How many times have you read the report of an auction somewhere and the price quoted on some article just didn’t seem reasonable, either way too high or way too low? How many of you have walked into a shop or show and asked yourself “Where do they get off asking that kind of money for that stuff?”
What determines asking or eventual selling prices of antiques or collectibles anyway? Too often, the answer is simply whatever the merchant paid for the item, plus some arbitrary percentage or absolute dollar amount or whatever lowball figure the buyer could beat out of the seller. But what really determines the ultimate value of an item, whether it be a 300-year-old antique chair or a 30-year-old HO-gauge train set?
The universal answer has four parts: quality, condition, rarity and demand.
In the early 1970s, Robert Pirsig, author of the best-seller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” chronicled his long decline into mental instability while pursuing his personal definition of “quality.” I don’t think we need to get that intense. But quality, while difficult to define, is an extremely important element in the value of an antique or collectible.
Quality may be seen as a level of excellence — excellence in the concept of the piece and its design and execution. A well-built cabinet, for example, will advertise its quality by its stability and function. The doors will open easily, and the drawers will operate smoothly. The finish is clean, the color is good, the joinery is well done, the choice of materials is sound and the scale is correct.
Quality implies attention to detail in the production of the item, whether it is entirely handmade or constructed on an assembly line. Quality implies a caring on the part of the producer or builder, and it carries a pride that shows in the finished product. And no matter the final definition, most of us know quality when we see it. Or, at least, we think we do — like the satisfying, solid-sounding thump of a door closing on an expensive car.
This is not to be confused with quality. Quality is how the piece was made. Condition is how it has survived since then. A high-quality item in poor condition certainly has less value than a comparable item in excellent condition. However, condition can often be improved by a competent professional. Quality is permanent.
That is why a poor-quality item in perfect condition will almost never be as valuable as a high-quality piece in a lesser state. Take the example of a piece of Depression-era “Borax” furniture that has been in storage for 70 years. Even with its perfect condition, its poor original quality will keep it from ever attaining the value of a carefully crafted bench-made piece of similar age, even though the bench-made piece have some condition “issues.” Of course, there is a point of compromise at which quality and condition are equal, but that state is seldom achieved and seldom recognized.
This trait is often confused with age. Early Roman Empire coins, for example, are thousands of years old. But are they rare? No, because so many of them were made (millions?), and so many of them survive. Many Roman coins are worth only the value of the metal they contain.
Another example is one of the most famous style chairs of the early 19th century: Hitchcock chairs. Lambert Hitchcock had a great idea, and he made a very good chair. It’s just that he made thousands and thousands of them beginning in 1826 on the assembly line in his factory in Connecticut. (He was ahead of Henry Ford on that subject by 80 or 90 years.) Thousands of Hitchcock’s mass-produced chairs survive today. They are 175 years old, and they are beautiful, but they are not rare. Therefore, they do not always command the price that may be seen for the work of another chair craftsman who produced only a limited number of well-made chairs. (See Antique Trader, May 16, 2012, edition.)
Finally, there is the reality of demand: the marketplace. Even if a piece has all of the other elements that make up value, if no one who wants to buy it, then there is no demand, no value and no sale.
There are many reasons for lack of demand – a poor economy, a social or political stigma on the product, a geographical anomaly in the buying population, a lack of appreciation for the art or genius of the maker. It may be as simple as a lack of advertising that the product is available or even the unattractive display of the product when a potential buyer is present.
Or, it may just be that there is no demand for the item at that price. At some other price, demand may be stimulated.
For an antique or collectible to have real value, all four elements of the equation must be in balance with the asking price.
Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com. 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 email@example.com.