I would like to let each of my readers in on the answer to a question that every antique and collectibles seller wants to know. That question is, “What’s it worth?” No matter what item you are talking about, I can answer that question, and I can answer it honestly and truthfully. And the answer is (are you ready?)… That item is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Period. Now, don’t look so disappointed, because there really is no magic number I can throw out there, there is no magic 8-ball that will give you that answer, no book, no psychic, nothing. The bottom line is any item you sell is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.
Now that is not to say that all items do not have a particular “value,” because they do. And it is important that sellers have an understanding of the value of the items in their inventory. When they don’t, when they undervalue or overvalue their items, the results can be disastrous. When a seller undervalues an item, he or she will inevitably lose money on that item, and some other seller will buy that item and make money on it. When a seller overvalues an item, the item will either not sell at all, or will take a long time to sell, and both of these situations will cause the seller to lose money as well. Remember, items not sold, are profits not made.
So the real question is, what is the value of my item (or items), and there are several methods that can be used to determine value. Perhaps first and foremost, it is important to understand that value can fluctuate dependent upon several factors. The sale venue, the sale location, the sale time, the item rarity as well as condition, all play an important role in determining value.
The Sale Venue
Where you are selling your item can be a determining factor in understanding the items value. Are you selling via an online auction, an online store, a physical “brick and mortar” store, or a physical auction? Each of these venues has its pros and cons, its benefits and drawbacks. When selling online (whether through an online auction or online store), the seller has the benefit of reaching a global customer base, something a “brick and mortar” store or local auction cannot compete with. However, at the same time, the online seller must understand that there are likely thousands of items identical or similar to theirs available online as well. This serves to bring down the value of that item. Therefore, an items value may be higher in a physical store or auction, than an identical or similar item online.
The Sale Location
By this I mean geographic location. Simply put, some items are more readily found in certain geographic locations than in others, and this is a very important factor in determining an items value, especially for a “brick and mortar” seller. For instance, there are some automotive collectibles, such as old oil cans, that are more readily found in the south, and are relatively inexpensive there. These same items, however, are fairly rare in the north, and can sell for a premium. So as you can see, when researching sold prices, it is important to take into consideration the geographic location where you will be selling the item, as well as the geographic location of the items previous sales.
The Sale Time
As in many things, timing is everything, and the sale of antiques and collectibles is no different. There are certain venues when sales are dictated quite a bit by the time of year. For instance, during the winter, especially in areas where the weather can be inclement, flea markets, swap meets, outdoor auctions, and other outdoor venues are for the most part, non-existent. Therefore, some items may not be as readily available as they might be during the spring and summer. When researching realized prices, the time of year, the season, may have an impact on an items value.
Rarity and Condition
Almost any antique or collectible item will have a higher value if the item is truly rare. The fewer of these items in existence, the higher the value. Now, please bear in mind that this is only a general rule. Some items are simply not very desirable, regardless of how old they are, or how rare they are, and never command a high value. Also, in many instances, condition is everything. Again, this is a general rule of thumb. For the most part, an item that is desirable, and old, and fairly rare, but is crumbling and disintegrating is virtually worthless. A good rule of thumb to remember is: If the item is old, and desirable, and in good to mint condition (including being in the original packaging – also in good condition), then the higher the items value.
How To Determine Rarity, Condition and Value
The answer to this is education. The seller must be educated as to what the item is, as well as the rarity and desirability of the item. The best venues for education are auctions (online and local), Shops – Malls – and Shows, price guides, and television. Attend and study auctions. I don’t care if it’s a local auction or eBay (and I recommend both). Watch to see what sells and what doesn’t. With eBay, you can check completed listings and see what has sold and what hasn’t, as well as realized prices. Watch to see what sells well and at a premium, and what sells for next to nothing. Don’t be afraid to take a notebook with you and take notes regarding these factors. Something else to remember when attending a local auction is, that many buyers at local auctions buy to resell, often on eBay. Get to know these people, and study what they buy, then cross reference what they buy with what they are selling online. Before long you will begin to see patterns emerge. Buying and selling patterns, and these are what you want to study very carefully to determine the value of your items (as well as what you may or may not want to specialize in!).
Visit antique and collectible shops, antique and collectible malls, and antique and collectible shows, and as before pay close attention to what is selling, what the realized prices are, and what is not selling. Write this information down in your notebook. It may be beneficial to use a small pocketsize notebook when visiting these venues as shop and mall owners may become nervous and unfriendly if you are toting around a large notebook and writing down their inventory and prices, so it does take a bit of stealth when visiting these venues. And don’t be afraid to ask questions about items you are not sure about. Many sellers are quite knowledgeable about the items they sell (especially if they specialize in certain items rather than “catch-all sellers” who sell a wide variety of items in their shops.
Study price guides, and study them well. However, do not (and I can’t emphasize this enough) assume that the prices in these price guides are any kind of indication of worth. They aren’t. in fact, by and large, the prices given in price guides are nothing more than an average of realized prices of the shown items in from various sale venues (primarily auctions and shops), reported at various times of the year and from various geographical locations. For this reason, the prices listed in these price guides are relative at best, and should not be construed as an items actual worth. Price guides do serve a valuable service though. They help the reader learn to identify an item, and they may help the reader to understand the rarity of an item as well. Perhaps the best prices guides that I have come across are the Gene Florence books (especially when learning to identify glassware). There are others, however, and many are very, very good. I personally have well over 50 price guides in my library, and I use them quite often to identify items, and determine manufacturers, and possible dates of manufacture.
Television can also be a valuable tool for educating the antiques and collectibles seller. Television programs such as “The Antiques Roadshow,” “American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars,” and others often provide not only a visual image of an item, but also a brief history of the item as well. “Antiques Roadshow” and “American Pickers” also provide information on the geographic location of where certain items may be found as well. All important information that should be written down in your notebook.
As I have hinted at in various areas of this article, it is often a good idea to try and specialize in only a few areas of antiques and collectibles, rather than try to learn everything about every type of antique or collectible. Even specializing in certain items (such as glassware, pottery, or ephemera) have such a wide variety of items within these categories, that you may have to specialize in a subcategory. That, however, is up to you.
I hope these few general guidelines to determining the value or worth of your item have been helpful and informative. Thanks for reading, and as always, don’t be shy about leaving your comments and suggestions. They’re always welcome, as are you!