Price, worth and value

In 2007, a collector bought this RPPC image of a tattooed tattoo artist sitting in his studio for, including buyer’s premium, $4,830. The sale was at a Lyn Knight Postcard and Paper Auction ( near Kansas City.

In addition to the card’s clarity and outstanding composition, there are a number of aspects of the image that make it special. The signs in the image identifies the subject and confirms his occupation. The tattoo designs that patrons could choose are displayed. The subject’s own tattoos are prominent. His tools – jars of colored inks and his electric tattoo gun – are included. Other exceptional RPPCs of tattooed people, even of tattoo artists exist that advanced collectors knew about and had seen, but this particular image was new to public display and to the marketplace. What do you think of the purchase price, of the image’s worth and value?

Price, worth and value are three words often used when people talk about photo postcards. The words are used interchangeably and with no general agreement as to their precise meaning. Dictionaries offer no clarification.

To me, “price” (or cost) is what a photo postcard sells for, what a buyer pays. The price paid can vary considerably from one seller to another, one geographic location to another, one venue to another, and from one time to another. The tattoo card probably sold for considerably less the last time it changed hands. There are different markets for cards – local, regional, national and international – and they are sold in places as diverse as flea markets to high end auction houses. The price of an ordinary card, one that is of little interest to topical collectors and not a striking view, will bring much more in the geographic area where it was produced than in another location. An exceptional card taken in a particular location is likely to sell for more on a national or regional market than in the local market. Although dealers who attend shows are often consistent in the way they price their cards, there is variation in how they think about selling. Some look for a quick turnover in their stock and mark their cards somewhat lower. Others sell only high-end cards and hold out until they get the highest price for their treasures.

Although price seems like an uncomplicated concept, the distinction between retail and wholesale price makes it less simple. Retail price is used to designate what a collector pays for a card bought from a dealer. Wholesale (also known as the dealer’s price) is what a dealer pays to another dealer, to a picker, to a collector or to anyone who offers cards for sale. Although wholesale usually implies bulk buying, that is not always true in the postcard world. A dealer may buy only one card from another dealer and get a wholesale or dealer’s price. When dealers buy from other dealers before or during a show, they expect a “dealer’s discount;” the most common discount is 20 percent. Dealers buying from people who are not dealers, collectors or pickers, try to pay only one half or less of what they plan to sell the card for at retail. The half only applies to better cards. Dealers are not interested in common cards and if they buy them, they will only pay a small fraction of what they will later charge. Some dealers will pay more than 50 percent for very high-end cards. Further complicating the retail/wholesale distinction, some advanced collectors often act and are treated as dealers.

I would reserve “worth” for what a card will bring in an open market such as a well-described eBay offering, or a national show with major collectors and buyers present, or a well-advertised auction. The latter is the venue where the tattoo card sold. Worth is the standard people are talking about when they say they have paid too much or too little for a card or “It is priced for more than it is worth,” or “You got a bargain,” or “It is worth a lot more than that.” For any card, worth is more consistent from place to place than price, but still varies. The worth of a card changes for many reasons. The economy affects worth. A recession can depress the postcard market. Fads and trends affect worth. A particular subject matter or the work of a particular photographer may be very popular for a period and then collectors change their interest and the card’s worth decline.

What about a card’s value? My definition of value has more to do with the inherent quality of a particular card, its esthetic qualities, its historical importance, and its condition and rarity.

How does value relate to price and worth? Most often, cards of value cost more and are worth more but that is not always the case. Some cards of value are overlooked or unappreciated. Their value is latent. Although unrecognized, they have the potential to become highly desired commodities. Before 1890, the beginning of the ascent of real photo cards, real photo view cards were priced lower than printed cards in all buyer venues. They were not worth much. The price and worth were not indicators of their value. With the escalation of the prices of RPPC over the past 20 years, their value has become evident.

When savvy advanced collectors and dealers purchase cards they think about value rather than cost or even worth. They often pay what seem to be outrageously high prices for cards. Other collectors usually have a figure set in their minds as to what they are willing to pay for a card. The amount is based on what they think the price should be or its perceived worth. The “absolute limit” strategy does not always serve collectors well. If collectors are concerned that the price of a card is too high, they should, in the short run, think about whether they can resell it for what they paid for it, its worth. In the long run, they should think about its enduring value, its inherent qualities and its sales potential in the future.

So, what do you think of the purchase of the tattoo card in terms of price, worth and value?