COMICS #1 SELLS FOR
THE COMIC BOOK
|UPDATE - On September 9th 2021, a CGC 9.6 graded copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 became the most expensive comic book ever as it fetched $ 3.6 million at an auction conducted by Heritage Auctions in Dallas TX, flying past the previous record holder, a CGC 8.5 graded Action Comics #1, that sold for $ 2.25 million in a private sale in April 2021, which had just edged out the previous top money comic book - also a copy of Action Comics #1 (but graded higher at CGC 9.0), sold on August 24th 2014 on eBay for $ 3,207,852 after a total of 48 bids from 13 pre-approved bidders, setting a new record price for a comic book. The identity of the two 2021 buyers has not been amde public, but back in 2014 the winning bid came not from a collector but from a dealer - Metropolis Collectibles, a company that regularly brokered top-grossing comic book sales. If you read on, you will understand why this makes perfect sense.|
|A market which, most of the time, is completely
detached from selling Action Comics #1.
The comic collector's market seems like the two sides of the moon, depending from where you look at it. Whilst year after year the Overstreet Price Guide is full of advertisements from dealers making generalized statements to the effect that they are looking for and willing to buy absolutely everything, the actual reality on the ground is a completely different one.
It's a far cry from the lavish stories of top prices paid for single comic book issues which make the media headlines with a flash and are perpetuated by certain circles - and which seemingly have made many believe that they are storing a sound investment when in actual fact most of their prized collected comic books - whilst maybe not completely worthless - will be very hard to sell.
In order to understand why and how this all happens, it is necessary to take a look at how the comic book collectors market has been - and still is - a constructed market.
|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.
|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:
|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)
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:
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:
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:
|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
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:
|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.|
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:
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.
|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:
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:
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":
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:
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:
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.
|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
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. And then prices can swing the other way, too.
And prices generally dip 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:
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 - or worse.
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
| 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
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:
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:
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.
The fact that prices in a constructed collector's market often (if not always) reflect financial speculation more than actual cultural significance can also be glimpsed from the fact that an 1818 first edition of Mary Shelley's seminal classic of gothic horror, Frankenstein (the original print run of which only numbered 500) set a world record in September 2021 for the highest price paid for a printed work by a woman, after selling at auction for $1,170,000 (£856,000).
There's a somewhat nasty question embedded here for comic book aficionados. Is Spider-Man's first appearance, sold for $ 3.6 Mio in September 2021, really that much more culturally significant than the first edition of Frankenstein (at $ 1.7 Mio, also in September 2021)? The question need not be answered, since none of this is really about their impact on (popular) culture; it's all about making an investment. And maybe Frankenstein will catch up with Spider-Man one day.
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:
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:
|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
|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:
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.
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)).
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