According to British film publication Empire Magazine, today’s most expensive comic book is the Detective Comics (DC) No. 27 issue, the one in which the character of Batman makes his first appearance. DC was initially an anthology of stories in the hard-boiled detective genre that first saw print in 1938, but in May, 1939, the Caped Crusader burst into Gotham City to solve “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and launch himself onto our collective conscience as the most popular masked vigilante of the graphic fiction world. Valued at US$ 2.57 million, this priceless heirloom originally sold for a mere US$ 0.10 in comic stands, and there could be less than 100 copies today, not too many of which would be authenticated by the Certified Guaranty Co. (CGC), the world’s leading professional comic book grading institute, as “Very Fine” or “Mint,” let alone “Platinum,” or Nos. 8.0, 9.9 and 10.0 on the grading scale. A “Mint”-graded specimen would require near-perfect status – pristine condition, flat cover with no surface wear, high ink reflectivity, square-cut corners, no soiling, no creases, no discoloration, and just the subtlest of bindery or printing defects.
But even assuming that one had a DC No. 27 today with only a “Good” rating, No. 2 on the CGC scale and suggestive of substantial wear due to over-reading, that copy could still conceivably fetch well over US$ 100,000 at an auction. Now here’s the heartbreaking news – in 1960, at six years old, I held a DC No. 27 issue in my very hands, reading it repeatedly from cover to cover, and beginning what would be a permanent fascination, even a magnificent obsession, with Batman. At such a juvenile age, I could not have predicted that the Dark Knight would rise to superhero stardom, and so my copy suffered the ignominious fate of perhaps 90% of the world’s ephemera – books, magazines, cards, photographs, letters, tickets, newspapers and other paper documents – it was swept in the dustbin of history. It was, as they say, tragi-comic.
The etymological root of the word “ephemera” is interesting. In the late 14th century, it was originally a medical term, from the Medieval Latin ephemera, or a “fever that lasts only a day.” The meaning was extended later to include short-lived insects or flowers. The Greek equivalent ephemeroi, or “men” literally means “creatures of a day.” So in the world of collecting, ephemera refers to items (usually made of paper or board) that are meant to last for only a short period of time – like comic books soon to be replaced by the next issue, train tickets good for only that day, advertisements for products which become obsolete, letters written to express the emotions of the moment, or photographs that capture a person’s image at a particular time. For a variety of reasons, some ephemera eventually become valuable. Maybe the original writer became a famous figure, maybe the document assumed historical importance, or maybe the item reflected a bygone era for which there is a feeling of nostalgia. Rarity, desirability, condition, collectors’ demand and overall significance can combine to raise the value of a simple curio or memento far beyond the original cost. Look at these recent examples:
- “The Bay Psalm Book,” a translation of Biblical psalms, which was first printed by Puritan settlers in Massachusetts in 1640, was sold for US$ 14.2 million (opening bid was US$ 6.0 million) at Sotheby’s in 2010, making this mythical rarity, supposedly unseen by the market for over two generations, the world’s costliest book. This figure surpassed the previous world record of US$ 11.5 million for John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
- The one-cent 1856 British Guinea magenta stamp, at 1 inch x 1.25 inch described as the Mona Lisa of the stamp world, is expected to fetch upwards of BP 12.0 million when it goes under the gavel in June this year. Commissioned as a limited-edition issue by the postmaster in that South American colony (because the shipment of British stamps did not arrive and, like a proper bureaucrat, he feared the disruption of mail service), the future acquirer of this singular – no other example exists – but otherwise unremarkable-looking specimen is described by a Sotheby’s official as having “completed the philatelic equivalent of conquering Mt. Everest.”
- An extremely rare (only 57 remain to date) 1909 baseball card with the picture of Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner was sold for US$ 2.8 million in 2007. Wagner was famously against smoking, and when tobacco companies printed so-called cigarette cards like his, and used them to stiffen cigarette packaging, the baseball Hall-of-Famer insisted on their recall, hence dramatically increasing their market value.
There is a narrow line that separates valuable and next-to-worthless ephemera – the aphorism that “one man’s treasure is another man’s trash” could not be more appropriate. The object of one’s desire could equally be the object of another’s disdain. For the ephemerist (a collector of ephemera), the value of an item is quite often linked with his individual private experience, and the connection he feels with something that would otherwise be meaningless to his friends and the public-at-large, or even worthless to the untrained eye. Museums, libraries and archives seek to conserve culture and history in a broad context, but for the relic rummagers, the significance of treasures that speak to them on a personal level far outweighs the market values. “It’s not about the money.” Carrie Conaway writes, “The act of acquiring their (collectors’) objects of desire has a value in and of itself, one that at least equals any potential financial gain they might receive.”
Consider these memorabilia – their record-shattering market prices to ephemerists on the one hand, and their personal worth and sentimental value to the individual collector on the other:
** With apologies to Lloyd C. Douglas, who wrote the 1929 novel “Magnificent Obsession,” which was first made into a film in 1938, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne, then re-made in 1954, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.