Unloved Antiques & Collectibles: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates

A collectors plate with Norman Rockwell’s “Flirting in the Parlor” image on the front was made by the Edwin Knowles Company and issued in 1983 as part of the “Rockwell Rediscovered Women Collection.”

In the antique & collectibles trade, I often come across a number of items that are generally not in demand, are not rare or have much monetary value. The problem is, though, that general public is convinced that the opposite is true and that dealers are all in on some conspiracy to purchase these priceless “family heirlooms” as cheap as they can so they can turn around and sell them for a huge profit. This misconception is fired up by shows such as the “Antiques Roadshow,” “Storage Wars,” “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” which give the impression that treasures exist in every barn, basement or storage locker.

These shows use the “Fantastic Find” concept because it’s everybody’s dream and the storylines have to fit within a half-hour or hour-long format. Anyone in the business who has worked any “Roadshow” event or has been called out to appraise an estate knows this to be a fantasy the majority of the time. For every treasure found there are hundreds of mundane items of little monetary value, or as the “Antique Roadshows” porcelain expert Henry Sandon is often heard to say, your item is “a lovely thing, but sadly, unappreciated.”

In this series of articles titled “Unloved Antiques & Collectibles,” I will highlight some of these much-loved items, the myths that surround them, and some fantastical family histories that often come with them. This inaugural Unloved Antiques article will focus on the top item on the list: “Limited Edition Collectors Plates.”

The term “limited edition” in this case is greatly diluted from its original meaning.* Now, the term is most often described as “limited firing of 150 days” of these decorator items, depicting everything from butterflies to Zeppelins.Unknown to the public, tens of thousands of these identical plates can be produced in 150 days, but the impression of rarity is given because the advertisements say “no more will be made” and will, of course, appreciate in value. The manufacturers play up this idea of rarity with “Certificates of Authenticity” and the fact they are “signed by the artist.”

The market for these plates boomed when the bulk of them were issued during the 1970s and ’80s, even though a lot of them never saw the light of day, as they were lovingly stored away in their original boxes, their certificates entombed with them. Now, some 40 years later, these same plates—numbering in the in their hundreds of thousands—are being dug out of cupboards and closets with expectations of cashing in. The problem is that everyone else has had the same idea, and now they are finding that their collectors plate is, indeed, “a lovely thing, but sadly unappreciated,” which, in this case, means no appreciation in value.

The example plate above is based on Norman Rockwell’s “Flirting in the Parlor,” which he painted in 1929. The plate was made by the Edwin Knowles Company and issued in 1983 as part of the “Rockwell Rediscovered Women Collection” for the Rockwell Society of America. This was one of a limited firing of 150 days, and its own edition number begins with 17 and is followed by three more digits.

Its value after 30 years? Well, while some plate dealers doggedly list it as high as $99 on their Internet sales sites, this plate fails to get bids at auction at the greatly discounted price of $9.99. Amazon currently lists nine of these plates from listed from $6.99 to $12, but one sold just this week for $2.99, original box and certificate included.

* The term “limited edition” got its start in the fine art prints market. As a rule, the term applied to high-quality lithographic prints, etchings or engravings of an artist’s original work. The number of these prints were generally limited to fewer than 500 copies due to declining quality of each subsequent print, as the plates degraded during the print run. These prints would include the “artist’s proofs,” which were for their own use (designated AP), plus printer’s proofs (designated PP). In some cases, there is an additional series called “hors de commerce” (designated HC). All of the artist’s proofs, printer’s proofs and hors de commerce are all separately numbered and signed by the artist (e.g. George Smith- 37/400, 7/25 etc.).

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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