My grandmother, a proud Polish Catholic, died when I was about 12. She left behind 3 sons, one of whom was my Uncle Jim.
My Uncle Jim was warm, friendly, and kind. He was also a character. He was one of those guys who voted for Ross Perot, and, were he alive today, I’d peg him as a Trump fan.
He was also a collector of sorts, though, “collector” may be a nice word; some might have called him a “hoarder.” He lived near the beach and drove an old pickup truck he bragged only cost $400. It ran fine but, to make it street legal, he had one of his buddies fashion a bumper out of mismatched pieces of reclaimed wood. The truck was covered in stickers with Libertarian slogans, and he used it to drive around on trash day to pick up whatever amazing treasures people would throw away. Every time I visited, he sent me off with presents. Vacuum cleaners, a wooden stool, a plastic ficus tree, a basket of marble eggs.
Tucked behind the piles of my uncle’s stuff, however, in the corner of his bedroom, was a china cabinet of his true treasures. They were statuettes of cherubic children, all more than 50 years old. They were my grandmother’s Hummels, now a family heirloom, and he beamed with pride to show me her collection. He emphasized that someday, they would be mine.
Years later, maybe around the year 2000 or 2001, he gave me a box into which he had placed the Hummels, meticulously wrapped with the St. Petersburg Times. He also gave me a guidebook — a pricing guide published in 1998 — and pointed out where he had flagged, marked, and bookmarked the statutes.
I took the box home and reviewed the book.
The line of figurines is named after Berta Hummel, who was born in 1909 – just 3 years before my grandmother. She was a nun in Germany and an artist who sketched radiant, chubby-cheeked children. As her drawings became popular, factory owner Franz Goebel made them into statuettes. After they were displayed at the 1935 Leipzig Fair, their popularity exploded. U.S. soldiers brought them home from Germany, and the Hummel craze grew to the United States.
Goebel made many editions of the figurines, which are numbered and identifiable by markings. Because the name Hummel means “bumble bee” in German, a marking of a bee was used, flying over a “V,” which stands for the German word for distribution company: Verkaufsgesellschaft. A boy with umbrella was the most valuable of my uncle’s figurines, and it had a book value of $2000. I roughly guessed that my entire Grandmother’s collection was worth between 10 and 20,000 dollars. I stashed them away, hidden where they would be less likely to be found if someone broke in.
After moving too many times, however, especially into apartments where space was at a premium, I began to appreciate minimalism. I also came to accept that, although the figurines had sentimental value, they weren’t really my cup of tea. I mean, they were cute, but not my style. Why hang onto figurines I didn’t even particularly like?
It was time to cash in. After lugging them around for years, I was finally over their sentimental value.
I searched on eBay for Hummels with the same markings to see the going rate. As I perused listings, my enthusiasm crumbled. An exact version of my Grandmother’s $2000 heirloom was offered for less than $200. Many of the figurines were listed but were not selling at all.
It turns out many people, like myself, had inherited and were selling their grandmother’s collectibles, and the market was glutted. A 2010 article in Daily Finance was titled, “Kitsch and capitalism: The rise and fall of Hummel figurines.” The author interviewed an antiques expert who said that prices for the once-crazed collectibles had “gone to hell.” And I thought, what the hell!
I managed to sell a couple of them, including the oversized, most valuable, $2000-listed boy with umbrella. I think I got $175. I also sold a complete nativity set — that also would have also gone for at least $2000 a few years back — for about the same price.
The figurine at left, “Sweet Music,” No. 186, has a book value of $450. Today, I searched and found the same exact one offered on eBay for a “buy it now” price of $65.
Another one, “Just Resting,” No. 112 3/0, pictured at right,has a book value of $350. It is also offered on eBay for $34.99 — or best offer. Some of the others are being sold for much less.
Some of the others are being sold for much less.
Hummels have, sadly, become a joke.
Business Insider recently published “11 collectible crazes that ended up being huge wastes of money.” Listing Hummels aside Beanie Babies, the author quotes an expert as saying, “people were paying ridiculous prices for Hummels, anywhere from $100 to $5000,” but, “In today’s market … for a group of 10, an auctioneer will hardly accept $30.”
Another article lists Hummels among “15 Collectibles That Are Completely Worthless” and explains that the “supply of Hummels just keeps growing as the generations that collected Hummels pass away, leaving behind thousands of their diminishing-value dust-collectors.”
Currently, I am too busy to even list them. But I want to sell them before they, truly, go completely worthless. I found a local company that lists and sells things on eBay, for a percentage scaled on how much the item goes for. I’m going to drop off the whole lot and – fingers crossed – may make a hundred bucks or two.
My uncle Jim would be disappointed. Now that I think about it, that sort of news may have contributed to his heart attack. He died in 2010, just after their value was plummeting.
No, I’m joking. Yes, he may have been called a “hoarder” by some, but I think he knew that the important thing in life is not inanimate objects. Any object can, and will eventually, lose its value. What’s truly valuable is enjoying life, finding laughter, building memories, and cherishing those memories. And, even if I don’t get a dollar for these Hummels, I am still grateful to have memories of my grandmother, and my Uncle Jim.