Discover Vintage America - OCTOBER 2019
Sure, it's old, but is it marketable?
Many factors go into determining the market value of an antique or collectible: age, condition, scarcity, quality of workmanship, name of maker, country or region of manufacture, owner provenance, and desirability. These factors interact with each other – may even cancel each other out – in ways not immediately obvious.
A photo of the inside top level of a beautifully finished three-tiered oak Hoosier Cabinet, with all its original hardware and accessories in good condition save for a bit of rust on the flour sifter. It was a prized possession of my parents, who'd always wanted one and were thrilled to find one so complete. My sisters and I can't keep it and finding someone to pay us anything remotely approaching a value commensurate with its quality – not to mention moving it – is proving a real challenge!
We think of age as the defining characteristic of what constitutes an "antique." But just because something's old doesn't necessarily make it valuable. I once saw a Shaker bucket in an antique store that was – quite literally – in pieces, with nothing of its original shape apparent despite its exorbitant price tag. In this instance, condition trumps age and maker.
We're also accustomed to think of something that is scarce or rare (a term, by the way, much abused in online auction descriptions and antique store tags) as being especially valuable. But it's possible for an item to be so rare that not enough people known about it to generate demand.
Maker name is usually synonymous with quality of workmanship, subject matter notwithstanding.
Generally speaking, landscape painting is not an art collector's preferred subject for oil paintings. But a landscape by a famous painter, such as Claude Monet or America's John Singer Sargent, will always be able to command high prices on the strength of the artist name and the distinctive and unique style associated with that name. The same principle applies in other decorative items, from sculpture to furniture.
Collectors often want to know the provenance of an item and will pay a premium for a clear, unencumbered, and well-documented chain of ownership, particularly if the chain involves famous or celebrity names. All the caveats mentioned here – clear, unencumbered, and well documented – are critical in determining provenance. No one really wants to be the owner of something stolen or looted, and oral histories about the origin of items are notoriously suspect.
Of all the factors that affect value, the most difficult to define is demand or desirability, simply because it is so subject to shifting cultural trends, sometimes involving pendulum swings across years or even decades. Remember Roseville Pottery? Two or three decades ago, it was a hot collectible, especially in the scarcer designs. Today, dealers often report they "can't give it away." There are some recent signs, however, that Roseville's pendulum of desirability may be swinging back again.
Not everything that goes down comes up again. Antique toys in good condition remain desirable, and even toys produced in later decades of the 20th century have enough nostalgia value with younger collectors to generate their own demand. On the other hand, a Ty Beanie Baby is no Steiff bear, and Beanie Babies are an infamous example of a fizzled collecting fad.
It isn't just smaller items that are subject to the whims of cultural taste. Unfortunately, for me as executor of my parents' estate, I'm caught in the midst of the consumer preference for the modernist look in home furnishings. I wonder how best to divest of the antique four-poster bed with its matching bedroom suite that includes a bedside table, high-boy bureau, large vanity table with beveled mirrors on three sides, and two-tiered wash stand complete with large Victorian china pitcher and bowl.
Then there's the challenge of the fine and unusually complete Hoosier cabinet my parents always wanted and finally found. The vast majority of today's women with families find it necessary to work, even when their husbands also work, and few have the time and interest in baking that is the raison d'etre of this specialized piece of furniture.
Dealers and collectors alike need to pay attention to the several factors affecting value and how one factor may interact with or cancel out another. Otherwise, a goose we thought would lay the golden egg may prove to be a white elephant instead.