Many of us hold onto things for years, sometimes decades, believing our "treasures" — well-considered purchases made for investment, collections methodically assembled, or even family heirlooms — will yield big rewards. Some take pride of place on the mantel; others are stored away in boxes that crowd the basement or languish in the attic. Unfortunately, though, the goods we were sure would appreciate in value often turn out to be worth nothing, or at least not much more than we paid for them. Here's a look at some things you might want to unload to clear out clutter and maybe pocket a little cash.
A $35,000 copy of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" or the Beatles' "White Album"? Some records may be worth something, but even with vinyl having a renaissance, no long-neglected albums from junior high are likely to finance the next generation's college tuition. Most newbies are simply buying re-issues and contemporary releases, and veteran collectors want pristine original pressings. The most valuable albums are rare and ideally kept in climate-controlled, dust-free storage. Otherwise, expect pennies on the dollar.
Stamps, like so many other collectibles, are filled with variables. Condition plays a big part in determining value, as do age and rarity. The casual collector who simply saves what looks pretty or interesting, ripping off the corner of an envelope to save that delicate flower, historical figure, or stellar landscape, will wind up with boxes worth very little. The same goes for stamp albums for children or beginners that are sparsely filled — and any U.S. postal stamps from the past 70 years, which is what most people have.
Every so often, news of a rare coin, perhaps a recently discovered misstep by the U.S. Mint, gets people emptying their pockets in search of a jackpot find — and good luck with that. More common is the collecting of wheat pennies (also known as wheatbacks or wheat cents), based on hearing that they're worth more than their face value. That just means they're worth more than a cent — from 3 to 4 cents to a few dollars at the most — so it would take a lot to make the seller rich.
Remember the mania for Beanie Babies in the 1990s? Introduced by Ty in 1993, the plush toys — nine in the original collection — were suddenly must-haves. If they weren't played with and had their paper tags still attached, some could indeed command tidy sums. But last year on eBay, a collection of 2001 Happy Birthday Bears — the complete set of 12 — was seeking a starting bid of just $15 ... with no takers. The website Ty Collector laments, "The buying frenzy decreased significantly after 1998 when Ty produced so many Beanie Babies for the worldwide market that retailers had difficulty selling them all."
McDonald's has been selling Happy Meals since the late 1970s, and many of the tiny toys included with the food have indeed become collectibles worth several hundred dollars for a complete set. But most people probably haven't collected all 101 of those "101 Dalmatians." And like many other youth collectibles, Happy Meal toys are worth big bucks only in mint condition with their original packaging — which includes the Happy Meal box. Alas, these giveaways are most often ripped open and played with moments after purchase.
"Brown furniture" is a catchall term in the antiques trade for sturdy, dark-wood warhorses such as cabinets and sideboards, dining tables, and bedroom sets. Museum-quality work by noted crafters and designers of historic importance commands the prices one might hope, but everyday home furnishings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have taken a hit on aesthetic and monetary fronts. Today art deco and midcentury modern pieces are in demand. A walk through many an antique or consignment shop will find the old brown pieces relegated to the back or basement, with price tags to match.
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Unless you've dug into a stash of comics and uncovered ultra-rare issues from the earliest days of Superman, Batman, or the classic Marvel heroes, you're likely holding onto a pile of childhood memories, and nothing more. As baby boomers age, they are paring down and trying to cash in, and the market for comics is glutted. Condition, as with so many collectibles, is key too. A random check of price guides and online marketplaces might prove eye-opening, to say the least.
The costume jewelry market is driven by trends and pop culture. One season, long necklaces for layering are in; next it's disco-era chokers. Some collectors bypass anything that isn't signed (designers stamp their name or logo on the reverse), so iconic pieces from noted designers and manufacturers (vintage Miriam Haskell, Kenneth Jay Lane, Weiss, Eisenberg, and others) command top dollar. But by nature, the bulk of costume jewelry is mass-produced, designed to bring a bit of glamour within the reach of everyone. That means there's an overabundance of pieces that, while pretty and intricate, fill the $5 or $10 tables at flea markets. And here, again, condition plays a part. It's hard to unload pieces with missing rhinestones or faulty clasps.
That old model train may not have seen the underside of a Christmas tree in years, but it was made by Lionel, which has been producing model trains for more than a century, so it's tempting to think it's valuable. "Many of the trains made in the early years right up through the present have kept their value, and some are highly valued by collectors," the Lionel Collectors Club of America says. But also: "More common ones, while worthy of running, may not have a high collector value." As usual, condition, rarity, and an original box are key. If the train is in beaten-up boxes jammed with twisted wires, bent tracks, and a bit of rust, forget it.
That china serving platter given at your grandparents' wedding and used by generations has finally been passed down to you. It was never nicked or chipped — a miracle — and it has to be worth something. But with so many reproductions or revivals of vintage patterns, it can be difficult for an amateur to authenticate a piece and accurately gauge collectible-quality condition and rarity. If the platter is pristine, and from a noted line such as Royal Albert Old Country Roses, you may be in luck. More often, though, passed-down pieces are valuable only for their family history.
Some parents will pay anything to share a favorite childhood book with their own children. There are also collectors who collect books for their covers, or to frame pages for decorative purposes. Last year, two first-edition copies of the Dr. Seuss classic "Green Eggs and Ham" from 1960 were selling for $4,750 and $3,500 on Biblio.com — but those featured quite specific qualities that most likely matter to just the rarest collectors. After all, the charm of most children's books is they've been loved: They often carry children's names (printed perhaps for the first time by them), bent pages, random crayon marks, or even little stains — and those are not exactly selling points, especially when so many classics get frequent printings.
Precious Moments bride-and-groom sets made good wedding gifts or keepsake cake toppers, going on to take pride of place in the new couple's first home. A recent scroll through eBay found many have provoked nostalgia, but not envy, as, for example, 1979's "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" — billed as "rare!" — was listed at just $8.50.
Many people focus on themes or manufacturers when collecting commemorative plates from the ubiquitous American artist Norman Rockwell. But owners should have thought twice before coddling these items, as an array of original retired/mint condition plates complete with box, Styrofoam and certificates of authenticity sell for less than $50 on Rockwellplates.com.
Remember when parents would literally rip Cabbage Patch Kids from each other's hands in stores? When the soft-sculpture dolls went national in the early '80s, people couldn't "adopt" enough of these for around $30. As with many youth-oriented collectibles, condition is everything, so unless your "kid" hasn't been out of its box, expect to perhaps break even.
Rah, rah ... rah? Those felt pennants hung by generations of students carry plenty of tradition — but their value is, again, subjective. While alumni might feel they've held onto gold, they likely won't be able to pay off that college loan. An undated Boston College pennant "complete with tack hole" can go for only $15 on eBay.