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Collectibles: age is no factor

When walking into a typical "antiques" store, don't expect much of what you see to be genuine antiques. More than likely, the array of items -- the advertising tins, glassware, hatpins, buttons, doorstops, and pewter pitchers -- that adorn most shelves in shops these days will realy be "collectibles."

For while an antique must be an item of at least 100 years of age, all a collectible has to be is one of something that people collect. And it is far easier to add up what people don'tm collect than what they do.

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There is no age limit on what makes something a collectible. Campaign buttons, hats, and bumper stickers from the 1976 presidential campaign are easily bringing several dollars apiece from the many collectors of political items. Undoubtedly, the hardware from this year' campaign will become collectibles not long after the votes are cast in November.

Rock and roll items have recently become highly collectible -- especially memorabilia pertaining to the late Elvis Presley. Some stores, such as Monkey Business Fun Antiques in Cambridge, Mass., have found enough demand in this area to deal with it exclusively. The Beatles magazines currently in the window at Monkey Business that were 35 cents in 1964 are now $30. On the shelf above is a long-playing Beatles record made of licorice.

Toy's particularly dolls and banks, have long been among the most expensive of collectibles, the choicest of which fetch astronomical sums at the big auction houses like Sotheby Parke Bernet. Here again age is no factor. Because there are almost no early toys in existence (They receive such rough treatment, and few were made in previous centuries), most toy collectors stick to the mass-produced items of this century.

A cast-iron bank of Jonah and the Whale on a pedestal recently went for $18, 000, and certain bisque-head dolls are worth thousands of dolars. As far as popularity goes, the names Shirley Temple and Betty Boop are to dolls what Haviland and Spode are to china. A Mickey Mouse watch commands about $400, and Popeye on a mechanical mortocycle is as valuable as a Chippendale chest.

There have been collectors of fine china and pottery for centuries, but recently the colorful dinner pottery called Fiestaware dating back not further than 1936 has met great demand. Plain and sturdy, it is distinguished mostly by its rainbow of bold colors -- a flaming shade of orange-red being the most expensive and rare.

Frank Maloney, who deals heavily in Fiestaware at his Berkeley Antiques in Boston, feels its popularity has a lot to do with the starkness of many modern apartments and houses."People are finding that the colors contrast well with their white walls and wood paneling," he says.

But although Fiestaware was mass produced through the '40s, '50s, and '60s, some of it sold in A&P supermarkets and through the Montgomery-Ward catalogue, Mr. Maloney is finding it increasingly hard to come by. "Cups, saucers, and plates are the easiest to find, but serving pieces and accessories, because far fewer of them were made, are much more rare."

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In addition to the colorful display of Fiestaware, Mr. Maloney's shop is chock-full of another highly collectible item -- glass. His own particular favorite is Heisey glass which was made between 1896 and 1957 by the Imperial Glass Company in 18 different shades. What distinguishes it from another very collectible glass -- depression glass -- is that it was hand-poured into molds rather than made by machine. While it is possible to pick up a delicate amber-colored Heisey water glass for only a few dollars, a collector recently paid $4,000 for an amber Heisey mare.

Mr. Maloney is himself a collector, and most of his business is with other collectors. "Most serious collectors belong to at least one club or organization in their field," he says. "I belong to thirteen glass clubs -- six of which are just for Heisey collectors. Clubs are very useful for collectors because they are always issuing updated information to their members, and therefore enabling them to learn more and more about the items they collect."

Collector's clubs often publish books, nearly always issue newsletters, and sometimes, as in the case of one, found a museum (The National Heisey Glass Museum in Newark, N.J.).

Keeping up-to-date on prices and learning as much as possible about the items they collect is important to collectors because telling an authentic item from a good reproduction is not always easy. And the items most popular with collectors are usually the ones most frequently reproduced.

Fortunately for the beginning collector, there is a wealth of information available. Volumes on antiques are now sharing their shelf space in most bookstores with books exclusively about collectibles. A good overview of the field, which includes information on many collectors' clubs, is "The Collecting Book," by Ellen Liman and Lewis Liman (Penguin Books, New York).

Of interest to even noncollectors is what items may become the collectibles of the future. "Toys are sure to continue to be collectible items," says Mr. Maloney. "It's possible that the Farrah Fawcett doll will one day be as valuable as the Shirley Temple doll is now. Even plastic, which is made with an oil base, might become rare and therefore desirable."

A study made by a market research firm in 1977 reported that at least one in every five Americans can be called a collector. Why is there currently such interest in collecting? Reasons often cited are that people see it as a hedge against inflation or that genuine antiques have gotten too scarce and expensive for most people to acquire. Most collectors, however, will simply tell you that it's fun.

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