Barry T. Smith, 44, spent most of his life collecting comic books. And he always considered them an investment. “These books would someday be college tuition, or a house down payment,” Smith remembers thinking. “I would lay them all out in my parents’ living room, sorting them, cataloging them, writing down entries on graph paper while cross-referencing them against the Overstreet Price Guide.”
After college he landed a tech job in Silicon Valley but held on to all 1,200 of his comics, including several hundred early issues of Marvel’s X-Men, which his research suggested had grown in value every year. The comics sat in a storage unit, boarded and bagged, for close to two decades. When Smith found himself unemployed and in need of money to support his wife and two daughters, he decided the time was right to cash in on his investment.
The entire collection sold for about $500. “I’m not too proud to admit, I cried a bit,” Smith says.
He’s not the only would-be investor who’s discovered in recent years that his comic collection isn’t worth nearly as much as he’d hoped. Kevin J. Maroney, 47, of Yonkers, N.Y., decided to sell 10,000 comics, roughly a third of his collection, on consignment with various comic book stores in Manhattan. Thus far, fewer than 300 have sold for a total of about $800. He’s not surprised by the lack of interest. “A lot of people my age, who grew up collecting comics, are trying to sell their collections now,” says Maroney, who works in IT support for Piper Jaffray. “But there just aren’t any buyers anymore.”
Frank Santoro, a columnist for the Comics Journal and an avid collector himself, has noticed the same trend. “More and more of these types of collections are showing up for sale,” he says. “And they’re becoming more and more devalued. The prices are dropping.” He recently had to break the bad news to a friend’s uncle, who was convinced his comic collection—about 3,000 books—was worth at least $23,000. “I told him it was probably more like $500,” Santoro says. “And a comic book store would probably only offer him $200.”
Stories like these are a stark contrast to what’s typically reported. To go by media accounts, 2013 has been a huge year for the vintage comic market. A Minnesota man found a copy of Action Comics No. 1—the first appearance of Superman, published in 1938—in a wall of his house and sold it for $175,000 in June. Three decades ago a different copy of the same comic sold for about $5,000, a record at the time. In August, meanwhile, Heritage Auctions hosted a comic-oriented event in Dallas where a highly-graded copy of the 1940 comic Batman No. 1 sold for a staggering $567,625. A recent piece on the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch website was especially enthusiastic about comics as an investment strategy, calling them “more predictable than stocks” and “recession-proof.” Old comics, the author suggested, could even save your home from foreclosure.
Outlandish claims and tales of amazing windfalls elicit only groans from Rob Salkowitz, a business analyst and author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. He also happens to be, in his own words, “a guy in his 40s with a basement full of old comics.” He warns that too many people have been deluded into thinking they are sitting on a comic book gold mine.
“There are two markets for comic books,” Salkowitz says. “There’s the market for gold-plated issues with megawatt cultural significance, which sell for hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars. But that’s a very, very, very limited market. If a Saudi sheik decides he needs Action Comics No. 1, there are only a few people out there who have a copy.” And then there’s the other market, where most comics change hands for pennies and nobody is getting rich or even breaking even. “The entire back-issues market is essentially a Ponzi scheme,” Salkowitz says. “It’s been managed and run that way for 35 years.”
Bill Boichel, the owner of Pittsburgh’s Copacetic Comics, argues that transactions involving high-profile vintage comics happen in an entirely separate market. “Ultra-high-grade books sell for as much or more than ever to doctors, lawyers, brokers, and bankers,” he says. Comics like The Amazing Spider-Man No. 1—an Ohio man recently auctioned a copy for $7,900 to help pay for his daughter’s wedding—are considered a “blue chip stock of high liquidity, in that there is always a ready buyer for it.”
Ask almost any comic book store owner and they have eye-opening tales of depreciation. Walter Durajlija, an adviser for Overstreet and owner of Big B Comics in Hamilton, Ont., sold a copy of Uncanny X-Men No. 94 in 2010 for a record $26,500. Last year, that same comic sold in his store for only $12,000. “[My] last two sales [of X-Men No. 94] were $9,501 in February of 2013 and $8,089 three short days later,” he says. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Incredible Hulk No. 181 was getting $20,000; they now trade for $8,000.”
Todd McDevitt, who owns a chain of five comic book stores in Pennsylvania, remembers when Superman No. 75, published in 1992 and featuring the death of the hero, was selling for $75. Today, collectors are lucky to get $8. “I still get calls from folks who think they can retire after buying what they thought was the ‘last’ Superman,” McDevitt says. (Death, of course, proved only a temporary setback for the Man of Steel and his comics.)
Even investors buying rare comics don’t always make a profit. Steve Geppi, the Baltimore comic book magnate, agreed in 2006 to pay $1 million for a collection of original Archie Comics artwork from the 1940s and ’50s. But when Geppi tried to sell some of his newly acquired pieces, he realized they weren’t nearly as valuable as he had believed. By 2010, Geppi was claiming he couldn’t afford to pay the remaining half-million he still owed the Archie artist’s estate.
There are many theories for why comic collectibles have stopped being valuable. Some blame readily available reprints. “What drove the collectibility of the old comics was that they were once genuinely rare,” says Salkowitz. Others point to the grading system, which now requires that comics be encased in plastic polymer. “It really is a shady process that’s completely changed the marketplace,” says Santoro. And there’s reason to suspect that the Internet era has yet again worked its magic on prices: “In the ’60s, the only way to read these stories was to own the original issues,” says Salkowitz. “Now you can go on Pirate Bay and download a torrent of anything you want for free.”
Opinions are equally mixed on whether the comic collecting bubble has permanently burst. McDevitt alternates between stories that are hopeless and optimistic. He jokes that after a year of turning down collectors trying to sell their worthless comics, he’s realized he would make a great doctor: “I’m apparently very good at giving people bad news.” But he also has a fondness for the rags-to-riches stories that built up the myth of comics’ value. Just ask him about the elderly widow who brought in her late husband’s comic collection and “was literally car shopping the next day.” Or the couple who paid for the adoption of their first child with profits from the husband’s old comics.
As for Barry T. Smith, he’s now gainfully employed as a senior product manager at Milyoni, and he still has one comic from the collection he sold for a pittance: Alien Legion No. 1. “It was the comic book that started me on my path to collecting,” he says.
According to the Overstreet Price Guide, today it’s worth approximately $3.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)