Thursday, January 23, 2020

Two of these things are not like the others

The 1948 JCM 26 "Pinwheel" menko set is a bit of an odd and well known one.  It consists of just 6 cards and as you can tell from the above photo I am one short of the set (Noboru Aota, where are you?)

You'll note that there are two sizes, half the set are fairly big (3.5 inches diameter, the one I'm missing is also that size) compared to the other three. This is not uncommon with menko sets from the late 40s and 50s which sometimes came in sets of different sizes.

But the main distinction between the larger and smaller cards isn't their size but rather their rarity.  The smaller ones are quite easy to find, and I got all three of them a while ago.  According to Engel someone found a large lot of them in mint condition a few years back.  This is very easy to believe since they (along with cards from JRM 19 and 20, which were apparently found in the same horde) are constantly popping up on Yahoo Auctions with low prices on them.  They are among the very few vintage menko out there where if you want them, you can easily find them available for sale at any given time.

The big ones though weren't included in that find and they are actually quite scarce (Engel rates them R2 which seems about right).  I'd been wanting to find them for a while and pounced when this lot came up for auction a few weeks back.  It was entirely the two big ones I was bidding on (featuring Noboru Aota/Tetsuharu Kawakami and Fumio Fujimura), the other three were basically just bonus add ons.

I do like these ones since the colorful pinwheel background is just perfect.

One more of the big ones and I'll have this set complete!


  1. Probably fewer of the big ones could be fit on a sheet so we’re ultimately short printed. I do see these come up for auction quite a bit. Very colorful for sure.

  2. Not really about this post in particular, but you'd know and here's a good excuse to ask: to what extent is Engel used in Japan? There are a couple Japanese sellers that I buy from who know about it, but it obviously has an American focus (see, e.g., the kanji explanations towards the beginning, that Japanese speakers wouldn't need), and I was for some reason under the impression that it's not widely used there.

    More relevant to your post: you're right that the small pinwheels are common. Because they're common, I don't have any. (Although they do look nice.) I always think "eh, those are everywhere" and I don't buy them. In Econ101 they teach you to draw supply and demand curves, and the price of a good is where those curves intersect. But they also assume (in the intro classes - presumably nothing I have to say here is news to actual economists) that supply and demand are independent (except for things with network effects). But they're not. If other people are like me, the demand for the smaller pinwheel cards is lower BECAUSE the supply is high. But it's not like scarcity drives demand either - set collectors aren't going to be interested in extremely rare sets because they'll never be able to complete them. (No one goes after the Just So Tobacco set - doing so would necessitate getting the unique Cy Young card.) So extreme scarcity can also drive down demand. (Actually it could do it for lots of reasons - if a set is rare enough no one will know about it, and hence no one will want it.)

    1. There seems to be some awareness that Engel exists with some collectors, but it is not in widespread use. I've never seen a single menko listed for sale on Yahoo Auctions that used his catalogue numbers (JCM 12, etc) to identify cards. Probably its mostly due to the language issue, if they ever translated it into Japanese and made some alterations to target it towards a Japanese audience (drop the stuff about kanji, adjust the prices to better reflect the Japanese market) it would probably be used way more since nothing similar exists in Japanese now.

      About economics (which I also studied), its an interesting point about the supply/demand relationship. Partly I think its because collectibles market participants don't follow the same rationality as those in other markets for things like basic commodities, etc. We're totally irrational in our behavior rather than utility maximizers!

      In terms of you not buying these specific cards, I think transaction costs probably explain a lot of it. If you were at a card show or shop casually browsing through a bin of cards and found these menkos for $1 each or something you'd probably buy them because the transaction itself would entail zero costs to you - no effort, no time, no shipping costs, etc. Just pay and leave.

      But because we buy these things online they involve higher transaction costs that deter you from buying them. Partly its the shipping cost, which would be high relative to the value of these cards. But its also the nuisance factor of having to look them up, weigh several sellers and their prices, enter bid, wait for auction to end, wait for message from seller, send seller information, process payment, wait a week or whatever for the thing to arrive in the mail, open the envelope....etc etc.

      Except for cards I want to complete a set or something, no 1$ card is worth that hassle to me!

    2. "We're totally irrational in our behavior rather than utility maximizers!"

      On the contrary. Because they are so common the small pinwheels are worth very little utility to me. If they were rarer I'd buy one. Now, you can say that we're irrational in where we find utility, or the reasons that we get it from various goods, but (1) of course we are, that's not news, and (2), a point admittedly in some tension with (1), one might want to argue that without a utility function to evaluate actions against, it's hard to nail down a useful notion of rationality, so outside of requiring consistency (and the like) it's hard to evaluate a utility function itself as rational or irrational. (Point 2 is certainly contentious, and I know people who would deny it.)

      The point about transaction costs is a good one. There's a lot of friction in on-line sales (and even more in real auctions). I've occasionally wondered about the people who sell $1 cards with free shipping for the same reason, and have decided that these must be the (few) real stores. If you've got an employee who you are paying anyway, you might as well have him lick a stamp and get your $0.46 profit. If it was just a guy selling singles, it's hard to imagine it being worth his time to put the thing in the mail.

    3. Good points about our utility function. I suppose what I was getting at wasn't specifically with these cards, but rather how collectibles markets work in particular and make assumptions about things like the supply/demand curve complicated as you observed in your earlier comment. Our desires (collectively expressed in the $ amount cards are paid for) is so subjective though that it can't be modelled in the same way that a commodity with a more objectively defined purpose (oil, rice, lumber, etc) can. Its not a novel observation for sure!

      Its a good point about the ones selling things online for ridiculously cheap being stores, I think that applies in Japan too. They get a bunch of stuff, dump it on an employee with instructions to get rid of it and they just do what they are told (I assume)!

  3. I'm pretty sure that Hideo Fujimoto was the first Menko card I ever owned.