Success is sweet in Christie's sale of PEZ candy dispensers

ANTIQUES

August 15, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Folks who call themselves "PEZamists" aren't a bunch of sourpusses. They're enjoying sweet success in the collecting world and are optimistic about the future of their hobby -- collecting PEZ dispensers. Those 4 1/2 -inch high plastic candy containers with amusing figural heads, which children adore, left a good taste in the mouth of the art and antique establishment when Christie's, the international auctioneers, recently sold for astonishingly high prices 107 of these pop-culture icons from the collection of Sue and Richard Sternfeld.

"I thought I was going to get peanuts for them," admitted consignor Sue Sternfeld, of Glendale, N.Y., who says nearly 700 dispensers remain in her collection, including at least one example of each dispenser known. "I sold only common duplicates, not the ones I'll need later for trades."

More than a month after the auction, Ms. Sternfeld still is recovering from the shock of the strong prices at Christie's. "I wanted to stand up and say, 'No, no, no,' during the bidding," she acknowledged later. Instead, Ms. Sternfeld went home from the New York auction and sent free extra dispensers to the sale's top bidders, "to help round out their collections," she said.

"If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have paid FTC quite so much, but then I probably wouldn't have gotten them," said Mark Koenigsberg, a mathematician for a Wall Street investment bank, who bought the most expensive PEZ lot at the auction. Mr. Koenigsberg paid $1,150 for 19 PEZ dispensers topped by Disney character heads, including a circa-1952 Mickey Mouse, believed to be the first character-headed PEZ container. Mr. Koenigsberg also bought a group of 10 featuring Smurfs, Popeye, Tom & Jerry, and Garfield for $230, and a group of seven "Super Hero" dispensers, including a soft-headed Batgirl in its original packaging and a Captain America, for $345. Only time will tell if he overspent, Mr. Koenigsberg observed.

Age and rarity weren't key factors in determining desirability at auction: Several of the dispensers offered at Christie's still are available new for about 99 cents to $1.29 (including two rolls of PEZ candy). Some parents admit buying new dispensers for themselves at Woolworth's and successfully convincing toddlers to keep their hands off these treats, claiming they're for grown-ups to savor in the future.

Rules for 'PEZheads'

Although PEZ collecting is a relatively new pursuit, experienced "PEZheads" already adhere to some basic rules. "Only buy PEZ that are different from the chin up. Stems sit in a bucket at the factory and whatever color is picked up goes on the head," explained Ms. Sternfeld. "It doesn't matter where the dispenser was made, and, except in a few rare cases, original packaging doesn't add value. Buy dispensers in mint condition. Don't buy them with missing parts thinking you'll find the parts later. And beware of altered dispensers," she added.

"If you've bought PEZ dispensers as an investment, put them under your bed and go get therapy," advised Ms. Sternfeld.

While there appear to be more speculators in the market since Christie's sale, according to Larry LaFoe, editor of the Positively Pez bi-monthly newsletter (annual subscriptions are $18 from Mr. LaFoe, 3851 Gable Lane Drive 513, Indianapolis, Ind. 46208), most PEZ collectors claim they're not out for financial gain.

"It makes no difference how many you have or how good they are. What matters is that you collect PEZ and have fun with it," said Richard Geary, an on-air radio personality in Madison, Ohio, and organizer of "PEZ-A-Mania," a collectors' convention held each July near Cleveland. Mr. Geary is so intent on attracting new collectors that at this year's gathering he offered for $3 each dispensers currently available only in Canada and Europe. "In what other field can you spend $35 to $40 and have an instant collection?" he asks. (Dealers usually charge around $15 each for these imports.)

Childhood favorites

Mr. Geary's love of PEZ goes back to his Oklahoma childhood. Cherry-flavored PEZ was his favorite. ("I wish the company would bring them back," he said wistfully.) Because refills weren't available, when he wanted more candy he broke his dispenser. (PEZ was sold only with dispensers.) "I'd never do that now," said Mr. Geary, who started the convention in 1991 as a way to meet the collectors with whom he had been trading over the phone.

PEZ truly brings collectors together. The Sternfelds used the 1991 gathering to announce their marriage. Their long-distance romance began over PEZ. She was a collector living in St. Louis; he was a New York dealer. They finally met at a St. Louis toy show and wed two days before Mr. Geary's first convention.

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