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How to Find Values for Your Antiques and Collectibles

A guide for pricing items before you sell

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Truthfully, there’s not an easy answer to figuring out how much your antiques and collectibles are worth. Valuing an antique often takes research and patience, and you still can't count on selling an item for the determined value when all is said and done.

The true value of an antique is negotiated between a buyer and seller at any given time. For example, with auction bidding, as a buyer, you’re setting the price you’re willing to pay for a seller’s wares. Even so, while the assistance of a professional antiques appraiser is required for a written appraisal, when you simply need a ballpark idea of what an item might be worth you can learn to do it yourself.

How the Pros Value Antiques

As uncertain as valuing antiques can be, appraisers do value them every day of the week largely by looking at comparable values. Ideally, finding a number of recorded sales for exactly the same piece you’re researching would yield a fairly accurate valuation. You would discard the high and low values, and average the remaining figures. Many times, live auction results (a number of which are available online now, although some services of this nature are fee-based) are used for this purpose.

In reality, appraisers are oftentimes lucky to find one sale record for an item exactly like the one we’re researching at any given time, much less several. Appraisers branch out a bit to include similar items fairly often, especially where antique furniture is concerned. You can do the same thing yourself, again, with some time, patience, and guidance. Read Rules for Valuing Antiques Like an Appraiser to learn more.

Where to Begin Your Valuation Quest Online

You can start your valuation research with the list of valuing resources located on this site. You’ll find price guides, articles, and links to help you do your own valuation research, and some suggestions for online appraisal services, if you choose to pay someone for an "estimation of value" (not to be confused with a professionally written appraisal) instead of doing the work yourself. Keep in mind when using online price guides that many of them reflect a point in time rather than an average selling price. They are simply guides, as the name implies.

Visiting online auctions to look up past results or logging on to a large online antique mall (TIAS.com or RubyLane.com, for example) and searching the inventory for comparison pricing are two more convenient ways of assessing approximate value. You’ll want to keep in mind that online pricing can vary widely from dealer to dealer, and the price they’re asking for a piece might not equal the negotiated value when it eventually sells. And sometimes, especially with online auction results, prices reflect values far less than what dealers tend to ask in brick and mortar shops and at antiques shows.

Using Books for Offline Research

You can always research the old-fashioned way by seeing what types of books on antiques and collectibles are available through your local library. Or, make a trip to a large bookstore locally and see what you can find there. Building a reference library of your own isn’t a bad idea either, especially if you seem to be researching the same types of objects over and over.

When you’re utilizing books to research prices, even if you find the exact same item shown in the same condition, remember that the values listed are often higher than average and you might not actually be able to sell an item for that hefty price. Authors sometimes use erratic auction prices in their valuation averages, which, for better or worse, can dramatically skew the results.

Values also vary from coast to coast and from rural to urban areas, so where values are obtained also makes a vast difference. In other words, an antique may fetch a much higher price in New York or Los Angeles than it would obtain in Omaha or Des Moines so the author’s locale or favored selling venues can play into the equation.

Wholesale Values Compared to Secondary Market Values

If you’re seriously considering selling an item after you’ve researched its estimated value, the venue and to whom you are selling does make a difference.

If you’re selling to an antiques dealer, expect to get a wholesale price of approximately one quarter to one half of what you would ask as a secondary market retailer. Why? Antiques dealers usually have overhead to consider and they may have to hang on to an item for years until they find the right buyer to get top dollar. The upside is that you can turn your wares into cash more rapidly selling to a dealer.

It’s also wise to keep in mind that common items sold in online auctions often bring lower values, sometimes even lower than wholesale, when compared to what you could ask for the same piece as an antique mall or show dealer. To get the most for an antique or collectible, selling directly to the secondary market consumer in an offline venue is usually the most lucrative method. There are exceptions, however. If you’re hawking a rare item or hot commodity, online sales can reach more buyers and usually bring in a higher price.

Remember that researching the best way to sell your items will be one last step in determining their ultimate value.

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