At Garth’s, our appraisers and auctioneers accept more than 12,000 objects per year for auction; and turn away twice that many. So, considering we only find one out of every three items marketable, it’s easy to become jaded in my line of work.
No, not me — I still perk up when the phone rings with a selling inquiry or the door opens during our walk-in appraisal day. And, by the time the client pulls their treasure out of the $4 plastic tote, I am simply giddy.
But, look around any antique show, or talk with someone who has been in the business 20-30 years, and you will find some serious skepticism. When you hear of some common experiences shared by most appraisers, dealers and auctioneers, you’ll begin to understand why.
I remember one of the first calls of my career, from someone who had just taken apart an old picture frame, only to find a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Imagine his excitement!
Even though I had not yet developed a healthy sense of skepticism, I questioned how this could be possible. Luckily for me, a more experienced appraiser was in the office at the same time this conversation was happening.
Steve motioned for me to put the client on hold and proceeded to explain to me that many newspapers and printing companies printed copies of the Declaration of Independence to celebrate America’s Centennial, in 1876. These copies were distributed in large numbers, and considered at the time to be commemorative collectibles. Their value today is $20 – $40.
I picked up the phone and broke the news — to this day, I am not sure who was more disappointed, him or me.
It was a good lesson; best learned early. The truth is, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Rare items can have significant value because they are, well, rare.
Think lottery ticket for a minute. Odds are pretty good that you won’t win a jackpot, right? Well, in the art and antiques lottery, odds are just as good that most of us will never serendipitously discover an undiscovered Picasso or an original copy of the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
What about items that are very, very old? Anyone older than 50 will tell you that “old” is a relative term. An antique is technically an item that is more than 100 years old; less than 100 years old are called vintage or collectibles. But, in some parts of the world, 100 years old is nothing!
In Asia and Europe — areas that have been developed for thousands of years — items that are hundreds of years old may not be incredibly significant, believe it or not. Additionally, if something was affordable when it was made (read: cheap), then the mere fact that it was preserved doesn’t necessarily change the fact that it is (ahem) cheap.
Of course, we are in the business of old things. Age does often translate into value; it just has to be put into perspective. Sometimes, you have both age and rarity going for you, but the value just does not seem to jibe.
For those of you who have been following this series, I’ll remind you now of the Egyptian mummified bird that I described in an earlier article. Dating to about 1500 B.C., it brought a mere $450 at auction. Why? Because age and rarity, like every other factor in establishing value, are only one piece of the puzzle.
Now that I’ve given you ample reason to be suspicious of your “finds,” let me reassure you that treasures are out there waiting to be snagged.
About a year ago, a client was cruising the behemoth eBay. He stumbled across a very rare and very old cobalt-decorated stoneware bank from Barberton, Ohio for which he paid about $500. Not bad for a 100-year-old bank. That savvy buyer brought his find to Garth’s, where the age and rarity paid off in spades. The bank brought more than $5,800 at Garth’s.
A walk-in appraisal-day client brought an old, bronze Buddha that had belonged to her husband. Although she was not certain, she thought he had brought it back from a war. She never let him bring it into the house; instead, keeping it on a shelf in the basement.
With a bit of research, we discovered that it was actually several hundred years old and from Thailand, making it a very rare example. At auction, her basement treasure brought over $40,000.
In short, the name of the game in evaluating items for age and rarity is skepticism. Assume your item is not old or rare, until you prove that it is. Search the Internet for fakes and copies; compare your item to those that you find. No one like to make a mistake — especially when buying antiques and collectibles.
You’ll be amazed at how many stories and examples of fakes you can find in any category. Learn from the mistakes of others, and, be critical in your approach. With a little effort, you’ll improve your odds of identifying something special.
Remember, at Garth’s, we turn away two out of every three items. Be patient and your turn will come, too.
(Amelia Jeffers is president and auctioneer for internationally renowned Garth’s Auctions, of Delaware, Ohio. Garth’s Auctions sells more than 12,000 items each year and offers free evaluations of antiques and collectibles. Visit www.garths.com.)