The high-dollar cardboard box

There was one other interesting quote in the Post-Dispatch’s Top 10 collectibles for value this week:

10. Boxes (yes, simple boxes!)

For a starter, wooden boxes of all types with and without locking mechanisms, souvenir boxes, tea boxes, cigar boxes, jewelry, knife boxes and the list goes on for value. If you can put something in it, somebody wants to give you money for it.

Don’t get too excited, but a box doesn’t have to be made of wood to be valuable. Even a cardboard box can have some value, depending on what came in it. But don’t get too excited.The most valuable cardboard box I ever found was a box for a Marx train set. It was from a different era than I generally collect, so I sold it to another collector. I paid very little for the box, as you would expect, and as I recall, I sold it for $10, so I didn’t make a huge profit on it. I also didn’t go for top dollar, since I sold it to someone I knew in passing and I didn’t want to gouge him. Perhaps if I had gone for top dollar, I could have gotten closer to $20 or $30.

The thing is, it was a cardboard box. It was valuable because it once contained an uncommon and attractive Marx train set from the late 1950s that’s worth around $300 complete. He had a couple of items from the set, and I think I did too and I made him a deal on those as well to get him started. The box probably adds 10 percent or so to the value of the whole, but part of the appeal to him was the hunt for all of the items that came in that box.

Occasionally a rare Lionel cardboard box will sell, and the train forums always go nuts because “some idiot” paid some “insane amount of money” (paying one found penny is insane for a cardboard box, of course) for a cardboard box. If a collector has a mint condition example of a rare item, adding the box it came in could double its value, so if you hit the jackpot with a Lionel box, you could be talking thousands of dollars. The typical Lionel box is worth a few dollars though, so temper your expectations. The really valuable stuff is valuable because there are only one or two known, and you’re going to find a Lionel one-of-a-kind in New Jersey, near the factory where it was made, not in Texas.

I mentioned yesterday that if you’re trying to sell a vintage computer, having the box will help it sell. I would expect it to increase the value of a typical computer by about 10 percent.

The thing is, I find computer boxes in the basements of estates pretty frequently. The computer it came in might be long gone, but the owner never discarded the box for whatever reason.

Video game collectors are also interested in boxes. Like Rob O’Hara pointed out this week, most people saved the manuals (and the games of course) but not the boxes. A stash of vintage video game boxes, even if the estate decided to save what came in the box, would have some interest.

Why do train and computer collectors treasure cardboard boxes? Well, even if the item isn’t all that rare, it has a practical value. Most people can’t display their entire collections all at once. If it’s going to go on a shelf in a box, they’d rather put it in an original box. It makes it obvious what they have and where it is.

And while not every collector will go to the lengths to duplicate the front room of a hobby shop or computer shop in their basement–someone in St. Louis did duplicate the old Johnston train store–a shelf full of boxed, vintage items at least captures the mystique of the back room of those long-gone stores, if not the showroom.

So, when prowling through an estate, if you find a pile of cardboard boxes, it’s worth taking a few minutes to look for brand names and do some quick research on whatever came in that box. Don’t expect the box to be worth a fortune, but it’s better to sell a box for a couple of dollars than to pay someone to haul it away as trash.

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