Cataloging collectibles is the first step in safekeeping

It was a collector’s worst nightmare.

Behind the Gavel by Wayne Jordan

Behind the Gavel by Wayne Jordan

About 20 years ago, a fair portion of my appraisal business came from assessing moving damage claims for van lines. On one occasion, I was called to inspect a claim on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: a tractor-trailer had taken an off-ramp too fast, flipped over and rolled down the embankment with a full load.

The damage was the worst I’d ever seen. Steel sofa-bed frames were twisted, furniture was in splinters, and the shipper’s treasured porcelain collection was crushed. Lladro, Limoges and a variety of antique porcelain figurines were gone — all of them.

The shipper valued her collection in the mid-five figures. Her settlement from the van line for her porcelain collection? $16.74. In an attempt to save money on the moving cost, the shipper had failed to protect her interests on several counts: she packed the porcelain herself (relieving the van line of responsibility for breakage of packed items) and didn’t insure her shipment. The van line was only liable at the “released rate” for interstate shipping: 6 cents per pound. So, a single Lladro figure valued at $3,000, weighing just 3 pounds, was settled for 18 cents. Tragic? Yes, but completely legal according the statutes for interstate shipping.

Over the years, I’ve seen similar scenarios played out in a variety of circumstances, including thefts, floods and fires. Sometimes, the insurance company paid a fair settlement; sometimes, it didn’t. The difference? Policyholders who knew what they had and could prove it got paid; all others went away moaning and groaning about how unfairly they were treated.

Life is risky, and everyone is subject to its vagaries. Accidents happen; that’s why we buy insurance. But rule No. 1 for protecting your property is “know what you have.” Insurance companies aren’t going to write you a check on your say-so. If you own specific, valuable items — like your collections — then they need to be documented and separately insured. Your homeowner’s policy won’t cover a loss otherwise. Even if your collection is insured for loss by a rider to your homeowner’s policy, any claim will still be subject to the policy’s coverage limits and deductibles.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine
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It’s not my intent here to sell insurance; the world is full of agents who are qualified to do that. What I want to cover is how to document your collections so that you can insure them against loss. In the process, your documentation will also help to establish provenance and value when the day comes that your collection changes hands. Of course, when you do buy insurance, the agent’s first question to you will be: “What do you have?” So let’s get right down to the business of identifying and cataloging “what you have” in the way of collectibles. Along the way, you may want to decide to inventory the rest of your household goods, as well. It can’t hurt.

First, inventory each individual item in your collections, and take photos as you do. Then, upload the photos to your computer.After you enter your inventory data into software of some sort, write a description, provenance and value for each item, then attach photos. There are a variety of software programs available for doing this; some are free.

As you conduct your inventory, create a unique identifier for each item. Some collectors choose to create a numbering system. It’s not necessary to number as long as you can remember what you called each item (so you can do a database search). Don’t create an entire page of Lladro No. 1, Lladro No. 2 and so on; give the items specific names: Lladro Don Quixote, Aster Live Steam train set, etc.

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Write down the specifics of the each item: its approximate size, weight, material, manufacturer, pattern, age, condition, provenance, when you bought it and anything else that might be relevant.

Photograph each item as if you intended to sell it on eBay. Shoot from several angles, and be sure to get a shot of any maker’s marks or logos. As you take photographs, note the photo number on the inventory list so you don’t confuse your photos when you do the data entry.

Next, sit down at your computer and compile the information. You can create your own database from scratch using Excel, Filemaker or whatever other program you have on your computer. You can also download free home inventory software from the websites of most insurance companies. (See how easy they make it to buy insurance?) The Insurance Information Institute has free, downloadable home inventory software at

You also can can purchase collector-specific software, which typically ranges in price up to $300. Examples include:



Liberty Street

You’ll need to know the value of each individual item in your collection. You probably know what you paid for the items, but what you paid for them may not be today’s market value. You know how it is with antiques, art and collectibles: What’s hot this week may not be so hot next year. If you’re unsure of what the value is, or if you can’t remember what you paid, you can search eBay’s “sold listings” (not current listings) for comparable items. Take screenshots of the comparables you find online, and make them part of your database. If your collection is a complete set, the value of the set will be more than the combined total of the items in the set. For a more accurate idea of your item’s value, check an online source such as WorthPoint, which compiles sales results from hundreds of sources. Or, you can have your item(s) appraised online at dozens of websites, including WorthPoint.

If you’re inventorying for insurance purposes, the value you enter will depend upon the type of policy you’re buying. For antiques and collectibles, the most common policies bought are either an Agreed Value policy, in which you agree with the insurance company beforehand what the loss settlement payment will be; or an Actual Cash Value policy, in which you tell the insurer what your items are worth and you make premium payments based on that amount. If there is a loss, the insurance company will ask for an appraisal based on your records and pay out according to the appraisal. This is why attention to detail is so important as you inventory your collection.

Sure, this is a lot of work. But, you have a lot of time and money invested in your collection. The shipper in my story lost close to $50,000 because she didn’t take the time to protect her investment.

Are you willing to take that kind of loss?

About our columnist: Wayne Jordan is a Virginia licensed auctioneer, certified personal property appraiser, and accredited business broker. He specializes in the valuation and liquidation of estate and business assets. His column Behind the Gavel appears in every issue of Antique Trader. Learn more at, 276-730-5197 or