I am a collector. I always have been. When I was a boy, my parents gave me one closet in the trailer house to have as my very own. They called it the “rat’s nest” because I’d fill it up with all the sorts of things a boy might collect: bugs and twigs and baseball cards and comic books, among other things.

As an adult, I’ve remained a collector. It’s both a joy and curse. I love collecting, but I recognize that it’s a drain on my finances and a source of Stuff. (I have a finished post about how to build a collection without breaking the bank, but I’ve never seen fit to publish it. It seems wrong to encourage this sort of hobby.)

That said, the other side of collecting seems like a great topic for Get Rich Slowly. How do you sell a collection? How do you get rid of it? That’s what Jenny wants to know. Here’s her question:

I inherited a large collection of Barbie dolls from my grandmother — more than 300 dolls! They’re stored at my mother’s house about five hours away, but there’s a good chance she will be moving in the next year or two and I need to figure out what to do with them. I’ll probably end up keeping a few for the memories, but I’d like to sell and put the money towards our savings for a down payment on a house. I just don’t even know how to begin to tackling such a project.

Some dolls were originally bought for around $50 and others for only about $10. There are a few that were over $100, but not too many. My grandmother kept copious notes of all these dolls she loved collecting. I’m wondering if you or any of your readers might have some suggestions for how to go about trying to get these dolls appraised and sold? Thanks for any help you can offer!

Selling a collection can be tricky. Collections are rarely worth as much as the owner believes.

Several times a year, a GRS reader will e-mail me for advice on selling his comic book collection. (I’m using “his” here instead of something gender-neutral because these messages are always from men.) “What’s the best way to get top dollar for my collection?” folks want to know. What follows is my advice for selling comics; I suspect much of it is applicable to selling other collectibles. (And I warned Jenny in advance that my advice would be comic-centric.)

General Advice for Selling a Collection
First, it’s important to realize that price guides are mostly meaningless. I’ve never understood where these prices come from. All that matters is what somebody is willing to pay for your collectible. Don’t latch onto prices in books. That’s a sure path to heartbreak.

Second, the market is saturated with comic books from the past twenty years. They’re worth almost nothing. Obviously there are exceptions, but in general, your “Death of Superman” issue is only going to fetch a buck or two. It’s basic supply and demand. There’s a huge supply and no demand. The only comics that are worth anything are those for which there’s a large demand but a small supply. That usually means older material — especially from the 1960s and 1970s.

The same holds true for other collectibles. Your copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” on vinyl isn’t worth much because there were a gazillion albums sold. It’s very common. But your early U2 singles might fetch a pretty penny.

Third, condition matters. Your Star Wars figures aren’t worth much if they’re beat up and used; to fetch top dollar, they have to be “mint in box”. In the world of comics, “near mint” means “almost without flaw”. Most “near mint” comics I see for sale are actually just average copies — probably “very good”. A comic that sells for $10 in “near mint” condition might sell for $2 or $3 in “very good” condition.

Fourth, everyone wants three things when selling a collection:

  1. They want to do it quickly.
  2. They want to do it with little effort.
  3. They want to get top dollar.

Well, you can only have two of those things. (And often you can only have one.) If you want to sell quickly and without effort, you’re not going to get much money. If you want to sell quickly and get top dollar, it’s going to take immense effort. If you want to get top dollar with minimal effort, it’s going to take you forever.

If you want to get top dollar, you’re going to have to “piece out” the collection. That is, you’re going to have to sell each comic book separately. If you have copies of Green Lantern #1, #2, and #4 in Good condition, you might get $500 for the lot. But if you sold them separately, you could probably get $750. It’s just going to take more time and effort to do this.

If you want to sell quickly, then sell the entire collection at once. You’ll get much less money this way, but the process will be easier and quicker.

Finally, note that it’s completely irrelevant how much was originally paid for a collection (or any individual piece of it). This is an example of sunk costs. Whether Jenny’s grandmother paid $10 or $100 for a particular doll, all that matters is how much the doll will sell for now. It’s best to ignore sunk costs when selling a collection. Focus on what someone will pay, not what was paid in the past.

Selling Barbie
With that general advice out of the way, I have a few thoughts about Jenny’s specific circumstances. (But only a few.)

I do think it make sense to get an appraisal on a collection this large. Unfortunately, outside of Antiques Roadshow, I don’t know how this is done. If I were in her position, I’d ask around to friends and family to see if anyone knew about antiques. They might be able to provide some sort of lead to an appraiser.

Really, though, I’m not sure an appraisal matters all that much. From my (limited) experience, appraisal values are often high. They’re for insurance purposes, right? So, they tend to come in high. If Jenny wants to sell these dolls, the appraisal values are irrelevant. What matters is what other collectors will pay for them.

To that end, her best bet it to simply sell the dolls in the open market. There are many ways to do this, but I think the best way to maximize her profit is to use eBay (or a similar service). eBay puts the items at auction so that others are competing to buy them, which generally results in the best price.

If she’s looking to get the money quickly, she should sell the dolls as entire collection. By doing so, though, she won’t get as much as she could. On the other hand, Jenny could maximize her income by selling each doll individually. This takes a lot more work, but pays off in the long run.

Another option is to pay somebody else to conduct the auction. There are all sorts of eBay stores that will sell the dolls individually (or in small lots), thus earning as much as possible. The downside? They take a substantial piece of the action.

That’s a lot of typing for very little actionable advice. It’s mostly theory. But surely some of you have sold a collection — or know somebody who has. What about it? If you had a collection of 300+ Barbie dolls, how would you sell them? Where would you go to get them appraised? How would you get the most money for them? What advice can you offer Jenny?

This article is about Ask the Readers, Odds and Ends