HAS COLLECTING COLUMBIANA CHANGED AS MUCH AS IT SEEMS?

It seems that taking the temperature of the World’s Columbian marketplace—from both collectors’ and sellers’ points of view—is a bit overdue. I should preface with noting that my writing for this journal is also overdue. No exuses other than the obvious—available hours!

But it isn’t so much that I’m overdue to examine the state of collecting Columbiana, but rather that if the market were a person, I’d say he or she has been sluggish and seemingy out of sorts lately and is overdue for a checkup! Because I am so immersed in all things Columbian, I’m constantly thinking about researching as well as collecting, buying and selling—and the current state of the hobby/business. From my standpoint as a seller, I don’t have any trouble selling fair souvenirs and historical items. The number of collectors has increased steadily in recent years and quality material always sells well.

The high cost of buying and selling

If you take a look as a collector at what’s being offered, you will see that perhaps the quality is in the doldrums even if the quantity seems relatively unchanged. Ebay is hardly the only source for collectors (and dealers) to conduct Columbian business; but it is indeed the most readily accessible marketplace and a strong indicator of the health of any segment of collectibles. The negatives about Ebay are its functioning like a police state, monitoring everyone onsite to ensure they don’t dare to contact other ebayer about doing business offsite. For the buyers, Ebay actually is more cost-effective than most auction sites. On Ebay, buyers are not hit with fees, whereas most auction houses charge a buyer with fees, in some cases a ridiculously large one. The buyers’ fees fluctuate from auction house to auction house and even within some houses. As most of you are well aware, purchasing at a major auction can come with up to a 30% fee, and very few have no fees. Going the auction house route pretty much means everything you purchase will come with an added fee.

While Ebay doesn’t cost buyers a fee, but sellers aren’t nearly so lucky. You can count on something in the vicinity of 8-12% for the privilege of selling on the platform, plus a variety of small fees every time you list….and relist. These numbers vary in ways that often make NO SENSE! I recenly took on a major consignment consisting primarily of gold coins. While the coins were identical, I saw Ebay fees that ranged from 5.5% to 8.8% to 12%. I checked online information and then dropped the issue, primarily because I felt the 5.5% had to be an error, and I didn’t want to ask Ebay customer service in case they would then retroactively raise my fees. I try to avoid selling the gold on Ebay as much as possible, but I have no other way to reach as many potential buyers. The gold in the estate consignment consisted of graded U.S. double eagles and raw modern U.S. eagles, Canada Maple Leafs, U.S. Buffaloes and South African Krugerrands. All told, this consignment included approximately 550 one-ounce coins. I started selling at the beginning of the year, and less than four months into it I have sold all of the slabbed coins and a portion of the raw ones. While this article is discussing the changing marketplace for Columbiana, my foray into selling essentially bullion in quantity brings me face-to-face with those notorious Ebay fees.

I look at Ebay as I believe a few million other folks do: It’s not perfect, but it is indeed the largest and the best source for the day-to-day BUYING of collectibles and might still be the best for sellers despite the fees noted above. Stepping back from Eby for just a moment, there are plenty of other options for your Columbian hunting excursions: National and smaller auctions, collectibles and coin shows and relationships with other buyers and sellers. But Ebay is the big dog, the proverbial elephant in the room that dominates the markeplace in both positive and negtive ways.

Studying the health of the Columbian market begins with Ebay. And if you haven’t noticed either dramatic or subtle changes as you’ve searched for items recently you should take a long and serious look. The availability of a variety of Columbian collectibles on Ebay is very different today than it was even just a year or two ago.

I frequently study the market carefully and with purpose. My observations noted here aren’t simply casual impresions, perhaps noticed subconciously over time. I have pragmatically studied the changing landscape and your (and my) gut feelings are quite correct: The number of listings on Ebay remains very constant. In the 2020s a search of “World’s Columbian Expo(sition)” typically has yielded around 2,500 “hits,” but the quality and diversity of listings has shrunk dramatically!

Quantity: Sure…. Quality: Not So Much

I don’t recall ever seeing such a “flat” period for Columbian buyers and sellers. I strongly expect most of my readers to nod their heads in agreement. The quality and extent of material available today is dramatically less than, say, in 2020 or 2021. The trend was already underway in ’22. Let’s look at SPECIFIC changes that have occurred. Because compared to coins or baseball cards or other popular genres of collecting, collecting Columbiana is obviously much smaller. While I am noting the lack of rare and/or high grade Columbiana, one of the ways of measuring the health of the business/hobby is the number of collectors and I have seen scores of new collectors/buyers in recent years.

The number of collectors should be signiicant to all of us. While this means more competition at auctions (and on Ebay) more players it also means more like-minded collectors with whom we can communicate; on the selling side it’s easy to see the upside—more buyers!

Bur there clearly are far fewer diverse collectibles (medals, stamps, 3D material, glassware, paper items et al) available to this growing number of collectors. Over the last several years I’ve gone beyond just impressions and tried to substantiate changes I’ve observed. One interesting check I’ve undertken on Ebay has been the simple counting of the number of Columbian commemorative half dollars for sale. It seemed obvious that there have always been more commemorative halves than any other WCE item and the numbers bore this out.

In general approximely 25% of all listings under “World’s Columbian Expo(sition)” on Ebay are for the halves. And this is the number of LISTINGS not the number of half dollars. If a listing was a lot of 10 or 20 halves, I counted it simply as one more listing. Every few weeks I would look at these search results per 200 listings. I repeated this semi-formal research during much of 2021 and 2022. I won’t take up your time or a lot of space listing hundreds of results, but they were relatively constant at this 25% level. Sometime as many as 40% were halves and other times as few as 10% were these coins. Naturally, the more you check the more your tallies can be refined. I would collect data on 200 (or a page of listings) 25-30 times each time I checked. I didn’t extend my effort to see what percentages sold, but I believe I’d quite accurate in saying that only a very, very small percentage actually sold. In fact, if you take the time to check Ebay sales by sellers or by items, I think you will be shocked at how very few of the listed items actually sell. I would guess that most every ebay user notes items in areas he or she watches notices when items seemingly are listed forever. And while you may see an item this week that doesn’t sell relisted at 10-20% less next week, I’m referring to those items that have been posted at the same price for months and months. It’s not too important what specific items this includes, but I have seen one particular world’s fair item listed for $99 for well over a year and such cases are very common.

I don’t believe that the commemorative halves are as popular as one might suspect based on the number listed for sale; there simply is a seemingly inexhaustible number available. And in the last several decades, prices have only dropped. Twenty-plus years ago a gem MS65 slabbed Columbian half was listed in the wholesale bible Grey Sheet for $500. If you shop carefully today you can find one for half that. And uncirculated lower grades (MS60-62) can be had for $25 if you look carefully.

In 1993 when our history of the WCE was published in a limited edition of 150 copies (with an insert Columbian half in the slip case of the leather bound book) I needed to find 150 immediately. Ebay had not yet been launched; today it would be a proverbial breeze to purchase as many as you want in perhaps extra ine condition; in 1993 I simply called a few of the largest coin dealers in the country and had to place orders with two to buy the 150. I paid $13-$14 each.

Today, with Ebay and its millions o buyes and sellers, it might take a little work to find someone with 150 on hand, but I would guess offering to purchase 150 decent circulated coins probably would result in a better price than thirty years ago. The number of sellers on Ebay handling Columbiana continues to grow, but unfortunately so does the percentage of sellers who know very little about what they’re selling. I am sure most of you have looked at common WCE items and been at least moderately surprised to see four or five listed (not counting the half dollars!) and the prices are always widely different. I would say the second-most “popular” Ebay WCE items are admission tickets. It seems that a lot of collectors know about the handsome American Banknote Company’s colorful ticket…and virtually nothing else about WCE tickets. I have had relatively new collectors find me on Ebay to ask about my inventory, and more than one has said they either have “all the Columbian tickets” or as a recent inquirer noted, “I have four of the tickets and I’m trying to assemble a ‘complete’ set of six.” Needless to say, seasoned collectors could probably name close to 50 tickets if they gave it some thought. Only a tiny number are knowledgeable beyond those.

And if there wasn’t such a paucity of good material being listed as noted above far more collectors would know of the existence of a great many other tickets. But that area between NONE listed and MANY on Ebay is a very dangerous area—where sellers and buyers have little knowledge of what exists. If one seller finds a seemingly rare WCE ticket you can count on the price being high; it seems rare and few sellers bother to research items new to them.

I worry about the novice collectors who spend perhaps several hundred dollars on a “rare” item….because it is new to them and new to the seller and seems rare. It might even be quite rare; but the odds are that it’s a fairly common piece that should sell for $50….and absent that knowledge might sell for several times that.

The fact that so very few rarities are finding their way to Ebay in the last year or two means the general collector knowledge has moved backwards; I recall quite vividly when I first was introduced to Columbiana in the late 1970s. Since I’ve been a serious researcher for as long as I’ve written history books (the first of which was published in 1980) and what I would call a “serious amateur” researcher before, I have built a large WCE reference library. That includes auction catalogs from at least the 1980s. Looking through a stack recently as part of my work on my next book, a Catalog of WCE Tickets, I was made painfully aware of my lack of knowledge at the time. Even as a novice, I jumped in with both feet and probably was more knowledgeable than 90% of those collecting in my first years of buying and selling Columbiana. No Ebay, and hardly any national network for buying and selling. Antique malls and coin auctions weren’t just at the forefront; they were pretty much the only game around.

Looking at some of those catalogs I was, as I said, made painfully aware of both the volume of items being sold and the very modest prices being asked—and realized. It’s shocking to compare a black and white photocopied catalog from 40 years ago to today’s Ebay listings: One would think that such a large auction platform as Ebay would offer many times more WCE collectibles, from glass to medals to paper items. A few years ago there would have been a stronger comparison, but when you can look at an auction catalog with perhaps 100-200 WCE items and see a broad cross section of items (depending on the catalog) it seems almost impossible that only a small fraction of different items (subtract admission tickets and half dollars) are listed on Ebay. Of the 2,500± listed at any given time, the number is suddenly less than half when you subtract those items.

My thesis here is to point out—and ask why!—there are dramatically fewer items for sale on Ebay today than there were a few years ago. Perhaps there is a logical explanation I cannot discern, or perhaps it’s just a cyclical issue and will change again in the near future.

I do not believe the items are simply off the market, locked up in collections. Whenever large collections come to market of course we all have the opportunity to purchase long absent material. But there was a relatively steady flow of Columbiana for years, generally until the last two or three years. Whenever a coin auction is held, Columbian medals seem to be available in large numbers. And there are plenty of non-Ebay auctions out there. I don’t have an answer for the sparse number of items on Ebay now, but it is a fact.

How many non-admission tickets have you seen for sale on Ebay recently; how many medals and tokens. You can still see what I consider the most common WCE pieces—HK154 and 155, the official government issues from the fair, and there always seem to be elongated coins on a fairly regular basis.

Medals: Always in High Demand

Looking past the commems, one of the most popular areas of WCE collecting has always been medals (and tokens). I would be very surprised if most of you were unaware that there are far fewer medals being offered for sale today, and commensurately fewer are either rare or high grades. Periodically these numbers are affected when a major collection hits the market. There was a nice steady stream of HUNDREDS of WCE medals between 2019 and 2020 when I was at the busiest point of selling the 6,000 item John Kennel WCE collection.

Just this single collection was a substantial part of the reason for a temporary uptick in the availability of quality WCE medals as well as literally hundreds of common to scarce ones.

Should you have interest in the medals in the Kennel Collection I have compiled a complete list of the medals in John’s collection by Eglit number and and would be happy to send you a list for your reference. While I did draft a preliminary 150+ page catalog of the collection, I never took it beyond a draft, and the collection did include a great many medals (including scores of rarities) that didn’t meet the diameter requirements of SCDs. I wanted very much to produce a catalog of the collection, but time and dollars made it very impractical. While some serious collectors would have purchased the catalog it would have been impossible to produce the product profitably. Had it even been possible to do so and simply break even I would have been happy to publish it. As it now stands, I’m always happy to share information on what medals and tickets primarily were in his collection and it was one of the finest ever assembled. I recently looked through the catalog of Nathan Eglit’s collection that was auctioned by Joe Levine, Presidential Coin & Anique Co. in 1992. It was surprisingly sparse when compared to the Kennel collection.

While one would not think a single collection could have such a major effect on the tenor of the market, but Kennel’s 6,000 pieces did; and the very large number of rarities and unique pieces gave us a rare period filled with quality material. It is a bit morbid to say, but the spike in availability of quality material often coincides with the passing of a major collector. This affect not withstanding, there is a dramatic lack of “good stuff” out there for collectors today, except when an auction house is consigned a collection, generally by the family of a deceased longtime collector. Since I often am called on to appraise and/or sell WCE collections, I can say that today’s lack of quality material will be improved in the coming months, if just for a brief period. Two collections from deceased collectors (both friends and customers) will be sold in the coming months and when details are available I will share them here.

As I reflect on my own collecting, buying and selling of Columbiana in the lasat 40+ years I realize I am now one of those aging members of this fraternity. Consequently I’ve seen major (and smaller) collections bring fine material to the marketplace. But even when there were no major collections for sale for years at a time, one could find plenty of WCE material. Ebay isn’t the be all end all on the subject, but it has been an important barometer since it began almost thirty years ago. I’ve been “on Ebay” since 1998 and I’m scanning the site daily and listing not a lot less often.

As one with a great deal of WCE expertise I feel I should have some answers beyond just my observations. But I wonder if you have speculation as well as your own observations. I will ask clients and colleagues shortly when I announce my own upcoming auctions and I hope to find out something beyond just corroboration of the recent lack of Columbiana in general and on Ebay specifically.

I will continue to offer the material I have been for years on both Ebay and in my own online store (www.thehistorybankstore.com) and before summer I hope to begin launching my own auctions on the ICollector site. Naturally, I will have many WCE medals, tickets and other items, and also similar material from other major world’s fairs. Besides these, I will be auctioning Civil War tokens and ephemera, a broad range of US coins and ancient coins, plus other collectibles. Despite my disappointment with Ebay of later, I have been fortunate to acquire some terrific WCE material (as well as medals from other fairs). If you are a regular or past History Bank customer you will receive announcements of the ICollector auctions including what Columbian rarities will be included.

If you are, like me, always anxious and not particularly fond of waiting, feel free to contact me for information on my inventory of medals and tickets from the WCE and other major world’s fairs. I sell a large percentage of world’s fair medals direct to existing customers before I have a chance to offer them at auction. I’m both excited and anxious to launch my first ICollector auction and have set aside some of the finest inventory I’ve had in years to offer in the first two or three ICollector auctions. With a little luck, the first will be live some time in June, followed by one or two more before the Fall.

That Columbiana has become sparse on Ebay is a fact; why, and if it might be temporary, is a very difficult question. Collections I know of that will be coming to market soon from others as well as from The History Bank will find their way to Ebay, but the vast majority will be in public auctions and private sales outside of Ebay.

I do hope that you will be in touch with your thoughts and observations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s