Take a quick glance into the world of modern collectibles and you’ll find a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds and textures that evoke the memories and emotions of youth. From limited edition sneakers and rare vinyl records to vintage video games and action figures, the traditional collectibles market is being overtaken by items from the 1980s and 90s.
Sales figures at major auction houses and online marketplaces tell the story. In recent years, Air Jordans and Pokemon cards, rather than decorative ceramic figurines or silver tea sets, have fetched the highest prices and captured the imaginations of collectors. In this article, we’ll dive into the fascinating and dynamic world of modern collectibles, exploring what makes an item valuable, what categories are currently in demand and where the market may be headed next.
What is a “modern collectible” and how does it differ from more traditional collectibles?
A modern collectible is an item that has been produced in recent decades and is sought after by collectors because it has become popular or valuable due to cultural trends. Some examples might include: collectible toys like action figures and Funko Pops, sneakers, sports and film or television memorabilia and vintage technology. Modern collectibles reflect the changing interests and values of a younger generation of collectors, are often produced in limited quantities and may hold value and appeal to collectors over time.
What factors determine the value of a modern collectible?
Rarity is the number one determinate of value in this category. Limited edition items, those created in small runs, and those that were not mass-produced are often the most valuable.
The condition of a collectible can have a significant impact on its value. Items that are in pristine condition, with no signs of wear or damage and in original packaging, are usually worth more than those that show signs of age or use.
The popularity of an item can also play a role in its value. Collectibles that are associated with beloved franchises or cultural icons, for example, may be more in demand and thus more valuable.
What are some of the different categories of modern collectibles?
The popularity of sneakers, fueled by social media, with platforms like Instagram providing a space for collectors to showcase their designer and limited-edition kicks, has taken off in recent years. Major brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma often seek out high-profile collaborations with fashion designers, musicians, artists and even other brands to create unique and highly sought-after designs. Limited production runs only add to the exclusivity and hype.
Esteemed auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s have gotten wind of the opportunity and have hosted sales dedicated to collectible footwear in recent years, which have provided astronomical returns. The first pair of sneakers to sell for a high sum at auction was a pair of Nike “Moon Shoes” designed by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman in 1972. The shoes were sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2019 for a record $437,500.
More recently, a pair of Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy 1 prototypes sold for $1.8 million in 2021 and a $2.2 million pair worn by Michael Jordan for his “Last Dance” at the 1998 NBA Finals were just sold in 2023. These two sales are excellent examples of how modern collectibles represent a connection to the cultural icons of the 1980s, 90s, 2000s and today.
Though the availability of digital music streaming services have made music more accessible and convenient than ever before, many music-lovers agree that nothing compares to the richness of sound associated with vinyl records. There’s also something to be said for the tangible and collectible nature of these objects.
What we find particularly interesting in this category is that it’s popular not only with older collectors fueled by the nostalgia of their youth, but also with younger collectors that may have grown up without a record player in their home, but can still appreciate the unique qualities of the item and may feel a sense of longing for a past that they never experienced. The term for this feeling is “anemoia,” and it’s common among individuals drawn to certain eras, cultures or historical events in the past.
Certain records and artists are highly sought after by collectors, driving up their value. For example, the Beatles’ White Album, released in 1968, is one of the most valuable records in existence, with a first pressing fetching up to $30,000 at auction. Other valuable records include Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” Elvis Presley’s “My Happiness” and Prince’s “Black Album.”
To date, the most expensive record ever sold was the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” which was created in secret over six years and produced as one single album that cannot be commercially released until 2103. The album was purchased for $2 million at auction in 2015 by Martin Shkreli, who was convicted of securities fraud in 2018. The US Department of Justice seized his assets in 2021 and re-sold the album for $4 million.
Vintage Technology and Video Games:
Collectors who grew up in the 1980s and 90s are reaching middle age. They have a certain amount of disposable income, and want to share the experiences they had as children and teenagers with their own children. The memory of blowing across an NES cartridges in a wood-paneled basement, or gearing up for another game of Duck Hunt or Super Mario with family and neighborhood friends inspires many collectors to pay a premium for rare and limited edition items in this category.
As with sneakers and vinyl records, some vintage technology and video games have become incredibly valuable. Classic games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Sonic the Hedgehog can fetch thousands of dollars in their original packaging, with the highest price being $2 million paid for a copy of Super Mario Bros. on a platform for buying and selling equity shares in collectible items online.
Vintage computers like the Apple Lisa, Commodore 64 and IBM 5150 are also highly sought-after, as are vintage gaming consoles like the Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Genesis and early generation iPhones, Walkmans and cameras. If you have similar items in your attic, it might be worth dusting them off and getting a current fair market valuation.
Toys and Trading Cards:
From childhood favorites like Star Wars action figures and Pokemon trading cards to newer items like the ubiquitous Funko Pops and limited edition KAWS Companions, this category also draws on the same sense of playful nostalgia and hunger for pop culture that we see across the entire range of modern collectibles.
If you’re collecting for investment purposes, it’s important to do some research before you start buying up items in this category, as certain toys, especially those that are mass-produced like Beanie Babies or Funko Pops can quickly lose their value. While some rare or limited edition items can be worth a significant amount of money, most are only worth a few dollars. Additionally, comic books can be valuable, but many were produced in large quantities and were never intended to be collectible.
However, the value of Pokemon cards has skyrocketed in recent years, with rare and coveted cards fetching enormous sums at auction. Vintage and collectible Star Wars action figures, G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls consistently achieve high results, as do designer vinyl toys and action figures created in limited runs and in collaboration between artists, designers and toy manufacturers. One example is the KAWS Companion, a vinyl toy created by artist Brian Donnelly, who goes by the artist name KAWS, that has become a highly sought-after collectible.
If modern collectibles are the present, what will the future of collecting look like?
Some experts predict that vintage technology, such as old video game consoles and early cell phones, will continue to be the big thing in collecting. Others point to the steady interest in streetwear and fashion collectibles, like Supreme clothing and limited-edition collaborations between designers and brands. Maybe we’ll even see collectors, pulled by a sense of “anemoia” and an attraction to the history and artistry of certain items, go back to more traditional categories like stamps and coins.
A few months ago, we might have pointed to the rise of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and digital collectibles that can be displayed, traded and sold in the metaverse, but the trend doesn’t seem to have caught on in a big enough way and even tech giants like Facebook seem to be backing down.
What we know for sure is that in the age of social media and instant gratification, the world moves at a breakneck pace, which has a major impact on the world of modern collectibles. Tastes and trends can shift quickly, with new fads emerging and fading almost overnight. Collectors must be vigilant and stay up-to-date on the latest trends in order to stay ahead of the curve. The ability to anticipate and capitalize on emerging trends is key to success in the modern collectibles market.