November 29, 2010

Hucksterism in our hobby

Who would you rather buy from? A huckster? Or someone who treats you as something more than a brain stem? Speaking for myself, I try to avoid buying from hucksters when I can. I prefer buying from reputable sellers who don’t shout at me from the tops of their lungs.

And hucksters love to shout. They love words like “** WOW **” and “L@@K” because they grab attention. Never mind that they say absolutely nothing.

Regardless of their methods for attracting attention, hucksters are predisposed to overstate and oversell. When they do that, they unwittingly get themselves into trouble. Hucksters may understand selling techniques, but they never seem to understand collectors. They simply do not realize that collectors spend tremendous effort in studying the nuances of their hobbies. I am absolutely convinced that when they under-estimate their market and over-sell their products, hucksters sell less than they could by more forthright methods.

In our hobby, hucksters tend to focus their over-selling and over-valuation in four key areas:

1) Rarity. “RARE” is the promotional king of all buzz words concern collectibles. It is our hobby’s most over-used term. Isn’t it odd that some hucksters sell nothing but rare certificates? Isn’t it odd that they offer inexhaustible supplies of rare certificates and yet manage to sell them for such meager amounts? Shouldn’t rare certificates sell for more than ten or twenty dollars?

2) Autographs. The second most popular way of overselling certificates to promote autographs from unknown and unimportant people. Just because people were elected to political offices or promoted to elevated military ranks means nothing if those people did not leave lasting effects on a nation, a state or an industry. Let’s face numerical facts: there is a good reason why only a miniscule percentage of autographs are valuable. Over 2,500 men achieved the rank of “general” in the Civil War. Over 2,300 people have served as governors of states and territories. Thousands have served in the United States Senate and House of Representatives and fifty (!) times as many have served in similar capacities in state legislatures. How many tens of thousands of people have served in high appointed positions and as corporate executives? Hucksters want their targets to overlook the obvious question: “How can all those people be celebrities?”

3) Low serial numbers. eBay sellers frequently promote certificates with “low” serial numbers, without any knowledge of what “low” means. They never seem to care that the lowest serial number for some varieties might be 5000 or that the serial number they are promoting may, in fact, represent the highest number ever recorded for that variety. Over-promoting low serial numbers ignores a confirmed reality: European collectors seldom pay premiums for serial numbers higher than #3. U.S. collectors often refuse to pay premiums even for #1 certificates.

4) Historical significance. I once saw an eBay seller compile a 4000-word dissertation about a railroad company whose certificates seldom sell for more than $20. He was obviously trying to convince buyers that his certificates were more valuable because the company was so important. Did he not realize that there is almost no relationship between historical significance and certificate values? Sometimes, low-issue certificates from barely-known companies are more valuable than those from important companies of great longevity. Sometimes the inverse is true.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not equating advertising with hucksterism. Our hobby needs and in fact depends on truthful advertising. Hucksterism, on the other hand, embraces exaggeration and over-statement and sometimes treads dangerously close to deception. Hucksters will always be part of the landscape when buying and selling collectibles. They are not going away. However, I am unconvinced that it is necessary to resort to hucksterism in order to sell certificates.