What The Hell Is Going On In The Collectible Comics Market?
2020 was a pretty good year for many investments, but one class of assets has seen nosebleed-level growth that has shocked even long-time market watchers: vintage comics and original comic book art. Though there is no market index to quantify growth in this area, the results of large public auctions provide some transparency into the value that buyers place on a variety of benchmark items. On that basis, the evidence is stark. Last week, Heritage Auctions demolished records and shattered expectations with a $22.4 million haul from its recent sale of high grade collectible comics, surpassing its recent high water mark of $16.5 million set in April.
The auction results were led by a new “pedigree” collection called The Promise Collection, featuring nearly 5,000 comics that were bought new off the newsstands in the 1940s and preserved in perfect condition for the past 70 years. 181 of those books sold in the June auction realized $7.1 million in just four hours; an additional 93 books added $800,000 to that total the next day, and the remainder of the collection will be auctioned throughout 2021 and 2022. A mid-grade (5.0) copy of Detective Comics #27, featuring the debut of Batman sold for $1.125 million – not a record, because higher grade copies go for more, but still a landmark. And one-of-a-kind works of original comic artwork continued their steep price increases with iconic pieces setting new highs in the upper six-figures.
Anecdotal reports from dealers and collectors suggest that prices in smaller auctions, public sales and private transactions have increased well over 100% across the board in recent months, with some highly desired or unusual items seeing growth a magnitude higher. Facebook groups and private forums are overflowing with comments of seasoned collectors expressing surprise, dismay, and occasionally delight at the skyrocketing prices of items that, until recently, were not seen as top-tier collectibles, raising fears that ordinary collectors could get priced out of the hobby.
Several factors may be contributing to the boom. Though the pandemic sidelined in-person conventions and auctions where many expensive collectibles changed hands, sometimes through impulse purchases, more serious buyers had the time and focus to pursue their collections online. Rising markets, including in areas like cryptocurrency, may have lead to a “wealth effect,” encouraging people to open their wallets wider for discretionary passion purchases. Also, the practice of getting the condition of collectible comics graded by third party agencies like Comics Guarantee Corporation (CGC) has now been around for nearly two decades, painting a clearer picture of the exact number of copies of rare issues in existence and painting targets on certain high-grade issues for blue chip buyers.
Beyond that are extrinsic factors. Collectible comics are a store of value, and one that can be easily stored and transported, making the format attractive to individuals who prefer to maintain part of their wealth discretely. There’s also the matter of momentum. Big gains in the market bring in money that’s seeking returns, irrespective of the intrinsic value of the underlying asset. Comics are ordinarily not the easiest market to crack because of the huge amount of esoteric knowledge necessary to identify what makes certain books collectible, but all bets are off if everything is going up in value in huge chunks.
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To get an expert perspective on trends in the market, I spoke to Lon Allen, Vice President of Comics Administration for Heritage Auctions. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and readers should consider Heritage’s potential interest in a strong market with surging prices.
Rob Salkowitz, FORBES contributor: I saw the recent auction results. Were the big gains localized in one specific area of the market like high-grade books or artwork, or is the trend general across the whole comics/collectible category?
Lon Allen, VP, Heritage Auctions: Lately it’s really been across the board. For a long time, the big key issues – first appearances, high grade copies, things like that – or pieces of artwork that had something special about them, have been greatly outgaining everything else. But lately, especially over the last six months, it has just been across the board: modern books, 80s and 90s books, Silver Age (1960s), Golden Age (1930s-50s). It just seems like everything has a huge upward trend.
RS: What do you think were the most notable or unexpected results from the recent auction?
LA: We were expecting the Promise Collection to do very, very well and it did, but even it really outpaced any expectations we had. One of the top books from that was Detective Comics #140, featuring the first appearance of the Riddler, highest graded known copy, going for $456,000.Now I thought it was a six figure book the first time I saw it, and I thought it might be $200,000, but for it to go for it to go for a number like that was more than a little surprising.Same thing with another one collection with that, Phantom Lady #17. Again we know it’s a great book; it’s been a super-desirable book for 50 years, but just for to it go for close to half a million…
But the one that I might be the most surprised by is the first appearance of Ghost Rider, Marvel Spotlight #5, from 1972. The guy who brought that in, when he told me that he thought that was a six figure book, I kind of thought he was crazy. For that to go for a quarter million dollars, that was just hard to believe.
RS: Is it the condition that’s driving these, the fact that these are the best known copies of these particular books, or combination of factors?
LA: A combination of things. With that one, being a 9.8… there are others, but I think there’s only four total. They’ve been doing the grading for over 20 years. For there to only be four of those in grade 9.8, it really means something. There’s probably not going to be too many more of those that surface.
RS: How did the pandemic and the suspension of live events affect the collectibles market?
LA: The first few months, everyone was worried. Our first auction was flat, maybe down a bit. Then things were up a little. Then more. It became clear there was no downturn. Now why? Well, maybe more people have time to sit around and look at their computer. They’re not spending money on gas and things like that. But it became obvious it had to be something else. People don’t have more money just because they’re sitting at home.
It’s got to just be a number of factors, a perfect storm of things coming together. I wish I had a good answer. There’s just a sustained higher level of interest. Marvel, Disney, TV shows, Star Wars stuff, all that. It’s non-stop, and [all these properties that came from comics] are such a household name now. So new people are coming in, people from the sports market. The sports card market in particular has gone crazy. Comics look cheap to the sports card guys. The census reports [of the number of comic issues in mint condition] look low. They’re used to seeing a lot more cards in prime condition. If there’s a 9.6 comic at the top of the census, that’s meaningful.
RS: Is this purely a blue-chip driven market, with the Frazettas and Crumbs and Detective 27s seeing the lion’s share of appreciation, or are we seeing big percentage gains at traditionally lower tiers?
LA: If anything, the lower tiers are doing even better. You have comics from the 80s with a high census population [lots of high-grade copies known to exist]. They’ve been selling for years at $100 at 9.8, then, last year, $300, then $600. Now $1000. As a percentage gain, it’s higher.
RS: Is there a generational shift going on, with first-gen collectors from the 60s and 70s unwinding their holdings and new people moving in? If so, how is that shaping the market?
LA: There may be some of that. But it may be more of more people coming in than people leaving. I haven’t seen a lot of old school guys getting out. They’re holding on, although they may be doing some profit-taking or selling some books to pay for big items like a new house.
RS: How much interest are you seeing from overseas? Is there a particular global region that’s pushing a lot of money into the market right now?
LA: A little bit. I’ve still found comics and comic art are mostly an English speaking thing. You had to grow up with it and care. There’s some interest from places like Qatar, but it’s probably [anglophone] expats.
RS: No big Chinese money or money from the Middle East moving in then?
LA: Everyone has been talking about that for a long time. There was this myth of the Japanese businessman interested in investing in comics. But the million dollar invoices I’ve seen are mostly names I know are from the US, Canada, UK and places like that.
RS: For less experienced people who want to get in on the high value collectibles market, what are the things to look for in comics and original art that makes them good bets to increase in value?
LA: We always say collect what you love. That’s always panned out well. Find the genres you like, the artists you like, buy the best thing you can. Instead of buying 10 cheap things, buy one good thing. One thing you want on your wall. Buy one great thing.
RS: Are there any signs of froth or trouble ahead that you can see?
LA: I haven’t seen any clues to that yet. I wonder how much higher it can possibly go. Stuff keeps going through the roof.
RS: Finally, people have long complained that these public auctions can be subject to manipulation, with people buying and selling the same stuff among themselves to pump the prices up. How much of what we’ve seen is churn or artificial commerce?
LA: That might have been true in the 80s, or something, but now the market has just gotten so huge. You can go to any of these big shows, and just see there’s 100,000 people there that are clamoring for this stuff, so I think there’s just no end in sight to the number of people that are interested in it.