It may be starting to feel like a somewhat distant memory, but the height of the Covid-19 pandemic made a huge impact on human life around the world.
Important historical events, whether good or bad, often spawn their own collectible economies. The COVID-19 pandemic has been such a significant event that there is bound to be a collectible market around some of the artifacts of the period. According to one British antiques dealer, some of the items that will be most valued in the future are vaccination cards, government letters, testing kits, and testing paperwork. In fact, the Smithsonian has already begun to collect items that represent our collective response.
Among the items they have collected are Naomi Osaka’s Black Lives Matter masks, a mask made for a wedding, and masks with company logos. “I got vaccinated” stickers and social-distancing floor stickers have also been added to the collection. A UC Berkeley public health test kit represents some of the diagnostic equipment used to control the pandemic.
The museum has also been collecting hand sanitizers made by various companies, including some that temporarily redirected their production from products like perfume or whiskey.
Posters and yard signs reflecting attitudes about the pandemic response as well as concurrent cultural movements like Black Lives Matter have been added to the archives. The Smithsonian is also collecting tickets from canceled events, such as a ticket from the March 11, 2020 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz game that was canceled after a player was found positive for coronavirus. Promotional items for the canceled 2020 Olympics in Japan are also representative of the times.
Other institutions have joined in, archiving items that seem mundane, but will one day be historically significant. At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, curators are spotlighting artists’ takes on windows, from which we peered during quarantine. Grocery delivery contraptions and homemade art projects are also in the collection, along with an artistic appreciation of toilet paper, that once-hoarded necessity.
The Washington State Historical Society is collecting homemade face masks, diaries, and letters. Park closure signs, “do not gather” notices, and relics of other social distancing directives are also joining the archives. Direct mail pieces related to coronavirus, “Zoom University” t-shirts, and objects made at home during the Stay Home/Stay Healthy order are on the list as well. The Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh is collecting modified takeout menus, business signage, home lesson plans, and grocery lists.
Artwork related to the pandemic has also been an object of attention by institutions. In 2020, the National Endowment for the Arts put out “The Arts in the Time of COVID”, a special issue of their American Artscape Magazine. The Library of Congress is exhibiting drawings of pandemic life, while the Quarantine Museum in Italy has brought together photographic records of life under lockdown. On Instagram, the virtual Covid Art Museum is calling itself “The world’s 1st museum for art born during COVID-19 crisis.” It is a vast compendium of user-submitted images that deals with different aspects of the pandemic. One drawing depicts “Marie Antoinetflix”, alluding to one of the leading pastimes during quarantine.
Some companies have created specialty items to commemorate frontline workers, which may be valuable in the future. Fisher Price-Mattel put out a #Thank You Heroes set of dolls dressed as healthcare workers complete with miniature masks, and another version for their Little People series. A series of Barbie dolls was released in 2021 honoring six women who contributed to developing the vaccine and worked in hospitals. Even a set of squeaky dog toys, called “Covid Heroes” has been made to honor frontline workers
You can also find plush coronavirus toys and coronavirus vaccine toys, like those put out by Giant Microbes, Inc. The Spanish toymaker Famosa produced a set of dolls wearing protective masks and another set of dolls that came with a miniature virus tester which detects if the toy is “infected”. If it is, you cure it with tickling.
The Portuguese toy company Science4you sold a kit of 15 activities for kids to do during quarantine that includes making masks and face shields. A toy company based in the Czech Republic has also made a limited series of figurines wearing masks. Kaze Studio, an art toy company out of Thailand, has produced an adorable COVID figurine complete with a tiny bottle of spray gel.
A squeezable stress toy called the Virus Smasher is an all-ages product. The description reads: “This hideous looking virus stress toy lets you take out all your frustrations! And oh we have so many frustrations right now.” The company Squishable is selling a plush toy plague doctor to memorialize the pandemic. “We originally intended for this to be a Halloween Squishable, but, well, here we are,” reads the description. Even rubber duckies are in on the trend.
To anticipate the future value of COVID era collectibles, we can look to the past. The Oakland Museum of California has created an online display of items from the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Ads for nurses, contemporary newspapers, influenza worker certificates, flu-related artwork and illustrations, as well as 100-year-old masks are all on view.
The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which focuses on medical science and history, has put together an exhibition of photos and press pieces about the 1918 flu called “Spit Spreads Death”, a reference to the eponymous posters put up all over the country at the time. The exhibition juxtaposes photos from that period with those of our current crisis. The North Carolina Museum of History is exhibiting historical cartoons and Red Cross medical veils worn by nurses at the time.
“Pan-tiques,” as one collector calls them, should be stored carefully so they remain in good condition. For paper or fabric items, waterproof cases that block light are ideal. For collectible toys, always hold onto the accompanying packaging. An item in its original box will have more value. You should always store collectibles away from sunlight and humidity.