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THE GOODS

Pop Goes the Register

Hold on to that Paul McCartney bubble bath and those old comic books and lunch boxes. These days, baby boomer artifacts are fetching top dollar.

June 17, 1997|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The last thing a kid cares about when buying Beatles' Yellow Submarine stationery in 1960s London is how much it will be worth in 30 years.

Then I grew up and found out that each sheet--200 pieces bought for $10 in 1968--goes for $100. Add it up and check it out. I no longer write notes to friends over John Lennon's face.

Some of today's most valuable "collectibles" are not housed in fancy art museums but in the closets of ordinary people with ordinary tastes--most of them baby boomers. It's the code of a thriving subculture that treasures and collects Flintstones lunch boxes, eight-track tapes, Barbie shoes, Spider-man comic books and Melmac plastic dishes.

"Pop is current; pop is nostalgia and pop has meaning in people's lives," says John Michlig, co-author with Don Levine (G.I. Joe's creator) of "G.I. Joe: The Story Behind the Legend," (Chronicle Books, 1996). "No one is going to buy an old comic book or Batman toy because it's beautiful and aesthetic, but because it's a string to one's past."

And if American culture is about owning things, American pop culture is about reowning them.

Michlig says 10,000 men, mostly in their 30s, showed up at the first G.I. Joe convention in 1994 aboard the U.S. Intrepid in New York clutching as many Joes as they could carry. Chronicle Books packaged the G.I. Joe book along with a replica G.I. Joe toy doll Michlig developed as "The G.I. Joe Masterpiece Edition." It sold 100,000 copies at $60 and will be reissued this fall. Says Michlig: "These guys walked around like they were holding diamonds and a Renoir."

What drives these folks to collect "Star Wars" salt and pepper shakers and "Gilligan's Island" dolls? Some speculate collecting is a manifestation of uncontrollable materialism, a form of compulsive buying gone wacko. But some sociologists see it as a way of expressing identity in a world that's becoming more homogenous.

"Pop collecting is a source of joy," a way of "piecing together one's childhood in a mass-produced society," says Virginia Tech marketing professor Ruth Smith.

So what's hot and what's not in your closet? Chances are that anything stamped with the Fab Four will only increase in value. "Society is so fragmented and there are so many information outlets, no one is likely to dominate society the way the Beatles did," explains John Koenig, former editor of "Baby Boomer Collectibles," a onetime magazine.

He suggests hanging onto your Beatles hair spray (as high as $800), Paul Bubblebath ($100), Yellow Submarine clothes hangers ($250) and Beatles blue metal lunch boxes ($395).

Koenig also claims Barbie dolls, '70s and early '80s TV memorabilia, "Star Wars" anything, rare pop music LPs, and '50s and '60s comic books--if in top condition--will draw pay-dirt on future trading floors.

Trying to determine what's not hot is more tricky. "If it's out there it's being collected," says Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute, a Folk Art auction house in Virginia. "Hertz Rent-A-Car Memorabilia or antebellum banjos might not be 'hot' on your list, but there's certainly traffic in them. It's all relative."

Moore, who collects movie cowboy memorabilia among other things, says "collecting is an addiction. Sometimes it's hard to tell the people who do it for joy apart from the ones who do it strictly for money. Me--I collect for both."

A collectible's condition is of utmost importance when dreaming of dollar value. There's a byzantine strata from badly bashed to mint condition, with numerous levels in between. If you're thinking of selling any of your treasures, know that investors and avid collectors can tell the state of your prize at a glance.

The two camps in the profitable pop collecting biz generally despise each other: i.e. those who collect "Three Stooges" memorabilia for love and investors who do it purely for money. Cash-only investors "eventually begin to hate what it is they're collecting," explains Michlig. "They're obsessed not with the joy of it, but in making sure someone else doesn't get what they want. Some of these traders and conventions can be pretty grim."

Lest you think that collecting "Partridge Family" trash cans is an American-only malady, the British, Germans and Japanese threaten to outstrip American appetites. Japan, in particular, is high on American pop culture and consistently pays inflated prices whenever anything remotely important goes to auction. (Paul McCartney's birth certificate recently sold for $84,000, apparently to a private Japanese collector.)

True experts in the field are Charlie Casella and Pam Janney, curators for the pop music collections for the 78 Hard Rock Cafes. With a $4 million yearly budget, they're regularly pummeled by collectors hoping to cash in their closets.

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