Unloved Antiques & Collectibles: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates

A collectors plate with Norman Rockwell’s “Flirting in the Parlor” image on the front was made by the Edwin Knowles Company and issued in 1983 as part of the “Rockwell Rediscovered Women Collection.”

In the antique & collectibles trade, I often come across a number of items that are generally not in demand, are not rare or have much monetary value. The problem is, though, that general public is convinced that the opposite is true and that dealers are all in on some conspiracy to purchase these priceless “family heirlooms” as cheap as they can so they can turn around and sell them for a huge profit. This misconception is fired up by shows such as the “Antiques Roadshow,” “Storage Wars,” “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” which give the impression that treasures exist in every barn, basement or storage locker.

These shows use the “Fantastic Find” concept because it’s everybody’s dream and the storylines have to fit within a half-hour or hour-long format. Anyone in the business who has worked any “Roadshow” event or has been called out to appraise an estate knows this to be a fantasy the majority of the time. For every treasure found there are hundreds of mundane items of little monetary value, or as the “Antique Roadshows” porcelain expert Henry Sandon is often heard to say, your item is “a lovely thing, but sadly, unappreciated.”

In this series of articles titled “Unloved Antiques & Collectibles,” I will highlight some of these much-loved items, the myths that surround them, and some fantastical family histories that often come with them. This inaugural Unloved Antiques article will focus on the top item on the list: “Limited Edition Collectors Plates.”

The term “limited edition” in this case is greatly diluted from its original meaning.* Now, the term is most often described as “limited firing of 150 days” of these decorator items, depicting everything from butterflies to Zeppelins.Unknown to the public, tens of thousands of these identical plates can be produced in 150 days, but the impression of rarity is given because the advertisements say “no more will be made” and will, of course, appreciate in value. The manufacturers play up this idea of rarity with “Certificates of Authenticity” and the fact they are “signed by the artist.”

The market for these plates boomed when the bulk of them were issued during the 1970s and ’80s, even though a lot of them never saw the light of day, as they were lovingly stored away in their original boxes, their certificates entombed with them. Now, some 40 years later, these same plates—numbering in the in their hundreds of thousands—are being dug out of cupboards and closets with expectations of cashing in. The problem is that everyone else has had the same idea, and now they are finding that their collectors plate is, indeed, “a lovely thing, but sadly unappreciated,” which, in this case, means no appreciation in value.

The example plate above is based on Norman Rockwell’s “Flirting in the Parlor,” which he painted in 1929. The plate was made by the Edwin Knowles Company and issued in 1983 as part of the “Rockwell Rediscovered Women Collection” for the Rockwell Society of America. This was one of a limited firing of 150 days, and its own edition number begins with 17 and is followed by three more digits.

Its value after 30 years? Well, while some plate dealers doggedly list it as high as $99 on their Internet sales sites, this plate fails to get bids at auction at the greatly discounted price of $9.99. Amazon currently lists nine of these plates from listed from $6.99 to $12, but one sold just this week for $2.99, original box and certificate included.

* The term “limited edition” got its start in the fine art prints market. As a rule, the term applied to high-quality lithographic prints, etchings or engravings of an artist’s original work. The number of these prints were generally limited to fewer than 500 copies due to declining quality of each subsequent print, as the plates degraded during the print run. These prints would include the “artist’s proofs,” which were for their own use (designated AP), plus printer’s proofs (designated PP). In some cases, there is an additional series called “hors de commerce” (designated HC). All of the artist’s proofs, printer’s proofs and hors de commerce are all separately numbered and signed by the artist (e.g. George Smith- 37/400, 7/25 etc.).

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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  • Michelle

    Then I did well! I believe I got about $8 for a Norman Rockwell plate in our shop recently:)
    We currently have a large (17 pcs.) set of “old masters” nativity Christmas plates, lovingly collected by the original owner each Christmas for all those years. We have them at $10 ea. and hope we can get that. The original purchaser paid about $40 a plate. Sad.

    • It’s all marketing, Advertisers have spent millions finding out what makes consumer’s “Bite” on a product. Marketing plays on our fears and desires, in the case of what I call “Ready Made Collectibles” like these plates, they play up that they are limited production, implying if you don’t get on board the future gravy train is going to leave without you if you don’t buy them now.

      • Mike Wilcox

        I’ve always had a bone to pick with printed price guides, as they are generally at least a year out of date when they go to press. The thing that many people don’t realize is that no Dealer is going to pay “Full Book” value on anything unless it’s very rare and he plans to hang onto to it as an investment. What they pay depends on their overhead and the “Mark up” they need to make a profit. In a lot of cases a dealer is going to pay 30% to 50% of what they can sell it for.

    • A good additional test would be to check how much these coins aualtlcy sell for (eg. on ebay).I remember collecting hockey cards and buying the guides to see how much they were worth, but I then learned that the guide values were aualtlcy about twice what I could get at the sports card shop. Perhaps one would do better if they sold them oneself, I never pursued it.

  • Viki Short

    Can you see the “eBay effect” on these limited addition or was it just a scam to begin with?

  • Mary

    I am looking forward to more from Mike Wilcox, the author of this article. I found it cleverly written and a most fun and enlightening read.
    I visited an old farm house in the 80’s that had a plate rail up all around the dining room, near the ceiling, it was filled with beautiful old collector plates. Since this was at the height of the collector plate fad, we were blown away by the sight of it all and I have never forgotten it.

  • Joyce Rau

    We could not even sell any of these at a recent garage sale. These plates were definitely a “bill of goods” sold to the unsuspecting public. Unfortunately we will find this article series quite lengthy as there were many such “artifacts” being circulated in the 80’s from miniature resin dioramas, “Bronze” composite sculptures and dolls, many many dolls.

  • It’s like I always tell people, “If it says it’s collectible, it’ll never be worth anything”. Beyond the simple fact that most of this stuff was just presented as being more valuable than it really was in the first place, then there’s the side where almost everyone that got them kept them. Therefore, there’s not a diminishing supply.

  • My grandfather collected all of the John Wayne plates and even had a giant
    oil on canvas of him. All of these a very close cousin inherited well to my chagrin I shall call him now and tell him that there will not be any windfall for his grandchildren (We would not dream of selling the things our grandparents left us, you know the sentimental value is what counts.) It makes me angry to know they were taken advantage of like that though.
    Thank you for the insite, because I actually bought a collectors plate, but I got mine at a garage sale for ten bucks. It is a budweiser plate with the three lab pups on it w/ a bud hat it’s cute. I would not have paid any more for that though. Thanks again,Cyndi

  • Etienne Dauphin

    When in doubt about whether something might be ‘collectible’, I always refer to this quote :

    “Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

    Of course, not all collectibles are useful. But those plates certainly lack in the beauty department.

  • Susan manglaris

    Have a 1976 merry Christmas dennis the menace plate. Is it worth anything? On the back is..christmas 1976
    “Dennis the menace”
    By hank Ketcham
    Another determined production for joy’s inc.
    Copr. 1976 hank Ketchum
    Thank you

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