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What's Even Hotter Than Beanie Babies? Collecting

Auctions, yard sales, flea markets satisfy America's itch

In an age when "Star Wars" action figures can fetch $345, many people may wonder what dusty object in their attics might be worth something.

People are collecting things more than ever before, says antiques authority Terry Kovel. She and her husband, Ralph, are renowned experts on antiques and collectibles. Their writing achievements include 70 books and a syndicated column, making them popular lecturers, consultants, and appraisers. (They have never been dealers.)

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The team has recently come out with the latest addition of "Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List, 1997" featuring more than 50,000 appraiser-approved prices ranging from a 1923 A. Walter lamp ($8,050) to an Energizer Bunny wristwatch ($25).

One clear trend today is that collectibles of more recent vintage are gaining in value, according to Mrs. Kovel, speaking by phone from her antique-filled home outside Cleveland (with a 1890s general store in the basement and a 15,000-book library concentrating on antiques). When the Kovels started their antique price list 29 years ago, only items of at least 100 years old were considered valuable. At the time, they collected English porcelains.

Today, items are more expensive and valued much earlier. And because more people are collecting as a hobby, flea markets are flourishing. Families, not just golden-year folks, are spending their weekends scouring yard sales, specialty stores, and attending auctions.

One telltale sign of growing interest is the number of collecting and antiques books on the market. When the Kovels started, there probably weren't more than 60 books available.

"Now, we get 700, 800 books to review, not to mention all the publications that are out there," says Kovel. Collectors clubs have cropped up nearly everywhere, and the Internet has introduced a new dimension of communication with its chats and bulletin boards.

Some of the hottest items are toys. The Kovels list GI Joe, Barbie, robot toys, Fisher Price pull toys, games like Monopoly, and more. Kovel attributes the interest to - who else - the baby boomers. "They're remembering their childhood," she says.

Nostalgia extends into the furniture realm as well, with demand for pieces from the '50s and even the '60s and '70s.

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"Collecting is an evolving thing," she explains. "It's fun, and it's a way of life for many people." You make friends, join clubs, and on the weekends you travel to shows or sales. "But at some point it can become an obsession," she observes. A teapot collection can flow into every room of the house. "You have to dust it and hope you don't live in an earthquake zone," Kovel says.

You often hear stories of people's collecting passions, such as one person who owns thousands of snow globes or hundreds of lunch boxes. A 1966 Hogan's Heroes dome-top lunch box made by Alladin, for example, lists for $195.

In Kovel's experience, people need to be passionate about collecting to be successful. "Anytime anyone has set out to collect as a way of investing - without passion - they usually fail," she says. "The public is not stupid."

Once in a while someone will try to rig the market, she says, citing an Ansel Adams auction a while back where photo prices were hyperinflated.

Concerns about authenticity go without saying. Then there are degrees and subdegrees. Kovel recalls the surprise from a woman on PBS's "Antique Roadshow" who learned that if her Queen Anne highboy hadn't been refinished, it would be worth $150,000 instead of $50,000.

The most popular collectibles these days include coins, stamps, French paperweights, dolls, bottles (including flasks, food jars, soda bottles, and milk bottles), baseball cards, toys, and advertising.

"Thirty years ago nobody thought of collecting advertising; now it is pretty big," according to the Kovels. According to their book, a 1956 Kellogg's Corn Flakes box with Superman on it lists for $350. A Continental Airlines umbrella with the old logo is worth $35.

One of the Kovels' best finds was when they went to a house sale and recognized a valuable silver sugar caster, quite tarnished. They had just written a book on American silver, and the seller "didn't have a clue," Kovel says delightedly. They bought it for $12 or $15, cleaned it up, and discovered that Paul Revere's father had made it. It was worth $10,000. They gave it to a museum.

Many collectors view their hobby as a treasure hunt. "It's you against the world; you're proving you're smarter than the rest of the world, like the squirrel that finds nuts under the tree," Kovel says.

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