Collecting: A Great Hobby for Retirees

Shows provide strong social network; eBay reinvents collecting for the stay-at-home crowd.

By + More

Collecting can be a recreational mainstay of your later years. Whether it's high-end antiques, Barbie dolls from your youth, or sports memorabilia, collecting can be an ideal blend of a compelling interest and the opportunity to socialize with people who share your passion. The Internet—particularly eBay—has taken the collectibles field and put it on steroids. No category is too small to pursue these days, thanks to the ability to instantly assemble online audiences and facilitate communication and trade.

"There are two types of collectors," says Dave Margulius, who set up a collectibles website a few years ago, "Some are motivated by financial value and investment, and others are motivated by passion." Perhaps many collectors tend to pursue things from their younger years, he says, such as records.

[See America's Best Affordable Places to Retire.]

Lots of people used to collect 78 rpm records because they grew up with them. But many of these collectors have passed away, Margulius says, and the value of 78s has declined along with the number of collectors. Today, the interest has shifted to 33s because those are the records that many baby boomers grew up with. Boomers also seek brands that were popular during their youth, he explains. Hence the popularity of Barbies, Coca-Cola, and other iconic brands. "The market today is being driven by boomers because there are so many of them, they have so much disposable income, and increasingly, they have more time" to devote to collecting, Margulius says.

[See Boomers Seeking Personalized Volunteering.]

The television series "Mad Men" has helped stimulate interest in items from the 1950s and 1960s, including furniture, kitchen items, and other domestic products. "The stuff that is hot now, you couldn't give away in the 1970s," Margulius says.

Another category that mirrors the changing demographics of collectors is telephones. "Old wooden wall phones were really popular in the 1970s. Now, collectors call them 'firewood'; there is no market for them," he says. Instead, colored phones, Princess phones, and other items from the 1950s are very popular, he says. The category also illustrates another reality of collecting: quality does not fall out of favor. For example, some phones from the late 19th century are called candlesticks because of their shape, and often sport brass fittings. "Those phones are still in hot demand," Margulius says. "They're so high in quality they're like works of art."

Despite the appeal and ease of the Internet when it comes to buying, selling, and browsing, a seemingly infinite variety of collectibles shows around the country continue to draw people. Many older collectors—especially couples—have found new vocations in touring the country to attend shows and become exhibitors themselves.

The Brimfield shows in southern Massachusetts are one of the largest—if not the largest—series of antique shows in the country. More than 5,000 dealers attend their May, July, and September shows, and set up shop in 21 independently owned venues either on or near State Route 20. Lori Faxon owns two of the venues—Dealers Choice and Midway—and provides space to about 460 dealers each year. While each Brimfield show lasts several days, her Dealers Choice venue is open only on the opening day of each show. Although consumers do buy at that site, Faxon says, activity is dominated by dealer-to-dealer business.

Faxon has been running her venues for nearly 30 years, and says the social interactions among the dealers she works with has always been a strong part of the appeal of the business. Dealers become close friends, often travel to shows in groups, and make regular circuits throughout the country. That network has stayed strong through the recession and the rise of eBay. But she does note that her dealers are getting older, and admits that eBay may be drawing younger dealers into an online-only business model that may better suit them.

Also, the Internet has made pricing more transparent, and consumers come to shows armed with a more informed sense of what something should cost. "Antiques Roadshow," the popular public television series, has also helped changed consumer expectations of what their antiques are worth. "They often think everything they own is worth a fortune," Faxon says, and this makes it harder for dealers to assemble inventories that they can sell at a decent profit. "I'd be lying if I said that eBay has not had an impact," she says. "It has. But if you're going to buy an expensive piece of furniture, you're going to want to see it in person." Also, buyers can avoid shipping expenses by taking their purchases with them.

Dinesh Lathi, vice president of buyer and seller experience at eBay, notes that collectibles is a key space for eBay and offers collectors the world's largest inventory of items. Upfront charges for posting items were recently waived, so it is now free to post items, including images. If an item sells, eBay will then collect a fee. Lathi expects the volume of available items to rise with the free postings, and also emphasizes the value of eBay's buyer-protection program and other consumer support services. "We've removed the risk" of dealing with an unknown seller, he says.

What eBay also possesses is an unmatched data warehouse that quantifies trends in popularity and pricing for collectibles. According to the company, here are the 10 most popular collectibles in terms of the number of items posted and how many people interact with the items. The list includes the larger eBay categories in which the items can be found:

  • Sports Memorabilia: Fan Apparel & Souvenirs
  • Collectibles: Decorative Collectibles
  • Dolls & Bears: Dolls
  • Toys & Hobbies: Action Figures
  • Toys & Hobbies: TV, Movie & Character Toys
  • Collectibles: Advertising
  • Toys & Hobbies: Games
  • Pottery & Glass: Pottery & China
  • Toys & Games: TV & Film Character Toys
  • Collectibles: Holiday & Seasonal
  • For older collectors—ages 55 and up—here is the top 10:

    • Coins & Paper Money: Coins: U.S.
    • Sports Memorabilia: Cards
    • Toys & Hobbies: Model Railroad, Trains
    • Collectibles: Decorative Collectibles
    • Dolls & Bears: Dolls
    • Pottery & Glass: Pottery & China
    • Pottery & Glass: Glass
    • Collectibles: Militaria
    • Coins & Paper Money: Bullion
    • Art: Art from Dealers & Resellers