Collectibility as a stand-alone division is a fairly new concept in the hobby. When I first started live showing in 1991, halter classes were only split into OF and RRH (aka customs). Resins were almost unknown, and everything OF was fair game in the OF classes---Breyers, Hartlands, Hagen-Renakers, Beswicks, etc. Most people showed only Breyers, with Hartlands and especially chinas being a rarity. Judging for OFs was a mix of breed standards and rarity, and which was weighted more depended entirely on the judge. For example, I used to win regularly with the Monrovia HRs my grandmother gave me because they were both well-conformed as well as rare (relatively speaking at that time, anyway). Furthermore, it was not unusual to see a horse like a Hartland Regal Saddlebred or a Florentine 5-Gaiter win a gaited class despite anatomical abnormalities or an unrealistic color because they were the rarest models on the table. Halter judging was hugely subjective to say the least.
(The Regal Hartland ASB puts the fun in funky, but she's not quite what most Saddlebred fanciers would consider well-conformed.)
It was not until the late 1990s that judging OFs based on the ABCs (anatomy, biomechanics/breed standard, and conformation) as well as collectibility began to fall out of favor. Customs, resins, and chinas were judged by the ABCs, so following suit in OF plastic halter was a logical continuation of the trend. At NAN in 1998 and 1999, a few token collectibility classes were added to the OF Plastic division to deal with decorators and woodgrains. But it was not until 2001 that OF plastic collectibility was recognized as a necessary division in its own right with OF china collectibility following the next year in 2002. Since then, both divisions have grown exponentially, and most live shows these days offer halter and collectibility divisions split out between Breyers, Stones, and chinas (and occasionally Hartlands, too).
So that said, how is collectibility judged in the hobby and what makes a model collectible?
Some might argue that collectibility can be equated with the biggest price tag or the highest perceived value, and while that is sometimes the case, it just as often isn’t true. I personally usually equate collectibility with rarity. That is my primary criterion when judging. I also factor in age, desirability, and to a lesser degree, condition.
Rarity is pretty much self-explanatory. Models made in limited numbers are hard to find, old or new. The more limited, the better usually. However, because one-of-a-kind models are surprisingly easy to acquire these days, a OOAK model is not necessarily better or more rare (in terms of perception) than a model of which 2 or 3 or even 10 examples are known.
Age is important because while some models were not necessarily made in small numbers, they may have been made 40 or 50 years ago and few have survived to make it into collectors' hands. Newer rare models can often be acquired with a little patience and a willingness to pay the going rate. Older rare models are often much harder to acquire because few are known, and those that are known are often in "black hole" collections. Old and rare usually trumps new and rare.
Desirability can definitely play a role in collectibility as well. Certain molds and models have more cachet than others, like vintage decorators, for example. Some models even obtain a sort of legendary status because of their rarity and interesting history, such as the wedgewood Longhorn or the $13,500 test run palomino Alborozo.
Condition is my last and least important consideration for several reasons. First, most showers these days know to bring only their best models, and those with noticeable scratches or dings usually remain at home, so condition is rarely an issue. Secondly, the chances of condition being the tie-breaker in collectibility are pretty slim. There are almost always more important factors that will sort the entries out (i.e. the three criteria discussed above). And thirdly, many models that show in collectibility are old, some more than 50 years old, and I am more than willing to forgive a few minor condition issues if the piece is clearly superior to what else is on the table. The same can be applicable to newer rare models. Ear tip rubs or hoof rubs are of little importance in the grand scheme of things.
So all that having been said, the point of the collectibility division is to celebrate those unique models that do not fit into the usual breed classes but that are still highly desirable to many collectors. Things like decorators, woodgrains, lamps, clocks, night lights, horse and rider sets, test runs, and OOAKs are typical collectibility entries as well as models with original ephemera such as boxes, hang tags, and stickers.
Becoming a good judge of collectibility requires immersion in the subject and a fascination with the history and minutiae of the companies and models involved. Thankfully, model horse hobbyists have written a number of excellent reference books on the various makes available. I'll make my recommended reading list the subject of my next post.