Seeking future's hot collectibles? Only the passing of time will tell

I'm having the dream again:

I climb into the time machine and send myself back a few decades on a collectible-buying spree. Except, of course, items I'm buying aren't actually collectibles yet.


I snap up "Gone With the Wind," Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley costumes for a pittance. I buy baseball cards of stars who aren't stars yet and paintings of artists who aren't admired yet.

Moving through the years in my big time machine, I'm able to fit in a classic-to-be two-seater Ford Thunderbird right off the assembly line, one-of-a-kind Barbie dolls, "Partridge Family" lunch pails and autographed personal letters from presidents and movie stars.


Now, the best part:

Except for the Ford salesman, who tells me the T-Bird's a great long-term value, everybody else who sold me an item -- and I mean everybody else -- thinks I'm stark raving mad!

I smugly head back to the present and, except for the personal note scribbled by Humphrey Bogart while he was working on the film "Casablanca," I sell my treasure trove for a fortune.

Unfortunately, I awaken from this fantasy and realize that, in 1993, I have no benefit of future knowledge in deciding what collectibles will become valuable.

The real trick is finding those that are truly unusual, of high quality and not available in great quantities, but capable of capturing the flavor of an exciting or historic time or person.

Got that? Well, most of us don't get it, because items we stash away turn out to be worthless.

"People come to us all the time with newspapers announcing the assassination of Lincoln or the landing of the first man on the moon, but they aren't terribly valuable because so many people put that kind of thing away," explained David Redden, senior vice president at Sotheby's.

The lack of attics in modern homes is blamed for fewer recent collectibles.


In older homes, large attics would harbor many items that gathered dust over decades, not just those specifically set aside.

While sports collectibles tied to Michael Jordan, who abruptly retired from the Chicago Bulls, have recently appreciated, even that isn't a sure thing.

"The problem with Jordan collectibles is that so much is available already, and if speculation proves true that he might play on a Nike-owned team in Europe or return to the NBA, that supply will become even more enormous," warned Ralph Kovel, co-author of Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List.

Magic Johnson, who retired suddenly from the Los Angeles Lakers, has stayed retired. That drove up the value of some collectibles.

"An autographed Magic Johnson figurine, one of 1,737 produced in 1988 by Gartlan USA Inc. for $125 apiece, now sells on the secondary market for anywhere between $325 and $700," said Diane Carnevale Jones, executive director for the Collectors' Information Bureau.

Everyone has a guess about what will become valuable.


"Some people say items from the Singing Raisins in the TV commercials will be valuable one day," said Mr. Kovel. "Another good bet is hand-held computer toys with screens, which become scarce as technology changes and people throw them out."

Film items also can pay big.

"We sold Kevin Costner's military boots from 'Dances With Wolves' for $5,462 at auction, and important contemporary Hollywood items continue to appreciate," said Katherine Gates, director of collectibles for Butterfield & Butterfield.

Try world events.

"A strong new collectible area involves Russia, and in December we're holding a sale of material from the Russian space program, including actual space capsules and spacesuits," said Sotheby's Mr. Redden.

Events such as current dealings between the PLO and Israel, or actions in Somalia or Haiti, will produce items of future importance, Mr. Redden predicted.