Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Collectable-Magazine Acquisition Roadmap

Whether you’re an historical aviation enthusiast, aero-modeler, publishing historian, or a fan of the “Golden Age of Aviation,” pulp fiction, and between-the-wars pre-comic-book super heroes, here are six key steps to successful acquisition of collectable magazines.

I use this acquisition roadmap when acquiring a magazine, based on decisions of whether a potentially colectable magazine is for my personal use, or it’s a potentially rare or scarce holding worthy of inclusion in my collection. You may find some of these guidelines useful in building your collection.

1. Do I want to acquire the subject magazine issue for personal reasons?
Personal reasons might include such subjective issues as:
·         I like the cover art. Maybe I want to have the cover framed for display purposes
·         The content is relevant to me personally. For example, perhaps I once wrote or published an article about, flew, or built a model of, a plane featured in the magazine
·         I want the magazine for research purposes
There are many personal reasons why a collector may want a personal copy of a title, and those reasons should have nothing to do with adding the item to one’s investment-driven collection.

If I am acquiring for personal reasons, I skip to Steps #3 and 3a in the acquisition roadmap.

2. Do I want to acquire the subject item as an addition to my investment collection?
One reason for adding a magazine to a collection can mean simply filling a gap in the chronological sequence of issues already in the collection. Most collectors want to have full sets, with no missing issues. If the subject magazine under evaluation is for a collection, I pay particular attention to the remaining steps.

3. Can I reasonably ascertain the scarcity or rarity of the magazine?
If I am considering the acquisition for a collection, I will research previous auctions, both online and offline. A phone call to one or two of my trusted dealers may be in order, too. I’ll check out the number of times the publication has been offered for sale in the past year, five years, etc. Do the historical records of prior sales indicate anything about rarity or scarcity? This might be all you can gather. My approach will reveal how often a particular magazine issue became available for purchase, which is another way of interpreting scarcity.

3a. If the item doesn’t appear to be scarce (or rare), I’ll consider acquiring it for one or more of my personal reasons in Step #1 above. I’ll still pay attention to condition (Step #4) of course, especially the cover if I’m going to frame it for display purposes. If the condition isn’t just right for my needs, I’ll feel comfortable waiting for a better copy, because I’ve already determined in Step #3 that the subject magazine isn’t really very rare or scarce. Some collectors may find my “wait” strategy a bit risky, because it disregards the availability-for-purchase factor.

4. If my research in Step #3 indicates rarity or scarcity, I next carefully scrutinize the condition of the magazine.
Scrutinizing actual condition can be tricky, especially if the magazine isn’t being offered in a legitimate auction (the auction house’s description fully discloses every condition detail), or by a trusted dealer who will put the condition details in writing.

I’m personally adverse to condition claims that use descriptive terms such as “clean,” “like new,” etc. Only if I know a dealer and have purchased from him before am I usually comfortable with such a generic evaluation of a magazine’s condition.

From my perspective, pulp magazines are fragile and require a more substantive and highly-detailed grading system. If I’m buying an item based mostly on its condition, I don’t hesitate to ask the seller to provide a report based on universally accepted standards of condition. When you see condition descriptions such as “fine,” “very good,” “fair,” etc., these are recognized descriptive terms that explain a magazine’s condition. But even then, such terms have specific sub-grades, which can impact the interpretation of a magazine’s actual condition.

The standard condition grading terminology is fully detailed in The Official Overstreet Comic Book Grading Guide. Don’t let the Comic Book reference in the title mislead you…this guide is used for rating all magazines, especially vintage pulp publications. See also on e-Bay The Guide To Properly Grade a comic book (or magazine).

Both of these rating scales place considerable weight on the condition of the magazine’s cover. However, when properly used, every internal page can – and should – be rated, especially if the acquisition is destined for inclusion in a collection. This level of detail is usually reserved for only those most-rare magazines. Don’t expect a dealer to comply with detailed Overstreet ratings on the commonly-sold magazines, like the ones typically found on e-Bay, where the perfectly acceptable shorthand descriptors like “near mint,” “very good/fine” are (or should be) used.

But, when there’s serious money in the deal, I expect a full-blown condition description. Sometimes the seller has built into the asking price the cost of producing a detailed condition description. If not, the seller may charge extra for the work. I have even been known to share the costs of a detailed condition report, when the price level of the transaction warrants. (See Step #5 “Provenance” for information about the terms “uncirculated” and some variant of “[publisher’s] copy” as these either do -- or don’t - relate to grading condition).

A legitimate auction acquisition or dealer purchase should include a written guarantee of condition. I always want a purchaser-satisfaction guarantee, and/or a statement that the item is returnable for a refund within X days of receipt.

If I’m committed to making a purchase, I’ll contact the seller about how the item will be packed for shipping, who will oversee packing, who is responsible for shipping damages, will the shipment be insured, etc. With pulp magazines, handling requires meticulous attention to the fragility of the goods.

5. Provenance
Provenance for individual magazine copies is almost unheard of, so don’t expect to run into very many offerings that include a description like “Bill Winter’s personal copy.” But they do happen, since there were a number of notable persons involved in the production of “Golden Age of Aviation” magazines, such as the cover artist, editor, publisher, authors, and even some notable subscribers. If you do encounter such a provenance opportunity, find out if it’s real (i.e., “real” means the magazine comes with written validation by a certified authority).

Be prepared to request that your independent authority examine the provenance documents. When it’s time to sell your collectable magazine, you’ll need that written proof of provenance. Solidly documented provenance undoubtedly increases the asking (and, later your selling) price, so make sure you’re actually getting what is being advertised.

Always get every detail in Steps #4 and 5 in writing.

In Step #4, I referenced the terms “uncirculated” and some version of “[publisher’s] copy.” The later term is, as discussed, a descriptor of provenance, and not necessarily a remark about the condition of the item. With the term “uncirculated,” one should look at it as describing something about condition, since an uncirculated copy never left the publisher’s premises.

For example, a typical original source of uncirculated magazines is the number of copies the publisher reserved for back-issue fulfillment (I’ll be writing more on this in an upcoming blog). These copies are warehoused at the publishers, so that they are handy to fill back-issue orders. From my experience in magazine publishing, publishers keep back issues for a year or more, and the number of copies in inventory are carefully calculated. Storage space limitations drive throwing excess inventory out when end of life (when requests for back issues have dropped to nothing), or when newer issues require the shelf space. Thus, uncirculated copies are, in my opinion, very scarce.

As a provenance issue, I am completely befuddled as to how a seller today can validate that a particular issue is really uncirculated. One perception of the use of that term brings forth to a buyer is condition…the magazine is about as close to “mint” as one would ever find in the marketplace. Thus, my perspective is that any magazine copy described as “uncirculated” should require some valid documentation of its provenance, but a buyer’s expectations of such a piece’s condition should be that it’s a spectacular copy.    

6. How much investment value will this acquisition add to the overall value of my collection?
This is basically a decision as to cost justification of the purchase. It is especially important if my research indicates that I’m about to pay a price above what others have previously paid for the same item. I always balance the mathematical juggling with a realization that my not buying something when it’s being offered could well cost me a long wait before I every get the chance to purchase it again. This is especially true if the magazine is in what I consider investment-grade condition. Just because a particular magazine issue isn’t particularly scarce doesn’t mean that it becomes available for acquisition very often – “scarcity” and “limited availability” are not always inter-related.

Following this acquisition roadmap can help you avoid regrettable purchases, as well as make you more comfortable in dealing in the collectable magazines marketplace.

         The Magazine Collector

Tags: Street & Smith, collectable, aviation, history of aviation, magazines, Golden Age of Aviation, pulp magazines, superheroes, magazine collecting, acquisition

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