The Truth About Price Guides

Vintage price guides can be an invaluable resource for identifying and dating collectibles. But don’t rely on them for value.

Before the days of the Internet, dealers and collectors relied on price guides to determine what the market would bear.  Collectors carried their well-thumbed guides with them on shopping forays to make sure they were getting a fair deal, and dealers priced their merchandise based on the genre’s “bible.”  For popular collectibles like sports cards, coins and comic books, new guides would be released on a regular basis and prices would always be adjusted accordingly.

Sometimes price guides were great for this purpose, but often they were not.  If the guide creator was reputable and based his or her source information on a wide sampling of realized sales from venues across the nation, then the data was probably good.  If the “expertise” was instead based on the asking prices of a few local hobbyists, then not so much.  Most well known guides were trustworthy of course – but too many authors for small, specialty markets featured their own inventory and exaggerated values to influence buyers.

Meanwhile, the reality was that demand (and thus value) could vary greatly from the east coast to the west.  Collecting interests, disposable income and dealer competition fluctuated from region to region.  And any collectible will usually sell for a different amount if found in a national trade show, a high-end antique store or an outdoor tag sale. Still, price guides were big business and even the tiniest niche markets were represented.  If you collected fountain pens, arrowheads, Fiesta dinnerware, matchbooks or MacDonald’s toys, there was a guide for it.

How many people collect postcards dedicated to baseball stadiums? There’s a price guide for every niche market.

Since guide prices increased every time a new edition was released, many items began to reach a price saturation point.  English flow blue porcelain, which originated in the 1820s, is a perfect example. The inky blue glaze that had blurred or “flowed” in vintage kilns became a hot commodity with home decorators in the early 1990s. It was prominently featured in designer magazines like Southern Living and dealers just couldn’t get enough.  Everyone expected book value for anything they sold and price guides were driving the market.  Since dealers had to make a profit after they paid “book,” the prices in resale shops naturally had to go up.  Once-enthusiastic collectors finally decided they couldn’t stand the continuing inflation and quit buying.  Pretty soon another trendy antique had priced itself out.

This 16-inch flow blue platter sold for $100 in 2003.  Although still very collectible, the once-robust flow blue market was by then starting to become saturated.

Then, as everyone knows, the internet changed the collectible landscape forever.  As more and more auction houses began to allow online bidding, their merchandise became available to a worldwide audience.  Items that were once considered rare suddenly appeared for sale all over the web.  The best of the best could draw the wealthiest buyers and shot up in value.  The more common offerings predictably sank.  A free and open market organically influenced prices and anyone could access the data with a single click.  Price guides became obsolete.

But that doesn’t mean the end of buyer guides at all; it just means a change in focus.  First-rate guides are invaluable for identifying and dating – and many out-of-print versions are highly sought-after for just that reason.  Some of the more obscure guides are even collectible in their own right and can sell for premium prices.  Here’s what to look for:

  1. Source Material. A guide’s source information should be in the introduction at the front of the book. How and where did the author collect his data? The best resources include old and archived product catalogs, advertising and promotional brochures.  Have all the pieces been found or are some still lurking for that lucky hunter? 
  2. Specificity. A guide should be specific and exclusive to one subject area. Thick generalist guides – with a little bit of everything in thousands of listings – paint with way too broad a brush. A single line item that simply says, “Hepplewhite chair – $10,000” is pretty meaningless, especially if it’s mixed in with McCoy cookie jars and pocket watches.
  3. Identification. A guide should be filled with detailed color photos but should also describe (and illustrate) specific things to observe in order to authenticate a piece. That includes hallmarks, signatures, unique features, material content, manufacturer and anything else that is relevant.
  4. Completeness. The guide should explain any changes that occurred over time and all dates of production. It should also list every known piece that was made in a particular style, pattern or line.
  5. Reproductions and Counterfeits. The very best guides include lists of reproductions (fakes of existing items) and counterfeits (fakes that never had a counterpart) with specifics on how to recognize them.

This excellent 1993 guide includes an extensive section on reproductions and counterfeits.

My favorite guides have helped me identify book editions for my personal collection and appraisal business.  They include specific and complicated identification points – like dust jacket advertising, textural typos, cover cloth weave and illustration errors.  A shout out to David Farah, who self-published a collection of guides on identifying the zillions of editions of Nancy Drew books, and to Bibliographia Oziana, by Douglas Greene and Peter Hanff, which succinctly describes the subtle differences in the early 20th century Wizard of Oz editions.  Both of these guides were truly my “bibles.”

Happy Hunting!

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.

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