Trough of No Value: the period when objects aren't new and aren't collectible

The Trough of No Value is an essay exploring the time in an object's life-cycle between when it's valuable because it's new, and when it's valuable because it's old and collectible -- the long period in between when it's worthless.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, especially when I was a bookseller with a used section in the store. We had a lot of collectors who'd take great pains to read their ephemeral paperbacks carefully so as to give no sign that the book had been read at all, so that they could maximise the theoretical future value of the book once it became collectible.

I've always been depressed by this approach. It requires that you treat the object as a "future collectible" instead of a "present utility," which means that you rob your present to pay your future. What's more, you end up leaving out the collectible value that arises from the texture and wear on the object when its value rebounds (see, for example, this worn first edition of Neuromancer from the Merrill Collection's stacks in Toronto).

What's more, if all ephemera were preserved like this, it would never rebound, because it would never become scarce. Apple ][+s have collectible value because not many are left. If they were as common today as they were in 1981, they wouldn't be a collectible -- they'd be junk.

So the only way to convert ephemera to collectibles is to use most of it up. This essay is a great theoretical framework for understanding these issues.


For some objects, what pertains would more accurately be called a trough of low value, not no value–remaindered photo books and certain old cameras come to mind–because they never actually quite reach zero value. But other objects might accurately be graphed considerably below the $0 line–those would be things that are worth nothing but that require maintenance, expense, or storage space to keep and preserve. My great-grandfather's sailboat, for instance–a gorgeous 29-foot sloop made of cedar and mahagony that was originally built for Civil War General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. It's currently being stored at considerable annual expense by a cousin who's into historic preservation, but it's worth no money in its present condition. Graphed, I imagine it would fall well below the $0 line.

My favorite example of the Trough of No Value comes from a former acquaintance whose back room had a high, narrow shelf running all the way around it, about a foot below the ceiling. Arrayed on the shelf were dozens of kids' lunchboxes from the 1950s and '60s. He told me that not only are such lunchboxes collectible now, but that they're actually fairly hard to find. Time was, of course, when most every schoolkid had a little metal lunchbox (poor kids "brown-bagged it"). But the kids grew up, the school lunch program got started, and who wanted to keep old lunchboxes around? They weren't useful any more. They weren't worth anything. And, since they were almost all used for their intended purpose, many were damaged or worn by use (I vaguely remember owning one that was rusty and had a dent). People naturally threw them away. The "trough of no value" for lunchboxes was long and harsh. That's why they're not so common today as you might guess–because not that many made it through the trough. (By the way, the inset photo is a corner of Allen Woodall's Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Georgia.)

The Trough of No Value

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  1. My Dad, who is a clock repairman (and taught himself how clocks worked by taking them apart back when he was a teenager) remarks that when he was a boy, all the drugstores and other stores were throwing out their old mechanical product-placement clocks (you know, the Doctor Pepper clocks that just have “10,” “2,” and “4” for numbers and everything else is hash marks? That sort of thing) and replacing them with electric clocks. He saw those clocks in the dumpsters all the time, and fished out a few to dismantle and learn about.

    Because those clocks were considered disposable and largely thrown out, they’re so rare that they’re worth a fortune now. He says that if he had just fished out and saved all the clocks he saw in dumpsters, instead of a few, he would be considerably wealthier today.

  2. How much is a few cubic yards of storage space worth in your (or your parents’) house or apartment over 30 years?

    In a tight apartment storage isn’t free. You have to factor that in.

  3. a little thinking and then astroturfing and you could defray storage costs. Analog TV for instance: troublesome junk this year, but start a few rumours in the year after that that the government will censor digital transmissions and people will hedge their bets and stash one away somewhere – thus temporarily driving the value up enough for you to pay another few years rent on the warehouse. These things don’t have to make sense, you’re talking public opinion here. (say, did you hear about all the old TV’s have platinum in them?)

  4. I have a lot of old electronics I collected from thrift stores, taking up space in my parents’ garage. And a little of it taking up space in my one-bedroom apartment, which is kind of a pain.

    Of course, I live in Phoenix, and garages get hot, so it’s possible that all the floppy disks have melted, and the plastic may be breaking down. But it seems to me that old electronics are rather harder to kill than I had always thought. I booted up an original DOS 2.5 disk on my Atari 800XL and Atari 1050 disk drive. You’d think the 1050, with all its moving parts, wouldn’t work. And you’d think that the floppy disk would have faded out. And it did make some scary knocking sounds at first, but those went away and now it boots perfectly. It maybe could use some grease I suppose.

    I want to be able to show this stuff off in the future, but my apartment is small, so I think what I may try is to record, on video, all the stories I want to tell about it. Then I’ll be able to sell it all off, and none of my future friends will have to worry about being bored to tears by it when they see me in person.

  5. This essay seems weighted on the supply side (rare=valuable).

    Analyzing my own collecting habits, I tend to focus on the demand side. My childhood was roughly 1974-1982. And the trough of no value for my childhood toys was about 1982-1994. I think the big change came when people my own age started to get real jobs and have disposable income and a burning need to recapture some sliver of joy from a lost childhood.

  6. My older relatives used to remember Tiffany lamps in garbage cans. I think that’s a common story.

    This is all true of architecture as well. The movie palaces. Original soda fountains.

  7. Because those clocks were considered disposable and largely thrown out, they’re so rare that they’re worth a fortune now. He says that if he had just fished out and saved all the clocks he saw in dumpsters, instead of a few, he would be considerably wealthier today.

    In other words, “If only my mom didn’t throw out my baseball cards (or comic books) as a kid”?

    Hindsight!

  8. I don’t like owning things that I preserve like museum pieces. Personally if I cannot extract value from it through use I find little value through keeping it. This is not to say I don’t like having objects that are well designed and maintain quality with use. On the other hand if you saw my ipod you’d be astonished it still functioned.

  9. In my experience as a part-time collector, there’s an important part of the curve missing: When the nostalgia wears off. Things become scare in the “trough”, that’s true. But they gain and lose value afterwards not just because of theur numbers.

    Lots of stuff is only collectible because a sufficiently large group with a decent income wants to own them. Like comics from their childhood, lunchboxes, etc. However, this is not sustainable – the next generation will have a different childhood/youth “fetish” and the amount of buyers decreases. Even worse, while the amount of buyes decreases, the owners die off or shed their former hobbies and put their collection on the market – prices drop. And sometimes they become even rarer, because the collections end up in the trash, but the remaining items don’t become more valuable, because lietarally no one wants them – a 2nd time.

    Some item become collectible nonetheless, but I think it’s impossible to forsee this. Professional traders might make educated guesses, buying stuff cheap and storing it,with a moderate ROI. For a private individual, it’s nearly impossible. It’s just luck. Note that I refer to long-term speculation. Short-term is relatively easy.

    So it’s indeed better to make use of that stuff. :-)

  10. http://www.adamcon.org/~dmwick/chat/archive/chat2007-03-21.html

    subgenii had this timeline nailed 20 years ago… here chatting subgenii discuss the value timeline of a given object or objects… enjoy!

    “Ronald: Although actually, I tidied up two closets at the beginning of this month. Now I can actually find stuff in there. And there were two garbage bags
    Ronald: full of items that got thrown out
    Dr. D.: EVOLUTION OF MATERIAL OBJECTS AND MENTAL CONCEPTS
    Pamela: amazing, isn’t it, Ron? : )
    Ronald: oh yes, never ceases to amaze me
    Dr. D.: 1. Invention. 2. Popular Use. (PRACTICAL PHASE)
    Ronald: end of life
    Dr. D.: 3. Obsolescence. 4. Obscurity — BULLDADA (DOWNPHASE)
    Ronald: Cannot think of a single reason why I’m retaining the two Pentiae
    Ronald: one Pentium, several Pentiae
    Dr. D.: 5. MOREALISM (Humorous Rediscovery). 6. Avant-Garde. 7. CHIC. 8. Nostalgio-Popularity. (REDISCOVERY PHASE)
    Dr. D.: 9. Passe Tackiness. 10. Obscurity. (DOWNPHASE)
    Ronald: how about Retro Rich, where does that come in?
    Pamela: in about forty years, Ron : )
    Dr. D.: 11. Classic. 12. Antique (BULLDADA). 13. Pre-Xist. (COLLECTOR’S PHASE)
    Ronald: right. that makes me almost 103
    Dr. D.: 14. Human Artifact. 15. Earth Artifact. 16. Fossil. (HISTORIAN’S PHASE)
    Dr. D.: 17. Cosmic Dust. (PALEONTOLOGIST’S PHASE)
    Dr. D.: 18. Return to God. 19. BULLDADA. (TRANSCENDENTAL PHASE)
    Ronald: archeologists will study the cosmic cust
    Dr. D.: NOW STOP READING”

  11. Nitpick: Why is the graph going up in the very beginning? Surely as something is used it deprecates in value, and as something has been on the market longer, it is no longer as valuable.

    I would have thought the graph would have started with a downward slope, with a further downward cliff once something went out of use.

  12. I’m curious about the upward slope between new and just before “outmoded”. It seems to me an object would merely hold its value or decrease from the word go (as is the case with automobiles). I’m unsure whether that section is deliberate on the author’s behalf.

  13. what depresses me are the saddoes who buy these collectibles and keep them untouched in the original packaging just for the day when they can sell them for a profit… the people who buy special little protectors to protect the labels on stuffed toys… and then of course, we have the collectibles manufacturers who cater for these saddoes by producing special limited runs of figures etc.

    I used to play with my Star Wars toys… I had great fun with the Millenium Falcon and the giant At-At… before that, I had one of those Spectrum SPVs… and the original James Bond Aston Martin DB5 and a Batmobile that launched mortar shells from the exhaust pipes… sadly all clapped out and thrown away or handed down to younger siblings to carry on having fun with…

    but they regularly come up on antiques programs etc. where the usual saddoe gleefully unwraps his untouched original still-in-box one and gets told it’s worth some ridiculous figure… but it’s only really worth that ridiculous figure to another saddoe… who’ll then keep it still wrapped up…

    these things are supposed to be played with… not bloody collected…

  14. “…you treat the object as a “future collectible” instead of a “present utility,” which means that you rob your present to pay your future.”

    Kinda like taxes.

  15. Yes, as a collector of books myself, ‘collectibles’ of any kind seldom become collectible.

    A newspaper from the JFK assassination? Not that valuable, actually. Lots of people save them on ‘obvious’ historic events. Now try finding one from the day before. See what I mean?

    I have to disagree with the idea that wear causes value though. With books in particular, condition means everything, value-wise. And paperbacks are rarely ever worth saving, unless it was only printed in paperback. A signed copy isn’t really worth a damn since book-signings became a publicity thing in the last decades.

    With literature, it helps to have _taste_ :)
    For instance, I’m a fan of Swedish writer (and Nobel laureate) Harry Martinson. Very early in his career, 1927, a Swedish newspaper published his translation of a poem by then VERY obscure ‘negro poet’, Langston Hughes. The poem was the now-famous “My people”.

    It says something about Martinson’s greatness that he found and recognized that of Hughes. But who else knew that they’d both be considered leading poets of their generation in their respective cultures only a decade or so later? And who saved that newspaper? Nobody did. But I’m sure there’s quite a few who’d be prepared to pay quite a bit for a copy of it.

  16. The problem is that by the time your worthless junk turns back into priceless antiques it has too much sentimental value to part with.

    I’m not immune to this phenomenon either, but at least my smallish apartment precludes me from becoming an avid “collector” of stuff I don’t use.

  17. I think I started buying Dreamcast games right about at the bottom of the trough, considering I found Marvel vs. Capcom 2 for $13. Of course, then things started to go up and I went to eBay to expand my collection.

  18. This chart looks like what I have always imagined celebrity career paths to look like, except they normally die in the “trough” period.

  19. This is a very true phenomenon and I was just discussing it with friends. I decided to unload my 80’s microcomputer collection. 5 years ago, these bundles of goods were worth $1. Today, they are selling for about $100 apiece.

    It has everything to do with the human lifecycle. People get older, they have garage sales, dump the stuff, move into a smaller 50+ community. Then there is scarcity at the same time that the next generation is interested in the goods.

    Having been to garage sales for 30+ years, I can see clearly that the average house/estate sale items trail the current day by about 35 years. (Note: this is different from garage sales where you are unloading small kids stuff, etc).

    Sometimes you’ll really find a time capsule. I
    was at a house recently that was untouched since the 30’s…literally.

    You marry in your 20’s or 30’s. You buy a house, have kids, accumulate stuff, they grow up and move out and about 30-40 years later it is time to let it go.

  20. My parents never threw away my baseball cards. I just checked ebay, and my Barry Bonds rookie card is still worthless…

  21. I have to disagree that things never have negative value. I can offer my garage as proof.

    I would really like to get at those bike tools underneath the kids shoes that are stacked on top, but my wife thinks that someone who has a left foot that is a size larger than the right will stop by the next garage sale.

  22. Cory’s observations are definitely true of the comic book market. Newer books with limited print runs can have a fast and heavy rise in value. I remember seeing a lot of DC’s Infinite Crisis titles priced ten dollars and up, which are probably all quarter-bin denizens now. Then a *very long* trough until the value curve moves up, generally on books from the late 1970s and back. Too many comics fans forget that the primary distribution model for comic books before the 1980s and the direct market was shipping them to the returnable newsstand market, displaying them on rickety wire racks that would often mess up the cover, and where unsold copies were destroyed.

    That’s not to say that value can’t be rigged somewhat underhandedly. The Watchmen movie is driving up the price of the original Watchmen comics, which were never really that valuable and are in plentiful supply, just more in demand.

    I’m not sure if I entirely agree with #8. Granted, nostalgia wearing off can drive down value, but I think this just decreases the overall slope of the curve rather than driving it to zero. The problem then becomes brokering these objects to collectors who perceive them to be valuable, which can be more difficult. Comic books from before the 1930s are massively valuable, but the collectors for these are a relatively small niche.

  23. This is exactly what I tell people when I let my kids thrash the comics and beanie babies they get. I let people know I’m increasing the value of their collection by having my kids make good condition items more scarce. Although, I had a mint condition copy of some board game from 1990 I thought was in that “worthless and will remain worthless” trough so I let one of my kids have at it and play with whatever they wanted, and I threw away the rest. Come to find out, my first edition copy of Hero Quest is worth quite a bit more than nothing today.

  24. What’s more, you end up leaving out the collectible value that arises from the texture and wear on the object when its value rebounds

    I can’t think of a single collectibles market in which wear or damage increases the value of an object. In fact, the copy of Neuromancer you linked to is a great example of an object that would be worth more if it were in better condition. I agree that taking too much care with run of the mill objects in order to preserve some potential future value is a waste of time, but let’s not kid ourselves that a preference for worn and used items is anything more than a personal affect.

  25. Patina increases the value of antique furniture such as kaidan tansu.

    Damage that impairs function is not usually considered patina, though.

  26. My favorite example of this is Depression glass. It was crappy even when it was new, because they couldn’t make decent glass for ordinary people at the time. When the Depression (I mean the 20th Century one, not the one we’re entering now) lifted, everyone gratefully discarded it. It became valuable when crazy people started collecting it.

    Ugly, cheap-looking stuff. Worth a fair bit of cash.

  27. I can’t think of a single collectibles market in which wear or damage increases the value of an object.

    One exception might be if said damage was done by a celebrity. Finding someone’s name scratched onto an object is an obvious example, but I bet you could also get a pretty penny for the T.V. that Elvis shot or the guitar Hendrix smashed at Woodstock.

  28. I strongly believe in keeping things I buy in good condition, but not to the point where I can’t use them.

    My philosophy for keeping stuff around – keep whatever makes you happy, get rid of the rest. If it makes you feel better, try to give stuff to people who want it, that way you know *someone* is appreciating it.

  29. there’s another thing to consider – the ebay factor.

    people sell their stuff on ebay thinking the auction will naturally increase the price/value of their item. but if a lot of people sell stuff, even if the price increases in the short run, the price will decrease in the long run.

    the reason is that, unless an item is truly rare, most individuals who wanted to buy OldToy probably already have, and most individuals who wanted to sell it probably already have as well.

    among those buyers are “pro collectors” whose sole purpose is to buy stuff in order to immediately sell it off.

    over time, there are more OldToys on ebay (and amazon) than ever, the price goes down, and your pristine mint in box OldToy is rendered worthless.

    this is just conjecture based on my own experience. but it seems to make sense, don’t she?

  30. I’m reminded of the late, great zine 8-Track Mind. It was created in the early 1990s, when 8-track tapes were utterly worthless but had achieved that gen-X ironic cool factor. Rolling Stone ran a news item about it, which was when most of us became subscribers and contributors. Then over the course of a few years a few key titles became really valuable, the tapes disappeared from thrift stores, and people (who I think are “professional” Ebay sellers) started asking real money for them. 8-Track mind’s editor, Russ Forster wisely closed up shop and moved on to bigger and better things.

  31. I’m deep in the trough with my original Compaq Portable, which is equipped with some real classic hits from the ’80’s:
    * AST 6-pak Plus expansion card
    * Plus HardCard 30 (for the kids, that’s 30MB)
    * Intel 8087 math coprocessor

    I figure it’ll be worth a few bucks in 20 more years, especially since it all works.

  32. There’s a fascinating book called ‘Rubbish Theory’ by Michael Thompson, on this exact subject.

    He relates his value graph to catastrophe theory, fashionable at the time.

    He notices for example the strange seventies phenomenon of people in one part of town throwing out the exact same Victorian architectural features that elsewhere people were buying as architectural salvage and deliberately installing, or even having replicas made.

    http://www.martininstitute.ox.ac.uk/JMI/People/fellows/Thompson+Michael.htm

  33. Reminds me of the Onion article from years ago about lava lamps enjoying a wave of nostalgia that was strictly due to the last time everyone got nostalgic for them and owned one.

  34. #9 — this also explains why baseball cards are basically worthless (again). the people who care about them and want them have already bought them, or else they are dying off, and the later generations have no interest in them.

  35. The “rules” for this are fairly simple. Take any object that is coveted by kids when they are 13 to 17 years old, and then fast forward to when they are 50 and have it ready to sell. It’s most reliable to do this with the “best” of whatever it is at the time. Electronic items like iPhones and Xboxes fit this definition, but are risky because it’s likely you won’t be able to do anything with them 40 years from now. But maybe something like a premium skateboard, snowboard, etc. I’m pretty out of touch now, so my guesses for today are probably not reliable, but you get the idea. Go hoard :-)

  36. And the moral is, buy two of everything, all the time, and keep one of the items unopened in your timewarp house while you use the other.

  37. To the author: Congratulations on your explanation of the BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS. Maybe you can team up with Malcolm Gladwell on his next book.

  38. It’s a special kind of person who puts the antique/collectable value of an object way above its original value.

  39. Anther name for the trough could be the Valley of the Maker. So many things that get reworked & rebuilt by makers are in that trough, some with no ramp up in value ever until someone resurrects them.

  40. Analog TVs anyone?

    The trough price-line fall’s within the show-what-you-know category, where it doesn’t really surprise any ephemera collectors.

    If I was more capitalist and less geek I’d get those 12 Watchmen comics out and cash in. Or perhaps my complete Factsheet Five collection…or maybe those Boing Boing zines.

  41. This is a ‘heroic curve’. It’s a standard literary style. Like, Beowulf starts out great, hits some difficulties, then dies and goes to Valhalla. Jesus has a virgin birth, goes into the wilderness, then is reborn.

    Young Elvis, fat Elvis, dead Elvis. Toilet paper, paper towels, kleenex. It’s all over.

    I also seem to remember a NYtimes article talking about buildings from the 70s that were at risk b/c they were too old to seem modern but not old enough to seem venerable.

  42. now where did I put it…. somewhere among my more recent scrolls is a soiled photocopy of a hand-out from a Hollywood script writing workshop in which is described the obligatory boiler-plate script story arc. I do not precisely recollect the sordid details but it very closely follows this curve.

  43. That was Pete Townshend from The Who, and he cracked it over Abie Hoffman’s head for hogging their stage time.

    Trough of no value
    Nothing to sell
    Trough of no value
    Might as well blow it to hell.

    – From Black Flag’s No Value EP (mint condition)

  44. @12, 13 – maybe the increase in value after introduction is expressing the point where things catch on and demand outstrips supply? I’m thinking of the insane price rise in those Marc Ecko Boba Fett hoodies, where because of a lag in supply Ebay sellers got away with selling them at twice their retail value (I’m glad I waited until they came back into production!).

    Also, this model is leaving out the mechanisms by which things become valuable again. It’s not spontaneous nostalgia – the internet has a huge role. If Boing Boing mentions a curious out-of-print book, the Amazon price is immediately driven through the roof.

    One good rule of thumb for choosing books that will maintain their value: the weirder the better. Something like “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” or “A Girl and Five Brave Horses” (about horse diving) is a much better investment than another book about WW2.

    @40 LOL.

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