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A Guide to Selling National Geographic Magazines

mdev1613
By Published by
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(Revised 10 December 2013)

Background:

An old book collector once told me that for a book to be rare there had to be fewer than 1000 copies printed and to be scarce fewer than 10,000 copies printed.

In this guide I collect sales data, price and quality, for each National Geographic Magazine (NGM) sold on eBay that was published by the National Geographic Society (NGS) from October 1888 through December 1917. This historical data, combined with quantity published and quality definition should give the reader a basic understanding of the value for items being sold or purchased.

I’ve been collecting data since December 2008; this is my third revision since 2010. If you find the guide informative, please be kind enough to give me a thumbs-up at the top of the page.

I will be writing two additional guides in the near future: 1) a proposed grading scheme for the NGM (the one I use); 2) a guide to the “annual index” published each year from 1891 through 2010 by the NGS.

I am a collector and though from time-to-time I’ll attempt to sell or trade extras in my inventory, I am not a dealer of NGMs.

I will be happy to answer any questions you may have about collecting or selling National Geographic Magazines (NGMs). Feel free to contact me through eBay at any time.

Estate Sales (this section borrowed with permission from Dale Murphy - Dec 2010):

Having spent some significant part of a lifetime collecting the items, how does one later realize their true market value? Leaving them to one's estate is fine, but it is very unlikely that the inheritor of the estate will know the true worth of the collection. This leads many collectors to the situation you may now face.

But how do you sell such a collection? There are several options:

1. Sell it off piecemeal. Here, eBay seems the best option to get to an international market but it is a potentially long and tedious process (years perhaps). It is difficult to know what you'd get. Many people buy on eBay expecting a bargain. You'll probably realize full value for the rarest items, but you must be judicious in the timing - for example, never sell something of real value during holiday seasons or at odd times of the day.

2. Sell it as a whole to another collector. If you can find such a buyer, this is the ideal option. Unfortunately, this is also the least likely option. Experienced collectors will have already accrued their own substantial collections and will have the majority of what you want to sell. They will want to cherry-pick your collection. There will not be many inexperienced collectors who could afford to buy a complete collection or fully appreciate the true value of such a collection, but you never know.

3. Sell it to a dealer. This is usually what happens with estate sales. Dealers need to make their own profit on such a deal and have their own substantial overheads. Most will probably offer you 10% to 30% of what the collection would be worth. But they will take the entire collection off your hands.

4. Sell it on commission through a dealer. Not all dealers do this. If they do, their commission will vary, but 10% to 20% of the sale price would be the normal range. This could also take a long time to sell off the whole collection (1 to 2 years), but at least you don't have the personal hassle. This may be the best path to realize the best returns as dealers personally know most of the "serious" collectors.

5. Put the whole collection up for auction through a reputable international auction house that deals with rarities.

Quantity + Quality = Demand, which yields “Value”:

It’s the old story of supply and demand. The fewer of an item that people want the greater the demand, hence the greater the value (or cost) to the people who want it. Recall the numbers for rare and scarce mentioned above while reviewing the Quantity information below.

Quantity:

The first National Geographic Magazine was published October 1888. This first year began with 165 members.
The second year ended with 228 members. The Society generally published only a few extra magazines above the membership numbers, thus the rarity of the first eight years of publications known as the “red brick” issues.
By 1896 more than 1,200 copies per issue were published each month.
By 1905 more than 10,000 copies per issue were published each month beginning with the April issue.
By 1914 more than 285,000 copies per issue were published each month.
By 1925 more than 990,000 copies per issue were published each month.
1940 - 1.1 million
1950 - 1.9 million
1960 - 2.5 million
1970 - 6.8 million
1980 - 10 million +

There is most often a direct correlation between quantity published and demand, i.e. the more published - the less the demand, but “quality” also influences the final demand.

Quality:

Generally speaking, good quality magazines are relatively easy to come by beginning with 1920, moderately difficult from 1907 to 1919, and increasingly difficult (and costly) as you slip back in years earlier than 1907.

There are some anomalies, e.g. 1904 issues are much more difficult to find, especially in good condition, than several of the earlier years.

I like to use Very Good (VG) as a benchmark {there exists no accepted standard grading system for NG magazines though I am trying to address this with my soon-to-be-published grading guide} and would describe this quality as:

"There can be minor soiling, creasing (two minor tears) with moderate surface wear on the cover with moderate reflectivity and fading. The spine must be intact and complete, all material present, with moderate tears acceptable. Interior pages may have minor soiling and discoloration - but otherwise must be complete with all pages present (to include advertising)."

VG is my benchmark but there exists an entire range of quality assessments that follow “comic book” appraisals and include: Damaged, Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Near Mint and Mint. Remember, there is presently no accepted standard grading system for NGMs. I have “relearned” this fact many times while purchasing on line. You must be very specific with your listing description when selling or specific with your questions when buying or you will have difficulty with your transactions. Do your research!

When you consider the number of NGMs issued over more than 120 years of publication you can see how involved collecting becomes with the need to evaluate each individual magazine’s quality.

Quantity + Quality = Demand. So what is its value?

Value:

Generally speaking, I have found the following decades (per issue) in the VG condition described above go for (sliding scale downward as you reach the end of the decade):

1910 - $28 {this beginning value for the decade edged up $3 in 2013} (with war years sometimes asking more)
1920 - $13 {this beginning value for the decade edged down $2 in 2013}
1930 - $10
1940 - $7.50 (with war years sometimes asking more)
1950 - $5
1960 - $2
1970 - $.50

Missing covers, except for the first 20 years or so, make the magazine nearly worthless whereas a magazine in better condition than the VG described above, even marginally so, may enhance the value immensely.

Go to eBay and do a search for “National Geographic Magazine.” You’ll find upwards of 20 thousand items listed. Where do your items fit in the scheme of things?

Buying or selling on eBay can have unseen hazards for the uninitiated but a cautious and determined approach for either selling or buying has its rewards.

I've seen a Jan 1921 go for $50 with the picture supplement included. I've seen Aug 1914 with map supplement go for over $100. But I've also seen a Fine August 1905 with map supplement go for $27. It’s all in the timing.

I acquired a beautiful 1907 leather bound complete year with all covers, ads, index and map for $202.50 on eBay. I had attempted to purchase a damaged bound 1907 just months prior to this from a book dealer. The front board was off the book; the binding was falling apart; the covers and ads (as is normally the practice with bound NGMs) were missing as well as the one map for the year and the index. The dealer was asking for $300 and would not negotiate. I’m glad I waited for the right eBay moment!

I’ve recorded a validated first issue, October 1888, selling for just over $6,000. A book dealer would have probably demanded $10,000. I’ve recorded an entire bound first two volumes, the first 9 issues complete with covers and maps, selling for just over $20,000. A book dealer would have asked twice that much.

Generally speaking, a book dealer will offer you far less to purchase your item than you can sell it for on eBay. He will also charge you far more than a like item you can purchase from eBay. Please keep in mind that dealers are in the business to make money.

Recorded eBay Sales:

Since February 2009, I’ve maintained a spreadsheet on eBay sales for the first 18 volumes, twenty years of NGMs. I have captured the “highest” three sales per issue per year (discarding lower priced sales). This spreadsheet allows me to average both the issue (month) and the entire year to develop a high-water mark for “my” purchases. Please note there exist many subtleties/variables too numerous to outline in this guide that may alter any given issue’s value.

Here are the eBay “high-three” averages for the first 20 years of NG magazines:

         As of 10 December 2013                           Change per issue from the Dec 2012 revision of this guide
1888 - $5,670.22 (only one issue published)      no sales observed
1889 - $643.32 (-10.39)                                      one sale observed
1890 - no sales observed                                   no sales observed
1891 - $490.67                                                   no sales observed
1892 - $500.00                                                   no sales observed
1893 - $382.50                                                   no sales observed
1894 - $430.99                                                   (-$35.33; one sale observed)
1895 - $295.67                                                   sales observed but none qualified for high three
1896 - $226.46                                                   (+$6.50)
1897 - $171.20                                                   (+$.54)
1898 - $252.80                                                   (+$.76)
1899 - $389.97                                                   (+$3.34)
1900 - $163.65                                                    (+$.06)
1901 - $174.11                                                    sales observed but none qualified for high three
1902 - $177.80                                                   (+$13.36)
1903 - $201.35*                                                  (+$43.60)*
1904 - $218.14                                                    (+$1.14)
1905 - $117.66                                                    (+$1.91)
1906 - $69.21                                                      (+$7.68)
1907 - $51.35                                                      (+$10.27)

*A bidding war on “just three sales” doubled one and tripled two other previous highest sales for each issue being bid on for 1903.

New Data:

In August 2012, I expanded my data collection of eBay sales to include the years 1908 through 1917 inclusive. As with the previous data collection I maintain “only” the highest three sales, discarding any lower sales data. The information listed below is “preliminary,” i.e. it takes one to two years of sales for VG or better quality magazines to populate the database. Sales to date are mostly of Good or worse condition. As of Dec 2013, 1911 is the only year NOT populated with supplement sales, i.e. supplements issued in 1911 are hard to find.

To assist with interpreting this preliminary data I’ve included a Ratio = (# of VG or better magazines recorded for the year / Total # of magazines recorded for the year).

Avg. Sales                                Ratio
1908 – $34.83                          23/36
1909 - $37.83                          20/36
1910 – $27.79                         21/36
+1911 - $28.33                         8/36
1912 - $23.31                         11/36
*1913 - $49.46                        11/36 (with April + supplement included)
           - $22.82                         9/33 (with April + supplement stripped out)
1914 - $19.19                         10/36
1915 - $19.46                         21/36
1916 - $17.55                         24/36
1917 - $14.52                         16/33

+ Supplements for this year have become difficult to find. Only 5 of 12 issues published with supplements sold on eBay with these supplements included.

*A Good April 1913, with map supplement, has become hard to find. The average for the top three sales “just” for this month with supplement is $342.50.

Supplemental Data:

In response to several inquiries as to why the April 1913 issue has become so costly as well as inquiries as to why it is difficult to find Very Good copies of the early to mid-teen years, I submit the following discussion.

Because of its size the April 1913 issue is very difficult to find with an intact binding. It's usually missing considerable material and is severely cracked and torn. Collectors generally look first to the binding. If it is completely intact (small tears are acceptable as long as all the material is present) then the issue has the "possibility" of being Very Good (VG) in assessment. No matter how good the rest of the issue is, without an intact binding, it can be assessed no better than Good (G).

This issue has a much sought after pictorial that was quite often cut out of the magazine, thus making a complete issue (with supplement) hard to find.

A more subjective reason for its scarcity comes to light with an understanding of what happened back in the early 1960's when the NGS reprinted the first 20 years of the National Geographic Magazine. Until that event, most collectors were content with starting their collection around 1920 (because the earlier issues were just too difficult and costly to obtain). After the NGS published the reprints, a complete collection (with reprints, of course) was now within the grasp of the average collector. 1000 loose reprints of the first 20 years were produced. There has been no actual accounting of the number of bound reprints (to the best of my knowledge) that were produced. The quantity of bound reprints put up for auction on eBay would indicate that perhaps well over 1000 bound volumes were produced.

Back to the question - what has the reprint production got to do with the April 1913 issue? It wasn't until 1914 that publication reached 250K per issue. For those collectors now interested in completing their collections, the 1908 through 1914's (especially in VG) instantly became difficult to find.

Putting all of this together you should see why a VG copy of April 1913 is in high demand.

Anecdotally, please observe the ratio of VG issues to all issues sold by year in my table above. You’ll notice the years 1911 through 1914 inclusively have yet to achieve 20 or more VG or better issues recorded after 1 ½ years of tracking eBay sales. Not only was production low during these years, near 100K, the raw materials shortage of the war years (WWI) destroyed many a paper product.

My advice for collectors trying to expand back into these years is “take what you can find when it becomes available” then search for improvements for your collection that may trickle along.

Update on eBay sales:

Since December 2012 there have been limited sales of magazines reaching back to 1896. The vast majority of sales did not break into my top three eBay sales list with annual averages changing by less than +/- $10 per issue for all but five years. The years 1906 through 1909 continue to experience an up tic in prices for even poorer quality magazines. It is my opinion that because these are the last of the older issues still fairly easy to obtain and averaging less than $100 per copy their yearly averages will continue rising as competition for them increases. Entries to my table from the years 1910 through 1917 are slowing down, i.e. not breaking into the “highest three.” Most of these sales are of poor quality issues and are too low in price to make it into my table.

Conclusion:

It’s all in the timing!

If you have patience and the time, and are reasonable, you can buy and sell at your price. If you’re in a hurry and need to sell or buy today you are more than likely NOT going to get what you want OR you are going to pay a premium.

I hope this helps! Good luck with your collections whether you're buying or selling!

Mel

P.S. It cost (in 2010) about $125 to ship 14 years worth of NG magazines via UPS - this did not include packing material costs. The Post Office will not ship (declared – hint! hint!) "magazines" via media mail because of their "advertisements."
 
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