The Amazing, Incredible, Fantastic Investment Market for Rare Comics
Covid-19 has had devastating economic impacts on brick-and-mortar retail property, in-person conventions and other destination events, movie theater traffic, and live-action productions. So why is the alternative investment market for vintage comic books and related memorabilia — which rely on all of those channels for buyer interest and market values — more popular than ever?
In November, for example, a copy of the 1939 Detective Comics #27, one of seven unrestored copies known in existence, featuring the first appearance of Batman, sold at auction in London through Heritage Auctions for $1.5 million. This was the highest price ever paid for a Batman comic book — and particularly noteworthy as the quality of the November 2020 book was a full grade point below the previous record-holding Batman title, a copy of the same issue that sold for $1.075 million in 2020.
On a recent episode of the Investable Universe podcast, we spoke with one eminently well-sourced dealer, Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner of Metropolis Collectibles, the world’s largest vintage comic book dealership as well as ComicConnect.com, the largest online vintage comic auction house.
He and his partner, Stephen Fishler, hold five Guinness World Records for the most expensive comics and related collectibles ever sold. In addition to bringing the comic book collection of famed investor Marc Lasry, founder of special situations investment fund Avenue Capital, to market, with hammer prices far surpassing initial estimates, Metropolis has assisted other high-profile clients in acquiring or selling rare and highly prized comics.
The company’s roster of successful market placements (and sale prices) is mind-boggling to the comically uninitiated, pointing to deepening interest in an alternative investment market that Zurzolo casually estimates at half a billion dollars in annual turnover (independent market size estimates in this famously fragmented marketplace being hard to come by).
“We’ve sold (original prints of) Action Comics number one for $1 million, $1.5 million, $1.75 million, $2,053,000, $2.2 million and over $3 million,” Zurzolo said. “And we also sold the first Silver Age [ed: dating from the 1960’s] comic book… that broke a million dollars. That was amazing. Fantasy 15. The first year of Spider-Man…We sold that for $1.1 million dollars. The previous record for a Silver Age comic book at that point was probably $400,000.”
Metropolis has also bought and sold the world’s most expensive paper check, that being the one written by DC Comics wrote to the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, for the first Superman story in Action Comics: a check that Metropolis later auctioned off for $160,000.
The company has also bought and sold the most expensive American comic superhero comic cover art, which was the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #328, with a cosmically enhanced Cosmic Spider-Man using newly acquired Cosmic Powers to punch the Incredible Hulk into the stratosphere: an art piece that Metropolis bought for $657,000 and sold for $693,000.
The following is an excerpt of the full podcast interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Investable Universe (IU): So generally speaking, what makes a comic book and investible real asset? Does it trade more like an antique or a piece of art or like what separates it from a baseball card?
Vincent Zurzolo: So, the answer is yes, yes and yes. Here’s what has happened: I’ve been in the comic book business for about 35 years, and in 1999 merged companies with my partner, Stephen Fishler. And one of the first things that happened was [that] he pitched a concept of a third-party-graded encapsulated comic book to CCG [Certified Collectibles Group]…the parent company of [collectible coin certifier] NGC [Numismatic Guaranty Corporation]…(and) basically they were very interested in pursuing it. They needed a grading scale to be able to quantify grades of a comic book. Stephen came up with a ten-point grading scale that’s (now) used throughout the world of comic book collecting.
This started us down the road of seeing comic books become more commoditized. Also, the advent of the Internet allowed for a lot more transparency and market information, and obviously competition and demand for comic books in the marketplace. Whereas before, you’d have maybe a print ad or a list, you’d mail out stuff like that. But as soon as you have email and…websites, and you have eBay, you see things start to change dramatically. Now, comic books are so liquid that we’re able to sell them, with just pictures online, as well as based on what current market value information is out there. Once again, in our auctions, oftentimes these prices are exceeded. And so you have to go into the market, which is extremely hot now, especially since the lockdown, believe it or not.
We’re seeing people who are not interested in putting their money in real estate or the stock market. And obviously, you can’t leave your money in the bank anymore, because you make nothing on it. So what they do is pour their money into tangible assets. And I believe there’s two reasons for that. The first reason is obviously to make money. The second reason is [that] there’s a connection there.
This is something that people actually love…Getting a beautiful comic book and adding it to your collection is a really special feeling for collectors as well…and with social media, you can brag about it to the world, so you can put up a picture of you holding your comic book showing and everybody goes, “oooh” and “aaah.”
People love that, as well. There’s a tremendous camaraderie among the comic book collecting community. The other thing that makes comic books unique is the advent of all of the superhero movies over the last 20 years or so…you’re seeing people getting interested in these characters for very different reasons than the typical comic book collector, who might have grown up reading all of those comic books…So you have all these different factors that play into this incredible — I don’t know how to put it any other way — but the market is on fire right now. Yeah. And what was interesting to me is that, if we did this interview at the tail end of 2019, early 2020, I don’t think I would have been saying the same thing. I actually felt like it was starting to lull a little bit…and [reach a] plateau.
IU: So how reliable are comic books as a store of value or how volatile is the market? I mean, do you have to basically be invested in Spider-Man first editions before you can really count on a stable value?.
Vincent Zurzolo: I would say the hard and fast answer is no, you don’t have to just invest in Spider-Man. In fact, there are a lot of collectors who collect by genre. So we have collectors who only collect horror, 1950s horror comic books, which is an incredibly big part of the market. It was big in the late 80s and early 90s and then the prices went up a bit too much and they kind of plateaued. But the last five, 10 years has been spectacular for horror comic books.
The reason I mentioned Spider-Man is because that’s the easiest entry point for people, not a price point. It does get expensive, but you don’t have to buy a high grade copy of Amazing Fantasy 15 to see some appreciation over time. Now, one of the things I would say you asked about volatility, one of the most volatile parts of the comic book market are the entertainment-connected properties like movie and TV show and animation.
So if you have a brand new comic book that has just gone from being four dollars to 100 dollars in six months, you can try to invest in that. But you really got to watch it. And when you start seeing that comic book going down just like a stock, you might decide you want to sell. Now, you know, there are exceptions to every rule. And no, I don’t have a crystal ball. Nobody does. So you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But I can look back on my 35 years of experience and tell you what I think should happen.
IU: Do non U.S. comic traditions have an investable market here in the U.S.?
Vincent Zurzolo: Manga [for example] is not very big here, I think…because of the language barrier. But you do have comic book collectors who collect international variants. So you can have a comic book like Hulk #181, which is the first full appearance of Wolverine, one of the most popular characters in comic books. And people will collect every edition from around the world. So you’ll see the same comic book in German and Dutch, in Spanish, from Mexico, from Japan — all over.
We do travel internationally for conventions and we have an international clientele. So it’s been really wonderful for me. Our company, in November of 2013, was the first vintage comic book dealer from the U.S. to set up at a Saudi Arabian comic book convention. And what was so wonderful for me was to see how knowledgeable the young collectors were about American comic books and enthusiastic and just incredibly respectful and passionate. And they were going crazy for the comic books we brought. It was just so nice to see that.
IU: Are you seeing an interested investor base, for example, in Asia Pacific? Are they interested in American pop culture items or is there sort of a cultural divide there?
Vincent Zurzolo: Yes, very much so. We have collectors from all over the world. I would say if I’d have to pinpoint certain areas, I would say England, I would say the Middle East and I would say Southeast Asia, especially places like Singapore and Hong Kong.
IU: Do you predict that there will be a move — or maybe you’re already seeing it — towards something similar to institutional investment in comic books?
Vincent Zurzolo: Yeah, there already is. There are companies who are selling fractional shares of comic books. So if you can’t afford to buy a $100,000 comic book, maybe you can buy 10 shares of it at 100 bucks apiece…So that’s growing. And I think that’s really wonderful, because it allows people to share in the joy of having ownership in something that’s really, really special…You’re [also] seeing growth also in very low end comic books where comic books that might have sold for just a dollar or two a few years ago or maybe even 50 cents are now selling for five, 10, 15 dollars. So that’s really wonderful to see. So there is a budget for every collector, there is a comic book for every collector. There’s a comic book for every budget, a budget for every comic book, any way you want to spin that. But there definitely are ways to invest in comic books where you don’t need to have ten, fifteen, 20, 100,000 dollars. You can be somebody on a lower budget that can find the angles to buy comic books and make money on them.
IU: You mentioned earlier that interest in comic book has really picked up since the onset of covid. What if the convention market or the events never really picks up to the level that that it was at pandemic. How does that affect the comic book market, if at all? Or maybe you’re seeing different drivers?
Vincent Zurzolo: I think we’ve seen a shift in the marketplace. There is no substitute for being in person at a comic book convention, but it is also incredibly expensive to get to some. Obviously, if you’re local, like I’m here in New York, New York Comic-Con, I can walk down the street and get to the Javits Center. But when I need to go to San Diego Comic-Con and set up my booth there: just for travel, hotels and food for the week, and obviously paying my employees, it adds up to quite a large sum of money, you know, and that eats into your profits. And so what I think is — I can’t see the future five years from now, but I think you’re going to see, in the short term period, comic conventions slow to get back to where they were. I think that even with the vaccine coming, I don’t think 2021 is going to be a viable year for larger venues, comic book conventions. Smaller ones — yes, they are actually happening right now. People are excited and happy to go to them…But I will tell you for me, I love seeing people in person, but it is a lot of work to get ready for a comic convention and it is exhausting. So I’m not really missing them too much right now.
IU: And it sounds like it’s not necessarily going to affect valuations on the underlying assets. Is that true?
Zurzolo: The lack of comic conventions will not affect it. And if anything, they’ve gone up.