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What Makes Antique Furniture Valuable? The Four-Part Test

by Fred Taylor (01/20/10).

How many times have you read the report of an auction somewhere and the price quoted on some article just didn’t seem reasonable; either way too high or way too low? Or walked into a shop or show and asked yourself, “Where do they get off asking that kind of money for that stuff?” What determines the asking or the eventual selling price of an antique or collectible, anyway? Too often, the answer is simply whatever the merchant paid for the item plus some arbitrary percentage or absolute dollar amount or whatever lowball figure the buyer could beat out of the seller. But what really determines the ultimate value of an item, whether it be a 300-year-old antique chair or a 30-year-old HO-gauge train set?

The universal answer has four parts: Quality, Condition, Rarity and Demand.

This showy 1920’s headboard is in excellent condition. But its quality is so poor that it has little real value. (Swedberg photo)

This showy 1920’s headboard is in excellent condition. But its quality is so poor that it has little real value. (Swedberg photo)

Quality

In the early 1970’s best seller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” author Robert Pirsig chronicled his long decline into mental instability while pursuing his personal definition of “quality.” I don’t think we need to get that intense. But quality, while difficult to define, is an extremely important element in the value of an antique or collectible. Quality may be seen as a level of excellence—excellence in the concept of the piece, excellence in the design and excellence in the execution. A well-built cabinet, for example, will advertise its quality by its stability and function. The doors will open easily and the drawers will operate smoothly. The finish is clean, the color is good, the joinery is well done, the choice of materials is sound and the scale is correct.

Quality implies attention to detail in the production of the item, whether it be entirely hand made or constructed on an assembly line. Quality implies a caring on the part of the producer or builder and carries a pride that shows in the finished product. And no matter the final definition, most of us know quality when we see it. Or at least we think we do, like the satisfying, solid sounding thump of a door closing on an expensive car.

Condition

This is not to be confused with quality. Quality is how the piece was made. Condition is how it has survived since then. A high-quality item in poor condition certainly has less value than a comparable item in excellent condition. However, condition can often be improved by a competent professional. Quality is fixed.

That is why a poor-quality item in perfect condition will almost never be as valuable as a high quality piece in a lesser state of affairs. Take the example of a piece of Depression era “Borax” furniture that has been in storage for 70 years. Even with its perfect condition, its poor original quality will keep it from ever attaining the value of a carefully crafted bench-made piece of similar age, even though it may have some condition “issues.” Of course, there is a point of compromise at which quality and condition are equal, but that state is seldom achieved and seldom recognized when it is.

This nicely done Mersman “surfboard” table is one of more than 30,000,000 tables made by Mersman. It is not rare. (Swedberg photo)

This nicely done Mersman “surfboard” table is one of more than 30,000,000 tables made by Mersman. It is not rare. (Swedberg photo)

Rarity

This trait is often confused with age. Early Roman Empire coins for example are thousands of years old but are they rare? No, because so many of them were made (millions?) and so many of them survive. Many Roman coins are worth only the value of the metal they contain. Another example is one of the most famous style chairs of the early 19th century—Hitchcock chairs. Lambert Hitchcock had a great idea and he made a very good chair. It’s just that he made thousands and thousands of them, beginning in 1826 on the assembly line in his factory in Connecticut (he was ahead of Henry Ford on that subject by 80 or 90 years). And thousand of his mass produced chairs survive today. They are 175 years old and they are beautiful but they are not rare. Therefore, they do not always command the price that may be seen for the work of another chair craftsman who produced only a limited number of well-made chairs.

On the other hand, this magnificent, heavily carved dining room set by R. J. Horner is one of a kind. It sold for $80,500 at Burchard Galleries in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2008. (Burchard photo)

On the other hand, this magnificent, heavily carved dining room set by R. J. Horner is one of a kind. It sold for $80,500 at Burchard Galleries in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2008. (Burchard photo)

Demand

Finally there is the reality of demand—the marketplace. Even if a piece has all the other elements that make up value, if there is no demand—if there is no one who wants to buy it, then there is no value and there is no sale. There are lots of reasons for lack of demand: a poor economy; a social or political stigma on the product; a geographical anomaly in the buying population; a lack of appreciation for the art or genius of the maker. Or it may be as simple as a lack of advertising that the product is available or even the unattractive display of the product when a potential buyer is present. Or it may just be that there is no demand for the item at that price. At some other price, demand may be stimulated.

For an antique or collectible to have real value, all four elements of the equation must be in balance with the asking price.

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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10 Responses to “What Makes Antique Furniture Valuable? The Four-Part Test”

  1. Kay Fisher says:

    I have four Southern American antiques which have been in my family from the 1800s. They are Arkansas “bleached walnut,” a very rare process which required the pieces of walnut to be buried in cow manure for long periods of time. Very simple lines, beautiful handwork, natural sheen. No repair work has been done of any kind. I have tried to attach my photos to your form, but they won’t work as an html attachment. Can I forward them to you as a normal attachment? Thank you, Kay Fisher

  2. Hi Fred,

    Great post! We frequently have clients we are helping to de-clutter who won’t give things up because “it’s old–so it’s obviously quite valuable.” I will keep your article on hand for those times we have to say, “maybe yes, maybe…”

  3. I’ve been visiting your blog for a little while now and wanted to comment on how much I enjoy your work.
    I hope you keep posting on this subject.

  4. Robin Thorne says:

    Hi Fred,
    You correctly stated that quality is fixed, but condition may be able to be improved.
    Rarity is rather fixed, or if anything increases over time.
    Demand, however, is another variable. Over the years demand for certain pieces or styles may increase or decrease causing prices to rise and fall as well.
    Miriam Haskell fine costume jewelry from the 1940s and 1950s was once in great demand, then tapered off in the 1970s and 1980s to become almost worthless. In the 1990s some movie stars started collecting it and prices soared, but in the last few years prices have declined somewhat again
    This is just one example.
    My point is that timing of when to buy and when to sell can be a tricky factor.

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Robin – I agree about the timing but I disagree with “rarity is fixed.” Once a “rare” item or category is discovered or appears in the market and sells well, suddenly more of the item magically appears.

      Rarity, like demand, can fluctuate over time.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Fred Taylor

  5. Sadie Gold says:

    Fred, as always, your articles are full of information that helps the rest of us learn more about antique and collectible furniture. I keep coming back to this site just to read what you write!!! Keep up the great work that you do educating all of us.

  6. Martha says:

    I bought an antique chair 12 years ago from an estate sale in Florida. The elderly woman who sold it to me said it belonged to her mother and it was over 100 years old. The arms are hand carved and in great shape. At the time, I didn’t know that I was de-valuing the chair when I had it reupholstered (I knew nothing about antiques then). The heavy antique fabric didn’t fit into my color scheme. There is a tag with a postage stamp on it. The tag says it was refurbished by a Strouss-Hirshberg Store in Ohio. I am sure that it was reupholstered & springs re-tied by the store. I have pictures if someone can please help me.

    Do you have any info on this chair? OR do you know where I can start to do research on it?

    Please help.

  7. Vance says:

    Hi, what about “unsubstantiated provenance”? I have a Rococco Revival Turttle top (original finish, white marble with grey veins and brass casters); I’m not sure if its walnut or rosewood; but I AM positive that it was made for my great great grandmother for a house located at 29 S. Adams Street in Petersburg, Virginia; I have a photographic memory for some things and I had the original order form and invoice for the table and a number of other pieces that were made for the house. It was dated October, 1858 and I believe the contractor was from Baltimore, MD. – of all things to lose but that invoice! I think the table cost twenty five dollars in 1858; Interestingly, the house was torn down in 1954 but I have an oil painting that an artist did of the home as well as all the shutters (shown in the painting) and an iron coal fireplace grate inscribed “1850″ from the house. Frankly, I dislike the table; I am not fond of the mid 19th century style and the marble top is not my taste – its a turtle top – type and its not a very fancy type like a Belter or Meeks; but it has a nice patina, finger molding and four small carved “drop finials on each corner – it rests on a form fitting apron with the familiar c scroll legs that join in the middle to a large central final; I was able to unscrew this finial from the piece and found the number “27″ carved in the wood”; The only significance I can think of is that the property on Adams’ street consisted of two buildings 27 and 29 S. Adams St., respectively – so I wonder if the table was marked for delivery at the former of the two. Anyway, prices seem to vary wildly on these tables – my best guess is that this one falls in the “middle” of the price spectrum – the inexpensive ones seem to be of dark, often shiny wood and have little patina and very sparse decorations; the expensive pieces are very ornamented and heavily carved, often signed; This one has some quality hallmarks but its not in the same league with a Belter. By the way it is about 40″ long, 30.5″ wide and is only not on the sale block because I don’t know how to price it!

    Vance W. Washington DC

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