By John Waggoner, USA TODAY
Next time you're poking around Grandpa's barn for anti-ques, try looking on the roof instead. Antique weather vanes are some of the hottest collectibles on the market.
But you don't need a weather vane to know which way the wind is blowing in the collectibles market these days. Baseball bats, psychedelic posters and even Transformers toys are all hot items. Can't afford a Babe Ruth game bat? Consider stashing away a few items that are popular today, in hopes that they'll be hot in 2026. We have one (hyphenated) word for you: Spider-Man.
PHOTO GALLERY: Collectible weather vanes
Tapping a vane
Interest in collectibles, from antique furniture to baseball cards, has been soaring, thanks in large part to Internet exchanges like eBay. But even though you can sell just about anything online, keep in mind that just because something is old doesn't mean it's valuable. Grandpa's stuffed blowfish isn't going to sell, unless you package it with something more attractive.
So what makes a collectible collectible?
•Origin. You could sell a stuffed blowfish if Elvis kept it on his nightstand. It will certainly sell if Elvis signed it.
•Condition. Collectibles are worth more if they're in pristine condition. Toys, for example, should be in unopened boxes, preferably with shrink-wrap still on the boxes. Scratches, dents or ham-fisted repairs slash the value of antique furniture. And you should never clean an old coin or tape an old letter.
•Popularity. A few years ago, people could finance a trip to space by trading Beanie Babies. Though there's still a lively market in the stuffed toys, Beanie Baby prices are teenier now.
Of course, some collectibles never go out of style. Chippendale or Queen Anne furniture, for example, are the equivalents of blue-chip stocks, says Sotheby's expert Leslie Keno. "People battle it out for these pieces," Keno says. A 1755 Queen Anne armchair, for example, is expected to fetch $500,000 to $1 million at auction Oct. 7.
But Americana isn't just furniture. Consider weather vanes. A weather vane in the shape of a locomotive sold for $1.2 million in Manchester, N.H., this month. (It had adorned the top of a Rhode Island train station.) Another in the shape of the goddess of Liberty sold for about $1 million in January.
Weather vanes appeal to collectors because they hearken back to a simpler time, says Nancy Druckman, senior vice president for the American Folk Art Department at Sotheby's. Even though many were mass-produced, they were made from hand-carved models or templates. The best ones are works of art in their own right.
"They were made to be seen from a great distance and are very powerful visually," Druckman says.
Similarly, memorabilia from baseball's golden age tends to hold appeal even though not too many people alive today ever saw Babe Ruth hold a bat.
"Babe Ruth cards or Willie Mays bats aren't growing on trees anymore," says Joe Orlando, president of PSA/DNA Authentication Services, which verifies authenticity of collectibles.
"The market for that kind of material has never been better."
That '70s stuff
If you can't afford a weather vane or a Queen Anne chair, you still have a whole world of collectibles available to you. Look for items that recall the more immediate past.
Harry Rinker, host of Whatcha Got?, a syndicated call-in radio show about anti-ques and collectibles, says many collectibles, particularly toys, become valuable two or three decades after they're made. After 20 years or so, Rinker says, the people who grew up with those toys become nostalgic for their youth — and by then they have the money to spend on collectibles.
For the baby boomers, born 1946 to 1964, it's space toys, says Karen O'Brien, editor of O'Brien's Collecting Toys. Consider the mechanized robot toy inspired by the 1956 science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. A battery-operated robot, sometimes called Robby the Robot, from TN Co. of Japan is worth $4,500 or more, O'Brien says.
Generation X-ers wax nostalgic for Transformers, robots that change from mechanized animals to mechanized battle-bots and later combine to form large mechanized battle-bots.
Transformers were launched in 1984.
"They were expensive toys then, and it's hard to find one still in the box," O'Brien says.
Kids got them and ripped them right out of the box. A 1987 boxed set of five Transformers — Lightspeed, Nosecone, Scattershot, Afterburner and Strafe — is worth about $550, she says. A Transformers movie, due out next year, could combine to make Transformer memorabilia even bigger.
Appliances from the 1970s are hot, too, Rinker says. "It's all about avocado, autumn harvest, rust — all those god-awful colors," he says.
Sports fans are bidding up prices of 1970s-era baseball players. Fans from the 1970s are looking for cards and memorabilia from such players as George Brett and Pete Rose, Orlando says.
Slightly older boomers are bidding up prices for posters from San Francisco's Fillmore Ballroom into the thousands.
"They're through the roof," Rinker says.
Nostalgia isn't just for U.S. investors. Thanks to a rising economy, Russian collectors are bidding up old Russian gold coins, says Tom Michael, market analyst for the Standard Catalog of World Coins. In fact, prices have gotten out hand, he says.
"They have to come down," Michael says. "I can't see them as sustainable now."
Let's say you don't have the budget for a $500,000 weather vane. And you really hate toasters with daisies on them. What can you put away now that will be collectible later?
Check out what kids are playing with now. Bratz dolls, for example, are replacing Barbies as icons of plastic pulchritude. If you buy one for your niece, consider tucking one away for yourself.
Or consider going with an old favorite: Spider-Man. Thanks to the recent Spider-Man movies, the web-slinger is popular with kids once again, Rinker says.
O'Brien says Superman toys also endure. The Man of Steel made his debut in 1938, so many people alive today have grown up with him, she says. The TV series Smallville has brought Superman to a new generation as a teen hero.
Another potentially hot collectible: The Most Wanted card deck that the U.S. produced shortly after the invasion of Iraq, says Michael, who is also co-editor of Coins and Currencies of the Middle East. Look for the ones originally issued to soldiers. Eventually, they could be worth $50 or $60 apiece, up from about $10 now.
Anything you buy now for investment later is purely speculative, Rinker notes.
People may wax nostalgic for Lost in Space, but if you collected Mr. Ed memorabilia, they were probably best left in the barn. But if you have a barn, take good care of the weather vane.