What Makes Antique Furniture Valuable? The Four-Part Test

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

Quality

In the early 1970s 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.


Fred Taylor is WorthPoint’s antique furniture Worthologist.

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. 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 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com. All items are also available directly from the website, www.furnituredetective.com.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth