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Think about it. How would you feel if I under-estimated prices and you missed winning desirable items you were willing to pay more for? How would you feel if you overpaid based on one of my wild estimates? How would you feel if you thought I was feeding inside information to other collectors, but not to you?
Prices in this website are meant to represent estimates of prices of certificates when they sell in well-attended, well-promoted live auctions. Live auction prices are often much higher than eBay prices. This reflects dramatic differences in the numbers and types of buyers and sellers, as well as very noticeable differences in professionalism.
I have recorded eBay prices every day for several years. These records disclose several interesting relationships between eBay prices and live auction prices. There are several "rules of thumb." As a rule:
I want to stress -- in the strongest possible way! -- that my price estimates do NOT reflect eBay sales prices. I discussed the subject of eBay pricing in detail in my November, 2006 newsletter.
The complexity of estimating prices.
Estimating prices for collectibles is a complicated subject. I have spent years studying pricing and I am constantly surprised.
Huge numbers of factors affect prices. In order to feel comfortable buying collectibles, you must understand that pricing is ambiguous, unpredictable, and variable. Beginners think that pricing in collectibles depends on the law of supply and demand. It is tremendously more complicated than that.
First, you must understand that the value of collectibles is established at a single, discreet INSTANT in time. That is the moment when one buyer and one seller agree on price. Valuations before that moment are estimates. Valuation after that moment are estimates.
Here are the issues I discuss on this page. These represent many of the factors I use when estimating prices for collectible certificates.
Prices are suggestions
I try to report prices, not affect them My prices lag auctions and price lists
Prices reflect certificates in average condition
The vast majority of certificates are collectibles, nothing more
Some certificates retain value as securities
Every price is a guess until the time of sale
Everyone has a different opinion on prices
What if I did not offer opinions about prices?
Understand that prices can drop
Prices vary from place to place, time to time
My price estimates fluctuate constantly
How I estimate prices for common certificates
How I estimate prices for rare certificates
Why I do NOT use abnormally low online auctions prices
Prices do not directly reflect rarity
Prices vary radically among dealers
Why you need to learn dealers' pricing strategies
What to do about wacky, crazy, insane prices?
Understanding auction prices
The concept that collectors need certificates
Marketing affects prices
Do not buy, sell, or bid on certificates based solely on
the opinions offered in this database.
Ideally, you should take a little time and compare my prices with those you encounter. Then adjust my prices, either higher or lower, for your situation. If you live in the U.S., my prices may seem a little high. If you live in Europe, my prices may seem substantially low.
I have no involvement in buying or selling certificates. I do not care whether a particular item sells for $10 or a $1,000. I merely report what I see.
There are many times when I cannot learn sales prices. There are many times when certificates go unsold in auctions. In those instances, I estimate selling prices based on other factors -- desirability, collector demand, attractiveness, location, condition, color, dates, printers, autographs, probable rarity, and so forth.
In case you're wondering, I consider desirability the most important factor for estimating prices. I consider rarity one of the least reliable factors for estimating value. Always avoid equating rarity and price.
This bears repeating. Desirability is of primary importance in pricing. Rarity affects prices, but the relationship is indirect. I discussed these two issues more in my April, 2008 newsletter.
"Lagging indicators" are indicators that follow markets. As prices rise and fall, my prices will lag by days or weeks. Super-rare items only appear in the market every few years, so my prices for great rarities may lag by years.
Predicting prices is difficult because the market for collectible certificates is "thin". While there may be ten thousand collectors worldwide, only a tiny fraction will be interested in a particular item at a particular time. Many people may be interested in expensive certificates, but only a few will be able to afford them. Language barriers further decrease the number of collectors who can participate in any one auction or buy from a single fixed price list.
In short, the thinner the market, the harder it is to predict prices.
Unlike coins and stamps, the population of collectible certificates is very, very small. Miniscule, in fact. There are too few certificates to estimate prices for certificates in condition categories. It stands to reason that heavily canceled, stained, folded, and torn certificates are worth less than certificates in pristine condition. However, some certificates are known only in average condition. While average condition may not be terribly attractive, it is often the only condition available.
It is almost heretical to say this publicly, but, by themselves, most certificates HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO INTRINSIC VALUE. They literally are worth the paper they are printed on.
Considered by themselves, collectible certificates are nothing more than paper. Beginners seldom want to admit that they are collecting things no intrinsic value. But, this is an important step toward understanding how collectibles are priced.
The"value" of certificates resides strictly in the fact that they are collectible.
Yes, collectibles may be highly sought after. But no matter how many collectors want certificates, you must realize that collectible certificates have no value except in the minds and the hearts of the people who collect them.
Collectors' desires create value. Desire is tremendously powerful. It is what gives enduring passion to this and other hobbies.
At the same time, desire makes the hobby expensive.
Understand this concept and you will understand pricing.
Even raw beginners, if they think about it, already know this. Imagine a situation where only one person wanted to collect something. Such an item would have almost no value.
But what if two people want the same item at the same time? And what if there is only one such item in existence? The person willing to pay the most sets the value.
A very tiny number of collectible stocks and bonds are still valid securities.
How do you know if a certificate is still tradable? Contact a professional and expect to pay about $75 to $100. Go to my page on Values as Securities to learn more and find links to specialists in the field. Be aware that just because certificates are uncancelled does NOT mean they retain value as securities.
Also, be aware that NO U.S. bond can be redeemed for gold. I have a long discussion on the subjects of Gold Bonds and Scams and Hypes. Also visit the various U.S. Treasury Department's websites for information on fraudulent issues and scams. (I would love to offer a link, but the Treasury has moved the page around so much that I can no longer spend time tracking it.)
Let me re-emphasize that the value of every collectible is determined at only one instant in time. That is the moment when a sale takes place between one buyer and one seller.
Oddly, even when transactions take place, buyers and sellers rarely agree on values. They agree on prices. Nothing else!
This is a crucial distinction. At the moment of sale, buyers usually think that certificates are worth more than they are agreeing to pay. Where sellers stand is always a mystery. They may think their items are worth more than the sales price. But they may think they're worth less. Whatever the case, after a period of negotiation, buyers and sellers temporarily agree and make deals.
Please understand that opinions change quickly, so prices estimates are exceedingly flexible.
In fact, the perception of value is so flexible that buyers and sellers often change their minds within seconds of agreement. It is very common for both buyers and sellers to regret their decisions.
It is impossible to estimate prices based on everyone's opinions. Therefore, the prices published here are "snapshots" of opinions.
In creating a price guide like this, I am fully aware of a pricing paradox. If you really take the time to ponder the situation, you will understand that my price estimates can only be considered good when everyone disagrees. Ideally, half of all interested observers should think my price estimates are too high and the other half should argue that my estimates are too low. That is the paradox!
In other words, if I am doing my job correctly, everyone should disagree with me to some degree.
Seems kind of weird, doesn't it? (I discuss this matter more on a page I call The Pricing Paradox.)
I recognize the risk of valuing collectibles. Therefore, I expressly accept no liability for implying that any of these certificates have "value."
In fact, I will gladly repeat, collectible certificates have "no value." They have collectible prices that change continuously.
Theoretically, I could offer you a database of listings and let you guess at prices. But a listing of certificates without prices would be nearly worthless. So, I estimate prices but expressly warn you that it is exceedingly common to see certificates sell for substantially more and substantially less than my estimates.
My goal is to offer collectors honest opinions of prices based on historic selling activity between buyers and sellers. For the most part, I try to express opinions based on recent price activity around the globe. Sometimes, there is no published evidence of sales prices, so I must estimate with nothing more than experience and gut feel. Reasonable people will disagree.
Prices of collectibles WILL change. Sometimes prices go up. Sometimes they go down. Do NOT buy a single collectible certificate if you are unwilling to accept the absolute certainty of price fluctuation.
Of the prices listed in this database, I suggest that prices for autographed certificates are most susceptible to fluctuation. They are extremely sensitive to the ebb and flow of demand.
The prices of autographed items reflect what is happening in the autograph hobby. Autograph collecting is a separate hobby that overlaps the collectible certificate hobby. Please, do not buy or sell expensive autographed items until you understand the autograph hobby and how autographs are priced.
Prices can and do go down. This should be your most compelling reason to never overpay. Yes, I understand that YOU may be willing to pay a high amount for a certificate. But that does not mean the next person will.
Uniform prices do not exist in this hobby. It is merely accidental if two sellers offer similar certificates at the same time for similar prices.
Certificate collecting is a global hobby. The prices paid in the U.S. are different than those paid in Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and the rest of Europe. Prices paid at shows are different than those paid at auctions.
I show my online price opinions as ranges. I suggest that many - but certainly not all - transactions will likely take place between the high and low price estimates.
Prices are expressed in U.S. dollars.
I constantly adjust prices up and down based on recent price activity. I change approximately 200 prices per month.
While I factor price estimates for sales in the United States, some certificates only appear for sale in Europe. And vice versa.
North American railroad certificates routinely appear in American, British, German, Belgian, and Swiss auctions and fixed-price catalogs. Generally, prices are lowest in the U.S. and highest in Germany. That difference obviously reflects decreased availability. However, price differences also represent different attitudes toward collecting.
In general, I report the prices I see. If items appear for sale only in Europe, then those are the prices I report.
If items appear in the U.S. in many different venues, then I report prices that reflect U.S. averages. Sometimes, there is a wide disparity in prices. In those cases, I try to report the prices I think the typical collector is likely to pay.
I estimate the prices of common and scarce items differently.
For common items, I rely heavily on catalogs and fixed-price lists. I do not use prices from retail stores, flea markets, antique stores, or coin shows because those prices are wildly variable.
I generally start with a range of observed prices and factor in personal observations about desirability, customer demand, attractiveness, rarity and current trends.
I also factor in recent sales of large numbers of certificates which will affect certificate availability in the near future. Generally, when hoards hit the market, they decrease prices until certificates are fully dispersed among collectors.
I depend almost exclusively on auction results from professional auction companies to estimate the values of scarce and rare items. I lean heavily on prices realized at recent auctions. If rare items have not appeared for several years, I factor prices relative to what I see in the market as a whole.
Because every buyer has a different location, I do NOT include postage and shipping costs in any of my price estimates.
Since I track auctions around the globe, I often see similar items sold for hugely different prices from place to place. Buyers in one sale seldom know that similar items are listed for sale elsewhere. Information is never distributed evenly. To a large degree, auction bidding operates in a partial vacuum.
If two or more nearly identical certificates sell in the same auction, the first item to sell will normally outsell later ones.
I try to design my price estimates to accommodate most auction activity. There are many times, though, when certificates sell significantly outside of the normal range in one auction and sell quite normally in another.
Occasionally, collectors with more money than sense get tangled in live auctions and overpay so dramatically that their behavior verges on insanity. Occasionally, sellers give away valuable certificates in online auctions either because they know nothing of value or they know nothing of marketing.
Either way, those kinds of prices can be so completely outlandish that they are essentially worthless for price prediction. Here's why.
Say someone pays $1,500 for a certificate that would normally sell for $100 to $150. (It happens!) I cannot possibly suggest to average collectors that the variety is suddenly worth ten times as much simply because someone with a well-stuffed wallet chose to behave erratically. Imagine how disturbed you would be if you offered $1000 for the next similar certificate that came up for sale and then learned that the third one sold for only $125.
Similar but opposite situations occur frequently in online auctions. It is very common for amateur sellers to sell valuable certificates, especially autographed certificates, for small percentages of typical values. Seeing $250 certificates sell for $50 to $75 is tragically common. What if my catalog listed those kinds of stupidly low values and you missed a rare certificate because you did not know that the item was really quite desireable, rare and valuable?
I record crazy prices all the time but my goal remains simple. I try to report what reasonable prices should be. I have no desire to mislead collectors into thinking crazy prices are normal. While reasonable people can disagree about the value of collectibles, their disagreements are usually within the same general price range. I merely want you to consider that not all collectors are reasonable.
As a rule, I find that the prices realized on online auction sites are artificially low. I believe that reflects two realities.
First, there may only be a handful of people who will discover a certificate in time to place bids. While there are millions of people continuously bidding online, there may only be three or four people who will find and bid on a single certificate.
Secondly, the sales ability of online sellers is often very limited. Online auction sites like eBay require sellers to promote their items just as they would in newspaper classified ads. Amateur sellers often find it very difficult to properly describe certificates. Moreover, images shown on electronic auctions sites are often so poor and unattractive that bidders are reluctant to offer high prices for certificates shown in shabby, dark, out-of-focus photographs.
Because pictures and descriptions tend to be so poor, online auctions offer great buying opportunities for knowledgeable collectors and dealers.
(Notice that I said amateur online auctions. There are several highly reputable professionals who sell online. They are a completely different story. They are capable of attracting large numbers of buyers and they therefore routinely outsell amateurs.)
Beginning collectors believe that rarity predicts prices.
While understandable, it is not true.
Beginners must understand this concept before they can move into the expert category. Collector demand is the sole determinant of price. Collector demand is a measure of how much collectors want something.
Rarity affects collector demand, but there is no one-to-one relationship.
As an example, take certificates from the Harrisburg Portsmouth Mount Joy & Lancaster Rail Road Co. (HAR-465-S-50). They are quite attractive. Many collectors want them. The certificates are not particularly scarce, but there are too few to go around. Collectors generally pay between $150 and $350 for certificates in good condition.
However, equally scarce, but less attractive certificates from other companies, usually sell for $50 to $75. Look through this database and you will find hundreds of examples when ultra-rare certificates have sold for less than $50!
Such items include plain-looking, generic certificates prepared with handwritten titles. Often, those certificates were used sparingly during the early days of companies, before their engraved certificates were finished. Those kinds of certificates may only be represented by five or ten examples on the whole planet!
Yet, because they are not attractive, (American) collectors do not find them desirable. They do not generally pay much for them, even though many are extremely rare.
You will see a wide range of prices between dealers who offer fixed-price online lists. One dealer might offer a certificate for $40. Another may list a seemingly identical certificate for $20. Still another may ask $80.
In large auctions, you might even see those same certificates sell for a only a few dollars when offered in large lots. Why the huge ranges?
Extraordinarily high prices often reflect:
Unrealistically low prices often reflect:
All dealers develop unique pricing strategies. Some lean toward high prices. Others try to keep their prices low, even at the expense of profit.
Study dealer price lists for a few months and you will understand their individual habits. Their prices will rarely match my estimates. It pays to shop around.
In the United States, it is generally understood that dealers' "list prices" are not necessarily the prices at which sales take place. Dealers commonly negotiate prices with buyers. Prices drop when buyers want several items. Reliable and friendly buyers always get better deals. Reliable and friendly dealers always give better deals. Treat dealers with respect and they will return the favor.
Just because dealers show high prices in their catalogs and online listings does not mean they are inflexible.
Profit is absolutely necessary, however. One can, in fact, argue that higher-price dealers are better long-term sources of certificates because they will likely to be in business longer than low-price dealers. Moreover, they likely have more ability to deal on prices.
When buying from dealers, NEVER BUY SOLELY ON PRICE. Price is only one variable. Consider desirability, condition, rarity, appearance, friendlieness, postage, and so forth.
In most auctions, you will encounter items that sell for absurdly high and absurdly low prices. Don't even try to figure out why. You'll drive yourself crazy.
Ignoring absurd prices, experts generally agree that auction prices reflect current collector demand. Nonetheless, prices from any single auction will be misleading. That is because pre-sale promotion, attendance, and even the weather affects prices.
Professional auctions can be divided into live auctions and mail-bid auctions. Auction houses that specialize in collectibles usually combine live, mail, phone, and electronic bidding.
In live auctions, auctioneers generally sell items at frantic paces of 100 to 150 lots per hour. Floor bidders must pay close attention. But don't be afraid. Auctioneer of collectibles are professionals and will not let you win something you don't want. The possibility of accidentally overbidding on something with an inopportune flick of a finger is movie myth.
If you attend live auctions, you will notice that the attention of participants will vary throughout sales. During periods of low interest, items often sell for less than they would earlier or later in sales. During periods of high interest, "bidding fever" often forces prices overly high.
Be cautious the first time you buy at a live auction. Pay attention. In planning your bids, be sure to factor in the commission you must pay the auction house.
And never, never, never bid on anything unless you have inspected it first.
Okay, let's be real. No collector really needs ANY collectible.
In practice, though, collectors desperately need to collect. The more they need to collect, the more they are willing to pay.
But there is also the issue of time to consider. Collectors who want certificates immediately will always be willing to pay more than collectors who can wait longer.
In general, the suggested prices in this database reflect the prices that leisurely collectors would likely pay. When collectors want certificates quickly, they must be willing to pay more.
All collectors, including very advanced collectors, are susceptible to marketing. All dealers and professional auction houses use marketing tactics to increase sales. It is not unethical to inform collectors when items are rare, highly sought after, or in extra-good condition.
However, not all marketing is true. Marketing statements that were true yesterday may not be true today. There are many examples of items that were once truly rare are common today.
Marketing is designed to elicit emotional responses from collectors, and thereby make them offer more money. Whether you like it or not, marketing works.
In other words, marketing affects prices.
Based on my conversations with all sorts of collectors over the years, I am convinced that different classes of collectors share the same general motivations for collecting. The same forces and passions seem to drive both rich and poor, experts and beginners.
However, I think there are major differences in the ways the various groups collect.
It appears that the attitudes toward pricing and valuation differ radically between rich collectors and those of modest means. At this fortunate time, certificate collecting is not just a rich person's game.
However, collectors with limited budgets are highly sensitive to valuation.
Yes, this seems obvious. Less obvious, though, is the result that I must be very cautious when I estimate prices for inexpensive certificates.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, collectors with unlimited budgets are nearly insensitive to price. In that realm, acquisition outweighs prices. As prices go higher and higher, the less consumed with price those collectors become. I am not saying rich buyers are frivolous. I am simply saying that high-net-worth collectors are more concerned with collecting than the actual amount they spend.
Why am I even mentioning this concept? Because it directly affects how I estimate prices for extremely rare and desirable certificates.
It is very common to see dramatically large variations in prices for "high class" certificates from sale to sale. It is very common to see price swings of several hundred dollars for seemingly similar items. It is a rule that you will see even larger price swings when super-rare autographed certificates cross auction blocks.
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