"Condition" in the label business.
I have been asked hundreds of times how condition affects label values, and I have written about this in my books. THERE ARE TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT: ONE IS, CONDITION HAS LITTLE BEARING IF YOU ARE A SERIOUS COLLECTOR. The other is CONDITION IS EVERYTHING.
As a serious historian of labels, and a serious collector, I have hundreds of damaged labels, many soaked off of their wooden boxes, others with folds, tears, pieces missing, rat-poop and water stains, oil saturations, burns, termite holes, worm damage, dry rot and mildew, tape, glue, creases, punctures, and one that were crumpled up into a tiny ball and wadeed-up into oblivion, only to be soaked and relaxed back into a flat condition. I am THRILLED TO HAVE THEM! Because these are SO rare, that to have one in any condition is fantastic. Now, are they worth the same as a mint-condition labels, of course not. They are worth a fraction of retail. Many collectors have damaged labels, because the collect for the love of the labels and not financial gains.
Other collectors, who call themselves "investors" in label art, have grand expectations (and ususlly little knowledge about where labels are found), that every label is found in perfect condition. The tiniest edge tear or fold on an extreme corner sends them into tizzies. One such recent customer recently got mad because a $125 Tom Cat lemon label had some tiny fragments of paper attached to the lowermost right-hand corner in the border, not on the image. I told him the otherwise PERFECT label was in 99.999% perfect shape, and this tiny fibers did not affect the value. There was also an issue over an Indian label from the 1940s, of which, all were found with some minor water-rippling of the paper, since they were all found together and all were the same. He demanded a refund, even though the price had been adjusted accordingly. This comes from the attitude that "I want perfect labels all the time". That's fine, but you will be passing up a lot of fine examples of great labels, because of a minor edge ding or small repair.
I regularly get questions about labels found on boxes, still on the wood. I have purchased hundreds of wood-borne labels, and soaked them off, dried them, repaired or rebuilt them and added them to my archives. I might find a $500. rare citrus label for $20 on a box. I soak it off and keep it. If I tried to sell it, and got $125 for it, that would be fine. Whereas, if it were perfect, it would be worth more. But as an historical document, it is priceless.
FIVE ABSOLUTE RULES OF "LABELDOM" ARE:
1) LABELS ARE WHERE WE FIND THEM AND IN THE CONDITION WE FIND THEM.
2) LABELS ARE PRICED ACCORDINGLY. CONDITION MATTERS ALOT FOR BADLY DAMAGED LABELS, BUT NOT AS MUCH ON "BARELY" DAMAGED LABELS.
3) NOT ALL LABELS CAN EVER BE FOUND IN PERFECT CONDITION. BUT AT GREAT EXPENSE A CONSERVATOR CAN REPAIR THEM.
4) LABELS ON BOXES OR REMOVED FROM THE WOOD ARE WORTH FAR LESS THAN A PERFECT ONE, NO MATTER HOW RARE OR OLD THEY ARE.
5) ALL LABELS SELL FOR THE PRICE AGREED TO BETWEEN A WILLING SELLER AND A WILLING BUYER.
I get people telling me (not asking me, but telling me, ) "I have a lot of labels on boxes and I know they are REALLY valuable." THIS ASSUMES THEY KNOW MORE THAN A THIRTY YEAR AUTHOR AND SELLER OF LABELS. I tell them, "these are actually in pretty poor condition and need restoration efforts. Then they may be worth $25-45 each on ebay." The people respond, "Oh NO, I have seen a few of these in the Internet for $400 apiece. These are the same labels aren't they?" Yes, but not in anywhere near the same condition.
A classic example is Strength Brand Oranges from Santa Paula. The label features a rhino on it, not the familiar elephant many folks have seen. The MINT version of Strength with the elephant sells usually between $35 and $75 depending on the dealer. It was used between 1937 and 1954. However, during about 1950-1952, a different art-work was used, featuring a rhino instead of the elephant. In MINT condition one sold on ebay in 2005 for $198. I have seen them sell elsewhere for $200-300.in MINT perfect condition. On the other hand, I have soaked about a dozen of these off boxes over the years, and cleaned them, repaired them, even used a color copy of my mint one, to replace missing artwor to complete the label. These have sold between $25 and 55. A poor condition one with the elephant may not sell for $20.
In another example, I found once 12 Uncle Tom's apple labels, featuring a young boy with a knife in his hand, rolling up his sleeve, whistling, and "eyeing" a big apple in a tree. It is a fantastic image, and so rare only 12 are known to exist. All of them had a tiny piece of the lower right corner border missing, barely noticable. The label is worth $450 or more. One fellow argued that because of the tiny damage he should get it for $100. I told him all 12 were like that, so he passed on them. That is his choice. But because the label was SO rare and only a few existed, condition meant very little in this case. Now, if they had a big fold down the center, they should be worth less, right? Not really, because people were lined up to get them, so they all sold or traded for a higher price.
So, in RARE labels, condition matters less than in common labels. I have found three Eva Pear labels in my career, all had either stains or tape or folds. But that label is SO rare, the damage is moot. Would I pay $500 for them, no. But, $300 would still be reasonable.
I have, over the years, found and gathered about 2-1/2 million bulk labels in warehouses and packing sheds. I have found cases of 6,000 labels each, and three bundles are water stained, so off they go to the dump. They are worthless. They are so common and sell for under $5.00 each, that bothering with damaged ones is a waste of time and space. I have also put aside damaged common labels and given whole boxes of them to school art-departments and such. In the world of common labels, there are about 3,000 brands and types available for under $20 from several U.S. states. Condition is moot, because they are all in good shape and cheap.
In RARE labels it is very different. A rare label, of which all were found in mildly damaged states of condition, may all still command a high price because of their rarity and desirability. A rare label with very minor edge wear or slightly wavy paper, may not be discounted much. Rare is rare, and condition is not always as much a factor.
After acquiring the basement of a major litho house in San Francisco, it turned out hundreds of really rare citurs labels were found to have paper remnants on the back from being glued to big sheets. Many had date stamps and writing on the face of them. However, they are all so rare, it barely effected their value. Now, they are not worth 100% of the rare price, but 90% was okay. So people argued, "if it has writing on it, I should get it for 30% of the retail." To them I say, "I can't sell it for that, so best of luck finding a perfect one."
Recently a collection of rare vegetable labels was found. The owner, had taken beautiful and rare 7x10 vegetable labels and glued them back to back, punched holes in the side and put them in a binder. The mint labels would have been worth $100 apiece or more. But they were all glued to each other randomly, back to back. This should destroy the value, because the glue is not water-soluable and they cannot be detached from each other. Nonetheless, they sold for $30 a pair anyway. And, if investment in conservation can separate them back into original singles, they will be worth a great deal more.
In the rare label world, just as in the stamp or coin business, condition plays a role, but less and less of a roll, the rarer the material is! Rarer material is more valuable generally, and so condition is less of an arguing point for this level of material. I once saw a label soaked off a box, repaired with tape and re-touched for colors, with felt-pens! It sold for $300. Why, because it was unbelievably rare and had a gorgeuos girl on it, and was from this particular collectors home town... he didn't care about the damage, he WANTED that label.
There are dozens of dynamics to condition. If you really want to understand it, ask a stamp or coin dealer to explain it to you. They know all about condition affecting values, and have myriad price guides explaining it all until you are dizzy with the details. I always refer to Rule 5) above when I have a question about condition.....
If you are interested in more information about this subject, I have written extensively about it in my Millennium Guide to Fruit Crate Labels. I have bought, sold, traded, discovered, repaired hundreds-of-thousands of labels in the past 30 years, and dealt with thousands of people in 23 states and 11 countries, including museums, dealers, collectors, re-sellers, and so forth, and have seen labels of every age, rarity, value and condition. I have written collector's guides to label art since the early 1990s and sold thousands of them, including price guides to 10,000 available labels from America, Canada, Spain, Australia and elsewhere. I am also familiar with the worlds of stamps and coins and other collectibles. It is hard to put into words all that experience, as every item and deal is different. But the basic laws of supply and demand apply in labels as anywhere else. If you don't like the price of an item due to its condition, don't buy it. But, be aware, you may never see another on in better condition!
You can also talk to other dealers about how THEY view condition and how it affects prices. You can also email me with your questions and I will do my best to answer them. Happy Collecting!! -- Pat
(Last update: 9/06)