The general public assumes the antiques and collectibles business is simplistic and easy to understand. The opposite is true. The antiques and collectibles business is complex. Concepts that appear straightforward and reasonable at first glance require detailed analysis and interpretation. Those involved in the trade, from auctioneers to collectors to dealers, are constantly asked—and in some cases forced—to explain themselves. The answers, based upon their experience and which appear reasonable, seem convoluted and self-serving to the general public, leading to the misconception that everyone in the trade is either a crook or out to take advantage of people, oftentimes both.
When conducting appraisal clinics, I am more likely to disappoint than please when providing values. The supposition that everyone thinks what he/she owns is worth more than its secondary market worth is true. This is why I state at the end of my rules governing appraisals (that I present at the beginning of each hour): “You are asking for my opinion; whether you like it, are happy with it or agree with it.” Many in the audience laugh. I do not.
When providing an appraisal value, I look people straight in the eyes. Their facial expression, especially the eyes, is an excellent indicator of their unhappiness if they feel the value is too low. Since an appraiser has the responsibility to explain how values are determined, I respond: “I can see that you are unhappy with the value. I would like to share how I arrived at it.”
The result is usually a “But, it’s ____” question. “But, it’s ____” questions haunt the trade. Most have stock answers. The difficulty is providing them without seeming condescending. Implied in each question is the reason why the asker thinks the object in question is worth more than he/she was told.
This column explores some of the most obvious “But, it’s ____” questions. “But, it’s old” is the most common. The assumption is that old and valuable are synonymous. They most certainly are not. In the early to mid-20th century, the age of an object did impact value. There was a reverence associated with old, in this case, historic things. Age worship ended in the last quarter of the 20th century. Today, age is a minor to negligible value determinant for most antiques and collectibles.
The second difficulty with old is that it is a relevant term. What seems old to a person who is 35 may not seem old to a 69-year-old like me. I have trouble accepting the 1950s and 1960s as old. I grew up and spent my early adult years during these decades. They are yesterday. To some of my 20-year-old students, born in 1991, the 1950s and 1960s are the era of their grandparents or, heaven forbid, their great-grandparents. I have to constantly remind myself that the only thing my younger students know about Ronald Reagan’s presidency is what they read in textbooks, assuming their high school history class made it this far into the 20th century.
The third difficulty with old is that today’s young generation does not have the same degree of respect for age and antiquity as do their grandparents. The 21st century is a “new” era—out with the old, in with the new. Objects from Crate and Barrel, IKEA, Pottery Barn and the Big Box stores are more desirable than hand-me-downs and family heirlooms.
[Author’s Aside #1: The above sounds judgmental. It is not. Facts are facts. There is no right or wrong attached.]
“But, it’s my grandmother’s” is closely related to the “But, it’s old” question. It is natural that family members view family value in monetary terms. Family value is a value. But, it is first an emotional and sentimental and second a dollar value.
[Author’s Aside #2: Grandfathers get short shrift. More than 90 percent of all objects I see belong to the grandmother or some female relative. Is this because sentimentality is primarily a female virtue? I am not convinced. In going through the family heirlooms I own, most are female related. I have added this to my “think about it” list. If I successfully sort it through, I will share my thoughts in a future column.]
Family heirlooms can have monetary value, in this case meaning hundreds to thousands of dollars. What percentage of family heirlooms achieves this status? Based on my observations, the answer is less than 2 percent. Most family objects I appraise are worth less than $100.
Provenance, one aspect of which is ownership history, adds value. Objects are perceived as more valuable when the story of their owner(s) is known. How much more does this knowledge add to value? If the person is an unknown (measured by asking 100 people on the street if they can identify the person and not receiving a valid answer), the amount is minimal. The same applies to a historic personage who time has forgotten. The sad truth is almost everyone will be forgotten over time. What do you know about your great-grandparents?
“But, it’s just like the one I saw at/on ____.” This blank could be a flea market or antiques mall, shop or show. Today, it is far more likely to be a television show such as “Antiques Roadshow” or “Pawn Stars.” The first problem is that the likelihood of the object being exactly like the one seen elsewhere is between slim and none. The antiques and collectibles trade is an apples-to-apples business. Alas, most comparisons are apples to oranges or grapes or figs or something else entirely.
Should the objects prove identical, there is no guarantee the condition, always a major value determinant, is the same. The object seen might have been in near mint condition while the object being compared is in fair condition. Condition impacts value exponentially. It is a trade truism that owners over-grade the condition of their objects by at least one if not two grade scales. Being objective, on all sides of a question, is one of the toughest antiques and collectibles collecting skills to learn. Emotion rules, whether admitted or not.
An observed sticker value is a third element. Two additional “But, it’s ____” questions also involve value: “But, it’s listed for sale on eBay at____” and “But, it’s priced in the guide at ____.” Since there are no fixed prices in the antiques and collectibles business, a seller is free to ask anything he wants for an object. Value is set as an object is sold. At that moment, it has worth. The next moment is an entirely different matter.
The stock trade responses to “But, it’s listed at ____” are legendary: Did you see anyone buy it? (the dealer will die owning it); it’s totally unrealistic (all his merchandise is overpriced); and only a fool would pay that price. Since the appraiser already has told the person he/she believes their object is worth less, a response of “it’s worth that and more” or “I hope the seller gets it” does not apply.
I explain that the true value of an object is what someone is willing to pay and this value differs from person to person. The value I provide, based on my experience and knowledge, is an opinion. If necessary, I suggest sale venues where the value I gave might be achieved.
Explaining price guide prices is easy. First, they are guides not absolutes. Second, they are high-retail, not wholesale. Buying is one price; selling is another. Third, price-guide prices need to be field tested. Fourth, depending on the expertise and motives of the price guide author, the prices can be market- manipulated. Finally, changes in the market often make price guide prices obsolete.
“But, it’s less than I paid for it” is one of the toughest responses to answer, especially if it is evident the person bought it recently and was taken to the cleaners.
[Author’s Aside #3: I love clichés. There are times, such as this, when they are on point.]
When the object was purchased in the distant past, individuals have difficulty accepting the concept that collecting categories and the objects associated with them fall out of favor. Older collectors religiously believe that antiques and collectibles increase in value over time; no exceptions. They are blind to the truth. “You waited too long to sell it” is a response I use with greater frequency with each passing year.
What “But, it’s ____” questions have I missed. E-mail your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. I sense another column coming.
Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..
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“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site..
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