Wheat or Chaff? Part I: How to identify, date and price antique and vintage farm collectibles without getting fleeced

American Farm CollectiblesBefore concerning yourself with specific sales data on farm collectibles and antiques, it is necessary to consider a few precautionary words on collecting these items and also to attempt to give some dating hints for the uninitiated. As an attorney, I am very familiar with the term caveat emptor, which simply means that the buyer should be aware. Also, we have the term carpe diem, which means to seize the day. Sometimes when you are attempting to seize the day (the item), you forget to be aware! This brief introduction is to remind all of you to be aware when attempting to build your collection with that all-important item for it.

First, remember that not all souls are pure in the antiques and collectible business; most are or try to be, but many are very willing to skin you alive and sell you back your own skin. I have witnessed more than one person willing to dupe buyers in the area of sporting collectibles and now I have observed many in the farm collectibles business equally willing to stretch the truth. However, with a little knowledge, most of the “sucker tricks” can be avoided. Here are some things to be aware of in the farming collectibles field. Most observations are based upon a review of thousands of online auction listings and the wording used in them. In addition, some of the comments are based upon observations made at auctions and at flea markets.

Many online auctions do whatever possible to claim an item to be “antique,” e.g. 100 years old or more to get in that special legal category. Some of the antique category tricks I have noticed include the following:

• “The gentleman I purchased this from was 85 and he claimed his dad played with this item making it over 100 years old” (variations include aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, neighbor, etc.). When you encounter such a general description, it usually is “made-up” by the seller and not based upon fact or reality. If I am selling something from a person with a claimed age, I support it with facts, not generalizations.

• “This item came from a farm sale in ____ and all of the items are very old.” Again, mere puffery, as lawyers call it, and there are no facts to support the age of the item.

• “This is from an Amish farm.” This is a fairly commonly used attempt to mislead potential buyers, as it seems to indicate that Amish farm items are all old. Of course, some well could be with the culture dating back to 1691 (I wrote my thesis on the Amish and have published extensively about their culture); however, most of the farm items sold online as “old Amish items” can be purchased in Wana Hardware—a large hardware store owned by a Mennonite family in Shipshewana, Ind., serving the local Old Order Amish community—or some such place today. Two recent examples stick out in my mind. The first was a canning bath lift tray made of simple steel which is still used in canning baths all over the world being sold as “from an old farm estate”—the same lift can be purchased in our local hardware store, if not at Wal-Mart. The second was a common Cyclone seeder that was supposedly old for two reasons: it was Amish and it had a patent date of 1925. Neither claim makes an item old.

• The Cyclone seeder leads to another common area of fraud: patent dates. Patent dates simply indicate when something was patented, applied for a patent, or in some cases when an item had a patent pending. It is as though if you find an 1865 coin in an archaeology dig, you know the site is at least as recent as 1865 but you do not yet know the age. An 1865 coin indicates the possibility of some age to the site, but the coin could have been dropped in either 1985 or 1865. An item with a patent date of 1898 does not mean it is from 1898. In the fishing lure arena, Skinner fluted spinners have very early patent dates and Skinner continued to use them through the 1950s on its lures. Old patent dates help prove the date of the patent, not the age of the item.

• Artificial weathering is another area of caution in any collecting field. Dealers that are not honest have often purposely left duck decoys out in a field during winter to “age” them. The same things can be done with farm and farming collectibles with wooden parts or metal parts that will “age” when exposed to bad weather. I am sad to report a certain dealer that had “weathered” a “primitive” apothecary took in a friend of mine at a flea market. It was a very nice looking unit (made about one year before purchased) that was clearly “aged” in the field. My friend assumed the dealer was telling the truth and failed to check the item carefully for construction techniques that would have shown its true age.

• “I am not really sure what it is, but I was told it was used for ______ on old farms and it is at least ______ years old.” Again, this is a nice way to add fluff to a listing that likely has a common item or one not even related to historical agriculture.

These examples are not all of the tricks the unscrupulous have up their sleeves, but they cover most of the obvious tricks used for online auction listings and even in some other settings. A little common sense and a careful reading of the description and examination of the photos, or lack of photo details, usually will protect the buyer. But remember, caveat emptor.

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