By: Fred Taylor
Before the advent of the “Antiques Roadshow” there were people who bought , sold and collected antiques and collectibles. It was a rather sedate underground economy where there were knowledgeable dealers, quiet collectors and the occasional momentous auction or sale in New York or Chicago. Then all of a sudden, thanks to the weekly PBS expose', it seemed every other piece of attic clutter was a treasure. Every other article of a garage sale bonanza was a piece of art and every old piece of furniture scavenged from the barn or passed down from great aunt Mary was a hand made artifact worth a fortune, provided you hadn’t cleaned it or refinished it of course.
Instead of family heirlooms we now suddenly had potential retirement accounts in every closet and a portion of the kids’ college fund stashed in the storage room. The main question no longer was “Where did this come from?” or “Who did this belong to?”. It became “How much is this worth?” – a seemingly reasonable question but with a variety of answers from a plethora of sources with varying degrees of veracity and a host of qualifying disclaimers and “buts.”
Ok but how much is it worth? Who knows? How do I find out? Where do I look? Who do I ask? Be sure you understand the question before you ask it. Are you looking for the price you might receive if you decided to sell it? Are you asking for the amount for which to insure it? Are you asking what might be a reasonable price to pay for it if you decide to buy it? Each question will probably yield a different answer for the same item. What exactly are you looking for and why? Once you answer that question for yourself you are ready to look for the value that has been established in the open market and there are a variety of places to look for it.
The first thing that comes to mind is to have the item appraised – but by whom? There is an entire body of professional personal property appraisers out there ready to help you determine the value of your treasure. Most licensed appraisers belong to one of the major appraisal organizations such as the American Society of Appraisers (http://www.appraisers.org), the Appraisers Association of America (http://www.appraisersassoc.org) and the International Society of Appraisers (http://www.isa-appraisers.org). While all the members of these organizations have passed certain requirements to be licensed as appraisers, finding the right one in your area may be the key. However, these folks do this for a living and they don’t work for free or even for cheap. They will do the research to properly identify the item and then will attempt to establish a value based on recent market transactions. Appraisers will advise you of the two main types of appraisals, fair market value (what you might expect to receive if you sell it) and replacement value (the amount for which to insure it or the amount you might expect to pay retail if you acquired it). The cost of a formal written appraisal can easily exceed the value of many household items and may not be the right tool in many cases, especially if it is just to satisfy a curiosity. There are better ways to do that.
There are a number of online appraisal services that will offer to provide you with an informal appraisal for a nominal fee and some online services are free. Most of the appraisers involved are qualified but the format is awkward. Making an appraisal from a photo and description can be iffy at best. A number of online services have risen and fallen over the years so finding a current one is the key. Just remember these are informal opinions and not genuine written appraisals that could be used for estate or tax purposes.
Many antique shows now offer onsite appraisals as a benefit to attendees. These are also informal verbal appraisals given by appraisers who take on all comers for a nominal fee or donation. Most of these definitely fall in the “curiosity satisfaction” category but they can be useful as a starting place.
Publishers have reacted to the growing collecting arena by flooding the market with price guides. But how good are they and are they accurate? No single book can be expected to cover everything so there are compromises to be expected in the field of price guides. Price guides generally fall into two categories, those that cover a very wide range of articles with little or no description and qualification and those that concentrate on a much smaller variety and specialize in accurate identification and description. But no matter the scope of the guide itself almost all price guides are buyer’s guides, not seller’s guides. Except in unusual circumstances you would not expect to receive the price found in a price guide for an item listed there. Even bearing that in mind price guides can only be expected to provide ballpark prices, not specific prices for specific transactions.
Probably the most accurate price guides are those of recent vintage that cover a specific category of antique or collectible. Also included would be the price guides often found in specialized books on a given subject. Since the author has taken the time to write a book covering a narrow segment of the field, it follows that the pricing information would be equally focused.
The wide ranging guides are useful for determining what category an object may belong to and to get the ball started in finding out a relevant price range. The more narrowly focused guides will help identify a specific item within the category and discuss issues like condition and rarity. But no price guide, no matter how well done and faithfully researched can replace getting a feel for the article itself and the market in which it is traded.
For those who choose to do some of the foot slogging while seated at their computer there are several sources of price information. The most obvious are the various online auction sites, eBay being the first to mind. There are certainly a number of issues with the validity of prices realized on eBay starting with the question, “Is it a genuine auction?” Nevertheless there is the fact that a buyer and a seller agreed upon the price of a given item in a given location at a certain time under specific conditions. No matter what else can be said, it certainly can be said that this was marketplace transaction and under some circumstances may qualify as a determinant of “fair market value”. And completed transactions can be viewed relatively shortly after the sale has closed rather than next year when the amended price guide is released.
But there are other resources online. One of those is the Kovel’s online price guide found at http://www.kovels.com. While it is free and convenient, it focuses almost entirely on prices and lacks adequate descriptive material just as the hard copy does. A more accurate but much less wide ranging resource is access to an auction database such as is provided by Maine Antiques Digest. This database offers information from the pages of MAD based on the write ups of major auctions over the years. This is a free service to MAD subscribers.
But what if you want to sit down and talk to a real person? Who can help there? One of the best sources of local information can be an auctioneer who regularly handles articles of a similar nature. Since prices can vary so dramatically from location to location, it may be irrelevant what a given item sells for in New York or Cleveland if you want to sell it in Florida. That’s where the local bid caller has a leg up. He or she probably already has some research resources at his disposal and he knows what things sell for in his market. He probably has a pretty good idea of what you could realize from a sale at one of his events. Of course there are costs involved in the sale and there are no guarantees on the price but the auctioneer can give you the facts on that subject.
Then there is the person who makes a living in antiques and collectibles – the local dealer. They often can be the best source of information on the current market value of a given item, especially if they travel around to shows. It’s what they do on a daily basis. Take advantage of them.
About the author:
Fred Taylor's new book "HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE" is now available for $18.95 plus $2.00 S & H. Send check or money order for $20.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor's video, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE FURNITURE", ($29.95 includes S & H) is also available at the same address. For more information call (800) 387-6377, fax (352) 563-2916, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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