Collecting Can Mean Big Bucks

Lots of people love collecting their favorite things. Whether it's stamps, Beanie Babies or snow globes, collecting passes the time and gives us something to pour our time and energy into besides things of actual importance, such as work or family.

But what if you discovered all of that "me time" was actually a prudent investment and efficient use of your time? The first thing to do would probably be to act justifiably smug to all of your friends and family who belittled your dedication.

The next step might be to consider just how much value you have at your fingertips or in your shoebox, as the case may be.

While of course this doesn't mean you should bank an early retirement on your rock collection, there is potential value in many items otherwise only good for looking at.

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A widely circulated story is that eBay began as a way for the founder's fiancee to capitalize on her hobby of collecting Pez dispensers. One reason the tall tale might have been considered a possible truth was because Pez dispensers can indeed bring quite a bit in value. Original "Star Wars" character dispensers can be worth $400 to $500, while other older, more obscure ones can fetch thousands of dollars.

So, what other collectibles can help pad your bank account?

Rollin' the Dough

They're brought out for victories, new fathers and at family gatherings by your mustachioed uncle. While cigars aren't for everyone, their allure and propensity to be smoked make for a disciplined investment.

"As with all wasting assets, the longer you can hold on to your investment, the scarcer it will become," says Daniel Wade, editor of Paul Fraser Collectibles' news service. "Willpower is a key player in this sector."

To aid self-restraint, try buying two boxes -- one to enjoy and one to sell later with an added return. And if you're just getting started, be prepared for a significant initial investment.

"As with most areas of collectibles, it's at the very top end of the sector where the greatest price appreciation can be seen -- which isn't great news for those wishing to invest without a major outlay," Wade says.

To blow even more smoke in the face of your aspirations, Wade says handmade Cuban cigars are "the only way to go for investment purposes." If you happen to have any legal Cuban cigars (pre-1962 embargo) on hand, some estimates put a box of 100 at around $20,000.

Wade says 10% is a solid annual return on high-end cigars, while the most prestigious labels can fetch up to 20%.

Babe Ruth as Your Investor

Though collecting baseball cards isn't nearly as popular as in its heyday a quarter century ago, the hobby may mean a mortgage or college tuition is sitting in your dusty attic, provided your collection is from the right era.

"I don't buy anything from after 1969," says Alan Rosen, aka "Mr. Mint," who has been a sports card buyer for three decades and just last year spent $5 million on cards and memorabilia. "Mickey Mantle can't strike out anymore and Sandy Koufax can't lose any more games."

Rosen is referring to the heavy fluctuation of modern cards, such as a superstar's valuable rookie card going bust after a steroids allegation.

"A guy pitches a one-hitter and his card goes up to a dollar, then he loses the next game and it goes down to 10 cents again. It's like playing the stock market and you have to stay on your toes," he says.

If you're just starting out, Rosen emphasizes that baseball cards are "far and away" the bestsellers. Try focusing on a niche.

"If you choose a path and concentrate on it, you can do well right now," says Rosen, who has averaged 21% returns. "Dealers would come to you."

'California Island' Could Pay for That Pool

Satellite-guided maps might be more accurate and convenient than their paper counterparts, but have you ever tried hanging a GPS receiver as a wall decoration? It is older maps' aesthetic appeal, along with their importance as historical artifacts, that has a lot to do with their increasing value, says Philip Curtis, director of The Map House of London.

"The original limited supply," he says, "further reduced by the vulnerability of paper over the centuries, has meant that prices have risen steadily. This trend seems set to continue."

Cartography is similar to most other collectible hobbies in that it is important to establish a focus, be it region, time period or style. Curtis says that while centuries-old maps (such as those showing California as an island) tend to have high values, they can be cost-prohibitive for early collectors.

"The single most important piece of advice is to buy the very best you can," he says. "This doesn't have to mean the most expensive -- it's generally better to buy a superb copy of a moderately important map than a poor copy of a superb one."

Early explorative maps of Africa, for example, can sometimes be found for around $100. There is certainly money in maps, however; the value of a complete Ortelius atlas is worth almost $313,000 today.

Dog-Earring Benjamins

"To be blunt, books are a terrible investment," says John Windle, an antiquarian bookseller. "It is absolutely the last resort of discretionary income or the passion of a mad person."

Wait, what? Windle, who has been collecting books for 45 years, says the great unpredictability of book values keeps collecting sharks at bay. That means that your personal library is more likely to act like a savings account, appreciating "slowly and steadily." But why the uncertainty?

"Every book is unique and it sells at a unique time," he says. "There was a time when you couldn't give F. Scott Fitzgerald away. Now (first editions) can sell for a couple hundred thousand dollars."

Windle says the popularity and value of authors and genres is determined significantly by zeitgeist, particularly political and economic climates. During democratic administrations, works by Henry David Thoreau see spikes, while Republicans benefit from values associated with Ayn Rand.

"It waxes and wanes," Windle says.

If you have the funds or inventory, rare books can average 9% annually over 20 years, according to Paul Fraser Collectibles, and there are occasional blockbusters.

In July, an autographed first edition of C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" sold at auction for nearly $47,000, up 74% over the book's previous record set two years prior.

CD-ROM > CD?

And all this time you thought you were doing your niece a favor by holding on to that 1998 desktop computer in your garage for her college career. No, it turns out that hunk of plastic, metal and 32 megabytes of memory might have one more gift for you, as vintage computing is gaining resale value in certain square-shaped markets.

We have officially reached an age in collecting when hilariously primitive personal computers are fetching large figures, as an Apple-1 (the company's original model) sold at auction in November 2010 for more than $213,000.

The excitement has led to the creation of hip collecting groups, such as the Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists -- that's March to you, buddy. The group's leader, Evan Koblentz, has said early Apple models, such as the Lisa, which sold in 1983 for $10,000, could "easily" fetch $15,000 on the market today.

It's a young enough market that expected returns are still largely unknown, but Koblentz says it's a safe bet that computers from the mid-1980s and earlier will be coveted by wealthy tech types. That cutoff date is sure to move up over time, so maybe your niece is in luck after all.