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What to do when your collectibles become collapsibles

The media loves the little-guy-made-good stories, where the comic book bought by a kid for a few cents is now worth thousands of dollars. If you had the foresight to buy and hold a 1950 VW Kombi with the prized 23 windows, you have not only enjoyed 70 years of driving (and repairing) but it may now fetch half a million dollars. A pair of Michael Jordan game-worn Nike sneakers recently sold for a sneaker record of US$615,000, while Star Wars action figures produced before 1985 can fetch up to $10,000.

These examples of how a few made a lot create an impression that almost anything old and ‘collectible’ will be bought by someone if the holder waits long enough.

But for every sought-after basketball card, there is a ‘collector’ Olympic pin nobody wants. For every vintage Super Mario video game, there is a ‘collectible’ photo of Shane Warne taking his 300th test wicket sitting idly on eBay. And don’t think your collection of old first-day covers in a stamp album in the attic is a part of your retirement income strategy. With a few exceptions, there is little demand for most ordinary stamp collections as a check on eBay or Gumtree will confirm.

And then there is my once-valuable and loved mint collection of phonecards which only one person in Australia really wants, and that’s not me. More on that later.

Yes, there are many success stories

In all bubbles and manias, popularity initially creates its own momentum. Buyers beget buyers, especially in an age of social media where minor celebrities can have a million followers. But they quickly move on, and so do their fans.

The reason stamp collecting has lost its lustre is that few people send stamped letters. Where once a letter covered in exotic stamps from an uncle or auntie living overseas drove enthusiasm for the hobby, now an email or text is received to celebrate a birthday. Most schools had stamp-collecting clubs which created a buzz, but it's now more likely to be a video game.

Collecting items goes in and out of fashion, and the secret to making money is to stay ahead of the wide adoption and not get caught when the excitement dies down. Two examples of products that have experienced a renaissance are Pokémon cards and Lego.

Pokémon cards from the late 1990s and early 2000s were originally exchanged in schools based on the successful Nintendo video game. It then died, but interest has been revived by leading YouTube influencers taking part in ‘unboxings’ of sealed cards. During COVID, people have more time to follow these celebrities and jump on the bandwagon. There is also a rumour that Pikachu, a Pokémon character, will be a mascot at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

In 2003, the Danish company, Lego, was struggling with massive debts and declining markets when it made a strategic change away from simple bricks for buildings into ‘toys-to-life’, where action figures relating to movies or games were issued in Lego sets. The most collectible sets are the early Star Wars editions, and an unopened Millennium Falcon from 2007, part of the Ultimate Collector’s Series, can now fetch thousands of dollars. Many other Lego classics have also appreciated as part of the overall Lego revival, helped by the television programme, Lego Masters, which is a global hit and a big success in Australia.

Perhaps the most famous of all collectibles, at the point where significance and scarcity meet, is the 1938 Action Comic No. 1, featuring Superman’s debut. There are only about 100 surviving copies, and in mint condition, it can fetch over US$3 million. As a sign of its appreciation, sales have been recorded for $US82,000 in 1992, $US150,000 in 1997 and US$2.2 million in 2011.

The rise and fall of the phonecard frenzy

Not all these stories end well financially, but most can end happily.

Telecom (now Telstra) began issuing phonecards to operate their public pay phones in 1989. This was pre mobile phones and while most people with homes had a landline, pay phones on the street were still popular. Some people could not afford their own phone, while renters did not bother with a connection, and it was common to see queues at pay phones as people waited impatiently for others to finish.

Telecom issued standard, plain phonecards with their simple logo and prepaid values up to $50, but soon realised collectors would be far more interested in editions and series with different themes. Thousands of people started collecting phonecards, used or mint, and it became a lucrative service offered by stamp and coin dealers.

Cards issued in mint packs included sporting heroes, events such as Australia Day and the Grand Prix, state series, and cards issued by companies and organisations – the list was endless. Serious amateur collectors and professional dealers published catalogues of cards and prices, and for a few years, it developed into a serious hobby to rival stamps and coins.

The most prized card pack of all, as shown below in a price list from 1992, was the South Australia mint pack in the state series. I remember buying it for $90 after walking from dealer to dealer looking for a pack. Most had sold out, and the market went crazy, peaking at over $1,250.

Serious money was being made. Here are the cards in the South Australia pack, with a face value of $44.

I rarely bought in the secondary market, preferring to acquire almost everything that Telecom issued, sometimes in multiple packs, convinced their value would rise as scarce editions sold out quickly. I did not go into the international phonecard game where the range, demand and supply were infinite. Japan in particular had a massive phonecard bubble.

I arranged my cards into neat folders and categories. Now when I think back, I realise I was in my mid-thirties and it’s embarrassing to consider how much time the hobby consumed. I was hooked on the thrill of collecting, of obtaining everything, and the future investment potential. My recollection is that I spent about $3,000 on cards (don’t tell my wife) which at one stage had at least doubled in value.

I had a lot of fun and I became an expert in Australian phonecards for a few years. A serious collector issued a monthly newsletter which became compulsory reading.

The technology changed by 1998 and pay phones no longer accepted phonecards. The first 1G mobile phone was introduced by Telecom in 1987 (and retailed for $4,250) although the iPhone was not released until 2007. During the 1990s, mobile phones gradually made their way into more hands, reducing demand for pay phones.

The serious collector market for phonecards collapsed from about 1994, and it never came back. Long before then, I had lost interest, and my collection went into the attic. I’d like to say it was a strategic decision to park them until they increased in value, but with my children showing no interest, the cards went the same way as old mobile phones, dated pairs of glasses or souvenirs from an overseas trip. They sit in a bottom drawer, and for some reason, we cannot bring ourselves to throw them out, and they gather dust as the years roll by.

Discovering my phonecard collection again

In my case, for at least 25 years until a few months ago, and I was not even sure where I had stored them. Then we sold our home of 30 years and started clearing out all the storage spaces. And there was my prized collection, neatly wrapped in plastic bags, the cards as good as the day they were minted.

There was no point moving them to our new place, so what was the best way to deal with them? Sell them, of course.

Telstra (ex Telecom) had stopped buying them back 10 years ago. As I looked through them again, I was reminded how much I had spent. Noting that 1993 dollars were worth twice what they are now, many pristine cards held $50 of stored value. I found some of my favourite cards, once treasured with their beautiful presentation boxes and packages. And there was South Australia, itself once worth $3,000 in today’s money.

So I hopped onto eBay and Gumtree to check my riches. I knew they had fallen in value, but I did not realise most were almost worthless. South Australia pack for sale at $20, no bids. Mint cards for $2 and $5. Bags of used cards, the lot for $20. No buyers.

And I had hundreds of cards. There was no way I could be bothered listing them and waiting for a bid, or responding to questions, and then posting them to a buyer (if one existed).

I rang a few stamp dealers who once dealt in phonecards. Each said the same. With few exceptions, there was little demand, they were not worth bothering with, the market has collapsed. So much for my precious. 

And then along came John Quick, and the solution was right before my eyes.

Forget the money, make someone happy

I Googled 'Phonecard collecting' and the name of the President of the Australian Phonecard Collectors Club (APCC) came up. I emailed John, and he promptly replied, saying that while there are still a few motivated people adding to their collections, prices are very low. He already had an extensive collection but would be willing to pay for cards he was missing. He did not know anybody in Sydney or NSW who was looking for the more common mint packs, and he lived in Adelaide. It would hardly be worth mailing my cards to him in the hope he would buy a few.

Then an idea came to me. Later in the year, I would be attending a wedding in Adelaide. How about I take all my phonecards with me and just give them to him. Gratis. John was happy to meet, indeed, pick me up at the airport, and I would show him my cards over dinner at his place.

Come the appointed day, I packed all my cards into the biggest suitcase I could find. I was amazed at the quantity and weight. It came in at 22kg, a smidgen under the weight allowance for the flight.

At Adelaide Airport, John arrived in his little blue Suzuki to pick me up. He saw my suitcase and carry-on baggage, and pointing to the case, he said:

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Full of phonecards.”

“Oh dear. My wife will kill me.”

The case filled his car boot and we drove to his house while we had my first chat about phonecards for a quarter of a century. At his home, his wife greeted me at the door with a friendly smile, until she saw the suitcase.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked.

I soon learned she had tolerated her husband’s collecting for decades while taking little interest in it herself. But they were both mad Port Adelaide AFL supporters, so I pretended I knew what that meant and the ice thawed.

Still, taking out all the phonecards was a shock. I had forgotten how much I had accumulated. We spread them over the dining table, and John was thrilled to see them, as shown below. Like a kid in a lolly shop, I had found the most passionate collector of Australian phonecards in the world.

But then a worrying pattern unfolded. He already owned nearly everything I had brought, and in some cases, I had multiple copies of the same item. He started to pick out a few cards, the ones he wanted, such as hard-to-find cards from a Bowral Tulip Festival. Those he absolutely loved, but had he misunderstood the reason for my trip?

“John, you do realise that I’m giving you all this, don’t you? I didn’t lug 22kg of phonecards from Sydney to Adelaide just so you could pick out a couple.”

His wife looked skeptical. Was she wondering if this was a setup of some type? Did he even want them? I reassured them there was no catch, they could keep the cards with a face value of thousands of dollars for free, to give me the satisfaction of knowing they had gone to a good home.

And so we enjoyed dinner, talked cards and football and he explained how once the APCC served over 300 members doing a thriving trade and holding regular meetings and auctions. Now there were maybe a dozen people seriously involved, including a few with massive collections. Websites are maintained with extensive historical records but it's not enough to generate new interest.

Satisfaction all round, I left everything behind and headed for my hotel.

Over the next few days, John emailed me each day on how much he was enjoying going through my cards. He wrote:

“Sorted through your cards and have put them into order of issue. Am still wrapped to have filled the gap with the Bowral Tulip Festival cards. Have sold a few of your cards to a collector friend of mine. Am sussing out some of the APCC members to see if anybody might be interested in me auctioning off some of your packs early next year. Could you please send me your banking details and any monies I am able to raise. I will happily send you the funds. I'm just so happy that you were prepared to go to so much trouble for me to be given first look at what you had available. As I have said previously, it was a real pleasure meeting you.”

I don’t want the money, it was a great result as is.

Are there any lessons about collecting?

Financially, I lost a few thousand dollars, but I enjoyed the thrill of the chase in keeping my collection complete and studying the market. So the first lesson must be that you need to enjoy the actual collecting and not consider it solely as an investment.

Second, however, if it is an investment, watch for signs of interest waning and be prepared to sell, even if you miss the peak. There’s a good chance that collectors will move on to another exciting trend, especially when there is little rationale for follow-up demand. Phonecards died because the technology was replaced and people stopped using them. The ability to generate new demand comes with the ongoing Star Wars franchise, the nostalgia for old cars like the Kombi, or the legendary status of Michael Jordan. Stamps are facing the same ignominy as phonecards, although they have 200 years of history to support the hobby.

I ask myself if I collected simply for the pleasure itself or if there was always a money incentive. If I’m honest, there was a financial motivation, and part of my enjoyment was the rapidly-rising value. I made the mistake of assuming the hobby would continue to grow. John is different. He loves the cards and collecting for what they are, and his forensic attention to cataloguing his cards has become a major part of his retirement. He showed me his database and spreadsheets, part of which is shown below, and he clearly lives by a higher calling than my motivations.

And the final lesson is that there is always someone out there who will love your collection more than you do, even if they do not need to pay for it. Find them and make them happy, before Pokémon Go becomes Pokémon Gone.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks.


The Bludger
December 23, 2022

The same pattern existed for Antique furniture. How many antique stores do you see these days? No one wants them for collecting or utility. Too small and fussy. But at least they offer some utility and failing that combustible material.

What about collections that cost significant money to hold, how will they fair in a high interest environment. Will changing tastes, budgets or technology ever trigger the 911 bubble to pop?

John Quick
November 13, 2022

Dear reader, I still cannot believe the generosity of Graham and often go back and follow the stories of other collectors. I have been very fortunate that I have had quite a few collections gifted to me since this article was printed. Collecting offers so many positives including meeting like minded people who share the passion.

Not everything is about money .I still get a buzz from finding that elusive card or two which has been sent to me by people who are down sizing or have simply lost the interest and passion of collecting.

Of course, there are many who are no longer with us but there are still people out there who go to the trouble to seek out collectors and move collections on. Better to move things on than to see them go into land fill.

Happy collecting to all you collectors out there Cheers......John

December 22, 2022

Hi i have two small stories. 1. My mother collected first day covers for over 20 years. She spent a lot of money on them. When she passed away my brother and i did not know what to do with them except seal them. So we looked on Ebay, Gum Tree etc and found that they are not worthless but near enough to it. Currently they just sit 'in the attic'. 2. my partner collects Doctor Who figurines and collectibles. he now has 4 large boxes (and counting) with over 178 of them he has never opened the boxes. He hopes they will be worth something in the future.

May 31, 2022

Love this story! It has also helped in my family’s investigation in the the phonecards as we recently came in to a lot of thousands of cards due to a death in the family. We are looking to sell them on but can’t quite get a reading on them currently. Help is needed! ??

Graham Hand
May 31, 2022

Hi Joscelyn. Two choices in my experience. Put them on ebay or Gumtree and wait for a paltry offer. This depends on how much value your place on your time. Or find someone who still loves phone cards, and make them happy.

Ex Stamp girl
January 18, 2021

Hi Graham. I enjoyed reading this article and comments very much. I can relate as I was into stamp collecting as a school girl. It didn’t cost me anything other than the cost of nice stamp albums. I can’t say the same for my husband who is an occasional collector of comics and Lego Star Wars series which I would find stashed away in unexpected areas of the house due to the bulky nature. *eyeroll* These days I “collect” shares as my portfolio holds too many companies and I am still learning the art of taking profit rather than holding for too long. As with collectibles, it is much easier to acquire and keep than to let go.

January 16, 2021

I think that the value in any collection is the joy that it brings to the collector, regardless of whether it is worth anything. THAT is the best thing. To play the game is win the game is love the game is best, whatever your "game" is.

January 14, 2021

I am a big collector of DVDs, in particular Spaghetti Westerns, Euro-Crime, Italian Giallo and obscure 1970s cult films. Many have been sourced from overseas collecters and have never been released on VHS and DVD let alone on a streaming platform.
As a 62 year old part- retiree I love my collecting and am not in it for any financial gain. However, I do often wonder how I could ever dispose of my collection if and when the need ever rises. My collectibles are undoubtedly more obscure than phone cards.

January 14, 2021

That is a great article because I love phone cards. What started as phone cards soon spread to all forms of calling cards. If by any chance you have a pic of the Bowral tulip card would love to see it.

January 15, 2021

Hi Amit If you provide me with your email address I will gladly send you photos of the 2 Bowral Tulip Festival cards-Cheers.

PS : Still can't get the smile off my face after filling those two gaps in my collection. John

January 14, 2021

I refer to my previous comment. Just in case anyone is in doubt about whether collectbles of any kind are a good investment, please note that there are considerable head winds to actually making a profit. I wrote above about the sale of a very rare Roman gold coin. Most auctioneers of such material charge a 20% premium to buyers. Assuming that the hammer price is the market value, you are immediately down with a 20% capital loss. Then there is the tax. In London and the EU, the tax is 20% VAT on the premium if you take delivery there, so actually you are down 24% on the hammer price. If on the other hand you wanted to have it sent to Australia, assuming you get past the cultural heritage laws, you would be excused the VAT, but would be charged 10% GST on the whole lot, so actually down 30% capital loss, worse than driving a new car out of the showroom. You also need to put a lot of effort in studying the market, you need a good library, and you have to be awfully keen, not trusting any "expert" to do it for you. Otherwise, stick to the share market where the buy/sell premium is very small, if you just want to make money.

January 14, 2021

Great story! I had a good schoolfriend who used to buy newly minted phonecard sets in the early 1990s - neatly arranged into thick binders. I'd often look over them with mild interest back in the day, astonished at the value he claimed them to be worth. I lost contact with the friend and had often wondered what happened to his collection over the years - having read this I suspect they are in his attic!

Peter Thornhill
January 13, 2021

The definition of speculation is: "To undertake commercial transactions involving serious risk for the sake of possible large winnings, especially to buy and sell in the hope of profiting from fluctuating prices, sometimes in an antisocial way".

David Phillips
January 13, 2021

I started collecting railway tickets around Adelaide at 10 years old, I am now 53. You may remember the classic old rectangular cardboard issues known as "Edmondsons" named after the inventor. You were sold these tickets for the journey, no matter what town, city, state or country you were in, worldwide. Feebay bought new life to the hobby that was largely dead, if you check Feebay now, and click the worldwide option, every day there is around 15,000 to 16,000 constant listings. Rare items, say from colonial north east Asia, the Middle East, Africa etc can now reach up to 1200 dollars each. Tickets from say, the South Australian perspective, if you found a Eudunda to Kapunda second or first class single, 70 dollars is yours! I have two rooms piled high with albums from most of the world going back to the 1860's or thereabouts. And the collection is still only half finished in it's organisation.

January 13, 2021

Very nicely told. It all made sense when you mentioned he was a Port Adelaide supporter. ??

January 13, 2021

Real boys collected coins. Coins that my daughters don't want.
Glad I did not show them my boy scout blanket with 1971 Jamboree badges on it!!

Graham W
December 24, 2022

Any pre decimal silver coins are worth a lot in silver value. A round silver 50 cent coin is worth well over $10 in silver value.

January 13, 2021

In the 90s I started buying new stamp issues and, like you, spent too much time and money on them, but I never really had any end-game goals of cashing in big time, maybe handing them down the generations? When I made the realisation that this wasn’t going to happen, I listed the mint stuff on eBay for barely face value, and I think perhaps the used ones (lovingly soaked from torn envelops) are still sitting around in a cupboard somewhere. L

January 13, 2021

Graham, An absolute ripper of an article Graham, and a real joy to read, especially about how you were able to ‘spread the joy’ to another collector. Thank you for penning it.

You have captured the joy of collecting perfectly. I, very like you, collected Telecom and Telstra phonecards. I still have them. I also intended cataloguing them to see what I had ‘lost’ (I view them as a financial loss ? )

January 13, 2021

Put a LOT into rare notes and coins in early 2000. The GFC came, some coin dealers went under. The market never recovered to this day. Stuck with a portfolio that nobody wants.

January 13, 2021

Anthony, you are not correct !
I too collect coins. there are lots of coin dealers still out there, that I buy from often enough !
as well as online Auctioneers that you can consign your coins to, eg Downies, Noble Numismatics, Imperial Coins, and others, there are huge on line coin auctions going on in Australia numerous times each year.
do a Google search and discover. the internet has made buying and selling coins, both from dealers and via proper Auctions, so much easier.
and there is always Ebay, where lots of coins are bought and sold, often using reputable dealers who sell on Ebay as well as from their own online stores.
if you have good quality old coins and rare notes they are worth plenty and not that hard to sell.
you will be pleasantly surprised that they are likely worth much more now than in 2000, by looking at results of auctions over the years.

Graham Hand
January 13, 2021

One advantage of coins and notes, assuming they are not bought at a large premium, is that as legal tender, they will always be worth the face value. Telstra simply decided not to honour stored value on phonecards.

January 13, 2021

a 1920 penny does not have any legal tender value, Graham

January 15, 2021

Apparently another is that as coins and notes are legal tender then any gain ( under $500) from selling a note for more than face value is not subject to CGT. Some $5 notes sell for $25 +. Surprisingly, in the UK gold sovereigns are exempt from CGT., presume to stop history being melted down for the gold, no such exemption here which may explain why sovereigns tend to follow the gold price and higher as more people cash in on selling the gold & therefore will become rarer.

January 13, 2021

The golden rule for collectors is "never collect anything made for collectors". The great hobby of numismatics (coin collecting, from about 700BC to now), is flourishing. Nevermore so than now, when there are a whole lot of bored, locked down, rich educated men, without much to do except to bid on coins in internet auctions. A Brutus gold roman aureus, depicting his protrait, with the other side showing a liberty cap, two daggers and the inscription celebrating the assasination of Juius Caesar on the Ides of March was recently sold for 2.7 Million British pounds, plus a 20% buyers premium. Gold value about $800 at most. A good investment? The winning bidder thought so. What history!

January 13, 2021

Great story Graham but are you telling me that I won't be able to get back my 'investment' in my autographed and framed photo of Warney taking his 300th at the SCG! Or Plugger kicking his 1300th goal at the same venue. :(

January 13, 2021

Great story. I am a sucker for "holding onto things". Never made any money but enjoy having things!

January 13, 2021

You spent HOW MUCH on this hobby?

Graham Hand
January 13, 2021

Oops ... that's my wife. Sprung!

January 13, 2021

An excellent, fun article to kick-off this set of 12!!!

When I first started reading the article I was thinking it should have been "collectable" (i.e. something able to be collected) as opposed to "collectible" (i.e. something worth collecting). However, at the end I think both would have been OK. Well done.

I have been collecting stamps for nearly half a century. I started with anything that may or may not have been licked. These days I prefer those from places that no longer exist in their former form. There not really worth much but do provide an insight into modern history.


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