Earlier today, the Angry Czeck was made privy to a conversation concerning an antique calendar featuring “Remington” illustrations that Antique Road Show had appraised at $15,000 apiece. “Oooohhh!” everybody moaned, like the uni-minded squeeze-y aliens from Toy Story. The Angry Czeck’s natural inclination was to evacuate the contents of his nose with an explosion of sarcasm and disgust, but I didn’t want to sully my shirt.
Listen up, suckers. Anybody can appraise any price to anything. For example, I just appraised the apple I’m going to eat for lunch at $200,000,000. It’s a royal gala red described on nyapplecountry.com as “mildly sweet, juicy, and excellent for eating and salads.” I’ll put it on eBay and see if anybody bites. If not, I’ll probably just eat it myself. Then I will boast to my friends that I just ate the most expensive snack ever.
But I’m not stopping there. Remember the nose contents I mentioned in the Pulitzer-quality Paragraph One? After much research and contemplation, I have appraised them at $750,000. Too high, you say? Well, you don’t have to buy them. I’m offering top-quality boogers here. Have you ever measured the elasticity of my mucus? Who are you to say my boogers aren’t worth three-quarters of a million rocks? You find me a booger expert who can dispute my appraisal, and then we’ll talk.
You can make appraisals to. In fact, you can apply a value to anything you want. The challenge is finding a rube who will pay your handsome price. That’s what “collectors” really are: Seekers of Rubes.
The Angry Czeck knows because the Angry Czeck is a rube himself. Back when the Angry Czeck was The Innocent and Slightly Irritated Czeck, he collected baseball cards. Somewhere in my archives, I have 10,000 of these useless things stashed in long, cardboard boxes specially manufactured for (as we call them in the industry) trading cards. I spent hours fractioning my $10 savings at hobby stores and conventions, seeking an inexpensive Pete Rose or a less-than-mint condition Warren Spahn. I didn’t really see these cards as an investment – I was a nerdy fan of the players – but I would be a tremendous liar if I claimed that the prices in the Beckett’s Monthly didn’t hold my attention. I monitored prices like stock quotes, cheering when my Wade Boggs rookie card supposedly rose in value, and gritting my teeth woefully whenever my Greg Jefferies or Matt Nokes would plunge beneath a dollar.
When I began collecting baseball cards way back in 1982, there were three major trading card companies: Topps, Fleer, and Donruss. (Personally, I was a Fleer man, but Topps pretty much ruled the market.) When I finally decided to buy a stereo and get a date, there were five or eight companies printing baseball cards like dollars bills. Somebody had gotten wise and discovered that millions of ten-year-old boys were dropping oodles of allowance money on these worthless scraps of cardboard. Better yet, somebody figured out that there were also millions of adult geeks (many with paying jobs) who were spending their Go On A Date cash for Andre Dawson “special edition” cards. Let the boom begin.
Then it got really ugly. Middle-aged men made a sinister living swindling pre-pubes with their Limited Edition Kevin Mitchell cards and their Foil Edition 1986 Rookie Sets. Baseball card manufacturers themselves had no shame, releasing press statements claiming that only 100 Nolan Ryan cards had been printed, and that they were worth $100 right out of the package! (This was a fiction fortified by the industry price guide, Beckett’s Monthly, which cannot sustain its publishing costs without advertising dollars from…you guessed it, the baseball card manufacturers. Are you getting the picture?)
Greed nearly destroyed the trading card industry. Guys like the Increasingly Bitter Czeck packed up their collections and moved on to something else. Before too long, thirty-year-old men were left with nothing but an un-furnished apartment and a couple hundred Cecil Fielder rookie cards nobody wanted (even though they were listed in Beckett’s as going for $20 a pop).
Too many people thought they were going to get rich collecting and selling baseball cards. It didn’t occur to these people that a) an object is only worth something if it’s rare, and b) an object is only worth what people are willing to pay. Price guides mean nothing when your buyer is in second grade and his income is predicated on whether or not he cleaned his room.
“I’ll trade you an enternity of torture if you take all my Chris Sabo rookie cards!”
Today, I collect books. You know. First editions. Signed editions. Leather bound books from the 19th century. I keep them in a special antique bookcase Mrs. Angry and I purchased together, and we make sure to tell Angry Junior to stay the hell away. I have no desire to see Angry Junior’s crayon rendition of Cookie Monster illustrated in the pages of my gilded, 19th century Wordsworth tree-calf with marblized endpapers any time soon.
And when somebody asks my advice when they acquire a nice Dumas or a handsome set of Dickens, I say, “Sell, man! Sell.” Because the rubes who like Dumas and Dickens today will prefer Poe or Thomas Hardy tomorrow.