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From heartstrings to purse strings: nostalgia's pull on the art market

Sometimes the wistful memory of time long past is all one needs to spend a few hundred thousand.

This sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. recently sold for $660,000 at auction. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish economist Adam Smith says people who buy and sell goods purely in their own self-interest ultimately benefit the greater good, even if they did not intend to, as if they were “led by an invisible hand”. What are the odds this hidden appendage is also pulling at their heartstrings?

Recent auction house sales, including a copy of the oldest sealed hangtab Super Mario Bros. that sold at Heritage earlier this month for $660,000, more than five times the previous record for a copy of the game, and an unopened box of Pokémon cards that hammered at more than $400,000, would say yes.

“I do think the activity we are seeing in this market is fuelled by nostalgia, and people wanting to go back, as adults, to collect the things they loved as children,” says Valarie McLeckie, Video Games Director at Heritage Auctions.

There is no typical buyer, according to the experts at Heritage, with clients coming from multiple generations, professions, and sexes. The only conditions are disposable income and that surge of excitement that courses through the body when one sees something they just cannot live without.

There also is not a typical item that appeals to all collectors. For some it is video games, for others animation cells. Original comic book art is also a big draw, but sometimes the items that bring in the highest price are not those you would expect. “Typically, the pages that sell for the most are the ones that have the most well-known characters,” says Barry Sandoval, the Vice President of our Comics and Comic Art at Heritage. “Batman fighting the Joker, for example. But now and then we’ll have pages that far surpass what we estimated based on the content. We’ll talk to the winning bidder later and sometimes it’s just as simple as, ‘That was the first coming I had when I was seven years old.’’’

What’s next? Not even the experts are sure. McLeckie says there has been strong growth in market for video game consoles, with interest piquing in the Nintendo Game Cube, which was produced in the early 2000s. But collecting activity around consoles correlates with the generations who grew up playing them. Game Cube players are not quite there yet, she says. When asked what the equivalent to a sealed hangtab Super Mario Bros or Pokémon cards would be for the upcoming generation of collectors, Sandoval says: “Well, we never thought comics from the 1980s and 90s would be valuable because so many were produced, but even some common issues have increased in value. That’s a great question: what’s the next frontier? I guess that would behove us to find that out before others do so we can get in on the ground floor of it.”