I am a part time mineral dealer. I get many questions about the prices of collectible mineral specimens. Novices are the most confused because they have yet to understand the confusing factors that affect mineral values. The following is a chronology of prices and events of a typical mineral specimen.
All minerals start in the ground. A specimen is not worthless (because collectors may still lust after the undiscovered specimen) but it does not yet have a price tag. It will lay there undisturbed, as it has for millions of years, until one of two things happen. Either it will erode from the solid rock, work its way into a sedimentary deposit and start another cycle of rock formation OR man will intervene and do something with it. It could go to a smelter to be refined into a commercial / industrial resource. Or it could become a collectable mineral specimen. I am going to focus solely on this latter path.
A collector digs it up and store it wrapped in newspaper in his basement. It typically will remain in this state for two or three years, until his wife threatens to toss out all of the "junk" in the basement. Price = $0
The collector washes it off for the first time and decides it is still worth keeping even though most of the other material he collected should have been left in the ground. He trades it at a swap along with ten other pieces to a collector that can see through the iron staining and dried pocket clay. He gets an amethyst from Brazil in exchange. Price = $.50
The experienced, new owner dissolves the pocket clay and iron staining in acid to reveal the real beauty of the crystals. It is now clean and lustrous. Price = $5.00
The specimen is donated to the local mineral club for their fund raising auction. It sells for $12.
The new owner trades it away at a local swap to a savvy collector who knows the location has just been closed and no more specimens will ever be found. New owner values it at $25.
Years later, Mineralogical Record runs an article on the lost location. The author identifies a rare left-handed twin crystal form as unique to the location. The owner doubles the price to $50.
The owner dies leaving most of his collection unlabelled. His heirs have no idea of what to do with the collection. A local mineral dealer calls the widow and offers $1800 for the whole collection and will not charge her extra for moving it. The price paid each specimen approximately .50.
Now the mineral, unlabelled, is misidentified by the dealer as originating in Austria and a $50 price is assigned along with the "classic" location notation.
The specimen does not sell for two years. The small-time dealer discovers there is no money in selling mineral specimens. Decides to sell wire wrapped amethyst pyramids instead. Sell his whole stock for 20% the labeled prices. The specimen goes for $10.
The new owner is more knowledgeable and recognizes the true origin of the specimen. He researches the location and makes a Xerox copy of the article in Mineralogical Record as a sales prop and prices it at $100.
An "instant" collector, who has just started collecting minerals again, now that he makes enough money at age 35 after giving up collecting in high school, buys the specimen for $90. He is happy. He got 10% off!
Meanwhile, there is so much demand for minerals from the old location that prices climb. Brian Wayne Lees-Thompson reopens the mine attracting attention to the location again. Because of savvy marketing and the perceived shortage of specimens prices are set at numbers that look like long distance telephone numbers (though the small specimens are only priced at numbers that resemble zip codes).
After two years the market is saturated. (After all, how many people are there in the world that will pay over $10K for a mineral specimen, 500?) Mr. Lees-Thompson can't give them away. Prices drop to 10% of post-reopening prices. The minerals from the mine become a commodity worth about as much as Uruguayan Amethyst! Meanwhile our specimen is sold to a new owner for $150.
He shows the specimen to an experienced collector who owns a microscope. They spot rare inclusions of baloneyium. They write an abstract that is accepted for presentation at the Rochester Mineralogical Symposium. They give a 15 minute presentation. It is offered for sale for $500.
It sells immediately to a locality collector that specializes in only that location. It is placed in a position of honor in his collection. The abstract is published in Rocks and Minerals magazine. The collector is offered $1000 for it and he refuses.
As the owner's age goes up, so does the mineral's value in the owners mind. But he also knows that he can't take it with him when he passes on. He offers it to a local museum for $5000. The museum has an annual acquisition budget of $1000. They try to find a donor to purchase the specimen for donation to the museum.
In the meantime the owner dies. The heirs no nothing about the collection - they just want to move into the house. So everything is hauled away by the trash hauler. The mineral specimen ends up in the local landfill and starts the rock-forming cycle anew.
So what is a mineral really worth?
This silly chronology illustrates that the price is determined in varying parts by aesthetics, rarity, location, associations, uniqueness, marketing, and scholarly study. As in art, the value increases with knowledge of the subject. There is no absolute value. As a result there are no hard and fast rules. (Adler, 1981)
If there were not mishaps along the way the greater fool theory would prevail. Each owner would buy it and sell it to a greater fool that will pay more. Eventually it works it's way up the price ladder until it reaches a practical limit. As a collector, all that matters is whether there is a bigger fool out there to pay more than we did. And there is.
Adler, Mortimer J., 1981, Six Great Ideas, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York
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