Furniture Detective: Defining ‘value’ a challenge to furniture buffs

A middle-aged friend recently told me the story of her visit, with her sister, to her grandmother’s house. While they were there they decided to help spruce up the place beginning with the old rocking chair in the front parlor.

It had a broken rocker, the springs were falling out and it was black with age and neglect. The sisters stripped it, replaced the broken rocker, refinished it and had new upholstery put on. My friend said it looked really good after all that work and she and her sister were so proud of themselves until a neighbor rained on their parade by telling them they had destroyed the value of the chair by doing all that work.

I asked my friend what the nosy neighbor did for a living. Was he an antique appraiser? A dealer? A knowledgeable collector? No, just a nosy neighbor giving unsolicited and ill-informed information.

One of the most common phrases in any conversation regarding older and/or antique furniture is “destroy the value.” This can be a valid concern in some cases but it is not a universal truth that restoration or repair, if properly done, “destroys the value” of anything. In order to make the decision to embark on a restoration or repair project you must determine two important points, current “value” and ultimate objective.

Determining the value of a given piece of furniture is, at best, difficult. For example, value to whom and value where? Prices in Detroit are different from prices in Birmingham and Phoenix.  And is price the best way to determine value? To a dealer it probably is but to a family member it probably is secondary or not even a consideration at all. Value, like beauty, is highly subjective and sensitive to current styles and events .

For comparison purposes three main categories of “value” might be defined as market value, utilitarian value and sentimental value.

Market value

If you decide that monetary value or market price is to be your guiding principle in a project, then you have to get out in the market. Go to shops and see what things sell for. Call a few reputable dealers and ask if they have an item similar to yours and what it sells for. Read the newspaper classifieds in your area to get a feel for the market. Especially read trade papers that carry auction results from sales in your area.

Above all be realistic about comparisons. Be sure that you are comparing apples to apples in terms of  age, provenance and especially condition. A rocking chair with a broken rocker is not worth as much as an identical chair which is not broken. If you are unsure about the details, ask someone. Most knowledgable dealers are willing to help you determine value on an informal basis. Time spent at the library or perusing the shelves in a good book store can often be very enlightening by helping you determine style and period for use in price comparisons but use these facts only as a general guide.

Remember that the market places a higher price on things that have intrinsic value due primarily to their age and rarity. Market price, by definition, is what someone is willing to pay for an object in a given time and location, NOT what is listed in a so-called “price guide.”

Utilitarian value

If the piece is not old or rare it still may have significant value based on its utilitarian functions.

For example, a Colonial Revival china cabinet from 1935 may not have the intrinsic collector’s value of say a Georgian breakfront, but it will serve as a place for the display of your cut glass collection as well as or maybe even better than a brand new curio cabinet from the local furniture store, provided of course that the older cabinet is in good working condition and the finish is decent. In addition, the Colonial Revival piece has already proven itself to be durable by surviving for more than 60 years so far and it probably will last a good many years yet and someday may even attain some collector’s value.

Another popular item in this category is the armoire converted to an entertainment center. As armoires, few pieces have much collectors value but when conversion is completed in a craftsman like manner and no great violence is done to the piece, the utilitarian value is actually enhanced by finding a new use for an old piece. If you have to do some restoration work on a piece in this category, you probably will not reduce the value at all but rather enhance the utilitarian value in the long run if the restoration, including refinishing, is well done.

Sentimental value

Going back to the opening paragraph about the sisters, why did they spend all that time and money on a broken down chair? For the market value? For the utilitarian value? Probably not.

They did not intend to sell the chair and there certainly were other chairs in grandma’s house. They did it for the sentimental value of the chair.

Grandma probably remembered the chair when it was new and it looks that way again. The sisters will always have the chair to remember grandma and their time together working on the chair.

What is that worth?

It’s priceless.

Sentiment is a very expensive hobby.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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