Collectors get carried away with vintage lunch boxes

The human urge to collect is primal. There are a myriad of reasons why a person decides to collect this or that; those reasons number as many as people on the planet. When it comes to the antiques and collectibles market, though, there is usually one driving factor that pushes people into it: nostalgia.

There is little that is stronger in people who were kids in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s than the sense of nostalgia for those decades past. The ’50s-’70s represented a time in American life that was decidedly simpler in terms of technology, television and society. It was also in these decades that lunch boxes saw their heyday.

“It’s going back into your childhood,” said Joe Soucy, the nation’s top vintage lunch box dealer. “Lunch boxes conjure up memories in your mind. A lot of times I’ve seen people go after what they had when they were a kid or they go after the ones that their mother wouldn’t buy them when they were a kid.”

The other avenue that leads collectors to the pursuit of lunch boxes, said Soucy, is an attraction to the artwork of the boxes.

That may seem, at first, a bit comical, but the artwork on the best of
lunch boxes is a true testament to the artistic styles and design philosophies of the time in which they were produced. Some can be quite striking, with bold color choices. In this way, many transcend their origins as simple lunch boxes and become a form of industrial pop art.

The Adco 1954 Superman lunch box, in mint condition, is the Holy Grail of lunch box collecting. Pristine examples are extremely hard to come by and the value reflects the demand: $16,500.

“If you focus on it, the art really is nice,” said Soucy. “It locks in a time period of this country that’s no longer there. Life was a lot simpler then.”

If you are considering getting into the lunch box game these days, the ways for you to approach the hobby are numerous. There’s the old school approach, which is simply getting out and beating the bushes at antique shows, yard sales, consignment shops and flea markets. It’s still a viable method to build a collection, said Soucy, but not necessarily the way that the majority of people are doing it these days.

The way that most people are doing it should be fairly obvious to anyone who’s bought anything online in the past decade: eBay. There you can find a wide array of boxes from the 1950s through 1985, when metal lunch boxes went out of production.

High and low end lunch boxes mix freely in the online marketplace, and buyers of all stripes discover quickly what fair market value is.

“On eBay,” said Soucy, “no matter how rare or common something is, it will find its fair market value.”
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or neophyte lunch box collector, the good news is that, in today’s market with a soft economy, it’s more than ever a buyer’s market.

As in most collecting areas, people will pay a premium for high-profile character boxes, while prices on lesser characters, and what he calls more common and non-character boxes go down.

“Today I see that condition is a really important factor in what people are buying, along with major character items,” he said. “Something from a TV series, like the Brady Bunch or The Waltons, these boxes still have a good market value.”

The “common” boxes, like plaids, floral patterns or non-character boxes, which normally might sell for anywhere between $75 and $150, are where collectors can use the current drop-off in prices to bolster their collections for when the economy, and the lunch box market, come back around.

There is a truism that applies to all levels of collecting, whether it’s lunch boxes, fine art, costume jewelry or Matchbox cars.

“Good is always good,” said Soucy, “and it will always be good. In lunch boxes, super stuff like Underdog, Rocky and Bullwinkle or Dudley Do-Right, if condition is there, the price is very substantial. Strong character items will usually hold their value.”

Warman’s Lunch Boxes Field Guide

The number of collectors that can usually go after the top-of-the-line character boxes, however, is limited. The majority of collectors who pursue their hobby part-time can’t go after the 1954 Superman lunch box in near-mint to mint condition. Most of them can acquire the minor character boxes or the more common boxes, especially in today’s market.

Take, for instance, a box that might have brought $150 two years ago: A collector looking at that same box today on eBay, or consigned through a dealer, may well be able to pick it up for around $50. In a short time, combined with a little bit of patience, a substantial collection can be put together and significant value realized as long as he or she can wait out the soft market.

“In terms of the minor boxes,” Soucy said, “there’s usually a very slight fluctuation in those values; they may waffle a little bit, but they won’t nosedive.”

There’s also a distinct possibility of finding a rare box for very little, which isn’t so much a trend as it is dumb luck. As Soucy says, it is always possible, as was the case when a Rocky and Bullwinkle prototype lunch box appeared on eBay in May of 2008.

“It’s in the top 10 of the rarest boxes made,” he said. “To date only five of this same box have surfaced.”
It turned out that the seller wasn’t aware of what he had, and listed it with the “Buy It Now” feature for a mere $185. A lucky collector, who also didn’t necessarily know what he was looking at, bought it at the arranged price. It turns out, for the $185 investment, the collector walked away with a $3,000 box.

That, however, is the exception to the rule. For the most part, the current market supports the low-end boxes and prices, and buyers would be smart to focus on the lower end of the market, where boxes that are toward the bottom of their price fluctuation can be had for a virtual song. It’s in this way that solid collections are put together, and capital stocked to make the big deals when they come along.

Along with guides and talking with collectors like Soucy who have a vested interest in seeing the hobby flourish, if you are interested in collecting lunch boxes you should take your time, do your research and watch how various sales pan out. The availability, like so many other areas of the market, is not what it was 10 or 15 years ago. Most attics and basements have been cleaned out and very few spectacular finds are to be had for rock bottom prices.

Getting into the open market and seeing what’s available on the floors of shows and shops is a good education, especially when coupled with a digital approach via eBay. In this way, even the collector with absolutely no experience can get a quick degree in lunch box collecting and start assembling their own collection within a few weeks. ?

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