Think marbles are just child's play?
Although the speedy little spheres have been popular toys for thousands of years, today's marble collectors are prepared to lay down some decidedly grown-up quantities of coin for these colorful trinkets.
But what differentiates an everyday glass bauble from a thousand-dollar one-off? Like many collectibles, it's a combination of condition, rarity, demand, and vintage -- but there are five standout classes that consistently draw the big bucks.
Roosevelt marbleIn fact, the biggest bucks drawn for a marble is one of this rare variety.
There's nothing better for collector value than ceasing production -- and nobody's been turning out these desirable clear baubles for nearly a century. Cunningly, they contain tiny porcelain figures -- usually white, although sometimes colored ones pop up -- depicting animals, mythological characters, famous buildings, and the like. Among the most collectible of marbles, good-condition examples with desirable, detailed figurines can easily fetch prices around $1,000.
At the top end? A 1900 marble containing a bust of Theodore Roosevelt, which recently sold at auction for $4,500.
German Swirl marbleThough the name makes them sound like a punishment meted out in a high school bathroom, the truth is a little more matter-of-fact. German swirls are glass marbles with a swirled pattern suspended in the center, handmade in Germany from around 1850 to 1930 or so.
And the bigger the marble, the more it's worth. Figure on anything from $10-20 for a ⅝", everyday example to several thousand for a large, finely detailed German swirl in mint condition.
Agate marbleWhile it's glass that tends to be the most sought after material for marble collectors, agate -- a variety of quartz -- has its fans, too.
They originally shot to popularity among serious marbles players thanks to their weight and hardness, the perfect combination for knocking lesser marbles out of play.
Chiefly made in Germany and the USA, their manufacturing process was labor-intensive and hazardous; the fine dust produced by the grinding machines made workers particularly susceptible to tuberculosis, and many died young as a result. This made them expensive to buy, and they remain valuable today, with good quality larger examples fetching as much as $200 a pop.
Lutz marbleCharacterized by their lustrous swirls of golden metallic crystals, Lutz marbles take their name from French glassblower Nicholas Lutz, who worked out of a glass company in Sandwich, Massachusetts, and pioneered the use of "goldstone" (copper aventurine, a form of glass bearing tiny copper crystals) in many of his works.
Lutz probably never made marbles himself, but after he died in 1906 his ideas would be adopted by European factories, and for a brief period in the early 20th century, glitzy "Lutz marbles" were plentiful and cheap. Thanks to World War I, that didn't last, and today Lutz marbles are rare collector's items. Once again, the key to value is condition, size, and design: even a basic Lutz is worth around $100, while larger and more intricate examples can run well into four figures.
China marblesThat's "china" the ceramic, not the country. European craftsmen began fashioning marbles from porcelain around the turn of the 19th century; handpainted and with a high-temperature glaze, they were both attractive and durable.
Designers came up with numerous patterns, including painted geometric shapes, flowers, and bullseyes, but particularly sought-after are the so-called "scenic" chinas, which depict pastoral scenes around the equator of the marble and have pinwheel patterns at either end. However, only a few pastorals survive, and consequently good examples can fetch as much as $10,000. If you can find them. Which you probably can't.