Question of the Day: What Boomerangs in Value?

Our latest podcast, “Weird Recycling,” is about the unlikely reuse of cast-off items. A reader named Gavin Castleton just happened to write in with an appealing riddle in the same vein:

Has there ever been a good/product whose value was reduced to zero, but somehow rose again? If so, could you shed any light on the market dynamics or social catalysts that revived it?

To put my question in context: I’m researching the music industry’s rocky transition from goods to services (download/physical goods to streaming music subscription services). Journalists, industry folk, and consumers are all quite fond of declaring “Music will be free. It’s obvious and inevitable.” But I started to wonder if it really was all that inevitable. So I started looking for other examples of a product that lost its monetary value completely, but somehow returned from the dead.

Fascinating question. My mind immediately goes to a category of technologies that are driven toward obsolescence but maintain or recapture cachet with a small group of buyers — vinyl records, Kodachrome and Polaroid film, etc. But those aren’t very good examples.

How about thalidomide? For those who don’t know, it’s a sedative that was discontinued after it was found to cause birth defects, but then got a second life treating leprosy and other ailments.

How about Bobby Valentine‘s managerial services? Or Newt Gingrich‘s governing services? Or Steve Jobs‘s CEO services at Apple?

I haven’t done very well answering Gavin’s question, I’m afraid. But I am guessing that you all can come up with many more and much better examples for him?


mph

Mummified Egyptian cats. They were ground up as fertilizer in the late 1800s.

Matt

"Greek and Roman pottery" is a similar answer; many of the pots excavated and put on display at museums come from literal garbage dumps. Possibly not the timeframe Gavin was looking for.

Art and design generally can have this profile; think of how bland mid-20th-century middle class domestic architecture is now being landmarked just because it is a good example of mid-20th-century middle class domestic architecture.

Steffen

One doesn't need to go back for millenia. As far as I know, there are now companies making good money by foraging the old garbage dumps of the 1960s and 1970s for valuable materials, like copper or aluminum. A coca cola aluminum can which was worthless in the 60s now constitutes again material value in times of dwindling natural resources.

Andrew Hall

Leeches.

Henry Fiallo

Hush Puppies. Established in 1958, the brand faded by the 1990s, selling just 30,000 pairs in 1994. A resurgence, fueled by the rediscovery of the shoes by young people at clubs in New York (I think I read somewhere that a rapper wore them onstage and re-ignited their popularity. So square they were cool), led to sales of 430,000 pairs by 1995.

Eric

Fryer Oil. Businesses used to pay services to cart it away. The advent of biodiesel made it vaulable.

Brazzy

One very interesting example: certain bonds issued by the Weimar Republic whose payment was put on hold after World War II until Germany would be reunited. Their market value was probably not strictly zero, but close - until things happened rather quickly in 1989.

Steffen

Two fashionable things from the "Belle Epoque" era come to my mind:

- Absinthe. Banned in most countries around 1915 because of its alleged dangerous psychoactive properties, total disappearance afterwards. Revival since 1990 when it was shown that its dangerous potential was grossly exaggerated. Not widespread, but a liqueur like any other in Europe now.

- Lacing Corsets. Nearly complete disappearance as women's underwear during the decades of women liberation, survived only in niches like historical movies. Had a significant comeback in the last decade.

Mike B

Both are bad examples because there was never a sustained period of time when either of those products were given away for free. Lack of popularity or use is not the same as having a price drop to nothing. There isn't an Absinthe spring somewhere where people could just fill up their jug. If someone ever did want Absinthe they would still have to pay for it to be produced, possibly even a premium due to its illegality.

CB

Real estate values can go to zero only to become valuable again later. For instance, real property in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now valuable despite being worthless the day after the atomic bombs were dropped.

DaveyNC

Pretty much anything that becomes collectible. Old cars, baseball cards, old coins, stamps, whatever.

Now, how about some things that we would like to see become valuable again? I want my Vioxx back.

Eric M. Jones.

Polaroids SX-70. All the Polaroids are worthless (with few exceptions such as their studio camera) but the SX-70 achieved a following by artists and art schools because of the way the emulsion could be manipulated.

But many early manufactured items have boomeranged. when they became collectible.

Rob

John Travolta's career... maybe it's a bit more like a yo-yo than a boomerang.

Mike B

There are any number of industrial byproducts that use to have zero or negative value that then got a boost when recycling technologies changed or some natural resources was depleted to the point where the value for the former waste product recovered. An easy one that comes to mind are tyres. Before radials were invented our country was drowning in used tire dumps with billions of discarded tyres polluting the landscape. After long lasting radial tyres were invented demand for new tyres shrank (which reduced the supply of waste types) and people realized that one could burn tyres as a cheap fuel source in many industrial processes. Old type dumps are now largely a thing of the past and if you have large piles hanging around you can probably sell them for money.

Anyway just because some things can rebound in price, doesn't mean that everything will, especially after technological displacement. Look at the cost of 4 function pocket calculators or ink pens or pencils or interstate highways.

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Donnie

Urban real-estate?

James

Almost anything in the antique trade. Or for an extreme example, a beverage can tossed in a National Forest today is litter, and the tosser could be fined, while one tossed 50 or 100 years ago is an historic artifact, and you can be fined for picking it up.

Rob R

I just read that some outlets in St. Louis were giving away Albert Pujols merchandise. What about players who leave a team and then return? Maybe Allen Iverson on his second stint in Philly as an example?

CB

Those items still have value (basic clothing), they're just no longer valuable for their intended purpose (supporting a player/team). There's an old story about U.S. peacekeepers driving into towns in Bosnia and seeing tshirts that said "Super Bowl Champion Buffalo Bills" - the shirts were obviously donated to charity after the Bills lost and have value to their recipients.

Steffen

Oil shale, where at least in the US the industry completely collapsed in the 1980s after a peak in the 70s. The last retort closed in 1991, because of the abundant availability of conventional oil in this decade, oil shale became completely uneconomical. Oil shale is making a slow, but steady comeback since the mid-2000s, since conventional oil becomes more and more scarce.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_oil_shale_industry#1970s.E2.80.931980s