Pocket watches on sale in Istanbul. (Photography by Scott D. Haddow, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Old saws

Five myths about art, antiques, and collectibles.

1. The age and value of an antique have a direct correlation.

People will often bring me an object and say, “This belonged to one of my grandparents so I know it must be old.” The presumption is that if it is old, there must be some basic value because of its age alone. The reality is that there is no direct correlation between age and value. For instance, you can go to the Middle East and purchase a 2,000-year-old pottery oil lamp very inexpensively; at one time every home in the Middle East would have had one. Chances are if you stick a shovel in the ground there today you will turn one up. For some objects, as time goes by there are fewer in circulation, like baseball cards that, before they were protected by plastic sleeves, were lost in the wash or thrown away. Many great comic books, which were never meant to be handled with great care in the first place, were scrapped during WW II for the war effort, making them scarce today. So ancient oil lamps are plentiful and inexpensive while a mint Action Comics #1 can sell for millions of dollars. The rule of supply and demand trumps all.

2. If it’s rare, it must be valuable.

Like age, rarity is often touted as a major factor in value. Something may be rare, but people have to want it for it to be valuable. The 1933 double eagle $20 US gold coin is one of the rarest coins to be had. All but a handful were destroyed as a result of the 1933 Gold Reserve Act. The government allowed one to be sold in 2002 and it fetched $7.59 million dollars. Now American coin collecting is big business and if you had all the $20 gold pieces up to 1932, you would sure want the 1933, hence the result. If this scenario played out in a country with a much lower standard of living and few coin collectors, though, such a coin would likely be only a footnote in the country’s history. Short supply but low demand.

3. If an item has a certificate of authenticity it must be authentic.

The issue of authenticity is as old as collecting itself, but paper certificates popped up in great numbers after WW II as more of the general public started buying art. Many dealers, honest and unscrupulous, used them to give a comfort level to novice buyers. You could buy them at a stationery store, when such stores were still in existence. The practice caught on and they have proliferated ever since in all categories. I would caution that many of these early certificates should be seen as a red flag and never taken at face value. It is really about the experience and integrity of the dealer you are buying from. That said, today the business of authentication has exploded and become even more complicated. Now serious contemporary artists are issuing certificates, without which they will disclaim the work as theirs. And the collectibles world has spawned a whole industry of authenticators who will issue such certificates, without which the item will not be viewed as authentic. Again, all of this is a function of who is doing the authenticating. In general if your item needs a certificate to prove it is authentic, proceed with caution.

4. If I perform any conservation on my antique, I have ruined it.

This can certainly be true if you take your antique table to the basement workshop and get out the power sander, but the real answer is more complicated. What we often hear about is the example of American furniture that has been refinished, resulting in a dramatic devaluation. But this is not a typical example because American furniture collectors really like the original surface and will pay a premium for over 200 years of accrued patina. In other categories, enthusiasts will have a different perspective. Collectors of European furniture, for example, will not be as concerned about original surfaces. While condition is of course important, some reasonable conservation does not devalue the item in their eyes the same way it does for American furniture folks. Each category of collecting may have its own particular issues with conservation, the caveat being that any conservation performed be done to the industry standard.

5. Antiques always go up in value over time.

Unfortunately, as an appraiser my job sometimes entails disappointing people. One of the most common occasions is when folks present me with a 20- to 30-year-old appraisal with the absolute conviction that each item must have increased in value a little bit each year, like a treasury bond. In fact some values increase, but some stay the same and many actually go down. This is hard for people to accept as they see the price of milk and everything else rise. Again, it goes back to supply and demand. What we are seeing with the Depression-era generation is that many of their children and grandchildren don’t have the same tastes and don’t want most of the older generation’s possessions. A great example is Chippendale or Georgian furniture; this style dominated the American home for many decades, but over the past decade we‘ve seen a dramatic shift in taste. Today modern furniture styles rule. The result is a large supply of well made traditional furniture with very limited demand translating into much lower prices.