understood that no product survives forever and that popularity crazes have time limits, some as short as a year.

Manufacturers respond to demand. When a market is hot, the number of products increases Eventually, so many new products are created that few collectors can afford to buy all of them, let alone buying earlier product to add to their collections. Ty’s Beanie Babies and Mattel’s Barbie line are two examples.

Manufacturers of collector/limited edition ceramics such as bells, cottages, figurines, ornaments, and plates made between the late 1970s and 1990s who took advantage of a naive, speculative secondary market are the perfect worst case scenario. They had no scruples and showed no mercy in extracting money from the pocketbooks of gullible collectors. They promised buyers the moon but sold them the swamp.

The collapse of the speculative Beanie Baby secondary market in 1999 and the two years that followed sounded an alarm bell for manufacturers who produced product for the adult collector market. Manufacturers no longer saw the adult collector market as viable. During the first decade of the 21st century, not only did manufacturers no longer produced large quantities of product for the adult collector market, they also started to withdraw their support from collectors’ club and annual and regional conventions.

In 2019, adult collectors represent a small fraction, often less than 1 percent, of a manufacturer’s product sales. Stamps are a great example. Manufacturers’ focus has returned to their primary markets. In the case of toys to the boys and girls who play with them.

Today, adult collectors’ needs are filled by specialty companies that produce reproductions of antique and collectible objects ranging from dinnerware to toy trains. They often cost more than the surviving period pieces.

I was fortunate to have lived and participated in the Golden Age of the Collectors’ Club and the time when adult collectors were an important market for manufacturers. Thanks to the digital age and its disunification instead of unification of collectors of like items, the former good times will not return. Life goes on. Whether for the better or not remains debatable.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

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