Rob Cooper is reportedly the #1 top seller of collectible pipes on eBay.
If you are a pipe collector purchasing items on eBay, then this is probably not news to you. Personally, I’m more of a pipe smoker than a pipe collector, however, I did find Rob Cooper’s presentation at the 2009 Chicago Pipe Show to be quite interesting.
He makes some interesting observations about the state of the pipe collector’s market and his profile of the typical pipe collector. Do you think the market for pipe collecting is up or down in these times of economic turmoil? Read on to find out. You may be surprised.
Rob Cooper certainly has charisma and energy, along with such a satisfied customer-base that his buyers seem to be more like "Rob Cooper Groupies" rather than patrons.
I met Rob the first night of the pre-show, Thursday April 30th. We chatted from midnight to 1 am, and once again the myth of the weirdo pipe geek was dispelled.
Rob seems to be living comfortably and happily as a retired financial advisor that is not even close to the traditional retirement age. I am guessing he is in his mid-to-late 40’s – maybe 50.
He thinks fast, talks fast and is highly intelligent. He is highly motivated and driven to succeed, which is probably why he became the top seller of estate pipes and collectible pipes on eBay. You can see his eBay store at CoopersArk.
Here is a slightly edited transcript from Rob’s presentation at the 2009 Chicago Pipe Show where he talks about the state of the pipe collectors market.
Rob: This is from my perspective. I can’t speak for everybody, but just from my own perspective about the state of the economy and how it’s tied into pipe sales.
Back in September, when global stock markets started falling apart, someone involved in our hobby had commented to me that he thinks that pipes are going to be affected, or impacted negatively by what’s going on.
I disagreed with him strongly at that time. And I was proven right.
For what it is worth, my business is up this year 30% over last year. This is in bad times. I mean again, I can’t speak universally; I’m just speaking for myself and my own observations with this.
And the first thought was, okay; let’s look at the profile of the typical type collector. I’m not talking about the pipe smoker, but the pipe collector, my customer.
You realize that mid-50’s is probably the median age. And most guys in their mid-50’s, they already own their home, they didn’t just buy a new home at the top of the market. There’s a good chance their kids have been educated, and, also, by nature, us pipe collectors are conservative.
So, we didn’t live life on the financial edge. And when those factors are combined along with what I call a double addiction; say what you want, there is an addiction to the smoking and an addiction to the collecting.
I don’t mean like this craving like, ‘oh I can’t go without the nicotine today,’ but if you’re in the habit of every night enjoying a bowl while you’re watching the evening news, or enjoying a pipe full while you’re reading a book, or whatever you’re doing. That’s your daily routine, and that’s not going to change. And the other thing that I think that we all want as collectors, or enthusiasts, is something new and exciting all the time to keep our interest alive. And again, I’m talking on a global basis, and that’s exactly what’s happened.
Now, I sell on the internet. And if one looks at what’s going on in the world today, I perceive… by the way, I don’t know if most of you know, I am a retired financial advisor. I did that for close to 25 years. And I saw what was coming. I didn’t know exactly when, but I sold my business a couple of years ago, and what led me to think that way is, the average age of our firm’s client was getting older every year.
At the same time, I’m seeing younger people living better than ever and there are no youngsters coming in and saving or with money to invest. So it’s something that is just going to give here. I sensed it. And so, I sold the business. And prior to me doing that I was doing two things; I was doing e-Bay, and being a financial advisor devoting about 40 hours a week to both.
And I made the decision in e-Bay, and I devoted about 80 hours a week to it.
When this happened, it was no surprise, and I really sensed that with pipes, nothing was going to change. Particularly with the internet. And let’s go into that for a second.
When one is shopping … when one goes out shopping. These strip stores are in trouble. They were catering to people with time. Malls and strip centers are for people with time. The gathering places in the evening. They are the people who are going into excessive charge card debt and running their limits up, because they had the time. Those with money do not have the time to shop.
As a proxy for that, if one looks at Amazon’s share price today, it’s near the high for the year in this terrible economy. Again, what I see is that with those with money, and I can put myself in that group. I would rather pay a $10 or $15 shipping charge and have it come to my door, then go to my car, waste my time for two hours looking for something the store may not have. Now I have to go across town until I finally find whatever I am looking for. It’s just not efficient use of time, and time is our most precious commodity.
Now, as it applies to collectibles, and specifically to pipes … Can you imagine, going back 15 years ago, and you wanted to buy a 1962 Dunhill Root Briar, or a 59′ Shack Billiard. What would you do?
Maybe on vacation go to the local shop and hit or miss, or maybe you’re going to find a Dunhill 59′ Billiard, but its Nichelle, and 1971. Oh well. And you’ve drive shop to shop to shop, and what you are after and it was very elusive and very rare. Then, okay, you pick up the phone and call to the shops, and you have all the long distance charges and all your time.
But now one can spend $50 a month for high speed internet provider and when you put it on an hourly basis for the amount of time you spend shopping or looking for pipes, it works out to pennies per hour. And what it’s done is it’s made everything, not so rare, though very common, very accessible. So, it’s become really the way collectors, not only for pipes, but for other things, they can find exactly the pieces you are looking for in a very short order relative to the past. And what it’s also done is taken what we would call rare and made it common. And in many respects, it’s taken some fun out of our hobby because the chase isn’t as involved as it used to be. But in other respects it’s wonderful because we can now spend time even narrowing our focuses even further. So, this is what I perceive has happened. I got involved with e-Bay about a year after they got started and I’ve had that continual exposure for over ten years now.
I think the reason I’ve also prospered, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back or anything, but I’m not in the business of selling pipes. I’m in the business of making my customers feel appreciated. And I think it’s with that ongoing attitude of just taking care of the customer, getting things out right away, if there’s an issue I’m going to take care of it. It’s only a pipe; I value the relationship more than the pipe, that it’s grown over the period of ten years. I’ve paid my dues and I have the customer base. And that base wants an escape from the misery that they are hearing on the news everyday, whether it’s the swine flu, or whether it’s the economy, and the average high-grade selling price of a pipe is $325. While it’s not an inconsequential amount of money, it’s not a $60,000 automobile purchase either.
The other key factor is, pipes are perceived as, and are, collectible. I’m talking collectible high-grade pipes. And collectibles are perceived as retaining their value, maybe going down a little bit perhaps or appreciating a little bit, but they’re retaining value. As opposed to clothing that could come in and out of fashion, as opposed to high tech devices like flat screen televisions or computers where next year it’s going to be a better picture or computing power for less money. You know that whatever you’re spending in those arenas, its rapid depreciation.
Before I came out to Chicago, I had a conversation with my son and he was asking me if I was thinking of buying a lot of inventory. And my answer was yes. And he said, buy as much as you can. It never goes out of style. And when you think about the pipes, it’s a piece of wood with two holes in it, it’s not a lot that’s going to change, and whatever’s been carved has been carved. And that’s a good thing. There’s not going to be anymore, in the case of Dunhill’s or Barlings of the past, in the case of deceased carvers, in the case of current carvers who are continually evolving. And you may like the style that they’re in now, or what they did a couple of years ago, there’s not going to be anymore of it. And I really think that all of those engines are driving the market and holding the prices surprisingly strong.
Now, on my end, I also take consignments. And there became this pervasive thought in talking to collectors, oh, you must be seeing a lot of pipes come in because guys need the money. And the answer to that is, no. I see three and four pipes coming in where, a younger guy needs some money. He over-stretched himself. But the reality is the bulk of my consignments are coming in from the two traditional sources; guys changing the focus of their collection, that is, they want to keep the adventure going and they’re tired of collecting Italian and now they are converting to English, or you know, they… there was somebody that I just talked to that, he is sending me some pipes, he doesn’t like the darker finishes anymore. He wants lighter finishes.
And then the other thing that I am encountering and it’s the sad part, there’s some members of our hobby, we’re getting older, and they’re saying, I don’t need a hundred pipes anymore, ten pipes is enough for me. So, I’m seeing my share of that coming in. And what’s also happening is, the longer I do this, the more global awareness, the more pipes seem to be coming in on a weekly basis from around the world. And that’s a good thing for me and my family. And it’s an enjoyment.
And that’s basically where I see us at. Now, I can tell you that there are some brands that have gone up the past year in price, some have gone down in price. Some of the downs, I’ll mention, are the German makers, Joura and Barbi. They’ve been on the decrease now for about two years. And it’s not that they aren’t fine pipes, I just don’t think they are being promoted properly new and it may be a vicious circle where the prices are so high new, that it’s almost alienated interest in the brand no matter what the used price is. You know, what the price is on the estate market.
Another one that has gone down, we all know Radice. Because now Radice is dealing more or less direct and their new retail price is down about 40%. Well, that’s now become reflected in the estate market. But also tied into that is there are some guys that have collected Radice pipes who are now upset that when the time comes to sell their pipe, they’re not getting the same value out of it and they’re upset. But, that’s the risk. And I have to say that any pipe that goes on the estate market that we sell, you have to remember, it’s not an investment. It was something to give us some pleasure. And whatever pleasure we got out of it, we got out of it. And we have to hold onto today and what the market is today for anything.
I think human nature is to hold onto hope. Whatever it is. There’s people sitting with losses in the stock market right now, ‘well, I’ll wait till it’s even and then I’ll get out.’ And they hope and hope and in the eventuality it doesn’t happen, and maybe he should have been doing something else. And in that way their personal relationship, they may be staying in a bad marriage, they hope it will get better. But I think it is human nature to not face today and look at it today.
Looking at it today, those are some of the negatives. Some of the positives, I’ve noticed a pick up on Costello. I’ve noticed in a pick up in Dunhill. Not contemporary Dunhill, but Dunhill patents and Dunhills that were produced in the late 50’s, early 60’s. There’s been a particular pick up in interest in brands from Italy.
The very high-grade Danish brands remain very strong. An Italian brand that I see is not holding up well, and I sell them, is Oracle. Great pipe for the money, but it just doesn’t seem to be attracting the attention on the market like they did before.
And that really about sums it up, what I want to do from here is just a more question and answer rather than talk, and it may be more effective. So, does anybody have any questions?
We will post the Q & A with Rob Cooper as Part II of this article in the next few days.