Correction to This Article
This article misstated the first name of Cary Jung, founder of the Obama chapter of the American Political Items Collectors.
Obama Collectors' Quandary: T-Shirt Or Bobblehead?

By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The glut of President Obama merchandise is confounding collectors who are unsure how to discern the gems from the junk.

Purchase a "Hope" poster by artist Shepard Fairey or a dancing doll? A papier-mâché statue or a presidential dog tag? Investing wisdom says scarcity increases value. But with Obama merchandise everywhere, questions abound.

Skilled collectors, like novices, usually buy what they like, said Larry Krug, co-owner of Americana Resources, an antiques and collectibles company based in Gaithersburg. But, he said, they are more patient.

"If you went down around the Mall after inauguration, you could have bought up an awful lot of stuff very reasonable. But most of it is not going to go up in value in any great degree," Krug said. "For serious collectors, we say wait six months until after the campaign to start collecting, because by that time, if things are worth collecting, they'll still be around and still be available."

The guessing game over the future value of Obama collectibles is the latest twist on the century-old American tradition of buying and selling political memorabilia, especially those linked to a U.S. president. It is fueled these days by protracted national campaigns, state-by-state stumping and collectors' and retailers' impulses to capitalize on a good thing.

Some people have done well for themselves.

Almost 1 million people paid $19.99 for the "Obama Victory" commemorative plate, according to Telebrands, the company that created it. Dulles-based GeoEye took a satellite image of the Inauguration Day crowd on the Mall. The image was downloaded about a million times; a poster retails for $29.99. The U.S. Postal Service cashed in, too, upping the print run for its inaugural commemorative souvenir. The Post and other newspapers have sold commemorative editions and photo books to extend the life of their products beyond a one-day headline.

And then there are the edibles.

"What to do with Obama inaugural mints?" one hobbyist asked last month on the Facebook group for American Political Items Collectors, wondering whether the mints should be eaten or saved. Save them, came one response, and then a pressing follow-up: "Are the mints wrapped with individual Obama-themed paper or foil?"

Collectors run the gamut. Some collect items from a specific president, such as California campaign buttons for Ronald Reagan. Others go for items related to civil rights or women's suffrage. The tradition stretches to the 1840 presidential election, in which campaign medals were produced for the contest between Whig candidate William Henry Harrison and Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren, said Al Anderson, an Ohio-based collector for more than 48 years who founded Anderson Americana, an online auction site of political memorabilia.

"The thing with our race being so long, there was much more time to produce this stuff," he said. "If you like history, government or politics, it's a natural to collect. It really tells the story of America."

Right now, no story is hotter than Obama.

Anderson recently saw intense bidding over a campaign button with the words, "Barack Obama State Senator 13th District," referring to his run for the Illinois General Assembly. Its minimum bid, $600, was the highest of 2,600 catalog items. It sold for $3,683. Anderson said the item could emerge as a "classic." By comparison, he said, a 1799 George Washington funeral medal sold last month in an online auction for $3,740. "It wasn't just Obama fever that drove up the price," Anderson said. "It was long-term, knowledgeable collectors bidding."

When Amazon created an Obama store on its Web site last month, company officials were surprised to see a $13.95 Obama action figure emerge as a top seller. It represents a potential shift from buying for pleasure to collecting, said Amazon spokeswoman Stephanie Robinett. "An Obama T-shirt, you might wear and wash, but a small item that can remain boxed and sit on a shelf will be better suited as a collectible," she said.

An Obama chapter of the American Political Items Collectors, whose members are dedicated to preserving items related to political campaigns, sprung up after the election. Their motto -- "We're fired up and ready to go" -- is borrowed from the campaign. They're 40 members and growing, said founder Cary Jung, 54, who lives in Sacramento. He said members are looking for unique items from the campaign and its official vendors. They're also looking through the almost 25,000 Obama items listed on eBay. Washington area members will convene in Tysons Corner for a conference next month.

"Right now the Obama market is really hard to gauge because of all of the items," said Jung, a longtime John F. Kennedy collector. "Serious collectors are staying out of the market until it quiets down."

Determining value will take time, said Will Seippel, founder and chief executive of WorthPoint, a Web site that uses community and expert feedback to help people determine how much their antiques and collectibles might be worth.

"Look for personal items from prior to the Democratic nomination," he said, "or you could go back to his state career or his career in Congress and you can probably get some good items. I'd be looking around flea markets."

And what about those seemingly ubiquitous Obama T-shirts?

Bahman Shafa recently folded and refolded stacks of them inside his political souvenir store in downtown Washington. He moved in under a temporary lease in the fall, and traffic has been steady. Inauguration week brought lines and ringing cash registers. On a recent afternoon, there was a dribble of customers. Some took pictures with the life-size Obama cardboard cutout. One man inquired about phone cards, which Shafa doesn't sell.

He's running a half-price sale. But he's betting the Obama market will remain hot in the long term. So he's keeping the store.

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