My sense is that collectibles in general, including coins and comic books (not sure the analog of comic books existed in the 19th century) are worth far more by any measure, even taking inflation into account, than they were in the past. I recall seeing prices from a 1940s coin book (the red book that i would guess is still being printed) and prices of even the top coins were remarkably low. I know that railroad tycoons would buy old masters on trips to Europe and my sense was that 100k was probably the top end but it might have been much, much lower. 300 million dollars, for like a Da Vinci or a Van Gogh, is still, reduced for inflation, 10 million or so in the 19th century and I suspect that kind of money was never spent on paintings then.

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No, prices paid for luxury collector items into the early 20th century were nothing like what we've seen in more recent decades, even adjusting for inflation.

In their book The Development of the Art Market in England: Money as Muse, 1730–1900, Thomas Bayer and John Page analyze a database of paintings auctioned in England between 1709 and 1913. The highest price they found for any such transaction was £24,250. I'm not able to determine the year but if we assume it's a very early one from c. 1710 or c. 1750 (unlikely), that wasn't much more than £4-5 million in today's money. This is a full order of magnitude below record-breaking transactions regularly seen since at least the 1980s.

This should not be surprising. As the overall wealth in society increases over time, naturally luxury markets have as well. This is not just at the high end. The middle classes have grown from near-nothing before the Industrial Revolution, and so new markets for an ever-more diverse range of collectible itemse continue to emerge.

  • Interesting amount. The sites which discuss value of money historically would have 20k pounds sometimes (based on various metrics) I think a lot more than 5 million. The buying power of money is deceptive since what was purchasable was not equivalent. The idea that, for example, Vanderbilt was worth 100 billion, was based on percentage of all money he held or something.
    – releseabe
    Jun 20, 2020 at 4:13
  • I went by the Bank if England's inflation calculator, but yeah, there's probably other ways to calculate that.
    – Brian Z
    Jun 20, 2020 at 13:56
  • i've seen that calculator. it is really a complex subject with i feel no precise answers. i always think, sure, vanderbilt had vast wealth but he also never flew on a plane or could make a phone call or have air conditioning or even eat foods of the quality and variety available to the average person today.
    – releseabe
    Jun 20, 2020 at 14:05

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