Traditional auction categories like Old Master Paintings, Classic Cars, Wine and Contemporary Art have brisk and growing competition from new kids on the auction block — vintage Lego, Pokémon Cards, Polaroid Cameras and Casio Watches. And the interest is coming from the new kids on the collecting block — Millennials and Generation Z.
The world’s leading auction search engine, Barnebys, with 3,000 auction house clients internationally, did a deep dive into its data to analyse the surprising trends of 2022, and to discuss how the next generation of collectors will shape the auction industry over the years to come.
Art, jewellery and watches are perennial favourites at auction, but each year brings its own trends and new top-sellers. In 2022, buyers sought out items with a retro appeal like Pokémon cards, vintage cameras and Casio watches. Younger users were a driving force behind these niche trends, but their impact doesn’t stop there.
It’s hard to pin an exact reason behind any given auction trend, but younger users entering the market have undoubtedly influenced which items become popular. Millennial and Gen Z users have increased over 200% on Barnebys since 2019, which aligns with the higher interest in ‘90s items like Pokémon cards and Casio watches. These users seem to crave a return to the nostalgia of their childhood, and they now have the disposable income to afford it.
However, retro collectibles aren’t the younger set’s singular focus — in 2022, users aged 18-24 increased by 14% in Antiques, 322% in Watches and 46% in furniture compared to 2021. This indicates that the next generation of buyers is interested in a variety of categories and is active in the second-hand market. And where might one find these cards, cameras, watches and retro Lego items? Favourite hunting grounds include antique shops, junk shops, car boot sales and auctions.
In April 2022 the boxer and social media personality Logan Paul purchased a rare Pokémon Illustrator card for $5.275 million, setting the record for the most expensive individual card ever sold. However, sealed sets of cards frequently go for high prices at auction as well. One set of wrapped first-edition Neo Genesis Pokémon cards listed on Barnebys sold for over $26,000 in 2022, offering buyers the opportunity to find a rare mint-condition card or two inside. Sealed sets give buyers the ‘thrill of the chase’, and many YouTubers even post unboxing videos of retro Pokémon cards and Magic: The Gathering cards for their viewers to vicariously enjoy.
Trading cards have long held an appeal for everyone from kids on the playground to adults on the auction floor. However, they experienced a notable uptick in popularity at auction last year, peaking in December 2022. One of Barnebys’ largest categories is Sports & Leisure, and the majority of the over 500,000 items listed in 2022 were trading cards.
Sports cards are a constant ‘wanted item’ in the trading card industry due to their ever-changing rarity and value. Baseball cards are increasingly sought worldwide, while UK shoppers seek football (soccer) cards and US searchers also look for American football cards.
Even though sports cards dominate the trading card market, a new category has recently been making significant headway — Pokémon cards. Barnebys saw an increase in searches for ‘Pokémon cards’ in 2022 in both the US and UK markets, which correlates with general market trends for the same search.
Although the Pokémon Trading Card Game (PTCG) is collectible by design, with rare and limited-edition cards released since its initial publication in 1996, individual cards only recently made the jump from binder sleeves to investment collections. This market saw a massive boom during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as people turned toward nostalgic pastimes and looked for alternative investments, but the industry is still experiencing an uptick in popularity.
Since 2019, interest in Barnebys’ Toys & Collectibles category overall has increased by 40%. One possible reason for this is our changing user base — users between the ages of 18 and 34 have increased by over 200% during the same period. Besides having a nostalgic appeal, purchasing these items may be a way to recapture a time that buyers feel they missed out on. Now that younger users are entering the workforce and have disposable incomes, they’re able to invest in items like rare Pokémon cards that they weren’t able to attain as children.
In 2022, buyers sought unique ways to capture new memories. Film photography offers Thanks to smartphones, most people carry a camera in their pocket that produces sharper images than many full-size cameras of yesteryear. However, clarity isn’t everything. Barnebys visitors actively searched for cameras in 2022, which aligns with increased interest in the Google search term ‘vintage camera’. UK searchers in particular looked for vintage Polaroid cameras, film cameras and even video cameras.
Regular Polaroids can sell for under a $100 to a few hundred but for Polaroids that belong to celebrities sell for thousands, like Andy Warhol’s camera which sold for $12,800. Warhol famously admired Polaroid cameras, and the "Big Shot" model was said to be his favourite. During the 1970s and 1980s, Warhol took Polaroids of numerous celebrities, including rock icons John Lennon, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Diana Ross and others. The Polaroid photos were then often utilized to create silkscreens that were used to print many of Warhol’s most quintessential portraits.
Polaroid cameras have a timeless appeal due to the instant gratification of quick development, as well as their clunky but cool aesthetic. Although the company stopped making instant film, The Impossible Project started producing new film for vintage Polaroid cameras in 2008, making it easy for photographers to buy materials. Classic brands like Kodak and Canon also ranked highly as organic search terms, and compatible film is readily available. Reliable and widely circulated, these cameras are relatively easy to find and simple for beginning hobbyists to use.
Barnebys’ Photography category as a whole grew 78% when compared to 2019, while interest in the Camera category increased by 23% in the same period. Film photography is increasingly popular among most generations, particularly Gen X (57-42-year-olds) and Gen Z (25-11-year-olds). While Gen X’s interest can be attributed to nostalgia, most members of Gen Z grew up with digital cameras and smartphone cameras rather than film cameras. In their case, artistry and ephemerality may be driving forces.
Digital photography is as simple as ‘point and shoot’, and any errors or lighting mistakes can be fixed in Photoshop. Film, however, has a natural variance, and that element of chance is what makes it so enticing. Some photographers even seek out expired film, which can create unique photographs with unpredictable shifts in colour, tone, contrast, clarity and grain once it’s developed. There are phone apps that mimic film cameras, either by adding a filter or only letting you take a limited amount of pictures, but they’re not the real deal.
We saw a trend of younger users seeking out analogue items in 2021, with things like stamp and coin collections, vinyl records and physical books gaining traction at auction. Vintage film cameras continued this trend richer images, a therapeutic and artistic process and physical copies that digital just can’t match.
Watches have always been one of Barnebys’ top categories, and this trend continued in 2022 with around 850,000 items listed in Watches & Clocks. This reflects the larger auction industry, as watches and collectible timepieces are valued for their workmanship and form a high-performing category. Luxury watches specifically, including brands like Rolex, Patek Philipe and Omega exploded in popularity over the pandemic as buyers looked for alternative investments. In 2022, however, a more accessible brand came to the forefront — Casio.
Founded in 1946, Casio didn’t start producing watches until 1974. Their chunky and utilitarian designs are a far cry from those of ultra-high-end brands like Cartier, but that is their appeal. Although Rolex is the gold standard for watches, Casio’s Google search interest rose above that of luxury brands including Omega, Cartier and Seiko in 2022. Marketed as ‘The Unbreakable Watch’, the Casio G-Shock is adored by watch enthusiasts worldwide and has graced the wrists of celebrities including Rihanna, Spike Lee and Justin Bieber.
The majority of Casio watches listed on Barnebys in 2022 sold for under $180, making them extremely affordable compared to the eye-watering prices that luxury watches achieve. Prices go in the thousands for the rarest models and one watch once sold for $1,800. This makes them an appealing choice for conscious shoppers — Casio watches are known for their reliability, and they’re not so expensive that you’re worried about scratching them if you wear them every day. Their chunky ‘90s-style designs also feed into the design for authentic retro items, and they’re almost an antithesis to the sleek, minimal smartwatches that have become popular in recent years.
Vintage Lego and Toys
In keeping with our other trends, searches including the keyword ‘retro’ increased over 2022. Some had to do with nostalgic hobbies, like ‘retro Lego’. The iconic building blocks were originally made in Europe from cellulose acetate rather than ABS plastic, and a large lot of Legos from the 1950s and 1960s in their original packaging listed on Barnebys sold for £1,915 in December 2022, a whopping 499% above estimate. Lego also periodically releases limited-edition kits that get snapped up in stores, resulting in high prices at auction just a few years later.
Other popular keywords, like ‘retro sneakers’ and ‘retro Nike’, were related to fashion. Similarly, brands frequently collaborate with sports icons to release limited-edition designs that quickly become collector's items. Some shoes, like a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s signed by Michael Jordan that sold at Sotheby’s for over £98,000 in December 2022, are clearly never meant to be worn. Other models, though, are prized in street fashion for their style and rarity.
‘Retro’ means something a bit different to a sneakerhead than to the average collector. Instead of meaning an item is vintage, it indicates that the shoes are a new release in a colourway or with a design element that was introduced after the style’s original (OG) release. Although vintage OG sneakers also hold an appeal for collectors, the materials degrade over time, causing the shoes to crumble or break apart if they’re worn. Therefore, fashion-forward collectors looking to beef up their closets opt for newer releases to wear.
One of Barnebys' founders, Pontus Silferstolpe, comments: “It’s always difficult to pinpoint the reasons behind specific auction trends, but an influx of young buyers has had a definite impact on the market. We see '90s items like Casio watches and Pokémon becoming very in-demand, which correlates with Barnebys' over 200% increase in Millennial and Gen Z users. Although their interest in nostalgic items is notable, we've also seen that these age groups are actively interested in antiques, watches, and furniture. The next generations are clearly comfortable shopping on the secondhand market, and they are likely to continue buying at auction even as their interests expand and change over time."
“Besides having authentic vintage appeal, shoppers may tend towards retro items for their quality as well as environmental friendliness. A 2019 report from Forbes found that the majority of Gen Zs prefer to buy sustainable products, and you can’t get more sustainable than buying secondhand items. While purchasing new items retail used to be a point of pride, there’s now an element of shame in selecting new pieces that created waste and pollution during their production. Buying secondhand, therefore, is a way to indulge in unique and environmentally-friendly items. Plus, when buyers select well-made pieces, they’ll last a lifetime.”
2022 was a record year for the auction industry, with sales prices remaining high and climbing even higher in certain categories. We expect this growth to continue as new buyers and sellers join the industry. New auction houses continue to open, many of which are founded by young sellers, and younger shoppers are starting to explore the auction world.
The information-seeking generation is entering the market, and they’ll expect transparency, accuracy and access to expert knowledge in their future transactions.
Since digital natives are used to shopping online and purchasing items with the click of a button, the auction industry must continue to digitise. Barnebys has experienced a 10% increase in mobile use since 2019, and shoppers, particularly younger users, will continue to use their smartphones and tablets to browse auctions and make purchases.
Many auction houses were forced to make the leap to online sales when the pandemic rendered in-person auctions impossible, but there are always ways to streamline and upgrade the digital shopping experience to make it more user-friendly. Besides offering greater convenience to buyers, online auctions make it possible to reach collectors all over the world. This benefits buyers and sellers alike, because it’s easier than ever to connect ready-to-purchase shoppers with the items they seek.
Young, computer-savvy users are an up-and-coming force in the auction market, and although their current interest in retro collectibles is notable, they are future buyers in all categories. Shopping for niche items is just an introduction to the auction process, and as they become familiar and comfortable with it they’ll begin to broaden their collecting horizons. As younger buyers gain greater disposable income and begin purchasing homes and apartments, they will increasingly search for art, antiques, and classic furniture designs that appeal to their unique tastes.
The hobbies and passions of younger generations will inform which collectibles become popular, and retro pieces will likely continue to see a lot of interest in the coming years. However, only when the over-consumed becomes rare is it valued. Mass-produced toys are uncommon because so many were played with, and retail watches were usually worn until they wore out. While shoppers will opt for new items if their quality has decreased over time, high-quality pieces last and make their way to the auction world. Finding well-preserved vintage items can be a challenge, but buyers are clearly up to the task. For now, it might be worth taking a look through a few old toy boxes in your garage or closet. Who knows? You might find a treasure.