Recently, with the stock market plummeting, interest rates at record lows, and mortgage foreclosures at all time highs, I have been giving customers the tongue-in-cheek advice to “buy rocks, not stocks”. So, that’s a joke, right? Or is it?
Many dealers and collectors argue that today, fine minerals are a better investment than many, more conventional forms of asset investment. This includes gemstones, which have traditionally been considered a safe haven against inflation, and are also relatively easy to sell.
Anyone who has followed the upward spiral in mineral specimen prices must recognize that there have been investment opportunities galore available to those buying fine mineral specimens. We’ve all seen or heard stories about exceptional mineral specimens selling for hundreds of thousands – or millions – of dollars. And why won’t this trend continue in the future? And, why not add some tangible assets to your portfolio that just happen to be beautiful to regard? What is more rewarding than using your money to buy a fine minerals specimen, then taking it home and admiring it, displaying it, and showing it off to friends and family?
Of course for many collectors, the issue of investment value is totally immaterial. Many a passionate mineral collector will tell you, the money has nothing to do with it. For them, collecting minerals is extremely rewarding in other, more significant and esoteric ways, such as fine aesthetics, the intensity of colors, and the appeal of exceptional crystal shapes. This is summed up in the old collector’s saying, “Buy it because you fall in love with it, not to make money.” To see some of the gorgeous mineral specimens which fuel this debate, we invite you to visit the “Museum Quality” gallery on our website, where you’ll see photographs of our finest specimens, all of which meet some or all of the criteria discussed above.
And now, the million dollar question: “Which specimens should I buy?” How can you tell if a specimen is a good investment, or not? I’ve seen hundreds of specimens with old labels starting a low purchase price that are worth many times more today. For example, I once attended an auction at the Harvard Mineralogical Museum where a tourmaline specimen from Mount Mica, ME with a 1975 label price of $5 sold for almost $300. On the other hand, how often have I looked at an old mineral collection that someone was selling with labels marked with 1975 prices of $1, $2, or $5, where the value today remains $1, $2, or $5! So, what’s the secret?
The value of a cut gemstone is determined using a very stringent grading system, established by the GIA, called “the 4 C’s”: color, cut, clarity, and carat weight. These are not very subjective. Unfortunately, there is no such system for evaluating mineral specimens. So, to help you start your adventure into a new form of capital investment, here are five important steps to consider.
An experienced collector can establish a specimen’s price range by considering certain properties, such as color, transparency, luster, crystal formation, size, matrix, demand, rarity, damage, etc. How do you get this experience? By going to mineral shows, looking at specimens on the internet, talking with other collectors and seeing their collections, etc. Hard-won knowledge about what qualifies a mineral specimen as a “fine mineral specimen” is a critical tool which you will use every time you make an acquisition for your collection, and again when you decide to sell. This includes knowledge of what specimens of a particular species look like from different mines. Compare how a specimen matches up against others in terms of color, crystal size and shape, etc.
Also, consider the route the specimen has traveled to get to the dealer who holds it now. If it has passed through the hands of many middle men, the price may be highly inflated. Also take into account the history of the mine it comes from. If the mine is now closed, this means no more material from that locality will ever come the market. In some cases, this can double the value of a specimen overnight, such as when the Elmwood TN mines closed. Also, an illustrious history of fine minerals specimen production from a particular mine will mean a wider market appeal and higher prices than a specimen from a more obscure locality. Specimens from the Tsumeb mine are a good case in point, where values have continued to rise since the mine stopped operations in 1996.
Establishing a focus for your collection is a very important step. A random assortment of pretty specimens will probably have to be sold individually, whereas a suite of fine specimens from a classic locality will more readily find a willing buyer.
This is easy: Buy the very best you can afford. A single $1,000 specimen will almost always be a better investment than ten $100 specimens. Remember the example of what happened to the collection of $1, $2, and $5 specimens acquired in 1975, that didn’t gain value over the years.
Over many years of mineral buying, I have built a mental database of mineral prices. I can’t remember what I had for lunch today, but I can recall fine details of the color, size, crystallization, and, of course, price, from specimens I looked at a decade ago. Being able to remember the fine points of particularly attractive and valuable mineral specimens, and compare it to the one you have in front of you, is and extremely important skill to develop for sniffing out quality.
Timing is of the essence when making decisions to buy. New finds may come from a single pocket or area inside the mine, and may only be available on the mineral market for a short time. Of course, buying examples of the latest finds can be a gamble. When the new find on bipyramidal wulfenite was made in Mexico two years ago, prices for the best specimens were in the 5-figure range. This year, the market was flooded with superb but inexpensive specimens. On the other hand, neon-blue tourmaline from Paraiba, Brazil was originally priced at a shocking $800 per carat. Today, original Paraiba tourmalines have sold for $20,000 per carat! There is no way of knowing in advance whether a certain mine will close forever in a few months, or if a new find of the same species from a new locality will totally eclipse the material from the old find.
It takes courage and clear thinking to apply your hard-won knowledge when buying a specimen. You’ll need to consider how it fits with your collecting goals, evaluate the risks, take into account your financial position and more when you make the purchase. The thrill of finding, learning about, and acquiring a really exceptional specimen for your collection is reward enough for most collectors.
Keep in mind that the original price for a specimen in no way guarantees that you are entitled to recoup your original “investment,” let alone any appreciation in value. Market conditions at the time of sale – and nothing else – will dictate the real value of a specimen (how much you paid and when you bought it are irrelevant. The only guarantee is that the market value of a mineral specimen may go up, down or remain the same.
It has been said that the only difference between a collector and an investor is whether they have an exit strategy or not. Possible avenues for liquidating all (or part) of your collection include auction houses or online auctions, direct sales to other collectors, and sale or consignment to a dealer. And, think carefully about the tax implications of selling your collection, as capital gains taxes may be due if you made a profit. Donating the collection to museums for tax incentives is another strategy, but can be difficult when museums storage rooms are already overflowing, and they have neither the time nor the staff to cull the best specimens and dispose of the rest. There have been some excellent articles on this subject in the major mineral magazines in the last few years.
Collecting fine minerals is an immeasurably satisfying hobby with huge investment possibilities. The current price of certain top-notch, special and hard-to-obtain pieces can only increase over time. And, given the madcap fluctuations of other investments now, high-end specimens that are not subject to the whims of outrageous market swings are looking pretty darn good.