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Selling your classical LP's

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   International Classical Record Collector Winter 1998
   Selling your classical LPs
   A dealer's-eye view of the market by Leslie Gerber

I am sorry to do this, but I have to start off with bad news. If you have a large collection of classical LP records, it is probably worth less money than it was five years ago ­ perhaps a great deal less. And its value will probably continue to decline. This does not mean you should throw your old LPs out ­ as so many people tell me they have, usually "just last year". But most sellers have such unrealistic expectations of what their old records are worth that, when I encounter uninformed vendors, I have to begin my approach to them by explaining the record market in some detail. In the future I hope I can save time by handing them this article.

Anyone who knew the history of records must have been aware that the value of LPs would change simply by observing what happened to 78rpm discs. Within half a decade of the introduction of the LP, the 78 became virtually obsolete in classical music. The new medium was so obviously superior in its convenience and continuity that relatively few music-lovers resisted converting. By 1955, hardly anyone was producing classical music on 78s. The market for older 78s began to diverge quickly. Records that people had been buying ­ new or used ­ just to hear a piece of music became almost worthless, but the minority of 78s that had already been collectors' items when the medium became obsolete began to accelerate in value. That process, in general, has continued to the present day. While more marginal 'collectors' items' have fallen by the wayside, truly rare and valuable items have continued to appreciate in value.

The CD is now a decade and a half old. Ignoring the opinions of some critics and writers about the relative sound quality of CD vs LP ­ an issue I do not intend to engage ­ the great majority of the music-buying public in all fields has embraced the new medium with enthusiasm. Despite the small number of new LP issues and the cries of 'audiophiles', the LP is now thoroughly obsolete.

As recently as ten years ago, with the CD already well established, many people were still buying LPs for a variety of reasons: they were cheaper; the buyers had not yet bought CD players; and they preferred LPs because they liked the sound, or even the cover art. What this meant to my business was that, when I bought an LP collection, I could count on selling nearly everything in the collection for at least something. Alas, this is no longer true and, as a result, the price I can offer for LP collections has steadily decreased.

One of the reasons why I have been forced to offer less is that when records fail to sell through my mail order catalogues at my minimum price ($6.00 per single LP, $5.00 per LP in multi-record sets) I have to 'take them to the store'. I have a record concession at a large local second-hand book store, where I keep about 5,000 LPs on display, selling at two LPs for $2.25 or $2.25 per boxed set of any size (recently we sold someone an 18-LP set of Wagner's Ring cycle, with hardbound libretto, for $2.25). The owner of the store gets $1.00 out of every $2.25, which means that I realize 62 1/2 cents per single LP sold and even less for sets. I cannot leave the same records on display for ever, since we always have new ones to bring in and a lack of turnover would discourage the customers, so I remove records that do not sell after four or five months. We sell anything from half to two-thirds of the records we offer but the rest have to be given away. I should mention that all the records I take to the store are in good condition; damaged items are given away. You may wonder if my 90 per cent price cut on LPs sold through the store makes economic sense, but I have long since discovered that selling records through my catalogues for less than my minimum price makes no sense at all. It simply is not worth the trouble.

   A flea in the ear

Several months ago I was speaking to the owner of a large used record store. I mentioned to him my backlog of unsold 'store' records and how I was having trouble finding places to give them away without making great efforts. He invited me to bring a load of them to his shop, where he said I would get 35 cents per record in trade credit. Since he always has interesting records in stock, I agreed to make the 300-mile round trip. After I arrived at his store, however, he turned me over to his classical LP buyer, who began sorting through the material. When he was done, he had weeded the 1,500 LPs I had brought down to 600, for which he offered me $100. When I asked what I was supposed to do with the remaining records, he said the store gave records like that to someone who called every week for giveaways and sold them at flea markets. Rather than repack all those LPs, I left them. These worthless records are not what I would consider bad records. Most of them are not off-brand LPs by obscure orchestras. They are perfectly respectable recordings of fine music. But for a variety of reasons, they are not collectable.

   The valuable few

This change in the market has changed the nature of most record collections: the valuable items in them now form a disproportionate amount of their value. Even in a good collection, one I am still eager to buy, I may thumb through the records and pass ten in a row that I would not pay a dime for. Then I find the record that is worth several dollars to me. It is this leavening of really desirable records that makes the collection as a whole worth buying. And this is where my stern warning comes in: if you are selling your records, do not let anybody remove selected items. When I buy a collection, I explain this principle thoroughly. If I take my pick, or if anyone does, and we know what we are doing, the remaining records left behind will have virtually no value.

Let me explain. Several years ago, I drove a considerable distance to look at a collection I had been told included about 10,000 LPs. Before making the trip, I asked the owners, an elderly couple, if they had sold any records from the collection to anyone ­ a standard question. They assured me they had not. On seeing the records, I had no reason initially to doubt the count. (You can count LP records very quickly by taking an average of the number per foot. In most US collections, it is about 70, but UK collections may be denser because of thinner sleeves.) After exchanging pleasantries, I got to work looking through the collection; and after I had gone through the first thousand or so, I stopped and addressed the couple.

"You didn't tell me the truth", I said with confidence. "Who bought records from you?"
They began to sputter. "He didn't take very many", they assured me. "We felt so sorry for him because of his speech defect."
"Oh, Mel", I said.
"Yes, that was his name. Really, he didn't buy very many records."
"I hope he paid you very well for them," I said, "because he bought your whole collection." And I left. It would have been a marginal collection at best but, with the most valuable items removed, the remainder was simply not worth bothering with.

The only exceptions to this rule occur when someone is permitted to remove records relating to some special interest, or when the sellers have some special use for the remaining items. I once bought a wonderful collection which had been donated to a major orchestra. Its librarian removed the records by that orchestra. I would have loved to have them but she did not select records by their value, so the collection remained worthwhile. If the sellers tell me, "Our cousin wants the records, but we wanted to sell the valuable ones", I shall agree to buy only the valuable items. (This happens less and less often now. Most cousins have CD players.)

   One dealer's policy

With permission, I can quote the buying policy of Dave Canfield's Ars Antiqua business. This company, which issues monthly catalogues, is the only one I know of that explains its buying policy to customers. Canfield points out, however, that buying records this way is a special favour he extends only to his customers; in other words, he is paying more this way than normally: "Classical or jazz/blues records may be sent to us for sale or trade credit. We pay what records are worth to us; this is usually 25 per cent of our selling price if the record is mint and we think we can sell the record for at least $12.00 (per disc in case of multi-record sets). Otherwise, we will pay, at most, 10 per cent of our selling price. If we have unsold copies of the item you're selling us, or it has been a while since we've had a copy, we might not pay the full 25 per cent. For material that does not meet the $6.00 minimum price to be put on our Ars Antiqua or Jazz Antiqua lists, or is in less than A-condition, we likely cannot pay anything at all. Such material is usually donated to our public library." Many unsold records at my firm, Parnassus, go the same route, to our local public library, which sells them for 25 cents each. It seems like a fair price.

   Labour-intensive business

You may wonder why 25 per cent of the selling price ­ which might seem a very low figure to the uninitiated ­ is actually a fair buying price. Businesses which deal in used merchandise seldom pay more than this much, and often less. This kind of business is very labour-intensive; you might even consider it a hybrid of retail sales and service, as the dealer cannot simply sit in his office and order whatever merchandise he needs from a distributor.

I remember an article by an experienced used book dealer on how to start your own used book store. His advice was to start off paying no more than 20 per cent of your expected selling price for books. As you gained more experience, you could increase the amount to 25 per cent, as long as you were buying mostly books you had a reasonable chance of selling. Another used book dealer I know, who has more than half a century of experience, tells me he spends about 20 per cent of his yearly income on buying books, 70 per cent on labour and other expenses, and winds up with 10 per cent profit per year.

When Canfield buys collections, he goes through the records and computes the value to him of the valuable records in the collection, figuring at 20 to 25 per cent of his selling price. Then he evaluates the remainder at 25 to 50 cents each, depending on the collection. Although these figures may seem low, he has his choice of record collections to buy and usually has 30 to 40 collections waiting for him at any given time. People who run record shops tell me similar stories. As one example, the owner of one very large store, who had well over 200,000 records in stock, told me he never paid more than ten to 15 cents a record for collections. He did not have to, he said, because he was offered so much good material at that price and many other people were willing to give LPs to him just to get rid of them. A buyer at a large used record shop in the American Southwest told me recently that he had turned down a large collection of Russian Melodiya LPs offered to him at 50 cents a record because he simply did not have any market for them. (I asked him to find out if he could get them for me ...) In other words, it's a buyer's market.

When people call me with record collections for sale, I ask them several questions immediately. "How many records do you have?" or "how many feet of shelf space do they take up?" Unless the records are very close by, or I have reason to think that many of them are valuable, I usually won't travel to look at fewer than a thousand records. "When were the records purchased?" Most of the records I want to buy were made before 1970, with the exception of esoterica and unusual imports. "Do you know where the records were purchased?" Most large collections are in good condition, because even if they are careless people don't have the time to damage very many records. But I once turned down a collection of 20,000 records offered to me for $2,000 because they had all been purchased by someone who had not examined them carefully. I could have got more than $2,000 worth of records out of the collection but it was not worth the time and expense of transporting and sorting them.

   What should you do?

If you have records you want to sell, what should you do with them? I would say that the first thing is to investigate whether or not they are worth selling: look over your records and get some idea of what you have. How many records are there? What kind of condition are they in? What is the proportion of mono to stereo records? (Mono LPs which were issued only in that form can be valuable, but mono copies of stereo records are usually worth very little; admittedly it takes some experience to recognize these.) Do you know when they were purchased? It also helps to be able to summarize the type of music in the collection, if it lends itself to a summary. These days, for example, a collection of chamber music LPs from the early 1950s can be highly collectable, while a collection of major label complete opera sets from the 1970s is likely to be almost worthless.

Once you have such an idea, find a record dealer in your general area and give him or her a call. (I am not just being politically correct; there are now several women running excellent record businesses.) Introduce yourself, mention that you have a record collection for sale and offer the information I have suggested above. If you meet with a cordial reception, you may then want to arrange for a visit.

   Be honest

You should decide in advance how you feel about selling the records, and let the dealer know that. If you are simply trying to get them out of the house and you are likely to accept any reasonable offer, you should say so. (If you are dealing with someone reputable, offering this information should not have any effect on the offering price, but it may make the dealer more willing to make the trip.) If you are trying to maximize your selling price and you are planning to take competing bids, that is also fair enough; but you should certainly say so. If someone invites me to look at a collection and tells me after I arrive that I am there only to make a bid, I may not want to come back. You should also know that some dealers will not get involved in competitive bidding. If you let them know that they are in a competitive situation only after they have come to see the records, you will not get higher offers, only resentment for wasting their time.

Have realistic expectations. I once saw a superb collection sell for $6.00 per record (a price which proved ruinous to the buyer) but most classical LP collections are changing hands these days for $1.00 per record or less. If your collection is filled with the most desirable rarities ­ early stereo 'audiophile' LPs, for example, or LPs by major violinists from the late 1940s and early 1950s, all in prime condition ­ it should bring considerably more. But if it is a typical collection, with gems interspersed widely among run-of-the-mill items, you have to remember that the buyer will be paying mostly for the gems.

I have heard of some people who bought classical LP records as an investment. This is never a good idea unless you are an experienced dealer ­ and sometimes not even then. I feel sorry for anyone who spent a lot of money on audiophile LPs ­ as did one customer of mine in California ­ because he expected them to be a good investment. Most of them have lost a considerable part of their value over the past two years. Even dealers can sometimes make serious mistakes. One of the most prosperous classical LP dealers in the business recently bought a very expensive item from another dealer for well under its highest recorded selling price. He then offered it at auction and, at last report, his highest bid was about a third of what he paid for it.

Depending on your financial and tax situation, you may sometimes find it more worthwhile to give your records away than to sell them. You can seldom find institutions that are still willing to take LP collections as a permanent part of their libraries. But many libraries, public radio stations and other institutions are happy to accept LPs to sell for their support. You will have to consult a knowledgeable tax adviser to find out if this kind of donation will be worthwhile for you, and how much you will have to spend to get a reliable appraisal. In the United States, you generally cannot claim any higher value than the records are sold for. Sometimes it actually pays to have a dealer buy the records of value and to give away the others.

Whatever your situation, if you have LP records to dispose of, I wish you the best of luck. As you will have gathered it's not an easy task. I just sold off a considerable number of unwanted records from my own collection through my business, so I know what it is like. At least they are going to places where someone will appreciate them.

© 1998 Gramophone Publications Limited

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