Antiques and collectibles: Which are trash and which are treasures?


(Editor’s note: This week, we begin a bi-weekly column provided by Garth’s Auctions. It will cover a range of antiques and collectibles topics, starting with a series of articles on how you determine the value of an object.)

The appraisers at Garth’s Auctions conduct more than 100 walk-in appraisal days throughout the year at museums and historical societies all over the country. If we had a dollar for every time someone at one of these events asks, “How have you learned so much about so many things?” — well, let’s just say we probably wouldn’t be wintering in Ohio!

The truth is, Garth’s appraisers have an advantage over most folks that develops our ability to evaluate objects: volume.

In a single year, we will sell more than 12,000 objects — and our sales staff will turn away twice that many. In all that volume, one is bound to find some generalities.

In fact, a good auctioneer or appraiser will tell you that we are mostly generalists: We know a little bit about a lot of things.

What’s it worth?

Over the next few articles, I am going to unveil the secrets to determining value of decorative and collectible objects.

I won’t offer an index of prices realized, or suggest examples to which you can make comparisons. I am going to give you the tools to develop your own ability to differentiate between rare and special objects and garage sale items.

Supply and demand

The first element of value is an economic law to which antiques, art and collectibles are not immune: the law of supply and demand.

I am sure you remember it: When demand goes up and supply remains the same, value goes up; when demand goes down and supply remains the same, value goes down.

Simple, right? For some reason, it seems counter-intuitive for most people.

It is a commonly held opinion that antiques always go up in value. After all, the supply is staying the same or decreasing (fire, damage, Aunt Kathy’s heavy-handed white paint brush).

Well, someone once suggested I invest in real estate for the same reason.

“Amelia,” he said, “they aren’t making land anymore!”

As the rocky real estate market has illustrated, supply is not the only factor in value. Demand plays a huge part.


Take the rare mummified bird from ancient Egypt (circa 1500 BC) that sold at Garth’s in 2008.

“Sure!” you say, “a mummified bird. I have some swampland in Florida for sale, too!”

No, really. It was a mummified bird. We didn’t believe it, either, so we had it X-rayed at our local hospital (and created quite a stir!).

Such a rare and unique artifact only brought $450 at auction. Why? Because the number of folks who are interested in having a mummified bird in their living room is smaller than you would think.

Alternatively, consider the recently skyrocketing values of Chinese and Russian objects. We sold a lovely silver chalice from Russia, circa 18th century, for $10,000 in January 2010. A decade ago, that chalice might have brought $600.

What is the difference? The Russian and Chinese economies are booming — and the dollar is weak. Those societies are buying back their culture, and the Internet has given them access.

Ten years ago, our ability to connect with a buyer in Russia was relatively limited. Today, we have buyers from all over the world competing in every auction.

Demand drives value

Demand, fueled by access, has driven value. In the same way that access has driven value for objects in high demand, it has contributed to the deflation of various other categories.

Case in point: Hummels (remember those little figures of children — often holding an umbrella, or engaged in some charming activity — that your grandma collected?).

During the period that some folks refer to as “the good old days,” Hummels was one of the categories that could only be found at antique shops or the occasional auction. Prices were pretty good, with some examples selling in the hundreds of dollars.

Go to and search “Hummel” now. Today’s search resulted in 17,838 examples. The market has become flooded because of access. As a result, prices have plummeted.

Buy what you love

At the end of the day, we never recommend that you buy or sell based on what you think the market will like.

Trying to guess demand is akin to trying to “play” the stock market. You may win sometimes, but you are bound to get burned.

Instead, buy quality objects that make you smile (like good, solid, blue chip stocks), and place some value on the joy and satisfaction derived from living with them. And you can be sure that your enjoyment is worth at least as much as any dollar value Garth’s appraisers may determine.


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