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You, Too, Can Determine If 
What You Own Has Value

by Bob Brooke


Appraising antiques and collectibles is an art, not a science. It’s a field reserved for professionals. The techniques for determining value vary from one field to the next and involve extensive research, so the appraisal processes can be an expensive one. Certain overall principles apply. You can determine if an item you own has some value by asking yourself the following:

1. How old is your item?
A 19th-century painting.There are a variety of techniques for determining the age of any antique or collectible. Check the age of paintings, for example, by examining the back of the canvas for the rough, uneven threads that indicate handwork. The type of wood used in furniture–particularly the "secondary" woods used for the inside of drawers–is an important tip-off of age. Another sign is a circular saw pattern in the wood, which indicates the piece of furniture was made after 1840.

2. How rare is it?
Faberge egg.
The more of an item that’s produced, the less valuable it is today. But not everything rare is valuable. An old book of poetry by an unknown author might be extremely rare, for example, but who wants to buy it? How rare was your item was when it was first made?

Think in terms of a pyramid. At its top sit unique items made for royalty of the finest materials available, such as Faberge eggs made for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. At the bottom sit mass-produced items made of commonplace materials for the masses. As a rule of thumb, if an item was rare and valuable on the day it was made, it'll be even more rare and valuable today.

3. Is it genuine?

Old cameo.When a collectible becomes popular, fakes and forgeries abound. Some forgeries are good enough to fool the experts. But many are obvious frauds lying in wait for the unwary and uninformed.

Perfectly round wood in a piece of furniture is a tell-tale sign of fakery because wood becomes distorted with age. Look carefully at ceramics to see if the potter applied the decoration on top of the glaze after the firing. Real cameos are sculpted from one piece of ivory while fakes are often two or more pieces glued together. Lastly, good reproductions can be as valuable as the originals, as in the case of Shaker chairs.

4. What’s the condition of your piece?

Condition is the most important element in determining value. Did you know, for example, that the value of a rare book can drop by more than 100 percent it doesn't have its dust jacket? Did you know that the "patina" on fine furniture (that is, furniture made before 1830) is one of its most important features, and too much cleaning and restoration can ruin it? Victorian furniture, generally, can be restored without substantially affecting its value.

Examine your item inside and out. A hairline crack that’s barely noticeable may decrease the value of a porcelain vase by as much as 40 percent. Sometimes the value of a rare vase can be diminished greatly because the owner left water in it and caused a "ring-aroundthe-collar" stain in the neck.

5. Is your item typical or trendy?
Staffordshire pitcher.The "typical" work of an artist or craftsman is always worth more than the unusual work, even though the latter may be more rare. That's because collectors are always looking for representative examples of a given period, craft or style.

It's also a good idea to be aware of the current trends in collecting. The mere fact that something is "hot" can add dollar signs to its price tag. Among the hottest trends today is Staffordshire ware because of all the beautiful photographic spreads containing it in country home decorating magazines. Keep on top of what's hot and what's not.

6. Does your item tell a story?
Is your piece associated with a famous person or event in history? Do you know where it was made and who owned it in the past? Dealers call this an item’s "provenance," and it can be vital to establishing value. Find out all you can about your item.

But don't accept the seller's word for the provenance of an item. You must have written proof such as a letter from the time the item was used.

If you can answer the above questions positively, your item most likely has value. Exactly how much it’s worth can only be determined by a professional antiques appraiser.

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