Rinker on Collectibles: Responding to ‘But, It’s ____’ Queries

The general public assumes the antiques and collectibles business is simplistic and easy to understand. The opposite is true. The antiques and collectibles business is complex. Concepts that appear straightforward and reasonable at first glance require detailed analysis and interpretation. Those involved in the trade, from auctioneers to collectors to dealers, are constantly asked—and in some cases forced—to explain themselves. The answers, based upon their experience and which appear reasonable, seem convoluted and self-serving to the general public, leading to the misconception that everyone in the trade is either a crook or out to take advantage of people, oftentimes both.

When conducting appraisal clinics, I am more likely to disappoint than please when providing values. The supposition that everyone thinks what he/she owns is worth more than its secondary market worth is true. This is why I state at the end of my rules governing appraisals (that I present at the beginning of each hour): “You are asking for my opinion; whether you like it, are happy with it or agree with it.” Many in the audience laugh. I do not.

When providing an appraisal value, I look people straight in the eyes. Their facial expression, especially the eyes, is an excellent indicator of their unhappiness if they feel the value is too low. Since an appraiser has the responsibility to explain how values are determined, I respond: “I can see that you are unhappy with the value. I would like to share how I arrived at it.”

The result is usually a “But, it’s ____” question. “But, it’s ____” questions haunt the trade. Most have stock answers. The difficulty is providing them without seeming condescending. Implied in each question is the reason why the asker thinks the object in question is worth more than he/she was told.

This column explores some of the most obvious “But, it’s ____” questions. “But, it’s old” is the most common. The assumption is that old and valuable are synonymous. They most certainly are not. In the early to mid-20th century, the age of an object did impact value. There was a reverence associated with old, in this case, historic things. Age worship ended in the last quarter of the 20th century. Today, age is a minor to negligible value determinant for most antiques and collectibles.

The second difficulty with old is that it is a relevant term. What seems old to a person who is 35 may not seem old to a 69-year-old like me. I have trouble accepting the 1950s and 1960s as old. I grew up and spent my early adult years during these decades. They are yesterday. To some of my 20-year-old students, born in 1991, the 1950s and 1960s are the era of their grandparents or, heaven forbid, their great-grandparents. I have to constantly remind myself that the only thing my younger students know about Ronald Reagan’s presidency is what they read in textbooks, assuming their high school history class made it this far into the 20th century.

The third difficulty with old is that today’s young generation does not have the same degree of respect for age and antiquity as do their grandparents. The 21st century is a “new” era—out with the old, in with the new. Objects from Crate and Barrel, IKEA, Pottery Barn and the Big Box stores are more desirable than hand-me-downs and family heirlooms.

[Author’s Aside #1: The above sounds judgmental. It is not. Facts are facts. There is no right or wrong attached.]

“But, it’s my grandmother’s” is closely related to the “But, it’s old” question. It is natural that family members view family value in monetary terms. Family value is a value. But, it is first an emotional and sentimental and second a dollar value.

[Author’s Aside #2: Grandfathers get short shrift. More than 90 percent of all objects I see belong to the grandmother or some female relative. Is this because sentimentality is primarily a female virtue? I am not convinced. In going through the family heirlooms I own, most are female related. I have added this to my “think about it” list. If I successfully sort it through, I will share my thoughts in a future column.]

Family heirlooms can have monetary value, in this case meaning hundreds to thousands of dollars. What percentage of family heirlooms achieves this status? Based on my observations, the answer is less than 2 percent. Most family objects I appraise are worth less than $100.

Provenance, one aspect of which is ownership history, adds value. Objects are perceived as more valuable when the story of their owner(s) is known. How much more does this knowledge add to value? If the person is an unknown (measured by asking 100 people on the street if they can identify the person and not receiving a valid answer), the amount is minimal. The same applies to a historic personage who time has forgotten. The sad truth is almost everyone will be forgotten over time. What do you know about your great-grandparents?

“But, it’s just like the one I saw at/on ____.” This blank could be a flea market or antiques mall, shop or show. Today, it is far more likely to be a television show such as “Antiques Roadshow” or “Pawn Stars.” The first problem is that the likelihood of the object being exactly like the one seen elsewhere is between slim and none. The antiques and collectibles trade is an apples-to-apples business. Alas, most comparisons are apples to oranges or grapes or figs or something else entirely.

Should the objects prove identical, there is no guarantee the condition, always a major value determinant, is the same. The object seen might have been in near mint condition while the object being compared is in fair condition. Condition impacts value exponentially. It is a trade truism that owners over-grade the condition of their objects by at least one if not two grade scales. Being objective, on all sides of a question, is one of the toughest antiques and collectibles collecting skills to learn. Emotion rules, whether admitted or not.

An observed sticker value is a third element. Two additional “But, it’s ____” questions also involve value: “But, it’s listed for sale on eBay at____” and “But, it’s priced in the guide at ____.” Since there are no fixed prices in the antiques and collectibles business, a seller is free to ask anything he wants for an object. Value is set as an object is sold. At that moment, it has worth. The next moment is an entirely different matter.

The stock trade responses to “But, it’s listed at ____” are legendary: Did you see anyone buy it? (the dealer will die owning it); it’s totally unrealistic (all his merchandise is overpriced); and only a fool would pay that price. Since the appraiser already has told the person he/she believes their object is worth less, a response of “it’s worth that and more” or “I hope the seller gets it” does not apply.

I explain that the true value of an object is what someone is willing to pay and this value differs from person to person. The value I provide, based on my experience and knowledge, is an opinion. If necessary, I suggest sale venues where the value I gave might be achieved.

Explaining price guide prices is easy. First, they are guides not absolutes. Second, they are high-retail, not wholesale. Buying is one price; selling is another. Third, price-guide prices need to be field tested. Fourth, depending on the expertise and motives of the price guide author, the prices can be market- manipulated. Finally, changes in the market often make price guide prices obsolete.

“But, it’s less than I paid for it” is one of the toughest responses to answer, especially if it is evident the person bought it recently and was taken to the cleaners.

[Author’s Aside #3: I love clichés. There are times, such as this, when they are on point.]

When the object was purchased in the distant past, individuals have difficulty accepting the concept that collecting categories and the objects associated with them fall out of favor. Older collectors religiously believe that antiques and collectibles increase in value over time; no exceptions. They are blind to the truth. “You waited too long to sell it” is a response I use with greater frequency with each passing year.

What “But, it’s ____” questions have I missed. E-mail your thoughts to harrylrinker@aol.com. I sense another column coming.


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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  • Hi Harry,

    One I hear frequently most often with regard to porcelain is “But it’s gold”! The owner assuming there is a commodity value to gold decoration on porcelain. Indeed many pieces are marked “24k gold decoration” adding to the confusion.

    The other comment I hear often is “but it just needs to be reupholstered…” or “refinished and it’ll be good as new”. As if that’s an easy and inexpensive chore. Loved the article. It’s tough always being the grim reaper to peoples antique fantasies. Loved the article. Best, Colin – Prairieland

  • ronald gilbert

    Harry: This is a great article, and a must-read for any, and especially, a new, collector. I fall into your age category. I have been personally collecting for about 50 yrs. All the queries dealt with in your article are Classic. I will try to think of one to add to the list, and will email you when I do.

  • As to the “but it’s ____” main point, the main one I see is “online”, usually eBay. My stock response to that is, “when I was showing my wife how to check values online, the number one rule was, ignore eBay”. They are always either crazy low (no bids yet), or crazy high (looking for a sucker). Of course you can guess which value the customer is looking at.

    As to the point of why it’s always Grandma’s things, it’s probably related to bicycles. Boys bikes are worth more than girls bikes. The boys destroyed their bikes, so there are fewer of them around. Same with a lot of guy things. They’re either broken, given to a buddy or sold. There aren’t many things guys hand down (guns being a major exception here in the South).

    In my opinion of course.

  • S.B.Miller

    An expansion on the ‘but it was my grandmother’s’ is:
    “It was my grandmother’s, and she was 99 when she died”. The implication is that she purchased or acquired whatever it is EARLY in her life–say at age 15, now making the object 84 years old. Try telling the present owner that if grandma was still in possession of all her faculties, the item could actually be brand new!

  • Bob Kozlowski

    My mother inherited Persian rugs from her aunt. A friend that collected Persian rugs said they were valuable. My mother went to sell them and was quoted a very low price by a dealer, in the Mid-West. She then asked another appraiser and he more than doubled the first quoted price. My mother sold. The original dealer called about her selling them and she said she gave them away to a relative, not wanting to, for some reason, tell the dealer what she sold them for.
    The original dealer then told her, “you sold them didn’t you”? He then told her the rugs were much more than what she sold them for. She never again trusted an “expert”.

    • I have two thoughts about this:

      It’s always a good idea to get an appraisal from an appraiser, and then sell to a dealer. Don’t sell to your appraiser, as that’s a conflict of interest on his part.

      It’s better to get an appraisal, then sell to a dealer, knowing the appraised retail value of the item.

      (Or, you can always just skip the appraisal and offer it to several dealers, and take the highest price offered.)

      “He then told her the rugs were much more than what she sold them for. She never again trusted an ‘expert’.”

      Of course the rugs were worth more than what she sold them for; a dealer will always have to pay less for an item than he will price it for. He has to make a profit when he eventually does sell it to someone else (which may not be immediately).

      Some dealers will offer more than others, and it doesn’t necessarily mean one is more or less honest than another.

      It depends upon their knowledge, circumstances, if they have a buyer waiting or will have to keep it on hand for a long time, etc… So many different factors go into determining a price.

      For examples of what goes into pricing collectible books, you might see my article at http://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/collecting/first-edition-values.html

      (The principles discussed there apply to items other than books items as well.)

      My two cents.

    • Jen

      Malicious dealers do this sometimes. During a recent house call, I purchased a stick & ball baby carriage from a woman for $150.00. I also purchased many other items and had to return the next morning to pick up the carriage. Just as I was pulling into the driveway, another dealer was just leaving. He nicely told the family that he would have paid $1200.00 for the carriage and that I paid way too little for her silver (which he didn’t even see). With her mom just put into assisted living, she and her family were very upset, as was I. I suggested she call him back immediately to come purchase the carriage since it was still there but she declined saying that she already made the deal with me. Getting back to my shop, I thought MAYBE I made a mistake, MAYBE it was a really good piece… so I looked it up online and on LiveAuctioneers. There I found plenty comparables and one or two just like it. http://www.liveauctioneers.com/search?q=stick+ball+carriage&dtype=gallery&type=complete&rows=20 For resale purposes, I actually paid too much! Mine has a 3 broken sticks, no original cushions and the rubber on the wheels is half-gone.

      I don’t know why he would do this to this family but it just goes to show, some dealers are just liars, malicious, jealous, pissed they weren’t the first one into the house, or whatever. Either way, his actions were unethical and unfortunately, there are many more like him out there.

  • Nick Ryan

    Spot on Harry, two comments,

    “The third difficulty with old is that today’s young generation does not have the same degree of respect for age and antiquity as do their grandparents.”

    This seems a rather large generalisation and I am always pleasantly surprised at the amount of youngster at our auctions buying the most bizarre items (for a youngster anyway) often initially encouraged by parents. They are in the minority, but they are there.

    Lastly, and I know you have been here, explaining to the customer, “But, it’s a Fake / Reproduction” Similarly “limited production runs 1/500 seems to entice many a customer, they never ask how many actual production runs where there when purchasing.

    Keep up the excellent articles, regards, Nick

  • Nick Ryan

    Harry, re your authors aside #2, perhaps I can help shed some light. Although I currently live in Australia, I was born in England, I have traced our family back over 600 years, some of them still own land that has been in our family nearly all of that time.

    I knew my grandparents very well (I am 57)We have longevity in our genes, grandpa was 100 when he died,his sister was 106, both had full faculties.

    My mother has a vast collection of items that her mother and grandmother made, not just “girly” things, my grandmother was an excellent woodcarver as was her mother. A hand carved wooden coal scuttle comes to mind which my mother still uses to this day. I believe that in our grandparents age and beyond the ladies of the house were far more productive in what they did (not that they are not now, but times and demands change)I was brought up to respect these items and my children (now in their 30’s) Also respect them.

    Grandfathers on the other hand, unless they were handy at something themselves like carving, rarely left anything as hand me downs, work was hard, hours were long. Relaxation time for the man of the house was probably recuperation time before work again. Maybe some fishing rods, some books, their own personal items like razors etc, show up as treasured items but that’s about it.

    I hope this has helped with Aside #2 for you and given you thoughts for a future column.

    Kind regards, Nick

  • Jay

    I absolutely hate it when I am in a store, especially a non profit second hand store and they will have their items displayed with a paper printout of the ebay listing with the absolutely highest asking price. Then maybe mark off 10% from the ridiculous asking price on ebay. It’s a completely off putting practice and I sometimes wonder if I walked into a museum instead of a store.

    • JoAnne

      I couldn’t agree with you more about “thrift” stores selling collectible items at inflated prices. I understand that the money will go to a good cause, but in asking so much, they are severely limiting the chances of that item being purchased, and the longer it sits on their shelves, the greater potential for it to get damaged.

  • ronald gilbert

    As far as ‘actual value’ of appraised collectible items goes, I really think that the old expression ‘whatever the market will bear’ really does apply. What is the actual dollar amount that someone has paid for that item TODAY? or very recently? However, I think it might also be nice to have a real appraisal presented in a ‘time-line graph format’, showing the rise or fall fluctuations in value over, say, a 10 yr period. I have seen this done with real estate values.

    • Steve Rosefeld

      As an appraiser, I have done time line graphs on several occasions (especially on art) to help explain to the client that values fluxuate over time, not unlike the stock market.

      I recently had an email “discussion” with a client about a painting she believed was worth considerably more than I had valued it because she spoke with Sothebys and they had sold his paintings for much more. She wasn’t considering that the paintings by that artist, that had sold for more, were larger and of a different subject. I valued it based on comparables of similar size and subject matter. Not to be swayed by the facts, I ultimately needed to locate another appraiser who came in within 5% of my value. If methodology is the same, the results should be similar.

      My point here is, sometimes no mater how you explain it, some people cannot be convinced.

      • Amen!

        Especially when it’s a family item, or they’ve paid a lot for it. I hate to try and explain that their emotional value doesn’t enter into what someone else will be willing to pay. Nor is it fun to tell them either they paid too much in the first place, or the market has moved.

        Sometimes, these sentimental items are sold when the family needs money. I point out to my wife what I call “mortgage payment” yard sales. In an attempt to raise money, they bring out the things they count as valuable. The sad irony of these cases is, they probably left items with less emotional and more cash value at home.

  • When I tell people to check eBay for similar things in order to find a value on their whatchamacallit, I’m careful to tell them to check actual prices realized, not just “buy it now” asking prices. And, whenever possible, check for several transactions, as they will vary. The auction business is tricky, but by using average values, one can determine a realistic market value.

  • john

    “Today, age is a minor to negligible value determinant for most antiques and collectibles.”

    negligible…….really? Most? no……not from what I see.

    In real life I find that to be an untrue statement.

  • Shawn

    As a collector, I’ve been frustrated by sellers’ unrealistic prices more and more in recent years. As ebay has shifted to more Buy It Nows, it gives sellers more opportunity to stick to that “But it’s ___” price.

    I’ve been watching a tea set for more than a year. The seller is asking $419. A well-known collector with lots of knowledge in that area tells me he would pay $125. But the seller says she had it appraised for $350 several years ago, so she wants $350 — never mind that values have fallen as the economy crashed. That’s just one example — several other things I collect have been priced beyond reason too.

    Some folks have told me that if I truly want it, I should just buy it, but that ridiculous. I don’t mind paying an “I must have it” premium, but I can’t (and would be stupid) to overpay by hundreds. So I don’t buy.

    My tea set aside, I think these dream prices are a bad trend for collectors. It could drive up prices eventually, or it could drive even hardcore collectors like myself to other interests.

    • Nick Ryan

      Hi Bill, If an item has not sold I will even email the vendor after the auction offering a lower price and often get the item when they relist my offer price as a buy it now, this surely reflects A. either the more realistic market price, what I am prepared to pay or B. I buy crazy items no one else wants LoL


  • The crazy “buy it now” prices on eBay certainly hurt anyone trying to arrive at a true value. However, even on eBay it’s possible to find a decent price if you dig a little deeper and work at it.

    For example, I’ve been watching a Space 1999 spaceship toy I used to have. With a box, they regularly sell for over $300. There are people asking as much as $7995. Others have sold for as little as $185. I’ve also seen parts sold separately (just the spaceship, just the box, etc), that could be bought and assembled for $150.

    Although it didn’t help in the case of the dishes above, you can make offers on “buy it now” items too. I’ve had my offer accepted a surprising number of times, even without a counter-offer.

    • Shawn

      Good advice, Bill, and I do that. But it’s hard when something thinks Grandma’s whatnot is worth $500 when it’s really worth $50. Even if I offer them $100, they’d be offended. But I guess that’s part of the hunt. 🙂

  • Ellie

    Re: Grandmother’s items – The men in my family do not hold on to sentimental items. When my father died, the only items we had were letters (thank goodness he kept those), his broken wristwatches and his gun. I also think “household” items are considered to belong the the lady of the house.

    Then again, when I worked in a coffee shop 15 years ago I was shocked at the amount of money people spent for Mother’s Day. A new deluxe coffee-maker, a grinder, 5 pounds of beans plus a new set of mugs for Mom. Come Father’s Day, customers would buy 1/2 pound of coffee for dear old Dad and be done with it. I thought it reflected the amount of time fathers spent with their childern in the past – something I believe is changing with today’s parents.

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