Sunday, November 25, 2012

What's It Worth?

I've been a fan for years of the program Antiques Roadshow, primarily the original UK version.  More recently I've come to enjoy some of the "reality" shows on cable that feature pawn shops.  It's amazing to me how many people who go into a pawn shop with something to sell either have no idea what they've got, or more often have a ridiculously inflated price in mind.  So here's some advice for anyone who's trying to sell an item they think might be a valuable antique or collectable.  Most of my friends already know this, but perhaps some random stranger might find it useful.

Say, for example, that you've got an old sword handed down through several generations of your family.  You believe it to be a Civil War cavalry saber.  Your grandfather told you that his grandfather told him it was given to Great-Great-Grandpa by none other than General Robert E. Lee.  It's valuable, right?

Not so fast.  Just because Grandpa said so doesn't make it true.  Family stories aren't necessarily accurate.  People make mistakes.  Memories are faulty.  Sometimes they even lie.  Suppose Great-Great-Grandpa actually told your grandfather that the sword was given to him by someone named Rodney Lee, but he told that story when your grandfather was eight years old.  By the time Grandpa was 78 years old and told you the story, somehow "Rodney" had metamorphosed into "Robert E".  Perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa really did say Robert E. Lee, but it was a joke to impress your grandfather.  Or possibly Great-Great-Grandpa told a tall tale to make himself sound more important.  Perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa didn't ever own the sword, and some other family member bought it in an antique shop and made up the whole story because "I bought it in an antique store" wasn't interesting enough.

Now you, believing it really is a Civil War saber, see a similar saber for sale on an online auction site for $20,000.  You're excited.  Great-Great-Grandpa's sword might be really valuable.  Hold on there.  Just because a similar sword is for sale for $20,000 doesn't mean you can get that much money for your sword, even if you can prove Robert E. Lee once owned it.  People can put any price they want on their merchandise on online auction sites.  Those prices don't have to be based in reality.  There are no pricing police on those websites.  Even if someone actually pays that price, it doesn't mean your sword is worth that much.  People who frequent online auction sites often pay exorbitant prices for things, just to prevent someone else from buying it.  People who aren't knowledgeable about what they're buying frequently overpay.  The fact that someone paid that price is no guarantee that you'll get the same amount for your item.  Even if  your item is a great collectable or antique, if there's no one interested in buying it at the time you put it up for sale, you're not going to make a lot of money.  High prices for items are a matter of supply and demand, and sometimes of luck.

Now let's suppose you have good reason to believe it really was General Lee's sword.  Great-Great-Grandpa wrote Great-Great-Grandma a letter telling her all about how he got it, and the letter has been preserved.  That's proof, right?  Not necessarily.  It's a lot better than a story told to you by your grandfather, but if you're hoping for big bucks for the sword, you'd do better to try to find even more provenance for the sword.  Get some documentation about where your great-great-grandfather served during the Civil War and how he might have come into contact with Lee.  Check Lee's biographies for corroboration.  Have facts, not stories.  No one's really going to believe Grandad's story but you. 

You've got provenance, you've got documents.  You've seen similar swords going for substantial prices.  What should your next step be?  Don't take it to a pawn shop!  Pawnbrokers won't give you anything like the retail price.  They're not antique dealers or auctioneers.  They're in it for a quick turnaround.  You're not going to get top dollar from a pawn shop.  If you really want top dollar, you need to find an antique dealer or collector specializing in Civil War items.  You can also take your item to a reputable auction house, but be sure it's an auction house that handles such items, not an auction house that just does estate sales.  And be aware that auction houses take a cut of the proceeds.  They're not doing this for free.  All of the other options are going to try to give you a lot less than the potential best price, because they have to resell the item. Unless you sell it directly to a collector who wants it for his personal collection, and he wants it so badly he's prepared to pay almost anything, you're probably not going to get the best price from anyone.

So what have we learned?  1) Know what you've got.  If you're not sure, find out.  2) Memory is fallible.  Don't rely on it. Get evidence.  3) Be reasonable.  Don't expect your item to make you a millionaire, even if it actually happened to someone else.   4) Take it to the right place to sell it, and be prepared for a lowball offer.

See, you can learn something from watching tv.

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