Who says politicians aren't for sale?
Lori Ferber Collectibles, which has been buying and selling political memorabilia for more than 35 years, has seen a “staggering increase” lately in requests for its free appraisals, co-owner Steve Ferber says.
Large collections are coming on the market as hard-core collectors retire or pass away, and the rocky economy has people looking to sell mementos for extra cash, he says.
At the same time, hobbyists and investors continue to buy, and interest should only intensify with the 2012 presidential election getting under way.
“We find a big increase in the number of items being sold, but we don’t really see a let-up at this point in the market," says Ferber, who started collecting political memorabilia around age 14. "There are still a lot of serious collectors out there and just people who have an affinity for a particular president.”
Ferber’s business, owned with wife Lori, offers products ranging from a $2.95 Michele Bachmann for president button, to 1860 Lincoln-Hamlin ferrotype presidential campaign buttons offered for more than $1,000 each, to a golf bag once owned by President John F. Kennedy — with a $75,000 price tag.
While campaign and presidential mementos may be only a hobby for some, they also represent a real investment for many political junkies and even for some not drawn by political sentiment. Rising precious metal prices, for instance, have spurred demand — and prices — for inaugural medals, which were produced in gold, silver, and bronze versions, according to Ferber.
“Savvy investors know that there’s silver content in those items,” Ferber, 57, says. Inaugural medals are “a little-known way of buying precious metals and perhaps getting them at a very good deal” at a flea market or auction site, he says. A silver John F. Kennedy inaugural medal sold for $50 a few years ago and now goes for $175 to $200, “not because of the scarcity of the item, but because of the melt-down value.”
Most start collecting, though, because of an interest in politics, says Mark D. Evans, membership director of American Political Items Collectors, a nonprofit organization formed in 1945 to promote the study, preservation, and collection of presidential and campaign memorabilia.
“There is quite a learning curve that is necessary if you want to make money on it,” Evans says. His group has some 2,000 members and he figures there are thousands more collectors out there.
Collectors often start with campaign buttons, then realize they can collect political glass, china, textiles, and ephemera, such as tickets, programs, handouts, and flyers that have become artifacts, Evans says. There also are autographs, rare books, vintage photographs, prints, banners, novelties, and toys.
“As people get serious about the hobby, their tastes expand and they desire some of the more expensive items that are on the market, and so many people buy, sell, and trade in order to support their hobby,” says Evans.
With thousands of manufacturers turning out hundreds of thousands of items over the past 250 years, collectors typically must limit their collections, focusing on a particular campaign, candidate, or type or size of collectible.
Evans started collecting as a third-grader during the Kennedy campaign in 1960. Later, as a newly married teacher, he focused on buying campaign buttons for $3 or less, but realized he had “a huge collection of mediocre stuff.” He eventually narrowed his collection to 14 presidential campaigns and bought more valuable items.
For every candidate there are rare and common items, Evans says, noting a collector can spend $3 or $30,000 for a Calvin Coolidge button. He says the highest price ever paid for a presidential campaign button was $150,000, for one from the Democrats’ 1924 presidential ticket, John Davis and Charles Bryan.
As with any type of market, there are good and bad investments in political collectibles. And with no shortage of items for sale — Evans says eBay offers some 60,000 political lots every day — collectors need to be discerning.
The 1973 Hobby Protection Actprohibits manufacturing political buttons not of the period unless they are marked as reproductions, but unscrupulous people can sell such items online or sand off the mark, Evans says.
“What we don’t want to see happen is some teenager paying $100 for a Teddy Roosevelt button that was made in 1975 and then getting disillusioned with what is the worlds’ greatest hobby,” says Evans, who cites his organization as a way for collectors to learn more so they can spot rip-offs.
Most reputable dealers are members of APIC, according to Ferber.
Since scarcity has a lot to do with the value of political items, products marketed to everyone on television or in newspaper ads “rarely turn out to be good investments,” he says.
Ferber also doesn’t like to see people paying big bucks in the heat of the moment for commonly available items. People were in a frenzy to collect items related to President Barack Obama’s inauguration and some bought newspapers for $100 or $200, he says, likening the phenomenon to an initial public offering of stock.
Three months later, he says, the same items were selling for $3.
As with most other collectibles, good investments generally include those that were unique when produced, such as limited-edition official items. Popularity also affects value.
“An Abraham Lincoln item is going to be worth more than a George Bush item,” says Ferber. Jimmy Carter autographs are not that rare or valuable, given his many books and book tours, he says. Autographs signed by secretaries or machines aren’t as valuable as the real thing, either.
Lincoln, Kennedy and Ronald Reagan memorabilia “are probably the three most popular items to collectors,” he says.
But be warned: commonly available and saved Kennedy items stored in the attic, such as old Look and Life magazines, are not worth the fortunes some may assume.
“People should purchase and buy what they enjoy,” says Ferber, who also sells original vintage political bumper stickers to classic car collectors. “It’s not only for the investment.”