What’s hot: Buyer ‘frenzy’ as Kiwis invest in collectibles

Forget mum’s old Royal-something-or-other china dinner set, no one wants it. But if you’ve got a Crown Lynn swan in the cupboard that’s another story. Jane Phare finds out what’s hot and what’s not in the collectibles market and where Kiwis are investing their money.

Antique collector and dealer Diane Akers used to spot grubby Crown Lynn swans sitting in front gardens with plants growing out of them. She’d knock on the door and ask the owners if she could buy them, knowing she’d get $20 to $25 for them at weekend markets.

That was years ago and now Akers, 72, can’t believe the prices they’re going for. This week she watched an online auction at Cordy’s where a white Crown Lynn swan fetched $500 and a rare black swan sold for $4200. And at Webb’s auction house last month, bidding was fierce for a swan featuring a mottled blue-and-brown glaze. The pre-auction estimate was between $150 and $300; it sold for $2251.50.

There’s little doubt that Crown Lynn is trending, clocking up 10,000 searches a week on Trade Me, with 2000 pieces currently listed. Last month, Trade Me’s Crown Lynn sales were up by 28 per cent compared with February 2020 and prices are rising. The swan is the most searched item, with plates and jugs also popular. Hand-potted Crown Lynn vases will sell for hundreds of dollars, and sometimes well over $1000. A large hand-potted Crown Lynn vase by Ernest Shufflebotham recently sold for $1900.

Talk to anyone in this market and they’ll say the same thing. Kiwis are buying up large and spending big money on collectibles and items they want in their homes. They call it the Covid factor – lockdowns, working from home, more time online, money to spare from cancelled overseas trips, and looking for investments that will also bring them pleasure. Owning a pair of rare Nike Air Jordans is more rewarding than a share portfolio.

Auction houses and those running online auctions talk of buyer frenzy. “Crazy prices”, in many cases. The staff at Cordy’s in Auckland have never seen anything like it. Collectors will buy anything and everything that is popular and they’re digging deep to make sure they score the winning bid.

Cordy’s’ antique expert and cataloguer Fenella Tonkin says Covid-19 and lockdowns forced the weekly estate and collectibles auctions to go online, running from Thursday to Monday. Since then, volumes have doubled to an average of 900 to 1100 lots each week.

“People are just going crazy. They’re loving everything, the kookier the better.”

“Kooky” could be a taxidermy rabbit with horns or a very odd piece of furniture. Old Persian rugs are snapped up, “the tattier and more worn the better”, Tonkin says.

New Zealand memorabilia is popular with collectors. Old posters will fetch $800, including New Zealand tourism posters, Billy Apple’s promotional posters and one-offs like a Hundertwasser National Conservation Week poster from the mid-70s.

New Zealand silver, jewellery and medals are selling well as are rare one-offs. Coming up for sale at Cordy’s is a late-19th-century New Zealand gold free Railway Pass in the shape of a Māori patu, with a 9ct gold chain. Used by members of Parliament for free travel on the railways, it’s estimated to sell for between $4000 and $7000. A New Zealand colonial silver and greenstone paper fold has an estimate of between $800 and $1400.

But who knows, Tonkin says. She’s been astounded at how far above the estimates bidders have gone.

Unusual sells well too. An early 20th-century Japanese black lacquer cypress house shrine sold for $17,000; and a Pitcairn Island basket sold for $1600. Not so popular are fine pieces of bone china and dinner sets.

“Dead in the water, unfortunately,” Tonkin laments.

Antiques, too, have dropped in popularity and value, although people are still buying useful pieces of furniture like Victorian or Georgian chests of drawers to use in modern houses, she says.

Over at Webb’s auction house, the trends are the same. Mid-century ceramics are hot, particularly those made in New Zealand, with every item at a recent sale snapped up by eager buyers. Trending also is mid-century furniture, 50s and 60s tables and chairs, dressers, armchairs and lights. Trade Me reports nearly 10,000 searches a week in this category and 4500 a week for rattan furniture.

Modern design is also popular. A Brazilian Campana Brothers “Celia” dining suite sold at Webb’s for $28,440 this month, well above its estimate. Māori and Oceania art is also sought after. Cordy’s staff were astounded this month when a print of a Charles Goldie painting sold for $7500. The print was signed by the artist but, even so, Tonkin says, it was a print.

Auction house staff can only guess at what’s behind the frenetic buying and collecting. Whatever the reason, business is booming. Cordy’s say they can hardly photograph and process house lots quickly enough.

Akers has watched trends come and go in decades of collecting and dealing. She’s still the principal organiser of Fairs for Charity, a group that runs Antique and Collectors’ Fairs in various parts of the North Island, with the next one at Matakana School at Easter.

Apart from Crown Lynn, she says good-quality art glass, perfume bottles, art deco lamps and jewellery – vintage, second hand and costume – sell well. Victoriana has dropped away as have Royal Doulton figurines and the once-popular Toby jugs.

Tonkin agrees that jewellery sells well, particularly earrings, rings and bracelets with coloured stones at Cordy’s monthly jewellery, antiques and art auction. Homewares, plants, old concrete garden statues – moss and dirt included – and garden furniture, buyers can’t get enough. Welsh pottery Portmeirion is also popular with collectors as are good pieces by English ceramic artist Clarice Cliff, although prices have eased a little this year.

Back when weekly auctions were held in-house, staff could accurately predict what items would sell for. Now it’s anyone’s guess, she says.

“It’s phenomenal. We’ve got thousands watching, and hundreds and hundreds of registered bidders. People have got so used to buying online.”

Men will buy vintage watches from the 40s, 50 and 60s, Tonkins says. Bidding is fierce for Rolex, Montblanc and Omega Speedmasters and Seamasters. A Patek Philippe “Aquanaut” wristwatch recently sold for $37,500.

“Men and their watches,” Tonkin says.

The trend is the same overseas, with Boston pre-owned watch shop European Watch Company reporting watches trading like a commodity with buyers regularly spending more than US$100,000 on Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet watches. In the past six months, the company has sold three Patek Philippe watches for more than US$1 million each.

Kiwi collectors are also buying “blue chip” art, good New Zealand paintings, and wine and whisky, Webb’s head of art Charles Ninow says. Wine and whisky are viewed as a safe investment and, excuse the pun, easy to liquidate.

Much of the collectibles market is fuelled by nostalgia. Boys who lusted after Ford and Holden “muscle cars” in their youth grow up and realise a life-long dream of owning one. Those cars are fetching as much as A$500,000 in Australia and prices are fast catching up in New Zealand. Last year, a Ford fan in Australia paid A$1.15m for a 1971 Ford Falcon GT-HO. Webb’s is expecting a 1982 Ferrari BB 512i to fetch between $550,000 and $650,000 at its upcoming Collectors’ Car Auction at the ASB Showgrounds today.

Nostalgia is also behind mind-boggling prices being paid for remnants of the past linked to characters from comic books and movies. Last year, an American collector paid a record US$3.25m for a rare 1938 comic book. The Actions Comics first edition marked the beginning of the superhero genre, introducing Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent to a fan base of many millions. This month an original first Marvel comic book was sold at auction for US$2.4m.

Stuart Colson, manager of Heroes for Sale in Newmarket which specialises in comics, games and collectibles, says Disney and Netflix series have fuelled the thirst for comics, with adults wanting more of the story they first saw on TV or in a movie. But he warns that not every tatty old comic is worth a fortune. Comic books need to be rare and in excellent condition to fetch high prices on the collectibles market.

Kiwi digi-entrepreneur David Yu knows about the selling power of nostalgia. He admits to being a “collector maniac” – and yes, he has a white Crown Lynn swan in his vast personal gallery. He’s been in the retail gaming business for 25 years and owns two Auckland shops, Vagabond Games & Collectables.

But more than three years ago he and business partner Dan Crothers started to think virtual, co-founding Orbis Blockchain Technologies and its VeVe app. They set about securing the digital rights to thousands of characters from brands and studios including Disney, The Simpsons, The Lost World, Ghostbusters, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Sony, Pixar, DC and Warner Brothers and Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk and Spider-Man. Back then, buying and collecting digital versions of collectibles was incomprehensible to many.

But Yu and Crothers figured they could tap into that enormous “fandom” base, with all those emotional attachments to a favourite movie or character, and eventually sell digital versions of collectibles. They were right.

Last August VeVe released 600 NFTs based on the first Marvel action comic book released in 1939. They sold for US$6.99 each and the rarer versions are now changing hands in secondary sales for US$38,000. At the same time, they released 60,000 3D Spider-Man collectables, selling US$3.97m worth in 24 hours. The rarer animated NFTs, originally selling for US$250, are now selling for US$37,000.

Yu won’t give exact figures but says VeVe’s turnover has gone from “nothing” in January 2021 to “hundreds of millions of dollars” by March this year. They now have 2.6 million users of the app and expect that to double in the next 12 months. He and Crothers originally thought their main client base would be youngsters, raised in a digital world.

But, in fact, their client base is adults, aged between 40 and 48, wanting to own a digital version of their childhood heroes and favourite characters. New Zealanders are early adopters of NFT collectibles, he says. Last year, Kiwis were in the top 100 of global VeVe users; now they rank in the top 20.

Yu predicts that NFT artwork will be among the top NFT collectibles in the future with a raft of new digital artists coming online, many spurred on by the success of digital artist Beeple, whose NFT collage of 5000 artworks sold for US$69m last year. And increasingly traditional artists with highly sought-after work are realising they can reach vast new audiences by releasing their work as NFTs, Yu says.

This month VeVe will release digital collectibles by UK artist Patrick Hughes, now in his 80s, renowned for his three-dimensional optical-illusion paintings. Drawing on its global audience, VeVe collaborated with US vigilante/POPaganda artist Ron English to raise money for New Zealand Red Cross to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The NFTs, a series of blue and yellow artwork, and Ukraine’s national flower, the sunflower, sold out in less than two seconds and raised $782,000 this month.

NBA Top Shots too are hot in the digital collectibles market, video highlights known as “moments” which generate millions of dollars in sales each month. An NBA Top Shot NFT of LeBron James emulating a famous dunk by the late Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash, sold last year for US$387,000 and other Top Shots regularly sell for more than US$200,000.

But Kiwis still like collectibles they can touch and hold. Kyle Linton, manager of Vagabond Games & Collectables in Auckland City, says he’s seen a massive surge in internet sales for collectible art toys like [email protected] and Kaws. Sales are fuelled by well-known YouTubers and Twitch streamers who display the toys in the background while they’re streaming.

Transformers and action figures, too, have surged in popularity, fuelling a healthy secondary market. And it’s not kids buying “mecha” like Optimus Prime and Gundam robots, it’s adults.

“We sell out of Transformers in two days. They’re automatically collectible. They’re on the shelf for $50 but as soon as they walk out the door it’s (worth) $80.”

UK antiques dealer, antiques blogger and YouTuber Stephen Wells is seeing the same trends in Britain. Buyers and collectors are after mid-century furniture, vintage Rolex watches, art deco clocks, lighting and jewellery, and action figures and franchise-driven toys from the 70s and 80s. Popular too are vintage board games, wind-up toys, Dinky Toys, rare or original vinyl records, vintage stereos, and early 20th-century art.

Space-related collectibles have grown in popularity after the Nasa moon-landing 50-year commemorations and Elon Musk’s SpaceX project.

And what Wells calls “automobilia” and “petrolina” is selling well online – oil cans, old signage, anything related to the automobile world. And he says antiques are making a comeback, particularly since Covid-19 lockdowns. Antique furniture and homewares have surged in popularity, he says, and a large number of new antique shops have opened throughout the country.

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