Doran on Worthless Collectibles

Colleen Doran [link no longer available] blames the internet for creating a situation where “almost everything that was once a “collectible” is now almost worthless” due mostly to ebay.

I guess that’s one way of looking at it, if you were making lots of money from resale before and aren’t now. Then again… she starts the piece by talking about how bad things were when there was only one comic shop in town, and how nice it was when more shops opened and she could choose where to shop based on price and service. Isn’t that also what happens with ebay? There’s more competition, meaning customers have more choice, and they can look for better deals. There’s also more information available about what it costs to create something and so customers can better form an opinion on what the price “should” be.

I can sympathize, myself, since I have a ton of back issue comics (many of which, since they’re low-print-run independent titles, are legitimately rate… but not known and thus not desirable) that are effectively waste paper. I could spend all my time trying to ebay them, but the packing and shipping just aren’t worth the trouble, even assuming someone would want them.

How’s she handling the change? By no longer selling collectibles she didn’t create, and by making her prints even more limited.

I don’t know of many artists who aren’t feeling the pinch on their retail sales from the secondary market. Most are slashing print runs to reflect this. Limited edition prints are becoming more limited with runs dropping from 1,000 or more down to 100-250. I’ve done the same thing, dropping some runs down to as low as 50 copies…truly a limited edition, and not likely to show up on the secondary market at any time.

It sounds like as a result, she’s selling only to devout fans, which resembles what happened to the direct market. They moved out of newsstands, with high quantity sales but more competition, into the comic shop, with dedicated shoppers who would seek them out.

Personally, I’ve never been interested in the limited edition print market; I don’t understand the appeal of spending $400+ for something that’s still a copy of the original. But I wonder, based on the parallels I see here, whether there’s even going to be a print market in another decade, as their buyers, like the comic shop customers, age out.

14 Responses to “Doran on Worthless Collectibles”

  1. David Oakes Says:

    Actually, Doran has it completely backwards. eBay, for the first few years at least, turned nearly every piece of worthless junk you could find into a “collectable”. And a profitable one. That toy boat that everyone had, and everyone lost, shows up in Japan and starts a bidding war. Sunday funnies, stacked with Depression-era in your (Great) Grandmother’s barn no longer had to be taken in to The City to find a dealer who would pass it to a restorer who would put it in a gallery, but could be sold directly to the collector themselves. Scott McCloud’s dream of the internet replacing all the middlemen, allowing the creator to get more money for their work, while simultanouesly the consumer pays less. Comics as Socialist Utopia.

    If Limited Edition prints (a market that I too don’t really understand, especially when bought straight from the creator) are no longer making money, it is only because the internet has given people so much more that they would rather spend their money on. Or more likely, all the information and choices has undermined the mechanics of “Convention Exclusive!”, allowing such items to seek out their “real” value levels. (The same “Nostalgia” bubble seems to have burst at eBay, and now you can’t retire off of one toy boat. Like any other job, you have to work to ‘net to make a living.)

  2. colleen Says:

    Hi Johanna,

    A giclee print of good quality can cost nearly $85 per copy just to manufacture. Add the cost of matting and framing and the actual cost to produce the print, ship it and sell it is sometimes upwards of $200. For those that can’t afford a $10,000 original image by an artist, a high quality print that is hand inspected and signed by the artist is a good alternative, and when it is truly limited and of good quality, it can be a good investment.

    When you remove damages and misprints from a run of prints you can lose a good deal of your stock. The retail price must reflect this. $20-50 each is a fair, rock bottom price for good quality lithography. Giclees are much more expensive but you can produce lower runs.

    While you may have no interest in prints, many other people do. I am selling more prints now than I used to, but I am cutting the runs on the prints, because the only effective way to sell them is to sell them via mail order, and I do not want to do that. So, I only sell what I can reasonably expect to move quickly at conventions. I don’t want to carry inventory that I have to ship all over North America.

    And “blaming the internet” is a rather harsh way of putting it. Obviously, I declare in the article that I am just as happy to take advantage of the market competition as everyone else is. I am simply recognizing that the internet changes the way we all do business. I no longer “sell collectibles I didn’t create” because I no longer have closets full of stuff I’ve been buying since I was a kid. I sold it all…on ebay. My clutter is gone forever. Thank God!

    The last show I did I sold some 140 giclee prints. My customers did not seem to be aged people, so I don’t know where it is implied that the customer base for prints was “aging out”. In fact, I was at a Lord of the Rings convention where almost all of my buyers were young women and girls.

    Prints of my work aren’t likely to have anything to do with comics. I only have one print that is comic art based for sale right now. Most of my sales are outside that market.

    In the article I clearly state that I am happy to take advantage of those internet bargains. Everyone should. No complaints here, just commentary about the new paradigm.


  3. colleen Says:

    Hi David,

    If you had read my article, you would have realized that I stated the exact same thing you did. I stated quite simply that at first ebay was a great place to sell stuff and that a lot of things went for high prices, but over the years, the competition has driven those prices back down.

    Limited edition prints are making money (I sell more images than I sued to, but in lower print runs) but because of web mail order changing the way all artists do business, pirating of images, and the cost of maintaining inventory, we are all cutting back on carrying large quantities of stock. This goes for fine artists as well as comic convention types selling pictures of barbarians.

    But you mistake me if you assume that I am talking about the comics art market here. I can’t even remember the last time I sold a print at a comic convention. I have never done a “convention exclusive” in my life’.


  4. Johanna Says:

    I mentioned my lack of interest to demonstrate my lack of knowledge on the subject so thank you very much, Colleen, for providing more background. The “aging out” comment is purely my speculation — the comic book direct market customer has aged out, with most superhero comics these days selling to young adults instead of the kids that originally bought them, and so I was wondering if the same thing might happen to a different market, especially given the greater cost of the product.

    It’s very possible that I’m stretching far beyond reasonableness in comparing the two markets. They may have nothing in common beyond your participation in both.

  5. colleen Says:

    That’s cool. Most of my knowledge and experience is in art market genre prints.

    There are prints and there are “prints”. I only do fine art quality prints. They are expensive to produce and expensive to carry.

    The “fine art” quality artists I know used to travel to art shows and conventions to sell their work because it was the only place to sell. There was no internet, so if you wanted an image by that artist, you had to buy it directly from them when you met them. It costs thousands of dollars to rent convention space and to ship heavy art and print inventory, so the cost of the prints must cover the costs of production, travel, and all other overhead…like food and housing for the artist while he paints! None of that is cheap. It wasn’t cheap in 1986 nd it’s not cheap now.

    The new market paradigm means that artists must now compete with cheap pirate reproduction versus high quality, archival images. Most people will go for the cheap repro, but there will always be those who want the top quality image that will not fade in sunlight or with age. The archival paper I use for printing can cost upwards of $5 per sheet!

    The trick is to balance the cost of carrying inventory with the nature of your market, and the market has changed a heck of a lot. There are some artists whose work never gets any cheaper: Kinuko Craft, for example. A Kinuko original can go for between $15,000 and $100,000. Her prints begin at $250 and they never sell for lower than cost on the secondary market. I have several of them and they are outstanding.

    Other artists who used to routinely print runs of more than 1,000 copies have faced up to the new market.

    BTW, many shows will not accept prints for sale that have runs of more than 250-500 copies because they do not consider them very “limited”. I don’t either. I haven’t done a print with a run of more than 250 in more than a decade, but for a few images, I will do runs as low as 50. If I sell out at a show, I am perfectly happy not to ship anything back. And because my prints rarely, if ever, show up on the secondary market, I know my customers are happy with what they have bought.


  6. Sarah Says:

    If “collectibles” only had high value in an inefficient market, then they didn’t really have that value at all: artificial scarcity and the irrational valuation arising from it propped them up. Although individual sellers may benefit from the phenomenon, and I certainly don’t deny people their right to kvetch if their income has gone down (who wouldn’t?), it’s really not beneficial to society to have people spending more than they otherwise would on an item because of the illusion of scarcity.

  7. colleen Says:

    That’s a valid point, and I agree with you. I don’t personally lament the demise of companies that sell collector plates.

    However, limited edition prints and their manufacture, and the definitions of prints are legal terms of art. Their manufacture is regulated in some states, so this may be an important matter to professional artists while seeming silly to those that have no interest in it. It’s really too complicated a subject to get into in detail here.

    For me, the sole purpose of producing a print and pricing it has to do with achieving a balance between my need to make a living on my work by creating images that I enjoy, and the cost of producing those images, marketing, selling, shipping, and archiving them either at shows or in galleries.

    If I choose to produce only 200 prints, it is because that gives me enough of a profit to create the work and it limits my losses. Carrying inventory increases the chance of losses due to damages and spoilage, and it is much harder to maintain quality control over a large print run than over a small one. I recall Kelly Freas getting an infestation of silverfish in his print inventory and I had to spend several weeks, along with a few friends, pulling each print, one by one, and discarding the damages. We had to go through 20,000 of them.

    I realize this is of no interest to some people, but as someone who collects both prints and original art, and studies printing and production techniques, of course, it is of interest to people like me who actually care about terms like bloom, register, and whether or not one uses the French paper that gets the maximum amount of color saturation.

    In the past, lithographic printing was about all artists had to use for creating color prints and to get an economical run, that meant running off about 1,000 at a whack. Most artists can’t sell print runs that high so they usually ended up eating a goodly portion of the run. The lower the print run, the higher the unit cost. Printing prints isn’t just about creating an artificial scarcity, it is about balancing cost and profits and maintaining quality control. For me, 250 of a single image is about right as an outside limit. I reserve very low print runs for larger pieces.

    I realize most people on this site are only familiar with limited editions and so forth as a sometimes cheesy feature of the comics industry, but in the fine art print market, it’s a whole different world, especially with regard to hand pulled prints, etchings and the like.

    Scarcity with regard to fine art printing is about quality control and cost of manufacture. So it is no illusion at all, assuming you are not buying the “print” by the artist who sells his color photocopies.


  8. colleen Says:

    And this is from the US: Code, Title 17101, the legal definition of a work of art, and why some galleries and shows strictly forbid high print runs of prints to be displayed or sold in their venue:

    “A “work of visual art” is–
    (1) a painting, drawing, print, or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author, or, in the case of a sculpture, in multiple cast, carved, or fabricated sculptures of 200 or fewer that are consecutively numbered by the author and bear the signature or other identifying mark of the author; or
    (2) a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author.”

    Consequently, if I want to display my art in some shows, I must not go over the legal limit for a limited edition print of a work of art.

    Moreover, selling “prints” in some states that do not meet the legal definition of print is punishable by a fine. Refusing to take returns on prints that do not include a Certificate of Authenticity with the print run, signature, limitation, printing, and other info is also punishable by a $1,000 fine in states like California.

    Just thought you’d like to know.


  9. colleen Says:

    And because I am compulsive about it, I should mention that most of the prints being sold (including most of mine) are technically NOT “fine art prints”, but fine art “reproductions” due to the fact that they are reproduced using the photolithographic process and not stone pulled lithography, serigraphs, or other techniques. That does not stop a lot of venues from treating them like fine art prints anyway and limiting what we can sell.

    The signature and limitation is a recent development, pioneered by Whistler, but did not become common until the 1960’s. It indicates that the artist has individually inspected and approved each piece for quality, a dubious claim when you have signed 10,000 of them, but believable when you have signed 250 of them.

    OK, that’s all.


  10. Richard Says:

    Interstingly, there is a piece in yesterday’s New York Times detailing the drop in online price of real collectibles (rare costume jewelry) because of the increased number of couterfeits being offered as the genuine article on ebay – the risk that you are buying a fake increases so people are less willing to pay “market” prices for what’s offered. The “perfect market” theory doesn’t always hold. Unfortunately, the alternative, sales through galleries and “reputable” dealers, often leads to what is effectively price fixing.

  11. Sarah Says:

    Colleen, I’m actually familiar with the law on the subject (and think VARA was a bad idea, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog) and I understand the potential artistic value of prints. But if print sale prices are falling because eBay is making the market more efficient, that means that before prices were being propped up by speculators. If you can’t cover your costs with a decent margin, that means that the market doesn’t value what you’re producing.

    Now, I honestly don’t believe that the market is perfect (see Richard’s comment), that the market is a meaningful judge of artistic value, or that the market adequately captures the positive externalities of the creation of art. At the same time, if we’re going to subsidize art because the market isn’t a good mechanism for sustaining it, I don’t think irrational pricing through speculation is the way to do it. It allocates resources blindly and wastefully.

  12. colleen Says:

    I never made the claim that print sales are falling because ebay has made the market more efficient. I state that the internet has changed the way we all do business (ebay is just one facet of that) and image pirating is a major reason for falling print sales. I do not know of a good artist that does not have this problem. It is Johanna’s response to my article that makes the claim that ebay is the prime reason that causes a drop in print sales.

    Here is what I actually wrote in the paragraph that precedes the one that Johanna has taken out of context:

    “Now, so much art is available online, having been stolen by online print makers, or so easily downloadable as high res pirated images, that fewer people are anxious to buy limited edition prints. Most fans don’t have a clue what archival means, and don’t really value the input of the artist. So, they are happy to buy a cheap image they can get anywhere.”

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear here, but if anything, the cheap and easy reproduction of artistic images has cut into the business of art reproduction sales. If I go to the trouble of getting good quality reproduction and pay for it, and the next artist (or pirate) goes to Kinko’s copies and sells their “prints” for $9.95, then the legitimate artist is now competing with this. If people really want to pay $10 for a photocopy, then that is fine, but I am still not going to sell a photocopy and claim it’s a print.

    I don’t believe this will hurt my business in the long run.

    Moreover, another major problem for artists is the seller who simply clips images from our books and sells them online as prints. It’s common as crabgrass and we really don’t have any way to stop it. Complaints go unheeded.

    So, if you think I am arguing with you, I am not. We are addressing two different things here. Johanna has mischaracterized my original article. I agree absolutely that the collector’s market is, in many cases, bogus, but the legitimate artist who sells quality works is now forced to compete with pirates and cheap knockoffs who have a wide arena in which to sell our images, and there is not a whole lot we can do about it. The fan who just wants the picture usually doesn’t really care if the artist got paid for the picture or not.

    I think this is why I am doing fairly well selling my prints at shows. The fan who wants something that they know is the real deal can get it directly from me. And since the limitation is very small, it’s unlikely to be counterfeited. I prefer to only sell at shows and don’t do that many of them, I cut my print runs to reflect what can easily be sold at a few shows. This is good business for me and very good for the person who wants to get something directly from me that they know is quality.

    Nowhere do I state that print sales are falling primarily because ebay has made the market more efficient – you said that. Print sales are falling because the internet has made our images ubiquitous and easy to obtain without paying for them.

    Just last year, I had a friend who gave me a beautiful, framed Lord of the Rings piece by Michael Whelan, complete with a handsome quote from Tolkien. How nice to have it! If only I didn’t know that it is not a print that is available from Michael Whelan. He has never issued prints of this piece. It has been taken from Whelan’s book, scanned and enhanced in Photoshop, and then printed it out on a home computer, then provided with a nice frame. It looks great! It’s also something for which the artist was never paid.

    I got a complaint on my website last year about a cheap “Death” print of mine that they had bought on ebay. I’ve never made a “Death” print. However, some yahoo is taking pages from the Sandman and Death Gallery comics and selling them online as “prints”. And I get the complaints.


    The legitimate artist who is concerned about quality now has a lot to contend with that simply wasn’t a major problem in 1990.

    I don’t recall asking the public to subsidize anything of mine. I simply don’t appreciate having my copyrights violated. And I see nothing in any of my statements that imply that any of these artists are asking for any kind of subsidy. I don’t see any artists asking wild prices on ebay for their prints, but I do see people selling photocopies as posters, and clippings as prints, and when you’ve got a legit $75 print for sale next to a $9.95 picture clipped from a book, that’s a problem for any legit artist.

    There was nothing in my article anywhere that reflected any statements about irrational speculation with regards to prints and pricing.

    Those Franklin Mint Bells, available in their extremely rare limited edition of 250,000 each, are another matter entirely.

    Richard’s comment refects my thoughts as well: there’s so much counterfeiting going on that even though some of us have seen a hit on our sales in the short term, in the long run, it may very well be that the only way to get the real thing – and be sure of it – is to order directly from the artist, which doesn’t hurt me one bit.

    One thing’s for sure. The prices on my originals are going straight up. That’s not bad at all.


  13. colleen Says:

    A quote from that New York Times article to which Richard referred:

    “After the spectacular case in 2000 when a fake Richard Diebenkorn painting was nearly sold for $135,000 on eBay, the company put in place a handful of safeguards, like the PayPal buyer protection plan, an improved system for spotting eBay policy violations, and improved detection of fraud in general. But when it comes to counterfeit goods, the problem has gotten worse.

    Artwork is particularly vulnerable to counterfeiting. “The majority of things that appear on eBay are fakes,” said Joel Garzoli, an art gallery owner in San Rafael, Calif.”

    And how. I’ve bought a few fakes myself, though usually pirated films and music. I made a complaint to ebay, it was ignored, and I threw the items out.

    I was unable to get either the seller or ebay to remove any of the fake prints of mine that were up for sale last year. The particular seller no longer uses my work (that I know of) but he still sells fake prints by other people.


  14. Shawn Fumo Says:

    Thanks for all the information Colleen. This is a pretty interesting subject. I don’t know so much about art prints, but I’ve seen how much of an issue it is for anime dvds and memorabilia. About the only Japan-related thing I grabbed on ebay was Shonen Jump back issues…

    Hmm.. I really like that Cry of the Icemark image on Kinuko’s site.

    I’ve always been into fantasy art, but never had the $$ for prints and such. I’ll survive with my old artbooks and art cards for now I guess. :)

    This whole thread reminds me that I need to grab the next volumes of the A Distant Soil TPBs…




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