A primer on valuing antiques and collectibles
For the occasional antiquer, the treasure-hunter in waiting or for those who have inherited family memorabilia and furnishings, determining the value of antiques, art and collectibles can be an evasive art. Books on the topic are either very specific to a particular category (or maker), or very general.
Older family relatives often point to price guides — historically a popular source for the layperson who wants to know how much Aunt Ginny’s side table is worth. But, price guides only offer examples, and, more often than not, we find novice collectors making comparisons that are akin to apples to oranges. Additionally, in today’s market, that price guide is nearly out of date by the time it hits the shelves.
No, everything you ever wanted to know about antiques is (probably) not what your grandmother taught you. The world has changed since she was buying and selling … and the old adage, “they aren’t making antiques anymore” is only mildly relevant.
As we discussed in the first article of this series, today’s Hummel isn’t yesterday’s value; access and demand have made Chinese and Russian items all the rage; and the rarest of objects may attract only a handful of buyers.
The appraisers of Garth’s Auctions are often asked how we have acquired such vast knowledge on many different topics. Our answer: volume. As auctioneers and appraisers we review thousands of objects per year. As a result, we have learned to apply some rules or generalities that hold true — most of the time.
Over the course of several columns, I will attempt to de-mystify the art (and science) of personal property appraising; teaching you the key concepts behind establishing value.
When examining an object for appraisal, one of the first attributes we must assess is quality. Developing a keen eye for quality requires attention to detail and a basic understanding of aesthetic and construction.
While you can find numerous books and websites that define accomplished craftsmanship in any category, I will attempt to offer some general insights about various ways to qualify the craftsmanship and quality of an item. Hopefully, when you combine these thoughts with your own real world experience, you will soon be able to differentiate between “good, better and best” in your areas of interest.
Proportion, form and materials are key factors in evaluating the aesthetic quality of a piece. First, we will tackle proportion. Short and squatty or tall and lanky can be charming, but ideal proportions just look “right.” If you prefer a more scientific explanation, consider the “Golden Ratio,” used for hundreds of years by architects and craftsmen.
The “Golden Ratio” is a mathematical rule that describes the perfect relationship between one measurement of an object to another (i.e.. height to width) as equal to 1.67, or 5 to 3. To see if your piece passes the “Golden Ratio” test, measure the width and multiply by 1.67. Compare your answer to the true height of the item. (Reverse this if your item happens to be wider than it is tall.)
Close is usually good enough — but, the significance of any variation will dictate the final value. This sounds much more complicated than it is. Once you have trained your eye to recognize a “Golden Ratio,” you’ll be able to judge proportions like a pro.
Beyond proportion, form is a more difficult attribute to explain. Form considers usefulness, gracefulness, size and too many aesthetic features to name. Generally speaking, to evaluate form, you will need to familiarize yourself with many examples within the same field, and determine differences and commonalities.
Is yours a useful version of that particular item? Does the design or decoration elevate it above a similar, strictly utilitarian example? Did the maker utilize the latest and greatest design elements and techniques when it was made? Is the size appropriate or desirable to most people?
Larger does not always equal more money. In fact, the largest examples within a category can limit the market significantly. A client once called with a wonderful 12-foot high, roughly 20-foot long country store cupboard with simple, pleasing design. It passed the proportion and form test; but its size is prohibitive for most people. Anytime we limit our buying market, the price is negatively affected.
Premium craftsmanship calls for premium materials. A talented maker won’t waste his (or her) efforts by using substandard components. Mostly, you already know the difference between high quality and lesser, more affordable materials. You may just need a refresher: sterling silver always trumps silver plate; solid hardwoods are superior to the less expensive alternative of wood veneers; and wool and silk are better than cotton. While these are just a few examples, you get the idea.
Don’t forget to check the insides, the backs and the “underneaths.” Look for indications of the maker’s shortcuts or thriftiness. Are the materials a consistent quality throughout? Henry Ford once said, “Quality means doing it right when no one’s looking.” Serious craftsmen don’t take shortcuts.
After nearly 15 years in the art and antique business, I have developed an appreciation for people who suffer from “label love.” While mostly attributed to folks who are mad for a particular brand of clothing; in our business, it describes someone who loves famous name makers, craftsmen and artists — and pays more for labeled pieces.
Why does an object signed “Tiffany” bring more than an unsigned version of the same item? Because the signature offers a shortcut to anyone interested in buying it: a Tiffany mark is synonymous with quality. Seeing that label, most people need not go any further.
Tiffany is at the top of their marketplace, and known to produce superior items from luxurious materials. Quality is not accidental. It is the result of purposeful, deliberate choices that speak to a desire to make something that will last — and continue to be valued by future generations.
(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.)