Just about everyone has somewhere special they went when young, a place that glows in memory. For some it may be a library or game arcade, for others a baseball field or bookstore. For Jay Carlson, growing up in western Massachusetts in the early 1990s, the center of the universe was the video rental store.
This was before streaming, before Netflix, before DVDs. The videocassette player was the summit of consumer technology. At the rental shop, 12-year-old Jay would bump into friends and neighbors, hear about something that couldn’t be missed, talk up his own favorites. It was like social media before social media was invented.
He grew up, got married, had children, went to work in the finance department of a retailer. Technology moved on, but his heart did not. One day, he saw in his local comics store a tape of “Ghostbusters,” the first movie his parents let him pick out himself. It was $7, still sealed from the factory.
“I said to my wife, ‘I think I might start collecting tapes,’” Mr. Carlson, 43, said. “I was taking a piece of my childhood back.”
Many others are, too. The stock market, real estate and cryptocurrencies did poorly in 2022, but the global luxury goods market grew 20 percent. People may have had less, but they spent more on fine arts and collectibles that serve no function except to provide pleasure.
The culture is bursting with new material — every day, thousands of new books are published and 100,000 new songs are released on Spotify — but the old stuff offers a sweeter emotional payoff for many. It could be tapes or posters or pictures or comics or coins or sports cards or memorabilia. It might be from their childhood or the childhood they never had, or it might merely express a longing to be anywhere but 2023.
The common element is this: People like to own a thing from a thing they love. For Mr. Carlson and millions like him, the nostalgia factory is working overtime.
When Mr. Carlson first began to look for sealed VHS cassettes, they were considered so much plastic trash. “Back to the Future,” “The Goonies,” “Blade Runner,” were about $20 each on eBay. He put them on a shelf, little windows into his past, and started an Instagram account called Rare and Sealed.
Then tapes began to get scarcer and much more expensive. People trapped at home had lots of money to spend during the pandemic. But it was more than that.
Objects with a bit of history have an obvious attraction in a high-tech world. The current cultural tumult, with its boom in fake images, endless arguments over everything and now the debut of imperious A.I. chatbots, increases the appeal of things that can’t be plugged in.
At the same time, advances in technology mean it is ever easier to buy expensive things online. Bids at auctions routinely reach tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars.
One thing people are eagerly seeking with the new technology is old technology. Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, which he used to write a shelf of important novels, went for a quarter-million dollars. An Apple 1 computer fetched nearly twice that. A first-generation iPhone, still sealed in its box, sold for $21,000 in December and triple that in February.
Blend these factors — a desire for escape from our virtual lives; bidding as fast as pushing a button; and the promotion of new collecting fields like outdated technology devices — and you have Heritage Auctions in Dallas.
Heritage is a whirlwind of activity, of passion, of hype, constantly trying new ways of enticing people to own something beautiful and useless. Ninety-one million Americans, according to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, are having trouble paying household bills. Everyone else is a potential bidder.
“There was a point in time when art and collectibles were dominated by old white men,” said Josh Benesh, Heritage’s chief strategy officer. “I think that has been democratized. And the categories of material for sale have been democratized a lot.”
Twenty years ago, Heritage had four categories: coins, comics, movie posters and sports. Now it has more than 50, which generated revenue of $1.4 billion last year. Everything, at least in theory, is collectible.
“We don’t question the value or legitimacy of a particular subject matter relative to outmoded norms,” Mr. Benesh said. “We’re not here to tell you what’s worthwhile. The marketplace will tell you. The bidders” — Heritage has 1.6 million — “will tell you.”
VHS tapes were apparently worthwhile. The selection of an expert to run the sales was easy: Mr. Carlson. His first auction, in June 2022, brought in more than a half-million dollars.
The publicity around the sale brought Mr. Carlson, whose email address is on the Heritage website, many offers of tapes. One man said he had put together a time capsule for his son, who was born on Christmas Day 1982. “Rocky III” had just come out, so the father included a brand-new copy. He threw in “Rocky I” and “Rocky II” as well. They’d cost $60 each.
The three tapes, all with a factory seal, fetched $53,750 in a February auction.
Since cassettes were designed to be played, only a few unopened ones exist 40 years later. But since they were never considered valuable, they might be found anywhere for a pittance.
“A man told us he found a sealed first release of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ at Goodwill,” Mr. Carlson said. “He paid a quarter. That will probably go for $20,000.”
Every potential bidder must decide if this is the 2023 equivalent of Beanie Babies, which flew high and then crashed. Mr. Carlson would not be working at Heritage if he didn’t believe.
“These tapes are historical artifacts that have this ability to sweep you back in time to a place that all at once feels miles away and yet somehow like home,” he said. “I used to think it was just me, but I talk to more and more people getting into this because of that pull.”
The pull of nostalgia is powerful indeed. But the pull of quick cash can be more powerful still. There were 235 lots in February’s tape auction, and they all sold.
For those who missed out, dozens of the lots are now highlighted on Heritage’s website to suggest the owner might be willing to flip his newly acquired copy of “Caddyshack” for a 50 percent premium.
At Heritage, the bidding never really ends.
Wanted Dead or Alive
The Heritage offices look like a cross between an Amazon warehouse and a very wide-ranging museum, with a dash of “Hoarders” thrown in.
In mid-2020, the privately held company moved to a 160,000-square-foot building by Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, doubling the size of its former headquarters. Hundreds of specialists, most of them collectors themselves, prepare hundreds of thousands of items for bids here — researching, photographing, writing catalog copy.
There are boxes of Teenage Mutant Turtles Killer Bee toys. A CBS television camera that filmed the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. A poster from the McKinley campaign in 1896. Lots of Pokémon. Fake newspapers from the HBO series “Watchmen.” Lots and lots of comic books. A videocassette of the horror flick “Death Spa.” Sneakers. Trading cards.
Stuff overwhelms desks; objects are piled to the ceilings in storage rooms; racks are full of items that have been bought and must be shipped.
The spiritual roots of Heritage, which calls itself “America’s auction house,” go back to the most primitive type of collector, the souvenir hunter. Anything not nailed down in America, along with quite a bit that is, becomes prey. Traveling through Missouri in 1882, Oscar Wilde noticed a crowd pulling down a little yellow house.
“It is the house of the great train-robber and murderer, Jesse James, who was shot by his pal last week, and the people are relic hunters,” the playwright reported. “They sold his dustbin and foot-scraper yesterday at public auction, his door-knocker is to be offered for sale this afternoon, the reserve price being about the income of an English bishop.”
Wilde added that Americans “are great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.” That’s as true as ever. A few months ago, Heritage sold the outlaw’s pocket revolver for $62,500.
The problem is, older historical items that were previously unknown are becoming rare. Every barn, basement and attic has been ransacked for treasures. New items related to Washington or Lincoln, for instance, are nearly impossible to find.
“All the varieties of Lincoln inaugural buttons seem to be known,” said Curtis Lindner, Heritage’s director of Americana. “There has not been a new photo of Lincoln in many years. We get a lot of people saying, ‘I have a new image.’ Unfortunately, not everyone who has a beard is Abraham Lincoln.”
So the pressure is on to develop new material. For instance, Vegas casino chips. “People have emotional ties to Vegas,” said Ray Farina, who moved over from Americana to develop this niche. “Maybe they saw Elvis there back in the day.”
A 1953 chip from the fabled Sands casino sold for $12,000 at Heritage in December. Now people with chips are contacting Heritage. A guy says his father worked for the casinos taking the decommissioned chips out to the desert to bury them in concrete. Apparently, he kept some.
“Word gets out,” Mr. Farina said. “We have tremendous marketing ability here.”
The pace of Heritage’s auctions is relentless — there were 1,034 in 2022, almost three a day, with a total of 412,270 lots — and so are the Heritage emails promoting them.
Even so, revenue barely inched up in 2022 after growing 60 percent in 2021. The number of registered bidders rose, but only by a small fraction. There may be a limit to what marketing can do.
Looking for a Sure Thing
Sitting in his office on a rainy Monday morning, Chris Ivy, the director of sports auctions at Heritage, is a bit distracted. That’s because he is talking about auctions while simultaneously bidding for Heritage on a Michael Jordan jersey being auctioned by a competitor.
Last summer, Heritage sold a Mickey Mantle rookie card for $12.6 million, which it billed as the most valuable sports collectible ever sold at auction. The clothing actually worn by players seems to Mr. Ivy undervalued by comparison.
He suspects this Jordan jersey, which is being sold as nothing special, was worn in a game. “It has a downside of maybe $5,000 and an upside of $100,000. I’ll take that every day of the week,” he says. “We use our expertise here to help generate income.”
Mr. Ivy wins the jersey for about $20,000. To try to authenticate it, he will use a photo-matching service, which will scour the internet for proof that it is what he thinks it is. When a historical object is validated with contemporary images, bidders are encouraged.
A recent Heritage auction featured a 1948 Joe DiMaggio jersey. What made it special was the black armband attached to the left sleeve, a tribute to Babe Ruth after his death on Aug. 16 of that year. The Yankees’ two greatest stars were thus linked for a few weeks.
The jersey was being sold by a collector, and there was no direct connection to DiMaggio. So Heritage sent photographs of it to Resolution Photomatching in Seattle.
Resolution found a contemporary picture that showed DiMaggio apparently wearing the shirt, although without the mourning band. The tiny imperfections in the flannel were the same. The jersey sold for $564,000.
Data can mislead as well as illuminate. Two years ago, an Australian gamer named Karl Jobst released a popular video that made allegations of fraud against Heritage. The company responded that it “has always acted with the utmost integrity and has never falsely inflated the collector video-game marketplace or any other.”
At the heart of the accusations is the question of grading. In the 1980s, ratings companies began offering numerical scores for coins at auction. In theory, that meant bidders knew exactly what they were getting without having to examine each lot personally.
Ratings accelerated the development of online auctions, with the practice spreading to sports cards, comic books and, more recently, game cartridges and videotapes. After grading, items are inserted into a hard plastic case to prevent wear. Just like a photo-match, a high grade reassures potential bidders that the object is, indeed, something special.
Then came the Super Mario Bros. game cartridge auctions.
Super Mario is a Nintendo game introduced in the mid-1980s that became a global phenomenon and, this month, a new Hollywood movie. In 2017, an unrated copy of the original game brought in $30,000 on eBay, prompting shock and disbelief. Two years later, a cartridge graded 9.4 sold for $100,000 to a group that included Jim Halperin, a founder of Heritage. The purchase was used by Heritage to promote its new auction of graded games.
In the summer of 2021, Heritage auctioned a Super Mario cartridge for $1.56 million, a tenfold increase in two years and the first game to be sold at auction for more than $1 million. It had a grade of 9.8 and was rated A++. The sale made news. In the same auction, a Super Mario was graded at 8.5 and rated A+. It sold for only $31,000.
Valarie Spiegel, who oversees video games at Heritage, explained the $1.5 million difference: “9.8 is a trophy-level grade,” whereas “8.5 is not.” Keep in mind this is not about the game itself but, in essence, the tightness of the plastic seal.
Grading, Mr. Jobst points out, is “very subjective by nature.” When dealers and collectors get a grade that they think is too low, they simply crack open the plastic case and send the item back to the grading company or a competitor. This is known as “the crack-out game.”
Forbes magazine accused Mr. Halperin of doing this with coins in 2004, creating a sort of grade inflation that pushed up prices for unwary bidders. In a lengthy rebuttal that is still on the Heritage website, Mr. Halperin said he publicly encouraged crack-outs by anyone who got a grade they thought too low.
“We sell an item as if it were our own,” Mr. Ivy said. “Our question always is, How can we maximize this? The more we get for our consignors, the more money we make.”
The Nostalgia Vault
The thrill of a collection is that it is real — you can take it off the shelf. This is also, of course, the problem with collecting. Collections can easily overwhelm a house, a life.
Several online auction companies have recently announced programs to take care of collections for their owners. Collecting, which gained so much momentum as a response to the virtual, is moving away from its physical reality.
A program being tested at eBay uses a vault in Delaware to store sports cards. Collectors cannot visit their treasures, but eBay will take a photograph of the card and send it to the owner, kind of like seeing your child at summer camp. Beckett, a sports collectible company, has opened a 100,000-square-foot vault in Plano, Texas.
Mr. Carlson, the videocassette expert, is not so sure he would want to use a vault. He likes seeing his tapes too much. In any case, his collection is not growing much these days. He’s wrapped up in his job at Heritage. And then there’s the problem of money, or lack of it.
“Some of the tapes I like go beyond my budget,” he said.
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.