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Record Values

Collectors who deal in stamps and coins have it easy, as there are universally acknowledged price guides and catalogs. The collector who enters a retail establishment to purchase some stamps for his collection will probably know in advance just about how much he will have to pay. The dealer, likewise, can make a standard wholesale offer when buying a collection,as he has an established guidebook to the retail value of the stamps.

Our hobby is not nearly as defined. The price guides available often cover only one aspect of record collecting, and in spite of excellent research, are often incomplete. The prices given by general antique price guides differ greatly from the specialty guides and provide us with a second set of figures. And the published results of major record mail auctions provide yet a third set of figures. Which represents the true value of the record?

I would like to address the mail auction figures, since that is the area in which I am most knowledgable, having conducted nearly 50 mail auctions in the past 8 years.

In dealing with this question, I keep coming back to a basic fact: a record is worth whatever it sells for. This may not make some collectors very happy, but I look at it this way. If I offer a record on my list and send it out to 500 collectors with a minimum bid of $5 and it sells for $25, then I may assume that the value is somewhere around $25. But, if I offer the same record on a future list and send it out to another 500 collectors with a minimum bid of $25, and no one bids on it, what then? Who is wrong, me or the 500 collectors who receive the list?

The one single factor that seems to be at work here is the fact that many collectors will pay a premium price for a certain record for which they have been searching for a long time. It may be a missing number in a numerical series, a record to complete a run by a particular artist, or a topical item that is of special interest. The one common thread is that these are "one time" purchases, not to be repeated once the empty slot in the collection is filled.

This is the reason that mail auction results are not always true indicators of value. Let's look at that $5 record again, and show you some of the bids. Suppose the bids looked like this:

Bidder 1 — $5.51
Bidder 2 — $5.78
Bidder 3 — $5.98
Bidder 4 — $6.01
Bidder 5 — $25.00

You can see that Bidder 5 really wanted that record to fill a gap in his collection. So the $25 shows up as the winning bid, but is that the value of the record overall?

Some auctioneers are trying to level the bids out by reducing the top bid to 10% above the next highest bid. A bidder can then bid a larger amount on a record he really wants, and hope it will be reduced if he is the winner. But suppose Bidder 4 also really wanted the same record. Then the bids would look like this:

Bidder 1 — $5.51
Bidder 2 — $5.78
Bidder 3 — $5.98
Bidder 4 — $23.50
Bidder 5 — $25.00

What is the value of the record now? Were the two high bidders counting on having their bids reduced?

Let's assume the auctioneer notes the high winning bid and puts a $25 minimum on the next copy he obtains. But Bidder 5 already has his copy, and perhaps Bidder 4 has found a copy somewhere else. So now, with a $25 minimum, the next auction generates no bids on this record. Is the value therefore zero?

These situations are not hypothetical. They happen time and again, not only in our auctions, but in the lists of many other auctioneers I have spoken to. The rules and policies of the auction do not seem to matter, there will always be occasional high bids from desperate collectors trying to obtain the "Holy Grail" for their collections. And quite often these high bids are used to develop collectable record value guides.

So where does this leave the average collector who is looking for some sort of value guide in order to be able to make reasonable offers or bids on records? Probably no better off than before, I'm afraid. Until our hobby is able to produce a complete and fully accepted price guide that is updated frequently, the prices of records will vary greatly.

As I said before, from my point of view as a dealer, a record is worth no more than the amount I can sell it for. And from the collector’s point of view, we can reverse that and say that a record is worth no more than he is willing to pay for it. I realize this philosophy does nothing for those who are looking for values for the purposes of appraisal, insurance, or donation. But think about it for a while in the context of buying and selling, which after all is the major activity of collectors and dealers. I believe that when a transaction occurs in which there is a willing seller and a willing buyer both parties will be happy with the result of the sale. I always advise my customers to "offer only what a record is worth to you, and no more". Obviously, there are acknowledged rarities that will always command high prices. But,if you make an offer on a record you want and it sells for a higher price, don’t be discouraged — make a reasonable offer when it turns up again. (And it usually does.) If the item is one you really want and you are willing to pay a premium to obtain it, then increase your offer. But don't feel compelled to make a higher offer than you are comfortable with. You won't be happy when the bill arrives, and you probably won't be overly pleased with the record either.

From time to time a customer will say something like "I got a $100.00 item in your auction for only $10.00!" My response is "No, you got a $10.00 item in my auction for only $10.00". Willing seller and willing buyer — that is all fair market value ever is. Perhaps someone did, at one time, pay $100.00 for a copy of that particular record, and perhaps it was really worth it to the buyer at that time. That single transaction, however, does not establish the value of the record, as shown by the 500 other collectors who received my list. 499 of them either bid less that $10.00 or did not bid on the record at all.

This hobby is supposed to be fun, and a great deal of the fun for me is in the buying and selling. I would not be happy with a structured price frame, where I knew in advance what I would have to pay for a record or what I could expect to sell it for. The excitement for me lies in the unexpected twists and turns of the game. As collectors, we should all accept the fact that we will never obtain all the records we really want. But there are literally millions of records still floating around, and thousands of collectors and dealers continually buying and selling them. Maybe we shouldn't worry too much about values, but instead relax a little and enjoy the hobby.