(DE-)CONSTRUCTING THE COMIC BOOK
COLLECTOR'S MARKET

COLLECTING COMICS INSIDE (AND OUTSIDE)
A SPECULATOR'S MARKET

originally published on the web 20th December 2007
updated and revised 24
th August 2009
last updated 1st July 2013

 

The following text - originally compiled and written in late 2007 - was expanded and updated in 2009. The changes which have occurred since really only concern the top prices ever paid for comic books - in November 2011, a pristine (Near Mint 9.0) copy of Action Comics #1 was sold at auction for a record 2,16 Mio US Dollars. Prior to that, the top price had been held by a copy of that very same comic book (but in Very Fine 8.5 grade) with 1,5 Mio US Dollars paid in March 2010.

Click on covers for larger size images.

 

COLLECTING COMIC BOOKS - ATTEMPTING A DEFINITION- HOW AND WHY WE BECAME COLLECTORS - CONSTRUCTING THE COMIC BOOK COLLECTOR'S MARKET - ATTRIBUTING VALUE TO COMIC BOOKS THROUGH GRADING - REFINING THE MARKET - DECONSTRUCTING THE MARKET - NO LESSONS LEARNED: THE "FORGOTTEN" CRASH OF THE COMIC BOOK COLLECTOR'S MARKET OF THE 1990s

 
COLLECTING COMIC BOOKS - ATTEMPTING A DEFINITION
 
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a collection is "an accumulation of objects gathered for study, comparison, or exhibition or as a hobby". In what must arguably be its most basic and purest form, collecting comic books is nothing else than keeping the comics which one has bought and read - as opposed to throwing or giving them away. It is the most accidental way of accumulating individual comic books as time goes by. At which point exactly the growing stack of individual issues actually becomes a "collection" is really a matter of personal inclination, although there are certain indicators.

Take, for example, Ralph Chicorel. As a kid, he was very careful with the comic books he continuously bought at the drugstore in his Detroit neighbourhood.

"I loved the artwork so much that I took real good care of them. I turned the pages very carefully (...) I relished, treasured them." (Meeks, 2009)

Clearly, Chicorel not only read his comics, but treated them with all the interest and care that goes into a collection.

 
The point about this particular collection is that it was started in 1939, expanded for several years, kept in good storage and finally offered for sale by its original first-hand owner - 70 years after he started it all. At the auction in May 2009, key titles such as Marvel Comics #1 or Batman #1 together with around one hundred other Golden Age comic books fetched a total of more than $620,000, with Marvel Mystery Comics #9 (which featured the first superhero cross-over in comic book history between the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch) coming out on top with $107,550 alone (Comics Price Guide, 2009).

Bearing in mind that Chicorel originally bought most of these comic books for 10 cents, these figures show that "collecting comic books" has multiple meanings and an incredibly wide range of scope - from more or less carefully storing the comics you bought yourself to paying hefty price tags to acquire certain comic books from previous owners. The latter procedure, however, has a number of high impact consequences for the hobby - possibly even to an extent which would necessitate an amendment to the common definition quoted at the beginning of this text: a collection could then be "an accumulation of objects gathered for study, comparison, exhibition, as a hobby, or for financial profit".

 



Marvel Comics #1 (1939)

 
HOW AND WHY WE BECAME COLLECTORS
 
Man became a homo sapiens largely due to the fact that he has also been a homo legens for most of his history. The Latin verb legere originally described the act of "picking something up", soon broadened to "collecting items" (after you picked them up), but was eventually used in a metaphorical sense in which legere acquired the meaning of "reading", using the imagery of "collecting letters".

Archeological evidence seems to indicate that the systematic accumulation of man-made objects for the simple purpose of possessing them may be as old as human manufacturing itself (Gelber, 1999).

 

  The roots of collecting comics are, of course, more recent, but at the same time very close to the double meaning of the Latin legere: As comic books once again became popular in the 1960s, enthusiasts and aficionados organized conventions where fans could meet to discuss comics and eventually meet up with the authors and artists themselves. Parallel to this, specialist suppliers started offering their services to a growing number of comic book readers, enabling them to buy back issues and fill the gaps in their collection - which for the most part was simply the comic books bought over a period of time and stacked away to be re-read. Incidentally, Marvel Comics catered for this growing demand themselves by reprinting some of their classic material under the title Marvel Collectors' Item Classics (later rebranded as Marvel's Greatest Comics) between 1965 and 1969 - thus also bolstering the growing trend towards an acknowledged hobby of collecting comic books (even, if need be, in the form of anthology reprints).

Steven Gelber, Professor of History at Santa Clara University, provides an excellent illustration and analysis of the mechanisms governing collections and the market for collectibles in his 1999 publication Hobbies - Leisure and the culture of work in America and distinguishes between primary collectibles and secondary collectibles. Whilst the first are made directly for the collector (e.g. commemorative coins), the secondary collectibles - by far the largest group - pass through one or more intermediate stages before they become collector commodities (Gelber, 1999). Comics, therefore, are classic secondary collectibles: originally intended and sold for consumption without any explicit further purpose, they acquire new and different meanings in the hands of the collector who does more than just read the comic books.

"Collectors are not merely people who accumulate objects, but those who accumulate them in a particular systematic way that necessitates the development of specialized knowledge. The application of that knowledge is what distinguishes collectors from noncollectors." Gelber (1999, 78)

 
Whilst "soft factors" such as personal taste or sentimental nostalgia usually dominate at the outset of any collection, "hard factors" generally superimpose themselves very quickly and in a fairly systematic way:

"There is a natural progression in the hobby careers of collectors toward specialization and its associated expertise, which leads to a much more rational, that is to say, business-like approach." Gelber (1999, 79)

 
CONSTRUCTING THE COMIC BOOK COLLECTOR'S MARKET
 
This business-like approach, in combination with the fact that mass production items which are comparatively cheap when originally offered (such as comic books) tend to become scarce because of their disposable nature, ultimately creates an object which becomes valuable also in monetary terms to a collector - and the collector's market is born.

The framework formula for the comic book collector's market is constructed on the basis of the following typology (which does not include traded items or comic books received for free): Whilst an original purchase means that the comic book is bought first-hand when originally published (or when still available as a back-issue order from the distributor) and the price of purchase is the cover price, a collector's purchase usually involves buying a comic book which has had one or more previous owners and at a collector's price (which is not the original cover price), usually through specialist dealers or auction services.

 

 

 

 

 

Examples for the given typology, taken from my personal collection: Iron Man #86 (far left), my first US Marvel Comic, bought in September 1976 - the personal value has long since exceeded the 9p I paid at the time / Batman #315 (left), my first US DC Comic, bought off the newsagent rack in September 1979 / Das Monster von Frankenstein #21 (right), my first German Marvel Comic, bought in September 1975, but having lost my original copy I placed a back-issue order in early 1976 for the original cover price of SFr 1,70 / The Avengers #28 (far right), my first Marvel Comic ever, a UK black & white reprint originally bought in March 1974 but lost a long time ago; purchased 2007 through an online auction service at roughly 30 times the original cover price of 6p.

 
It is evident that the collector's market is created and constructed in most cases through the "collector's purchase" type of comic books. Growing scarcity combined with a wide appeal (such as early issues of popular titles, characters and/or artists) further fuel a situation where the demand quickly outweighs the supply. As a result, the value (both in non-monetary as well as monetary terms) increases.

Paradoxically, the market place which is thus created is not only a vital instrument for the collector's hobby but also a threat, because trading (which is symbolic and involves the exchange of collectibles) is often replaced by buying and selling. Deals involving money can become detrimental to the non-profit characteristics which usually and typically define a hobby because business, after all, is business:

"Whether they collect primary or secondary, natural or manufactured goods, hobbyists often create a leisure world every bit as ruthless as the business marketplace." Gelber (1999, 59)

It is this aspect of the comic book collector's market which has also made it attractive to buyers whose motives are financial profit rather than a genuine collector's interest - even though in the eyes of most hobbyists buying with the intention of selling quickly or for the pure sake of profits is speculation and violates the spirit of the hobby (Gelber, 1999). This "moral" position voiced from the collector's - and therefore the buyer's - point of view, however, collides with a very fundamental aspect of modern collecting:

"Collecting is the ideological expression of the free market, it replicates and confirms the legitimacy of risk-taking in a market milieu." Gelber (1999, 107)

The ideal of a self-contained marketplace where like-minded enthusiasts could "trade fairly" was gradually giving away to market realities as the interest in comic books increased:

"The comic market was really taking off in the '60s. Prices were escalating rapidly. Almost any 10c comic was worth money." (NN, 2003)

 
ATTRIBUTING VALUE TO COMIC BOOKS THROUGH GRADING
 
As the prices began to soar and the amount of money to be earned increased, the collector's market was in need of standardised procedures and benchmarks for valuing comic books in order to create the necessary stability the market now required. This gap was filled as of 1970 by the annual Overstreet Price Guide, which wasn't the first, but has since become the longest running such guide on the comic book collector's market. Published by Bob Overstreet, it set out to assign values for comic books based on demand, availability, and the copy's condition. Widely considered the primary authority on the subject of American comic book grading and collection values, it has come to be accepted as a de facto industry standard. In addition, Overstreet has introduced a method of grading comics employing a numerical range.
 

Before a comic book's market value can be assessed, its condition needs to be determined. Obviously, the desirability and value of a comic book are linked to its material condition - comic books in absolutely perfect mint condition are worth several times the price of the same book in extremely worn, dirty, and torn poor condition. Generally speaking, grading of a comic book is based upon an accumulation of defects, which accounts for the fact that older comics in mint condition are extremely scarce and are rarely advertised for sale; most of the higher grade comics advertised range from very fine to near mint.

The Overstreet scale is divided into 14 grades. It is interesting to note that the terms "excellent" or "high (grade)", although used fairly often e.g. on internet auction platforms, are not an established comic book condition, i.e. grade.

 

 
  In more descriptive detail, the various grades translate as follow (Overstreet, 2006):

MINT: near perfection - complete flatness, bright colors, glossy covers, sharply cut corners, no rust on staples, white paper (in reality, a comic in mint condition is virtually impossible to find, even fresh from a newspaper agent's stand).

NEAR-MINT: only minor and very subtle imperfections

VERY-FINE: exceptional eye-appeal, off-white paper acceptable, barely noticeable stress line on spine

FINE: minor wear but no serious defects, flat and clean but less bright in cover color than VF

VERY GOOD: average-used comic book, read more than a few times but still has eye appeal, with discoloration, brown (but not brittle) paper, one loose staple (cover must be still intact) and minor inside tears

 
GOOD: usually the lowest grade acceptable by collectors, cover gloss low or nonexistent, paper brown but not brittle, creased, minor tears but completely intact and readable

FAIR: retains cover and all pages but has missing (cut) sections, low paper quality, slight brittleness, corners slightly rounded, spine damaged

POOR: may fall apart upon touch, prevalent tears and stains, heavy discoloration on the cover and inside, pages may be missing

 
REFINING THE MARKET
 
As much as the Overstreet price guide was instrumental in establishing and maintaining consistent comparative standards for all collectors, it was just as instrumental in turning over the comic book market to speculators. This aspect is hardly surprising, though, because the actual creation of the guide was strongly linked to Robert Overstreet's own needs and position in the developing market:

"I could see the market was growing (...) I was buying everything off the stands in the '60s beginning with Spider-Man #1, so I had all this stuff. I had a great inventory of Silver Age books. I bought duplicates, so I set up Sonny Johnson to be a dealer. I gave him an inventory to get him started. He ran an ad and the comics sold just like that. I couldn't believe how fast they went. Then I decided I better stop selling the books. They were still going up in value." (NN, 2003)

 
Following the publication of Overstreet's first price guide, more people began to perceive an implied appreciation of comics in monetary value, and some even followed in Overstreet's footsteps and started buying multiple copies of comics - as an investment (Hibbs, 2001). The real speculators, however, knew exactly what comic books to go after: the classics.

In his first price guide in 1970, Overstreet listed the price for a mint copy of Fantastic Four #1 at $30 and $20 for a copy in fine condition. Initially the guide was criticised for giving high prices (NN, 2003), but market demand kept rising to the extent that even Marvel basked in the market's trend by early 1974:

"After all, didja know that Fantastic Four #1 is now selling for up to $50 in many back-issue comic-book stores across the nation, and that Spidey #1 isn't far behind?" (Marvel, 1973)

By 1976 Overstreet's price rating had gone up to $250 for a high grade copy (Overstreet, 1976) - a phenomenal rise in just six years, yet nowhere near to what was still to come. Another six years, and the price was valued at $550 (Overstreet, 1982). Although the comic market struck back even at the classics in the mid-1980s (by 1987 the price estimate for Fantastic Four #1 had dropped to $500 (Overstreet, 1987)), some analysts of the comic market money game feel that this drop was caused only because more and more buyers were moving into the top-grade issue market (comicpriceindex.com).

As the demand for high and top grade copies continued to increasae, the market was in need of a stringent grading procedure which would ensure reliable and consistent application of Overstreet's grading scheme. The fairly subjective nature of the grading process in conjunction with rising monetary values for high grade copies resulted in a growing concern with regard to grade misrepresentations by sellers attempting to make profits on wildly exaggerated grading assessments. Such behaviour would erode investor confidence and virtually put a lid on any future substantial price increases.

In order to further establish and maintain a consistent and professional market standard, Comic Guaranty LLC (CGC) was formed in 2000 as a self-declared independent and impartial specialist comic book grading service under the umbrella organisation of The Certified Collectibles Group, which also includes the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NGC; a grading service for coins) and Sportscard Guaranty LLC (SGC; a grading service for sports cards). Any comic book submitted to CGC is graded according to established CGC standards and eventually cased in a tamper-evident protective holder to "freeze" the condition of the comic book as submitted and the resulting CGC grading (comics contained in such a holder are described as being "slabbed") (cgccomics.com). The holder also displays comprehensive info about the book and its grade.

Today, over a 100,000 comic books are submitted to CGC for grading each year (cgccomics.com). The confidence injected into the collector's market through the consistent CGC standards has grown in importance as more and more selling takes place in a context where the buyer and the comic book for sale are not at the same location - most prominently, of course, regarding transactions through the internet. As a result, any collector buying a CGC graded comic book can expect to get what is being advertised, no matter who the seller is. This situation is quite unlike the uncertainty which still clouds many internet auction sales where sellers may be honest and experienced graders or just the opposite.

Nevertheless, many collectors seem unhappy about CGC's presence (Brady, 2001). This, however, has to do with its investor market perspective. A number of comic book enthusiasts see CGC graded comics as nothing more than a costly showpiece - but then that's exactly what they are supposed to be. After all, "slabbing" - which has been likened to "mummification" (Brady, 2001) - has driven up prices enormously and quite obviously serves, above all, individuals who buy comics strictly for a future monetary gain, as removing a CGC graded comic from its holder will crack a seal and result in the certification becoming void. In other words: comic books are not slabbed for further reading, but for future sales.

 



CGC slabbed and graded (9.6) copy of Fantastic Four #1
- a CGC 9.4 sold for $111,000 in 2002, whilst a CGC copy in that same grade changed hands in May 2011 for $300,000.



CGC slabbed and graded (9.4) copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, which sold for $210,000 in October 2007. In June 2011, a CGC copy in the same grade sold for $325,000. In March 2011, a 9.6 grade CGC copy shocked the media with its auction sale price of $1,1 Mio. as the only known copy in that grade to exist at the time, a second copy in 9.6 grade appeared on the CGC inventory list in December 2011.

 
This concept is not, of course, comic book specific. It was, for example, well known amongst collectors during what became known as the "Swatch watches fever" in the early 1990s:

"A Swatch that is purchased for a collection is never worn as a timepiece; it is kept in its original packaging so that it remains in mint condition. A serious collector who wants to wear a Swatch purchases two of the same model - one to wear and one to keep in the collection." (Long & Schiffmann, 1997)

Buying two near-mint copies of a top-price comic book may be a bit difficult, but the principle is applied the same way in the case of investors who also happen to be interested collectors:

"[Mr. Z...] keeps the priciest copies worth more than $100,000 in a safe-deposit box. When Mr. Z... wants to read about the Green Lantern in 'All-American Comics' no. 16, he doesn't turn to his $30,000 copy, but a book of reprints he bought for $20." (Dougherty, 2005)

Since the entry of CGC prices for some specific titles have rocketed. A very fine copy of Fantastic Four #1 sold for $24,999 in late 2004 (Crews, 2007) with the auction price rising even higher, to $52,000 in 2007 (Crews, 2007). Impressive as these figures may be, they are nothing compared to the prices asked and paid for top grade copies of Amazing Fantasy #15. Riding high on the popularity of Marvel's most successful hero Spider-Man (aided more recently by added promotion thanks to high-budget and hence high-publicity movies), the prices asked for this specific comic book have virtually blasted through the proverbial ceiling. Rated at $5 in 1965 by the Argosy Comic Book Price Guide (Edwards, 2007) - already a big rise on the original August 1962 12c cover price - a near-mint copy fetched $ 122,000 in January 2004 (cgccomics.com, 2004). By June 2007 the price had gone up to $ 210,000, and only a few months later a near-mint copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 sold for the highest price ever paid at the time for a comic book published after 1950 when it changed hands in October 2007 for $ 227,000 (Crews, 2007). In March 2011, a 9.6 grade CGC copy shocked the media with its auction sale price of $1,1 Mio as the only known copy in that grade to exist at the time - until a second copy in 9.6 grade appeared on the CGC inventory list in December 2011 (cgccomics.com).

But what is more: the estimated value of a comic book copy of the same grade differs greatly whether it is CGC graded or not. A 9.4 graded copy of The Incredible Hulk #1(1962) had a November 2007 estimate of $30,000 whereas a CGC slabbed copy of the same grade is expected to be worth $75,000 (comicpriceindex.com).

Naturally, only a handful of well preserved near-mint copies of the classic early 1960s comic book titles have survived into the 21st century (for the reasons already discussed), which creates an extremely disbalanced ratio of demand and supply. But the market forces which drive up the price of a single comic book to the levels reached by Fantastic Four #1 and, above all, Amazing Fantasy #15 no longer operate in what can be termed a true collector's market. The takeover by the investors is, however, no sinister plan secretly hatched by some evil conspiracy. It's big money, and it's communicated quite openly - not the least because this is one important way of maintaining "wantability":

"'When it comes to the best available CGC certified copy of a Silver Age Marvel key like Amazing Fantasy 15,' says ComicLink.Com CEO Josh Nathanson, 'we always have a top-notch buyer willing to pay the highest price. Our buyers realize the enormous investment potential of scarce, high-end comic books. The buyer of this CGC certified copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 realized that he was paying a premium over the last sale price, but was still comfortable stepping up to the plate because he knew that he was getting the best. He is very happy to have obtained this book for his collection.'" (NN, 2004)

This statement in conjunction with the January 2004 sale of Amazing Fantasy shows the contradictions displayed when the collectibles of a collector's market become commodities of investment. The repeat sales over a fairly short period of time don't match up with the assumption that a true collector, having gained possession of such a prized collectible, would cling on to it - even more so if he were fortunate enough to be able to pay a premium price. It can therefore be assumed that many recent purchasers are more likely to be investors rather than "happy collectors" - with the aforementioned collectors-turned-investors thrown in between:

"For (...) a Washington D.C. lawyer (...) 'it's not just collecting' he says 'it's investing'." (Dougherty, 2005)

CGC has even branched out and diversified the market further. One example is the establishing of their "signature series", which hinges on the possible danger of forgery:

 



A CGC slabbed and graded Signature Series copy of Journey into Mystery #83 (signed by Stan Lee) - typically low grade (4.5)

 

"Getting comic books signed by creators has been a part of our hobby since early fandom. But (...) there have always been concerns surrounding signature authentication and verification. Now (...) collectors can have their comic books and comic magazines signed by their favorite creators in the presence of an exclusive CGC authorized witness. These comics can then be authenticated, graded and certified by CGC under the prestigious CGC Signature Series label." (cgccomics.com)

Apart from prearranging signings (with the added marketing spotlight of such events) this has given CGC the option to grade and market comic books in medium to low grades. In December 2007, Stan Lee autographed ten Silver Age comic books for a comic store in California which were then offered for sale through eBay. The books included Journey into Mystery #83 (first Thor) in CGC 4.5 and X-Men #1 (1963) in CGC 3.0.

 



A low grade (3.0) CGC Signature Series copy of X-Men #1 (Stan Lee)

 
In these grades, there is little or no price difference at all between a CGC graded copy and one graded by a a respected independent dealer (comicspriceguide.com).
 
   
 

Non-CGC certified signed comic books from my personal collection: (left) Tales of Suspense #88 (April 1967) signed by Gil Kane - impossible to get as a CGC Signature Series copy because Kane passed away in January 2000 (center) Amazing Spider-Man #84 (May 1970) signed by John Romita Sr. & Jim Mooney - impossible to get as a CGC Signature Series copy (although both have individually signed copies for CGC) as Mooney passed away in March 2008 (right) Daredevil #44 (September 1968) signed by Gene Colan - similar issues in the CGC Signature Series are now pricey items.

 
DECONSTRUCTING THE MARKET
 
The careful construction of the comic book collector's market commonly doesn't fail to leave the impression it is meant to leave, as one random example illustrates:

"If you need any proof that the comic book market is still running strong, you can point to a recent sale of Amazing Fantasy #15 in CGC 9.4 for a whopping $210,000 as proof (...) The $210K price tag is nearly 2.5 times the last GPA-recorded sale of $86K for a AF #15 CGC 9.4 sale in 2003. That's a 144% increase in 4 years that beats the Dow Jones Industrial Average gain of 63% return during the same time period... and that's while the stock market was in a bull run!" (NN, 2007)

It is understandable that the high profile titles which sell as well as Amazing Fantasy #15 are often taken to be benchmarks of "the market". But whilst marketing specialists as well as onlookers refer to such titles as the "holy grail" of a comic collection (NN, 2007), the fact that only very few titles have reached these heights is often largely ignored. Other classic Marvel titles have sold for far less in the recent past: a CGC 9.2 Avengers #1 for $9,500 in March 2005 and a Daredevil #1 (CGC 9.2) for $ 7,000 in November 2004 (Crews, 2007). In November 2013, a CGC NM 9.4 Avengers #1 sold for $89,625 at auction (bleedingcool.com) whilst the top price in that very same Heritage Auctions sale went to a CGC 9.6 NM Tales of Suspense #39 (first Iron Man appreance) for $262,900 - given the high profile promotion by no less than three Hollywood movies, this latter price compares rather feebly with the  Amazing Fantasy and Action Comics benchmarks. It is however still markedly higher than a CGC NM- 9.2 Journey Into Mystery #83 (first Thor) which went for $77,675 and a CGC NM+ 9.6 Strange Tales #110 (first Doctor Strange) which ended at $44,812 - both at that same November 2013 auction. High prices no doubt, but nowhere near those figures which Amazing Fantasy #15 and Action Comics #1 seem to suggest valid for any high grade comic featuring the first appearance of what today are well known comic book (and in most cases movie) characters.

Prices dip further for grades which are below the 9.0 mark. At the aforementioned November 2013 auction, a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 was listed too, but being in a grade of CGC FN/VF 7.0 it sold for $33,460. Clearly, not every classic comic book is a guarantee for sky-high returns on investment, and the market is also subject to highly complex dynamics and influences:

"Prices are vulnerable because people are driven only by investment potential (...) now the [collectibles] market is totally driven by collectors with an insatiable desire to own the best (...) [it is amazing] how much money they are willing to pay." (Reier, 2007)

True investors must consider what the interest will amount to on the money which is being tied up. If it becomes necessary to hold those comic books for a waiting period of more than ten to fifteen years before any increased appreciation takes place, the interest on the money invested may well eat up any profit made.

Which brings up Ralph Chicorel again. For once, the wonderful newspaper headlines were spot on: "Comic collector may earn up to $500,000 in auction" (Meeks, 2009). Having bought the comics himself, his original expenditure was in the region of $11, so the end auction price (which turned out to be even higher, namely $620,000) virtually equalled his personal profit. This, of course, is the kind of story and amount of money which sends a lot of people dreaming and quickly blurs the reality to which it is attached: the fact that Chicorel was both the original buyer and high price seller is a fairly singular incident, and he had to keep his comics for around 70 years to be in a position to pocket that auction money. Taking into account the standard 20 percent fees which renowned auction houses charge for that kind of sum, Chicorel walked away with around $500,000 net - which, ignoring taxes for simplicity, breaks down into roughly $7,150 for each of the 70 years he had the comics in his possession. From that perspective, it's still a nice sum of money to have every year, but the "annual profit" is no longer mind-boggling, especially as the US dollar has, of course, continuously lost purchasing power over that period of time ($1 spent in 1940 had the purchasing power of $15 in 2008 according to measuringworth.com).

As for original ownership profits, the auction sale of a CGC-certified 9.2 near mint- copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 for $190,000 (highest price tag ever for that grade) in February 2009 (NN, 2009) nicely illustrates that the original owner hardly ever is the one to make the big money:

"According to Pedigree's President and CEO Doug Schmell, "The issue in question is from an original owner in Redondo Beach, California. As the story goes, high grade dealer/collector from the North East, Tom Brulato, had purchased the comic book, sometime in the mid-1990s, from two brothers living in Redondo Beach. They had found the comic in their grandmother’s dresser drawer, who was the original owner, and took it to that year's San Diego Comic Convention in order to sell it. They found a large dealer from Connecticut, Dan Greenhalgh of Showcase New England, who was set up at the show, and he referred the brothers to Brulato, who bought the book on the spot. The book, which according to Brulato, was super glossy with incredible colors and structure, was subsequently submitted to the CGC for certification and encapsulation and received the 9.2 grade. The book was then sold by Brulato to another dealer and was eventually purchased by a collector in the Midwest, who consigned it to Pedigree Comics for our auction". (NN, 2009)

Even accepting the two brothers as original owners in lieu of their grandmother, this still makes for four middle men in just over ten years between the original owner and the grand auction sale. The fact that they were all professional dealers or big spending collectors (who of course were fully aware of the title's appeal) makes it obvious - and they should not be blamed for it - that substantial profits were added each and every time the copy changed hands. In other words: there can be no doubt that the two brothers from Redondo Beach received only a fraction of the $190,000 the copy made in 2009. So much for the usual drama of the original owner who didn't hang on long enough to his comic books and the big exception, Ralph Chicorel.

The major illusion, however, which is created and fostered by the market, is that the entire market runs on this scale. As pointed out above, many early Silver Age Marvel comic books are nowhere near the price tags of Amazing Fantasy #15 or Fantastic Four #1. Even in spectacular condition (CGC 9.4), Avengers #2 "only" fetched $13,500 in February 2009 (NN, 2009). And a virtually mint (CGC 9.6) copy of Amazing Spider-Man #29 was sold in the same auction for $5,100 (NN, 2009). That's a lot of money, of course, but not the gold mine which some people seem to perceive the comic book collector's market to be. In addition, few observers seem to fully take into account that all high grade comic books which sold for six figure prices over the past few years already required a substantial investment by the previous owner.

 
The copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 which was auctioned in October 2007 for $227,000 had been bought only four months previously, in June 2007, for $210,000 (NN, 2004). In other words: the price tag of $227,000 which enthused so many breaks down into a profit of $17,000 minus auction fees and taxes (and ignoring the question of whether the $210,000 needed to realize this transaction in the first place had any credit interest weighing down on them). That's not bad over a period of four months, but it's a one-shot profit.

And although even Ralph Chicorel might see his collection re-auctioned in the nearer future as single items at higher prices than he managed to secure, he can always rest assured that none of the buyers of parts of his collection can come anywhere close to the profit he himself made within a feasible time span. For example, the new owner of Marvel Mystery Comics #9, who paid $107,550, would have to be able to no less than double the price tag in order to equal Chicorel's end gain of $107,495.90 (minus the 10c he originally paid for the copy) - again assuming that he had the money interest-free at hand for the auction and ignoring future purchasing power loss.

The most important factor to take into account, however, is the possible volatility of the monetary worth of collectibles:

 



Marvel Mystery Comics #9
(July 1940)

 

"Certain common denominators [for collectibles] exist in varying degrees from an investment perspective: often high costs to trade and own; high price volatility; no current income; and undependable or poor liquidity. These factors plus the opportunity cost of an unproductive investment lead to one conclusion: Collectibles, especially when the relevant group of collectors is solidly in place and in good communication, will probably gain value and outstrip inflation over the long term, but the costs and risks of holding collectibles for investment purposes can be justified only when the assets also provide their owner pleasure or utility." (Downes, Elliot & Goodman, 2003)

"Markets for collectibles are notoriously inefficient, often requiring long lead times, uncertain prices and narrow pools of potential buyers. These markets also can be particularly sensitive to wider economic forces, such as a recession, and can see spikes and drop-offs due to factors beyond the artist’s ability or name recognition." (NN, 2007b)

The attributed value of collectibles is thus largely a subjectively perceived value. If this goes down noticeably - for whatever reasons - the divergence between "collector's price" and actual material value is reduced siginificantly. This has happened, for instance, with ornate 18th century French furniture which has lost favours with collectors and investors (Reier, 2007), but at least the collector or investor is left with a - albeit overpaid - useable piece of furniture. A comic book, however, has no material value to speak of and relies entirely on collectability appreciation. If that falls away, there's not much one can do with a comic book, and even less so with an overpaid one.

The construction of the comic book collector's market is largely centered on creating a sense of durability and reliability: demand will always be there and prices will therefore remain a highly controllable investment risk. Upon closer inspection, however, this feeling of security is built up by the marketplace itself. CGC rating and slabbing (which becomes investment securing preservation) plays a central role in this perceived reliability of the comic collector's market - giving collectors and investors alike the peace of mind that "what you buy is what you get" - but it also heats up prices to an extent which disconnects the market from the actual collectors. The higher an individual copy is graded, the larger the difference in price estimate becomes, solely depending on whether it is graded by CGC or an independent dealer (who should not be confused automatically with a possibly fraudulent seller on an internet auction platform). This can be seen best of all with regard to the "market benchmark" Amazing Fantasy #15. Up to grade 8.0 (very fine) the estimate is $30,240, regardless of whether the grading is done by CGC or not (comicspriceguide.com). But as of grade 8.5, the price range starts to develop differently, when a CGC graded copy is suddenly valued at more than $9,000 superior to a non-CGC graded copy ($46,800 vs $37,440) (comicspriceguide.com). The difference in value is finally blown out of all proportion with regard to the coveted 9.4 grade: $180,000 for a CGC graded copy (although this was actually sold for $210,000 in October 2007) and less than half of that estimate, namely $72,000, for a non-CGC graded copy (comicspriceguide.com).

This distortion of price estimates is just as much a reality of CGC standards for other Marvel Comics titles - as any centralized standards are for any collector's market:

"For years, avid stamp collector Van K. Tharp had a successful method for deciding how much to pay for rare stamps. “I always looked for the best thing that I could afford,” [he] says. “If I saw something I wanted, I’d assign it a grade - at least a rough estimation, based on condition of the item and my knowledge of the market - and paid about 80% of what I thought it was worth.” That process worked well for him until a few years ago, when something significant happened in the world of rare stamp collecting: Professional Stamp Experts, a Newport Beach, Calif., grading company, began assigning professional and widely accepted grades to the majority of stamps that came to market. Soon, Tharp found that he was no longer able to pay less than what he calculated a stamp to be worth. “The price of rare stamps has gone up so much,” he says. “I’m unlikely to get anything at even 100% of the price now.”" (NN, 2007b)

The justification needed for the price distortion is provided in two ways: by expertise and by scarcity. The first element is the very foundation of CGC, paired with impartiality:

"Every comic book certified by CGC is graded by the hobby’s most experienced and trusted team, according to well-established grading standards. Furthermore, every CGC-certified comic book undergoes a thorough restoration check by leading professionals during the certification process. (...) CGC is the only expert, impartial, third-party certification service." (cgccomics.com)

There is no doubt that CGC lives up to this self-description and the standards implied. At the same time, this does not by way of principle exclude other parties from grading to similar or equally high standards - many experienced comic dealers are perfectly capable of delivering expert and honest assessments. Whilst CGC does not, of course, explicitly rule this out, there are many wordings in official texts and presentations which convey just that - a sublime expertise monopoly attributed to CGC.

Another element put to use in order to add stability to the perception of the market is scarcity. Actually, it is artificial scarcity - a typical trait of monopoly pricing structures such as the brand "CGC graded /slabbed" - created by the CGC Census. Basically, this is nothing more than a detailed report of all the comics certified by CGC, listing the total number of books in each grade for every specific issue of a comic book title (cgccomics.com). CGC has a detailed caveat disclaimer on its relevant webpage (cgccomics.com), indicating that a number of characteristics inherent in the marketplace undermine the accuracy of the CGC census and that e.g. rarity is only one factor in determining the market value of a comic book. What CGC is actually saying is that they obviously know how many copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 have been graded 9.4 by CGC, but there is no way they can guess how many additional 9.4 copies still exist outside the CGC grading process. Again, however, many fail to see the not-so-subtle difference - including even experienced comic dealers:

"CGC grading has not only created a better and far more consistent standard for what a NM should look like but has also created an accurate Census along the way. There is no guessing now, as to what issue exists in true NM 9.4 or how many there are. Just check the CGC Census and you can see for yourself." (Wilson, 2007)

Even without taking into account the possibility, even though not a very likely one, that a whole crate of Amazing Fantasy #15 in pristine condition could turn up in the corner of some warehouse, it is quite obvious that the CGC census only provides reliable data with regard to CGC graded copies. Nevertheless, it plays an important part in constructing price reliability within the market and boosting a positive investment approach. On these grounds, it could even be argued that the comic collector's market has de facto largely become a CGC graded comics market - certainly for the top grade copies. One specific problem of this aspect of the constructed market is the submission of run of contemporary comic books for CGC grading - almost certainly in the hope of slabbing a future classic and hence investment, a procedure which has even resulted in overblown prices for very recent (i.e. still available) comic books (Brady, 2001).

 
Just how artificial some of the ramifications of most collector's markets actually are was demonstrated by the way these markets reacted when the global financial crisis and economic downturn 2008/09 set in. As the comic book collector's market is no exception, the following two examples have deliberately been drawn from two other, even better established hobby fields: coins and vintage cars:

"As the economy continues to struggle (...) in the first half of 2009, it should be no surprise that we are also seeing the activity of the coin collecting community shift their priorities.  (...) A number of collectors out there have slowed down (...) There are also a number of collectors and dealers that are either being forced to sell their collections to make ends meet, or they are just becoming disillusioned (...).  In a down market, the inferior examples in a specific grade are just going to sit and sit and sit!  In this market, only the top tier coins (...) are going to be the coins that will move, and probably move at a premium independent of tier price.  Likewise the more common issues are going to be less desirable and will suffer due to the lack of demand for such ordinary items. (...) For some collectors who have been able to put themselves in a strong cash position, this is an excellent time to purchase coins if the right gems emerge.  For example, the recent sell of the Adams-Carter Class III 1804 dollar brought half a million dollars less than it would have reportedly brought a year ago due to the current recession. (...) A price correction is taking place in the numismatic marketplace just as it has in so many other parts of our economy." (Gammill, 2009)

"The results of recent auction sales suggest that something of a buyer’s market exists: while the prices of top-grade cars seem to be holding strong and even setting records, cars of lesser condition and rarity have been somewhat soft." (Roy, 2009)

 
It is easy to grasp what is happening: Only the truly undisputed and key rarities prove their worth, whilst lesser collectibles are subject to a downward correction of their monetary value. Unfortunately (for investors and speculators, that is), only a very small fraction of what is offered on the market belongs to the first category. In fact, in terms of the comic book collector's market, this segment of the market boils down to only a handful of titles. Looking at the prices generated by CGC 9.2 graded copies of Fantastic Four #1, the owner of equally CGC graded Fantastic Four #2 - noteable for nothing less than the first appearance of the Skrulls - must surely have felt slightly disappointed by the sum of $11,638 which one copy fetched at an auction in May 2007 (NN, 2007), i.e. when for many the sky still seemed the limit. But maybe he found consolation again when he saw the same grade of the same title sell for almost $1,500 less (namely $10,199) at an auction in September 2008 (NN, 2008). At that time, the economic clouds were really starting to gather, and sure enough the book had already lost pretty much one hundred dollars in value every month which had passed between those two auctions. That, however, did not stop the organizers of the 2008 auction to offer a distinctly different interpretation of the event - which goes a long way in illustrating how the comic book market is indeed constructed:

""Bidding was aggressive; a reassuring sign for the economic health of collectible investments during a tumultuous week on Wall Street," stated ComicConnect co-founder, Stephen Fishler. "Though there were some deals to be had in the auction, overall we saw very healthy prices being realized by consignors." (NN, 2008)

 



A CGC 9.2 copy of Fantastic Four #2 went down $1,500 in worth between May 2007 and September 2008

 



Detective Comics #29
(July 1939)

  Looking into this statement in more detail reveals just where the "healthy prices" were generated, namely through

"unprecedented hammer price[s] of $160,200 on a SHOWCASE #4 CGC 9.4, $118,977 for AMAZING FANTASY #15 CGC 8.5, and $25,000 for DETECTIVE COMICS #29 CGC 6.0." (NN, 2008)

In other words: two highly classic titles from DC - Showcase #4 is considered to be the milestone comic which kicked off the Silver Age by introducing an updated version of the Flash and starting the successful updating of several other Golden Age DC superheroes, and Detective Comics #29 which introduced Bat-Man's famous utility belt - plus the old Marvel aquaintance, Amazing Fantasy #15. In other words: the equivalents of Picassos and Van Goghs for comic book history.

 



Showcase #4
(September 1956)

 
And speaking of Picasso and Van Gogh, a look at the modern and contemporary art market - where some artists even provide something of a link to the comic book world, such as Roy Lichtenstein - revealed that by November 2008, investors as well as the auction houses had taken a real beating:

"This month [November 2008] the auction art market finally took its pratfall. Depending on the sale or the country you choose to measure it, the prices for Modern and Contemporary art dropped a full one-third to one-half all around the world, costing the three big houses - Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips De Pury & Co. - millions of dollars. Sotheby's had estimated a low figure of $338 million for its New York sale on Nov. 12-13, but the auction brought in just $223.8 million. Its catalog cover, "Half Face with Collar" by former Rutgers University teacher and comics copier Roy Lichtenstein, was valued at between $15 million and $20 million, but it didn't sell. The only one of the auction houses that is publicly traded, Sotheby's stock has lost 83 percent of its value in just one year." (Bischoff, 2008)

Having established the metaphor that the Picassos of any collectibles market will most likely always sell in spite of a turbulent economy, even this segment of the collectible's market is far from being bullet-proof, especially if owners are in need of the money which is tied up in the item:

"Riding the current craze for late Picassos, Christie’s had put a 1968 painting by him on the cover of its auction catalog. The work, “Musketeer With a Pipe,” was being sold by (...) a victim of the Bernard L. Madoff [investment] swindle. The brightly colored canvas was expected to fetch $12 million to $18 million. Four bidders sought the painting, which went (...) for $14.6 million. (...) Sotheby’s tried to sell its star Picasso - a 1938 portrait of the artist’s daughter Maya - that was also being sold by a Madoff victim (...). It was a more expensive work, estimated at $16 million to $24 million, and it went unsold." (Vogel, 2009)

As a conclusion, it is important for the comic aficionado to bear in mind when looking at the collector's market that individuals can, and do, control the manner in which objects are viewed, and that the value of objects as well as the memories of those objects are socially constructed (Baker, Motley & Henderson, 2004). This by consequence results in a general volatility and accounts for some of the drops in monetary terms of collectibles, such as certain stamps which at one time sold for $20 and are now going for $5 (Lingen, --). The comic book collector's market is also a prime field of applicability of Thompson's (1979) Rubbish Theory which provides a framework for illustrating that the value and meaning of objects can and do change over time. Thompson's example to illustrate this point is the fact that an old vase described as an antique in pristine condition is worth quantitatively and qualitatively more than an identical old vase described as used and in good condition (Thompson, 1979). In the end, it is a bit like having the vase graded and slabbed.

 
NO LESSONS LEARNED -
THE "FORGOTTEN" CRASH OF THE COMIC BOOK COLLECTOR'S MARKET IN THE 1990s
 
From what has been presented so far it would seem more than clear that the perceived investment value and stability of the comic book collector's market is really based on the fundamental misconception that the rising value of some older issues implies that all comics will eventually rise exponentially in price. However, many "investment collectors" seem quite happy to ignore this obvious truth - which is actually nothing less than an intrinsic quality of collectibles, namely that not all items of a collection have identical status but rather differ in terms of e.g. availability/scarcity, age, physical condition, emotional attachment, etc. - and it is quite ironic that an entertainment form which has always had a very strong escapist appeal for its consumers (comic books provided sorely needed distraction from the gloomy realities of economic depressions, times of actual as well as cold war, or social and political disorientation and upheaval) should seemingly have virtually the same escapist appeal for some investors:

"Where should you put your money in these uncertain financial times? Once-prudent investments in housing and the stock market no longer provide safe financial refuge for your hard-earned dollars. But some suggest that, when searching for a stable place to invest your money, you need look no further than your comic book collection. Some investors are selling off their stock and buying up vintage comic books, believing that the timelessness of comics offers a more secure long-term investment than stocks have of late." (Levitz, 2008)

For some people, it seems, a statement such as "the timelessness of comics offers a more secure long-term investment than stocks have of late" blocks out anything else and virtually erases the all important remark that the investors described as selling off their Wall Street assets for comic books are buying up vintage comic books - which leads us back to the finding that only a very limited number of key issues in near-mint quality are going for very high prices, but 99,9% of all published books from the same period are not. Nevertheless, an amazingly large number of individuals actually seem to believe that they can buy almost any comic book for a few dollars and expect to see it go on sale for huge profits in virtually no time. It is a view which, not surprisingly, is constantly fuelled by the driving side of the market, i.e. the sellers and intermediates, through statements which refer to the success zone of the comic book collector's market without making it overly clear just how very narrow that success zone is:

 


Amazing Spider-Man
#583 - "inauguration day special" first printing with Obama cover
(January 2009)
 

"The "Silver Age Comic Book Pricing Index" of 32 frequently traded '60s comics, was up 14.2% in the 18 months ending in July [2008], while the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index was down 11% in the same period. Mark Haspel, president of [CGC] (...) says it's on track to handle 200,000 books this year, up from 150,000 in 2007. "Spiderman is going to be here in 20 years -- he's not going away," Mr. Haspel says." (NN, 2009b)

It is fair enough to assume that Spider-Man will still be around in 20 years, although that really is nothing more than a guess which adorns the market expectation by CGC that the likes of Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1 will still be around as pivotal issues. However, many will clearly take this statement to include more recent issues as well, such as the much publicised "inauguration day special" Amazing Spider-Man #583, featuring President Obama on its cover, not realising that what was marketed as a "must-have collector's item" in January 2009 is actually a comic book with an exceptional total of five print runs (each with a distinctive variant cover) and a grand total of around 507,000 copies (cgccomics.com). In other words: it is the absolute opposite of scarce for a modern era comic book, and will continue to be so for decades to come, not the least thanks to CGC who obligingly slabbed a total of 175 9.8 graded copies of the first print run alone. All in all, the number of CGC 9.8 graded copies of all five print runs of Amazing Spider-Man #583 totalled 2,307 copies by August 2009, plus another 2,761 copies in other grades (cgccomics.com) - of which a 7.0 copy of the fifth printing proves that some people will indeed just CGC-slab anything.

 
The phenomenal print run (by today's comic book circulation standards) of Amazing Spider-Man #583 was triggered by Obama, not Spider-Man. The title character was still around for issue #584, but Obama wasn't, and sales were instantly slashed back to normal, i.e. 63,754 copies (NN, 2009b). The surge in sales was thus solely caused by buyers who picked up this comic book as a novelty in a wider field of "Obamamania" - reported on almost worldwide - plus a number of individuals who made a lot of multiple purchases in the belief that they could resell at a profit:

"I bought a lot of Amazing Spider-Man 583 (...) Graded 9.8, those are going for around $150 each (...) I paid maybe $600 for all 149 of those, and once graded (which would cost around $3000 with shipping), they'd probably fetch a total of around $8000, for a net profit of around $4400 at today's prices. (...) I'll sell them at tomorrow's prices though, because after 30 years of collecting comics, I know how this works, and the value is going to climb and climb. No hurry." (NN, 2009c)

 



Swiss newspaper report on Amazing Spider-Man #583 - "Spider-Man saves Obama's big day"

 
Anybody - including comic book collectors with 30 years of experience and no hurry to sell their 149 issues - is, of course, free to fantasize about perceived market and profit potentials. The market reality, however, speaks an entirely different language.

Whilst a 9.4 grade copy of the first printing of Amazing Spider-Man #583 had an estimated market value of $60 in August 2009, the second print run was only at $10 and all subsequent printings were not valued above $4 (www.ebay.com). Selling for $60 (already substantially less than the quoted expectation of $150), however, is another one of those harsh market realities, as there were no less than 178 offers for copies of Amazing Spider-Man #583 on eBay in mid-August 2009. 25 of these were CGC graded (mostly 9.8, some 9.6); the 14 copies offered as "buy it now" (i.e. at a price fixed by the seller) ranged from $600 (signed by Stan Lee) to $34.99 and obviously were all still waiting for a buyer, whilst the CGC-graded copies open to bids reached amounts in the average range of $25.00. The non-CGC-graded copies were chiefly described as "near mint" and offered at prices ranging from $119.99 to $1.99, and only a small handful had attracted bids, the highest of which ran up to $49.01 with 17 bidders battling it out against each other whilst an identical copy was still on offer with no previous bids for $14.99 (another curious aspect of the collectibles market).

Some collector's market pipe dreams rely heavily on time as the magic element which drives prices up after a certain waiting period. As for Amazing Spider-Man #583, a staggering 179 NM copies of all print runs were on offer on eBay in June 2013, with prices starting out as low as $2.95 (or $12.95 for a set of 1st/2nd/3rd print copies). The repetitive use across the board of the words "ultra rare" in the product descriptions was contradicted by the number of issues avilable on that auction platform alone.

 
None of this is really surprising at all: Amazing Spider-Man #583 touched upon a highly popular subject which reached out way beyond the comic book readers' community when it featured Obama on the cover, and wide media coverage was guaranteed to make sure not only comic geeks knew about it. As a result, many people usually not interested the least in comic books were after a copy, and Amazing Spider-Man #583 became part of the first wave of the Obama memorabilia drive. This led many to perceive the comic as a sought after collectible which would soon be out of print, and they picked up multiple copies for re-sale - not realising or simply ignoring the fact that Marvel gladly kept the printers busy (after all it was both a huge business and PR success) and virtually flooded the market with half a million copies. At this point, most of the true collector's market was already saturated (everybody who sorely wanted a copy had more than enough chances to get one). The overall effect of this is that there will hardly be any future prospect of selling for substantial profit as large numbers of this comic book are now being stored with great care. In addition, those who actually read Amazing Spider-Man #583 will mostly conclude that it is an average issue at best, but certainly nowhere near to a pivotal one.

"The Obama back-up story is one of the most embarrassing Spider-Man stories I've read in a long time (...) [it] couldn't possibly make any new reader want to come back for more. (...) It's a good thing all those people lined up in the cold probably only bought it for the cover." (Callahan, 2009)

 


Action Comics
#309
The friendly helper posing as Clark Kent to help Superman protect his secret identity is, in fact, JFK
  In other words: no comic book collector will be wanting a copy in 20 or 30 years because it's such a great or important issue for Spidey, let alone the history of comic books. The value lies strictly with the Obama cover, and the appearance of an American president in a comic book is not a first, although previous such cameos were predominantly featured in books from DC, e.g. JFK in Action Comics #309 (February 1964), Nixon in From Beyond the Unknown #17 (July 1972), Carter in Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (1978), or the Clintons in Superman: the Man of Steel #20 (February 1993).

The oldest of these books, i.e. Action Comics #309, has an estimated price tag of $140 in 9.4 grade (www.comicspriceguide.com), regardless of the fact that Kennedy plays an active role in helping Superman preserve his secret identity but the book actually hit the newsstands the week after JFK's assassination - too late for DC to recall (Colton, 2009). One CGC graded near-mint (9.4) copy did fetch $717 at an auction in January 2008 at Heritage Auctions, but until then CGC had only slabbed two copies of the book in that grade, making this a one out of two known copies purchase (cgccomics.com) - quite unlike the 175 CGC graded 9.8 copies of Amazing Spider-Man #583.

The "collector's item / investment value" hype drummed up by some people in conjunction with Amazing Spider-Man #583 is somehwat reminiscent of the not too distant comic book collector's market collapse of the mid-1990s - the result of a string of events which newcomers don't seem to know about and some seasoned collectors don't seem to care to remember.

 
The comic book industry experienced a real boom from around 1985 through to 1993, but in spite of renewed popular interest in the medium through movie adaptations (foremost through the various Batman movies), it was the sudden surge of features in the mainstream press on how some comics sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars which fuelled it. Although these reports would in essence always refer to books such as Action Comics #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15, the industry suddenly saw mass purchases of certain current books as collectible items by growing numbers of individuals with the hope and intent to resell at a profit. As a consequence, comic book publishers began to specifically address the "collectors' market" by making more and more frequent use of variant and gimmick covers, crossovers and launches of new titles or renumbering existing ones to get as many "collectible" #1s as possible, and packaging books in polybags, which left the buyer to choose between either reading the comic book or keeping it in pristine condition for potential financial gain, or - that was the idea - doing both by buying two copies (polybags really were an early form of low-tech "slabbing"). This period also saw a corresponding expansion in price guide publications, most notably Wizard Magazine, which fuelled the speculator boom further (NN, 1994).

Having outlined the artificial construction of the comic book collector's market above, it will come as no surprise that the entire bubble imploded brutally after passing its saturation point. A lot of insight to the mechanisms involved can be gained from an insider's report who witnessed the events from the comic book dealer's side of the table:

"After selling two copies [of Harbinger #1] at cover price to customers practically apoplectic with excitement I marked one up to $5. It was gone in minutes. As a gamble, I marked one up to $10. It was also gone in minutes. (...) During a slow point I wandered the show to see what other dealers were selling their copies for. I saw one customer gladly plop down $25 for a copy. At future shows, I sold copies for $75 each, which is completely irrational for a new book with a multi-thousand print run. (...) Such was the power of the speculator market." (Marcotte, 2005)

The comic book speculator market finally collapsed between 1993 and 1997. Two out of three comic book stores closed, and numerous publishers were driven out of business. Marvel Comics was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997.

"I very clearly remember the beginning of the end (...) For months, collectors were trying to find a copy of Magnus Robot Fighter #12, the first appearance of Turok. The reason being, Valiant was about to launch Turok’s own comic book, and investors and speculators were looking for copies before it came out. What they didn’t know is that most dealers HAD multiple copies of it, but were hoarding their copies until Turok #1 came out so they could sell it for big bucks. (...) So this show happened right after Turok #1 was released, and the joint was practically littered with copies of Magnus #12, all having magically materialized from various inventories (...) And not a single dealer sold a single copy. The investors had totally vanished from the scene. The worm had turned, and comics fans were pissed off. (...) The rumor of collectibility was a misguided self-fufilling prophecy. (...) Collectors already owned multiple duplicates of each issue. There was no-one to sell them to." (Marcotte, 2005)

Things are still the same today as they were then. For an item to be a true high-value collectible, it needs to be genuinely scarce, be genuinely well preserved, and have a genuine collector's appeal. If only one of these criteria are not met, then it's never going to be an item of successful speculation. The advent of CGC has misled an amazing number of people into thinking that excellent material condition is everything, and preserving this for posterity by having it slabbed will conclusively bring about a rich monetary return on investment. This can really only work with a vintage comic book which, as seen before, luckily turns up decades later in some drawer - because back when it was originally published only very few people were concerned with storing their comic books diligently and making sure they weren't lost over time. Thus, if it is a vintage title, even an issue used as insulation material in a condemned house can be turned into money (as was the case with a 1.5 CGC graded copy of Action Comics #1 which sold for $175,000 at an auction in June 2013 (comicconnect.com)).

 


CGC 9.8 copy of Captain America (vol. 5) #25
(April 2007)



CGC 9.8 copy of Captain America (vol. 5) #25, variant cover
(April 2007)

  Today's rush to have current books CGC-slabbed does secure the vital aspect of preserving a near-mint grade, but at the same time virtually destroys the equally important aspect of potential future scarcity of the collectible.

Unlike Amazing Spider-Man #583, Captain America (vol. 5) #25 was a pivotal issue when it appeared in April 2007. Depicting the death of Cap, it was such an important (and in a way improbable) event within the Marvel Universe that even the general media reported on it. So, the genuine collector's appeal is to be considered likely in future years to come. And thanks to CGC, graded copies in pristine condition in the future are a certainty - although this at the same time means that scarcity will not, as CGC obligingly slabbed an incredible total of 1,101 9.8 graded copies of the first print run (plus another 314 in the same grade within their Signature Series). All in all, the number of CGC 9.8 grade copies of the first and second printings of Captain America #25 totalled 4,537 copies by August 2009, plus another 616 copies in other grades (cgccomics.com) - of which a 7.5 copy of the cariant cover printing again proves the point that some people will just CGC-slab anything. In order for 9.8 graded copies to become scarce again, around 95% of these slabbed copies would need to either get lost or opened. As slabbing is not cheap and done with a specific purpose, this can virtually be ruled out.

It's the same as back in 1997: The rumor of collectibility of current comic books is a misguided self-fufilling prophecy as real collectors have had their chance to pick up their copy (or maybe even multiples, e.g. variant covers), and even if not CGC slabbed, real collectors will treat their issue(s) with care.

It seems that the sellers have learned these lessons far better than some buyers:

"In general, the comics that have the most collectible value are those published between 1938 and 1979. Typically within that time frame, superhero comics hold the most value, with first appearance or origin issues being the most sought after. The vast majority of comics from the 1980s and later have little, if any, value today. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the comics industry experienced a speculator boom of collectors who saw potential in an up and coming collectors market. They bought and hoarded large numbers of each issue, not realizing that they were ensuring the worthlessness of the very items they were hoping to profit on. This artificial demand increased comics print runs, making them virtually worthless in the long term. This misuse of the market by collectors and publishers alike led to the virtual collapse of the comic book industry in 1998." (Heritage Auctions, ----)

 
 
 

 

The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction in this non-commercial context is considered to be fair use.

Text is (c) 2007-13 Adrian Wymann

page originally published on the web 20 December 2007
updated and revised 24 August 2009
revised and posted to panelology.info 15 December 2009
updated and revised 27 November 2013

 

 
BIBLIOGRAPHY

BAKER Stacey, MOTLEY Carol M. & HENDERSON Geraldine R. (2004) From despicable to collectible: The Evolution of collective memories for and the value of black advertising memorabilia, published in Journal of Advertising Volume 33, Number 3 (Fall 2004)

BISCHOFF Dan (2008) Art auctions reflect economic collapse, The Star-Ledger (29 November 29 2008 issue), available online at www.nj.com/entertainment/arts/index.ssf/2008/11/art_auctions_reflect_economic.html and accessed 3 August 2009

BRADY Terence J. (2001) CGC: "The good, the bad & the ugly", published in Comics Buyer's Guide #1464 (07/12/2001) and available online at www.teako170.com/cgc.html, and accessed 23 November 2007

CALLAHAN Timothy (2009) Review of Amazing Spider-Man #583, featured on www.comicbookresources.com/?id=651&page=user_review and accessaed 12 August 2009

CGCCOMICS.COM (2004) Comiclink.com sets record price for CGC certified 9.4 Amazing Fantasy #15, published in CGC eNewsletter Vol. 3 No. 2, available online at www.cgccomics.com/news/enews/cgc_enews_0402feb.htm#a3 and accessed 10 December 2007

CGCCOMICS.COM (----), accessed 23 November 2007

COLTON David (2009) "Spider-Man and Obama are both heroes in new special-edition comic", Chicago Sun-Times (8 January 2009), available online at www.suntimes.com and accessed 14 August 2009

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