KIRKLAND, WA–In this suburb of Seattle, a man stops off for bread and milk on his way home from work. He's excited about his purchases, but not because he's hungry.
"This is awesome," said Marvin Humboldt, 46, lovingly holding his grocery purchases. "I've finally got the full run of the Wonder Bread 'NFL Legends' bags. And this gallon of 2% milk has a red dot on the cap, which means it's a first-run factory proof."
Halfway across the country, in Des Moines, IA, 34-year-old Janine Tompkins buys a bucket of Dutch Boy interior paint. She's not planning to do any home redecorating, though.
"This is the semi-gloss latex," Tompkins said. "Dutch Boy only made 12,500 of these in eggshell white this year. This one's definitely going straight into the display cabinet."
According to a report issued Monday by the North American Collector's Association, every single thing currently being manufactured is officially categorized as a collectible.
"It used to be that only certain particularly noteworthy or rare items, like Fantastic Four #1 or a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, were considered valuable collector's items. That's no longer the case," NACA president Bob Gunther said. "If you have any objects of any kind in your home, in your garage, or on the floor of your car, don't throw them away. They could be worth big money someday. In fact, they're probably worth a lot of money right now."
Do you have a Taco Bell "Defeat The Dark Side... And Win!" cardboard cup-top playing piece from the restaurant's 1999 tie-in sweepstakes for Star Wars: Episode I lying around somewhere? Chances are you do, because more than 80 million of them were made. But don't throw it out: According to the March issue of Game-Piece Buyer's Guide, it's worth $295.
What about those free postcards handed out at record stores promoting bands nobody's ever heard of and who were dropped from their labels weeks after their debut releases flopped? They're netting big money on eBay. And anything put out before 1980–whether a toy, a set of flatware, or even an unopened roll of toilet paper found in a back cupboard of your grandfather's RV–is a bona fide antique worth anywhere from $100 to millions.
"See, normally, things that fall under the category of plentiful, undesirable junk would be worthless, simply due to the laws of supply and demand," said Fred Franks, a Parsippany, NJ, dealer specializing in 1970s-era sponges. "But nobody wants to sell what they collect, anyway: They just want to keep it and hoard it because it's so valuable. So, in this business, we're not talking about demand anymore, just supply, and lots of it. This has caused the value of even mundane, everyday objects to go through the roof. See this lint on my jacket here? That's at least eight, nine bucks worth of lint there. I have Internet quotes to prove it."
Manufacturers have caught on to the trend, releasing mundane products such as cigarettes, beer, and snack chips in special collector's "platinum" editions at marked-up prices. As collector mania spreads, even items like floor polish, paper plates, and rubber bands are becoming prohibitively expensive for many Americans.
Rarity, once a prerequisite for an item to have collector's value, is no longer relevant. An early sign of this shift occurred in the early '90s, when Marvel Comics encouraged fans to pre-order multiple copies of the much-hyped "Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1" because of the book's anticipated collector's value. The issue sold more copies than any comic book in history, but fans still hoarded multiple copies in special dust-proof Mylar bags, in part because of its unique status as the least rare comic book ever.
"Rarity is nothing. Do you have any idea how many Beanie Babies are out there?" asked Barbara Mason, editor of Beanie Baby Illustrated. "Let's put it this way: There are approximately twice as many Scoop The Pelican Beanie Babies on the planet Earth than there are actual pelicans. And they're worth more, too."
Age, once the other major determining factor in an item's worth, is no longer important, either. Items used to only get valuable over long periods of time. Not so anymore, says TransUniverse Collectibles, makers of the official Star Trek: Voyager Officers' Club individually wrapped toothpick assortment, which retails for $79.95 and is sold directly to collectors.
"Old? Are you kidding? Everything we sell here at TransUniverse goes straight to collectors with no middlemen the day we make it, because these Trekkie types insist on buying [the items] the first day they're out," TransUniverse co-founder Wayne Spoerl said. "We don't need to wait for it to become a collector's item over time–we just print the words 'Collector's Item' right on the package. They're valuable because we only make a limited run of, say, 500,000. Okay, more, but still."
With everything on the planet officially collectible, collectors have more items to choose from than ever. Objects such as plastic twist ties from speaker-wire packaging, the tin-foil lining of chewing-gum wrappers, and the little rubbery residue left in magazines when attachments are removed have all jumped sharply in value–and investors see no signs of a slowdown.
"I just sold some guy 3,000 gallons of factory runoff from a waste-processing plant in central Illinois," said collectibles dealer Gary Hammond of Louisville, KY. "The government tried unsuccessfully to get the stuff zoned for burial in three states, but now it's in this guy's basement in a glass case. Why? Because it was banned in three states, so now it's collectible. That's the beauty of this business–even stuff that absolutely nobody wants, somebody wants."