BUYING AND SELLING “STEAMPUNK!”

That odd hybrid of collectible stuff....wildly popular, but don’t ask for an objective appraisal!

Possibly the hardest category of antiques and collectibles to put a dollar figure on is the eclectic mish mosh of industrial fashion and macabre Victorian weirdness called “steampunk.” An objective appraisal of a steampunk item is difficult, because determining whether or not something is steampunk in the first place can be a subjective endeavor.

These rusty old railroad spikes recently sold on Ebay for $49.99, with a title of “60 ANTIQUE RAILROAD SPIKES, VERY RUSTED VINTAGE DECOR, STEAMPUNK ART.”

On eBay, and elsewhere, a description of literally thousands of items for sale may have the word “steampunk” as a tag word at the end of the description, just to attract attention and interest. For example, on eBay, 60 railroad spikes, in excellent condition, generally sell for about a buck a piece ($60.00).  A lot of 60 old rusty bent ones are arguably worthless, but with the word steampunk thrown in there, it plants a seed to someone who deals in steampunk, or makes steampunk art, and voila!  Sold!

A steampunk “purist” might argue that this is a cheap ploy, and that old railroad spikes don’t fit the definition of steampunk.  The dictionary definition of  “steampunk” is….ready?  “ A sub-genre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery.”

This heavy duty fiber-board industrial tote, with heavy metal corner brackets and wooden slat braced bottom and open handles, is a perfect example of a mid-century/“Industrial Age” item that isn’t Steampunk, technically, but rides along happily in that category none the less. I’ve had one of these old worn totes out for sale at an antiques show, and it is one of the most picked up items on my table, with great interest! It’s an item that you have to hold, and see in person to appreciate. It was used to pack orders for a mail order seed business in NH. They would pack the order, then send it down the track on rollers to the next station in the warehouse. I sold mine for $50.00, but I’ve seen them priced at upwards of $120.00 !

In my opinion there are two sort of “factions” in the steampunk world.  One is steampunk “fashion,” and one is steampunk décor and art work, which is what someone in the antiques, auctions, and collectible field deals with regularly.  It mixes in more “mid-Century” stuff and especially “heavy metal” cast iron fixtures that are heavily worn from factory use and come with a naturally aged patina.

I have to confess it is a field of collectibles that I LOVE, and find myself drawn to, whether I like it or not.  When I am in Boston and walk through the lobby of a fancy office building downtown, I’ll often find a large artistic steampunk sculpture standing proudly under a glass enclosed case with spotlight illumination. I always find myself in front of it, going through it piece by piece, identifying what each old piece might have come from.

An online company called “Steampunk Office” offers custom designed steampunk lamps like this one they have for sale at $1,948.00.

My sister and her husband now own what was once my father’s business, Whitemore Durgin Stained Glass Co, in Rockland, Mass.  When my father owned it back in the 1970s , he once bought out some smaller glass and distributor businesses.  Still to this day, there are remnants and pieces of equipment from those other businesses, pieces that date back to the 1930s.  My sister has these items still as part of her stained glass business, because they were so well made and “heavy duty” enough to hold up to the day to day rigors of rough and dusty business.  I stopped by last week and snapped some photos of items that they see as “old used equipment,” but that I couldn’t help but see as “steampunk” in a new collectible category that’s on an upward trend!  

This old industrial hand crank taping machine could easily be used for steampunk.

In order to get a better gauge of the values of steampunk “stuff,”  I spent some time on the ultimate source for “ actual” values of antiques and collectible–the eBay “sold” page.

First, I just entered the word “steampunk” into the search bar, and got 386,395 active items being sold.  Then, for the big info “stat,”  I pressed “sold items” and found that 58,765 items were listed that had actually sold.  I usually compare those two numbers– “for sale” and “sold”–  and if the ratio is about 1 to 6 (like this example) or better,  it tells me that there is some good selling action happening in that category.  There are categories that are 10 to 1, or even 20 to 1, where there is such a glut of items, and virtually no interest, that you just feel lucky if you don’t have a storage unit full of whatever the item is!

But 6 to 1 is good, in my book anyways. Then I took the next step, and got more specific.  I could tell by the category results, that the major portion of those results were steampunk “fashion,” like old Jules Vernes type goggle riding glasses, or chimney type top hats, or a funky piece of jewelry made of a gear or steel bolt, etc.

That’s steampunk, but it’s not part of the world of antiques and collectibles. So I searched further.  I typed “steampunk stand” in the search bar, and got 1551 items for sale, but only 182 “sold” items.  A steampunk “stand” would be like a heavy metal tripod, or four legged iron 1920s set of table legs, maybe with iron castor wheels.

A steampunk “stand” is one of the items where “steampunk” is defined very loosely! This one is offered online for $499.00. Selling something like this online is very difficult because of the shipping costs and issues. But if you have a large artsy loft warehouse in Soho, NY, to sell steampunk from, you’ll have a much better time of things, I guarantee!

The reason so few of these stands actually sold on eBay, was the weight of shipping of course.  They were priced quite high, and didn’t sell well, and I’m betting they were run through eBay multiple times before they finally sold. Sellers will price them high, and just wait it out until some funky high priced interior decorator comes along and feels like it is “exactly what they’ve been searching for!”

 

This hotel elevator “dead switch” had enough characteristics to make it “steampunk” and to have it fetch a hefty price on eBay recently.

I’ve been to art shops in Montreal, Boston, and even one in my local renovated mill “arts” building, that feature amazing and imaginative sculptures, furniture pieces, and lamps, that are steampunk. Each creation needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated!  Just another example of a new and exciting art form, springing from the world of antiques and collectibles!


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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