Just because someone collects something — clothes hangers, wedding cake tops, ticket stubs — doesn't make it a "collectible," and coming up with an exact definition for a "collectible" isn't easy. Even the experts disagree (see facing page). A collectible is generally an object that is plentiful, because enough of it has to exist for a market to be made in it. A wide and enthusiastic collector base is also a prerequisite. So it has to be an object that is being purchased by more people than just your Mom and three first cousins, because the more collectors there are who are in pursuit of an item, the more collectible it is.
In addition to that plentitude of objects, and the crowd of people who want them, there needs to be at least one or two collectors who are willing to write down and share what they know about their field, thereby providing the imprimatur of scholarship. (As of this moment, many areas of twentieth-century collecting are so new that they are just being studied and defined. This is why collectors of certain types of fifties glass, for instance, may not yet know just how many pieces of it were actually manufactured. Nor do they begin to know how many are still in existence-hidden on the top shelves of china closets or, terrifying to the collector's soul, stockpiled by the thousands in warehouses.) We are still at the beginnings of scholarship for certain fields of twentieth-century collectibles — and just because something is less than one hundred years old doesn't mean that there is always a lot of information available about it.
What Are Collectibles, Anyway?
When a group of Antique Roadshow collectibles experts shared their opinions of the history and meaning of the word collectible, it soon became clear that it was one of those things that even experts disagree about.
Eric Alberta, who is familiar with the workings of the auction salesroom, says, "My experience has been that 'collectibles' include anything the auction people don't know what to do with. It's a word that has become overused, perhaps because modern manufacturers have appropriated it." Tim Luke, also referring to his auction experiences, says, "At Christie's, where I worked in the 1990s, it was a term that made it easy to lump all the odd things together. Also, the proliferation of licensed products seemed to make it a value-added word: If you collect them, they're 'collectibles.' It's a great, convenient word, but now it probably includes too much. What else could we call it? Popular culture, maybe." Leila Dunbar notes that although her father collected popular-culture items, such as advertising memorabilia and Disney toys, she doesn't remember hearing the word collectibles until the 1980s, when the first price guides using the word began to appear. Gary Sohmers, also remembering his father's collecting habits, says, "In 1960, my Dad, who collected political campaign material — he specialized in Lincoln and Kennedy campaign buttons — explained to me that such things were called collectibles.'"
Chris Kennedy agrees that the term has become a huge catchall but suggests a definition: "I think it should only be applied to objects that are both compelling and affordable." Noting that the word describes a category that needs a word to describe it, David Lackey says, "When I first heard the term, I was happy to know that a word actually existed to describe all those things that it seemed to me people really wanted to collect."