Rinker on Collectibles: Priced to Sell

As I walked into the booths during a visit to Wilson Antiques in Traverse City, Mich., I reacted to prices one of two ways: (a) this stuff is priced to sell or (2) these prices are ridiculous. While this is not the first time I have done this, the frequency has increased during the past two years.

As a reporter, I am cognizant of my need to be non-judgmental. I must ignore and bury my personal likes and dislikes when I report, analyze and interpret my observations. When I sense that my personal prejudices are impacting an article, blog or column, I switch topics.

In several recent columns, I commented that “objects are priced to sell.” A reader e-mailed asking me to explain. It is a fair question.

An antique or collectible only has monetary value at the moment it is sold. Its value is speculative before and after. The sticker price is an asking price, not necessarily a valid sale price. A successful sale determines the value of an object, although circumstances such as location, the mindset of the buyer and a host of other issue cause sale values to differ widely for the same object.

When conducting appraisal clinics, dealers approach me and ask: “What do you think I can get for this?” My response focuses on how quickly they want to sell it. “If you want to sell it in a week, ask ‘x.’ If you want to sell it in a month, ask ‘y,’ which is higher than ‘x.’ If you want to sell it in three months, ask ‘z.’ If you never want to sell it, ask ‘a.’”

When I edited and authored price guides, the three controls in determining the prices that appeared were (1) what would a collector pay for the object (2) assuming he did not own one and (3) wanted to own one. Interpreted properly, the price was a maximum rather than a minimum value. Such an approach does not work in today’s antiques and collectibles marketplace. The number of collectors is declining. Most purchases are for decorating or reuse purposes. The traditional collector base is aging. New collectors have different focuses.

Price guides create the infamous “book” price, a value which dealers and others see as sacrosanct. Although meant as a guide, most individuals assume the price is absolute. Auctioneers love to tell stories of individuals sitting in the audience bidding based upon prices found in the price guide they are consulting. Buyers often carry printed price guides with them as they walk the aisles at flea markets, antiques malls and antiques shows.

In the second decade of the 21st century, these printed guides are being replaced by electronic devices that provide access to Internet pricing sources (such as WorthPoint’s Worthopedia). As Linda and I entered Wilson Antiques, we encountered a table filled with remaindered Collector Books printed price guides, behind which was a sign stating “Being replaced by eBooks,” a reminder that the book price concept will continue.

Blind acceptance of book price is fraught with danger. How does the user know the book price is valid? Book prices need to be tested against sell-through prices in the field. Few individuals are willing to take the time or acquire the sophistication to do this. Those who do develop a correction percentage that allows a more realistic approach to values.

Today, an object that is priced to sell is valued below book. Historically, dealers offered below book discounts in the 10 to 15 percent range. Buyers now expect the percentage to be in the 15 to 35 percent range.

“It is priced significantly below book” is a common selling point used by dealers at flea markets and antiques shows. It even appears on tags at antiques malls. Of course, the book source upon which the assertion is based is not quoted.

Discounted book value is necessitated by the fact that today’s antiques and collectibles buyers expect bargains. Identifying such buyers as bottom feeders, as some dealers suggest, is a mistake. The 21st-century buyer is knowledgeable, sophisticated and a comparison shopper.

The instant gratification shopper of a decade ago is gone. The Great Recession ended the “I have to have it immediately” buying mentality. Buyers are willing to wait until they find an object at the price they want to pay as opposed to purchasing the first example seen. The quickest method to sell an antique or collectible is to offer it at a bargain price.

Comparison shopping is another method buyers use to decide if a price is a bargain. Comparison shopping occurs different ways: (a) walking an entire flea market, mall or show before buying; (b) checking Internet direct sale and auction sites; and (c) taking a dealer’s card, making a note of the asking price, and then visiting other sale venues to see if a better price can be found. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen multiples of the same object at an antiques mall or show with price differences of 100 percent or more.

Linda and I have been seeking a storage cabinet for her jewelry collection. A late 19th or early 20th century dental or doctor’s instrument cabinet is one possibility. We found a dental cabinet recently. The asking price was $3,800, definitely not a bargain. Linda took the dealer’s card. She plans to spend the next few months comparison shopping. If the dealer sells the cabinet in the interim, more power to her. I never begrudge a dealer a sale at his/her asking price. Linda also knows to “follow a piece.” Watch it for six months to a year. If unsold and she still has an interest in buying the piece, she is in a much stronger negotiating position.

I also possess a piece of information Linda does not. I have asked several contemporary craftsman cabinetmakers to provide me with estimates to design and make a jewelry cabinet for Linda. The costs ranged from half to two-thirds the asking price for the dental cabinet.

When decorator and reuse value dominate antiques and collectibles buying, rather than collector value, the concept of “cheaper than new” is essential to the priced to sell concept. Linda and I do not collect dental cabinets. If we buy one, it will be for adaptive reuse. A caveat is necessary.

Linda loves dinnerware. She spotted an early 20th-century Haviland dinnerware service for 10 with extra pieces and a large number of serving pieces priced at $595 at Wilson Antiques. The price was a bargain. In an urban market, where it could have been tagged at $1,200, it would still be a bargain. Further, a modern service of equivalent design would cost in excess of $3,500. It more than met the “cheaper than new” requirements. Yet, Linda did not buy it. In talking with the seller, we lamented that young people shy away because the porcelain is not dishwasher or microwave safe. “Cheaper than new,” no matter how cheap, is not a bargain if no one wants it.

Alas, cheaper than new no longer has the sales power it once had in the antiques and collectibles field. Young people want new. They are willing to spend more at Pottery Barn or IKEA than take advantage of the bargains in the field. This is one of the biggest challenges the antiques and collectibles trade faces.

Young buyers remain impulse buyers. The impulse price is a value which tempts the buyer based solely on the enjoyment they see in owning and displaying/using the object. In previous columns, I discussed impulse price as a fixed dollar amount someone would spend without thinking. Viewed from this perspective, the number is below $20. I now take a more sophisticated approach. An impulse value is a price too good to pass up. It varies from object to object, from person to person.

“Priced to sell” is a complex concept. It is not universal. It is as much a feeling as fact. It is critical to the health of the antiques and collectibles trade. Word of mouth advertising is the trade’s bread and butter. When satisfied buyers spread the word that the business is loaded with things that are priced to sell, good times roll. Based on what I have seen in the field during the past six months, this is likely to happen sooner than later.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“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..

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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