Worthless today, priceless tomorrow Things that disappeared in 1991 may someday show up in museums

January 13, 1992|By Amy Wilson | Amy Wilson,Knight-Ridder

SURE, IT LOOKS like a yard sale, but the difference is that Charles Keating can't get his hands on your savings. Instead of saving money, you save stuff.

That makes good sense, because there's so little money these days and so much stuff. But it's a gamble trying to figure out what people will pay money for in about 20 years.

One guy is betting that McDonald's polystyrene containers -- which left the American dining landscape this year -- will be tomorrow's most sought-after collectible. Another is pinning everything on Milk Bone boxes.

Yes, that's right. Look forward to 2011, and see an America in quest of either unblemished pet-food packaging or those orange-like, foam-like, saucer-like holders of burgers of yore.

Guess right, and you win a home in the Bahamas.

Don't buy any of this? Here's proof. Dave Hutzley, owner of Dave's Comics & Collectibles in Royal Oak and Ann Arbor, Mich., says that baseball card wrappers are now, for the most part, more valuable than the cards. That's because while the card was kept, hoarded, traded and boxed, that darn wrapper got tossed the first day.

"The more disposable the item is today, the more valuable it is tomorrow," says Hutzley. The more likely you are to collect it, the more likely it's not going to be worth diddly.

Just say no, then, to stuff called "limited edition." That hand-painted plate of Elvis' 1972 television comeback, released in 1991 for a limited time? Forget it.

That first-edition "Scarlett"? You and how many other people?

Try instead to collect things that were born and died in 1991. (Think Desert Storm paraphernalia.) Pick things that will not come again. (Think artifacts from long-running companies that went out of business last year. Think "thirtysomething.") Save things that are not obvious. (There's the rub.)

We've just described the Smithsonian Institution's full-time job. This last year, the folks at the Mother of All Collectors again gathered up items they think will be important when 1991 bTC becomes Real History.

Sure, they want a Harrier jump jet -- that neat plane that lifts off like a helicopter. And, yes, they'd like an A10, although the aeronautics and space division doesn't know where they'd put it if they got one.

Your problem, too? Thought so.

So what has the Smithsonian collected from the Disposable War? An Iraqi anti-aircraft gun, some Iraqi-employed, Soviet-made weaponry, a U.S. night camouflage jacket, Iraqi helmets and the uniforms of some of the Pennsylvania women who died when a Scud hit a mess hall behind the lines.

Unlike other wars, in which soldiers came back with small hand-held weapons of the conquered, Persian Gulf veterans didn't get to keep much hardware, says Jennifer Locke, a museum specialist in the division of armed forces history. She says the U.S. government confiscated most of what the Kuwaitis didn't keep.

Got any of that stuff, then? Keep it. Got a Scud? Call the Smithsonian today. They'd like it now.

But the folks at the Smithsonian aren't just thinking about the war.

They've collected stuff for their community life division. Things like a junk bond, a Pan Am airline schedule and a $1 New York subway token. These things are not likely to return, which puts them on the collectible A-list, says David Shayt, collections manager for the division.

But we know that he has a different motivation from your average collector. He is interested in posterity, while your average collector is interested in prosperity. He's supposed to assemble stuff indicative of the year, the mood and the pace of technology.

L These are certified Things People Will Go to Museums to See.

This year, then, Shayt gathered up McDonald's tools -- a French fry scoop, a tartar gun. (A tartar gun shoots tartar sauce onto Filet-O-Fish; it's like a caulking gun that moves forward in ratchet fashion.)

He also got himself some Roller-blades, some robotic equipment, a Playboy bunny outfit and some ergonomic devices like lights, chairs and tools that were designed to improve worker safety.

For the record, he craves the mask worn by Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs" and a copy of the Free Trade Agreement with Canada. If you just happen to have them around the house, his number isin the Washington phone book.

Other stuff you'd have access to?

How about all that advanced condom technology? Those condom earrings, socks and bookmarks? How about condom advertising? The Smithsonian has its own collection of these things.

Hold on to your tools. Everything's getting digitized -- even leveling instruments -- and the old technology probably will be considered quaint at some point. Don't laugh. Quaint sells.

Most collectors don't have the room that the Smithsonian does. So instead of a scattershot approach, they are targeting a few choice items for collection.

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