How to tell trash from treasure based on condition

Whether you are building a collection, helping an elderly relative with downsizing, or simply love to troll thrift shops and antique malls for a hidden treasure, you have probably wondered how appraisers establish value for antiques, art and collectibles.

Most people wander through these scenarios a bit haphazardly, hoping to find the proverbial needle in the haystack – but, with no more tools or information than someone pulling the arm on a slot machine.

Previously

For years, the antiques industry has made big bucks selling price guides (that are, ironically, nearly out of date by the time they hit the book store). But, our experience has shown that the hardest part for most people is learning how to compare apples to apples.

Generally, price guides don’t differentiate between why one quilt sold for $300 and another for $3,000. Throughout this series of articles, I hope to empower you with information that will unlock the secrets behind establishing good comparisons — and, ultimately extrapolating accurate values.

Factors

It is possible that no other industry has made as significant an impression on the way we think about values than real estate professionals, who have trained us to think: “location, location, location.”

If the antiques and art industry is doing a good job, then when you think about the value of an item, you should be thinking: “condition, condition, condition.” Of all the factors affecting the value of an antique, condition probably has the most impact — and should be most well-known.

Surely you have heard a version of the story involving a table that was purchased at a garage sale for a few dollars and brought to a famous television show for an appraisal. Fortunately, the owner had not refinished or repaired it (a concept that has been successfully drilled into the minds of even the most novice antiquer).

Although it had some minor issues, it was quite old and largely in original condition; consequently, the estimated value approached $500,000.

Importance

So, what’s all the fuss about anyway? Why do we care so much about original condition? As we discussed in an earlier column, collectors appreciate shortcuts, like labels and maker’s marks. Original condition is a shortcut.

A long-time Garth’s customer recently said it best: “There is an integrity about a good, old grungy surface. A piece that hasn’t been touched tells you its stories — without leaving anything out.” But, original condition is tough to come by, particularly when we are dealing with old or rare objects or items that were made to be used.

Consider toys for a moment: a well-loved toy was used … probably a lot! To find an old toy in original condition — or (gasp!) in the original packaging is an exciting find. Furniture, textiles, pottery and porcelains … these things take on lives and stories. They are bumped and bruised, scratched or scraped.

Even the most well-intentioned owners clean too aggressively and wash away some of the wonderful patina that builds up over years of use.

Honest condition is the easiest to evaluate: simply, damage that detracts from a good look or usefulness is detrimental to value. The degree to which collectors will tolerate damage depends upon the age, rarity and demand for a particular item.

Most pieces we handle have had some repair or restoration, with more value placed on good restorations by experienced and qualified crafts people. The problem is, the better the restoration, the more difficult it can be for a lay person to find.

Scrutiny

When reviewing an item for condition, look at the object with a critical eye, and use multiple senses. Run your hands over the rims and bottoms of glass and porcelain pieces to check for chips or unexplained rough spots (that could be an indication of a repair). Look closely at finials and handles — they are likely candidates for breaks and repairs.

In textiles, paintings and paper, look for stains and holes. Wood furniture may have broken elements, filled cracks, deep scratches or “fresh paint.”

How do you know if paint is fresh? Look at areas that should have received the most use, such as edges, corners, doors — the areas that receive daily use and abuse. Is the paint too consistent (either not enough worn areas, or too much?), or does the “wear” seem appropriate?

If there are dents or dings, is the paint also chipped? Or is the paint solid throughout? Once you have trained your eye to look for damage, you’ll find yourself going right to it when you handle a piece. Hairline cracks that you never before noticed will glare out at you. Pieced repairs will scream out.

Valuable tool

You’ll have to decide what you can accept. When you get very comfortable with identifying obvious damage, you should invest in some toys of the trade. One of the most helpful (and fun) is an ultraviolet light (better known to the hippies among us as a “blacklight” and found at any hardware store for less than $20.)

Repairs examined under these lights will fluoresce as “black” or “dead” areas. Bring home some treasures from your next outing and examine them in a dark closet, with only the fluorescent light. You’ll be amazed at what you find. (Incidentally, this works on oil paintings, as well — and can be a great way to check the authenticity of a signature.)

Concern

One of the more disappointing aspects of sharing this information with new collectors and antique-and art-aficionados on the rise is the amount of anxiety we place on the entire issue of repair, restoration and condition. I worry that we are sending a message that devalues great items that are worthy of preservation and enjoyment, simply because they need a bit of refreshing or correcting.

When should you consider taking on an item that needs repaired? When the price is tolerable, the repair is manageable, and you will enjoy living with it. When you can, do try to live with any imperfections for a bit. Normal wear and tear are signs of a good, long life and can lend credibility to early pieces.

Usually people are surprised by how quickly they stop focusing on individual “bumps and bruises,” and begin to appreciate a warm, dry old finish. In the business, we fondly refer to this as a “grungy surface” — and a grungy surface makes any good antiquer as happy as slipping on their favorite pair of faded, fraying blue jeans.

Remember that many alterations cannot be undone. Bubble-gum pink on that chest of drawers may make you and your six-year-old smile today, but how long before you both outgrow it? Why not swap hardware instead? You can save the originals and put them back on when you’re finished with it.

Future use

While we are big believers that you should live with your antiques, use them and love them; someday you’ll hopefully pass them on to someone else. When you do, wouldn’t it be great if you have improved a bit of history, not re-written it?

Whatever you decide, don’t be too hard on yourself (or whoever came before you). After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure … and in a society that appreciates individuality, someone is bound to value your decision.

(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.)

About the Author

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. More Stories by Amelia Jeffers

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