By Karl Chiao
Heritage recently had a speaker at its 2nd Tuesday Lecture Series that really got me thinking about the effect that television appraisal shows have on how the value of items are perceived in the "real world". I'll preface this article with the disclaimer that I have at least 6 or 7 colleagues here at Heritage who are regulars on the long running PBS television's Antiques Roadshow, and they are truly great experts in their fields with a wealth of knowledge of the market. My candid assessments should by no means dissuade people from pursuing the valuation and knowledge of the history of their treasures, but are intended to realistically confront some of the common misconceptions of perceived value.
The talk was presented by my colleague Nick Dawes, who is a well established figure in the auction business, a recognized expert of Decorative Arts and Art Glass and a 16 year veteran of the Antiques Roadshow. The premise of the lecture was that he would walk the audience through the complete workings of a taping of the show. He invited guests to bring one or two items each for appraisal, and we all eagerly waited to see what types of items would appear.
About 100 people came through for valuations and information about their possessions. As a microcosm of the typical Antiques Roadshow event that sees 10,000+ items, the 150-200 pieces that were analyzed that night showed a clear pattern of general concepts of value. Here is what I learned:
Perceived value not always in line with true value — The first thing I learned was that for most people, the sentimental value of an item is often factored into it worth by the owner. What an item is worth to the individual and what you can actually get for it are often two completely different things. An item's fair market value is the transaction price between a knowledgeable buyer and seller when they are acting in their own best interests with no pressure to trade. For those in the industry, valuation is often based on what other similar items have sold for in the recent past. If you have an item that does not have obvious related sale records, or if the experts have never seen it before, then it does not matter if your great-great uncle brought it from the old country, it does not become more valuable to the general public — only to you. Sentimental or personally historical value should not be misconstrued as real value in the market.
Most owners of items with significant value are already aware of what they have — If you are not sure whether an item you own is valuable, there's a really good chance that it is not. On the Antiques Roadshow, they prefer to show the items where the owner is shocked at the high valuation. What you don't see, however, is the line that forms around the taping studio before the sun comes up, and the thousands of people that they process through each city before they come to an item that even merits filming. Most of the people are just get their 30 seconds of time with an expert, who kindly tells them that whatever they have is of minimal value — or maybe worth a few hundred dollars. Of the ten thousand plus items seen in an Antiques Roadshow weekend, only about 30-40 make the one hour final show. The odds are statistically not in your favor.
Trust the expertise of the Experts — They really do know what they are talking about because they do this for a living, day in and day out. It is quite rare that an expert has NOT seen something at least similar or is unaware of the existence of a type or class of items if it is in their field. Many people brought items in and were surprised when told that whomever created the piece was not well known and thus not of value. The expert's expertise is often disputed when the true value of an item is far less than what was hoped for or believed to be. While there are times when an expert is wrong, for the most part, they do know what they are talking about.
Family legends may just be legends — Like urban legends, lots of these stories begin with "my (pick a distant relative) brought it over from (pick a country) on the (pick a vessel of entry)". Quite often that statement includes a great-great grandparent, England, and the Mayflower. You get the idea. If everyone who claims to have something that their distant relative brought over on the Mayflower actually did come over on the Mayflower, then that ship would have sank on its voyage due to excessive weight. Family stories and histories are important to have, but we all must keep in mind that facts have a way of blurring over the course of generations.
Old doesn't always mean valuable — Age is a component of value, but not the only defining aspect. Age does often add to rarity because with time, items are destroyed and lost, making the existing examples that much more rare. We must also look at the quality, condition and provenance to get the complete picture of value. Old books are good examples. Many people believe books from the 18th or 19th century are immediately valuable because of their age — which is easily determined by the publication date indicated on the title page. But many books have survived and many libraries still exist. It takes a very special 18th or 19th century book, one that is particularly sought by collectors, for it to have significant value. Now when you get into the 16th or 17th century — then the age can be the primary factor of value — though rarity is still a major component as the amount of surviving printed material from that period is much less.
Thou doth explain too much — Similar to jokes that need explanations to be funny, items that come overly documented (such as "with a Certificate of Authenticity") generally are not items that have collectible value, no matter how the seller explains it. The truly valuable items are generally items that the owner a) already knows about, so they do not need to expound on its virtues, or b) the owners knows nothing about it, thus has no real explanation of what it is, except as to give a few details that might help the experts make an evaluation. This was true for a family that invited one of our experts over to see a porcelain collection from her parent's estate that was supposed to be fully documented and highly valuable. Upon inspection, we had to tell the client that most of it was of low value and low demand. HOWEVER, when we asked about the dusty old painting on the wall near the porcelain collection, the new owners knew very little about it. Well, that dusty old painting turned out to be a six figure painting by an old master.
Heritage's experts in 33 categories, including art, jewelry, antiques, coins and collectibles, evaluate thousands of items each day for clients throughout the world in an ongoing "Antiques Roadshow". Whether clients have lofty expectations, fanciful stories, or true authenticity, they may never know whether their treasures are worthy of "Roadshow" television time until they receive an expert evaluation.
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