It shouldn't take long for a budding marble collector to discover the chief rule of marble collecting: Condition is everything.
As an untutored new collector, I learned this lesson the hard way. Once the collecting fever took hold, I craved old marbles. The more the merrier. I can remember driving hours to buy giant lots of marbles. I would grab handfuls and look at them as I drove home. Condition was an afterthought to me. I was too excited admiring and discovering the variety and beauty of these little glass globes.
Gradually, as I was exposed to all the styles and makers, my excitement died down. After so much admiring and discovering and sorting, I began noticing a factor common to most of the marbles I paid (and overpaid) for: most of my marbles were pretty beat up. A handful, however, were not beat up and these were the ones I cherished. The contrast was so glaring between the pristine, mint condition marbles and the general populace of battle-scarred veterans, that I began to feel like something of a gold miner. I had sifted through an enormous amount of ore only to discover a few prize nuggets.
Had I been exposed earlier on to veteran collectors or marble shows, I might have learned the rule sooner, but eventually the light bulb finally stayed on. Having obsessed over the production and history and culture of marbles, I realized why mint condition vintage marbles are so precious. Not only are they as beautiful as the day they were made; they also are miraculous survivors.
Consider the doomed life of the average glass marble. To survive in mint, like-new condition it must by some series of miracles be spared its natural fate as a toy marble. Not only was it cheap to buy, it was sold to boys for a game that was played in the dirt and whose object was to violently strike other marbles. It would be a minor miracle if they managed to stay unblemished for a week, much less 30, 70 or 100 years or more.
But some did survive, tucked away in closets and attics, some even in their original boxes. Others were tossed into jars of older marbles and never played with, as the game of marbles lost its appeal.
And so every marble collector learns very quickly from buying up lots of marbles in the "wild" that most old marbles are damaged from play and from the vicissitudes of rough storage.
When you finally get a mint condition marble and compare it to a damaged one, the differences are stunning. The damaged ones, for all their faded glory, simply cannot compare to the glistening "wet" mint marble looking like the day it was made. When you finally get your hands on one and really appreciate it, then you realize these are not mere toys, but works of art.
This explains why collectors might pay, say, $80 for a single marble in mint condition, but would not pay $10 for the same marble with one small chip in it. This principle applies throughout the antiques world, but for these delicate glass beauties it is especially true.
If I had to do it all over again, I would certainly have paid a lot less for those lots of beat up marbles I was so excited to get. But I don't regret the experiences. It was an exciting and fun way to learn, but these days I am very unforgiving of damage on marbles. I still appreciate them for what they represent. Holding a damaged marble, I can almost hear the shouts of boys knuckling down and the nick of glass upon glass.
But when I hold a mint, undamaged marble, I see a fragile object of art frozen in time, born of fire and factory, spared its common fate. For sheer beauty alone they are worthy of being collected and displayed, but they are layered with so much history and nostalgia that the effect is dizzying.
I can feel the fever rising again. I need more marbles!