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Looking for gold in the oldies

girl shopping in antique store


Looking for gold in the oldies

You don’t have to be a hoarder to own a china cabinet full of porcelain treasures or an elegant piece of furniture inherited from your grandfather, but what is it really worth when you have to downsize? JULIE LAKE investigates what to do with antiques and collectibles.

Some years ago, a modest little low-budget program out of Hobart called The Collectors became one of the most popular shows on Australian television.

Every week we tuned in to marvel at the strange things people found collectible – remember the bloke with the international toilet paper collection?  Or the man who was  passionate about barbed wire?

We also began to cast an eye on our own possessions to see if anything might be saleable to these enthusiasts!

The British Antiques Roadshow is also much watched here and has encouraged many an Aussie to go rummaging hopefully around the op shops and markets in search of a bargain-priced rarity.

Collecting is fun, be it for pleasure or profit. But when it comes to disposing of your treasures, it’s a very different story.

Are those lovely old bits of porcelain you inherited worth what you’ve always believed them to be?  Is that early Australian silky oak dressing table really an antique?  Here is a typical story from a Your Time reader:

“We downsized to a much smaller home in a retirement village and had no room for a lot of our possessions, especially those we had inherited from both sets of parents. And, of course, our kids didn’t want them!  Not even the family silver. My daughters say they don’t have the time to polish it.  I’d always been told by MY mother that a much-prized tea set was Georgian but in fact it turned out to be late Edwardian and not nearly so valuable. In fact, it was hard to sell, and, in the end, we only got $500 for it, including a rather lovely filigree-bordered tray.”

The same reader also discovered that porcelain and other heirlooms were harder to sell than anticipated and did not fetch the expected prices.

Furniture can be even more difficult to dispose of.  Valda Fresser moved from a large house to a small unit and tried to sell a 70-year-old (so not antique) but beautifully-made oak dining table and chairs.

Gumtree didn’t yield any buyers at the hoped-for price and collectible furniture dealers offered either a low wholesale price or to sell on consignment.  Valda decided to sell the setting to a niece for a token price, at least keeping it in the family.

So how DO you go about getting a fair price for those things you have loved and cherished but can no longer fit into your life? Or are forced to sell because you need the money. A survey of experienced sellers and buyers yields the following advice:

Be realistic
Don’t waste anyone’s time, including your own, trying to get high prices for items that you think are valuable because you’ve “been told so”.  Ascertain the real value. Condition, rarity and scarcity are important here.

A piece that is chipped or cracked, however skilfully mended, is of far less value than one in mint condition.  A single dish from a 130-year-old Wedgwood dinner service is worth little compared to the whole service, as I found when I tried to dispose of a couple of plates from one of only three dinner services commissioned for the marriages of my great-grandmother and her two sisters in the 1870s.

A very rare piece of porcelain, silverware or furniture might be so highly prized it will fetch a high price despite damage, but this is unusual.

Scarcity also increases the value of many collectibles. I know someone who collected Charles and Di wedding mugs thinking they would become valuable one day, but a vast quantity of these were produced at the time and a quick on-line check shows just how little these are worth today.

With collectibles it’s as well to remember that while one person’s junk is another person’s treasure it also works the other way around.

As for antiques, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s valuable.  Books are a case in point. Even a first edition does not necessarily fetch more than a few dollars and most old books are just that – old!

 Do your homework
Use the internet to check provenance, hallmarks, styles, dates, artists’ signatures, patterns (for example with porcelain and silver), market value and all the information you need to come up with the right price.

Compare your item(s) with similar pieces on-line and check the pricing.

Consider buying a black light – an ultraviolet torch or lamp, cheap and readily available, that emits very little visible light and makes it easier to identify obscure markings on china.

Fortunately antiques and collectibles are international and there are plenty of websites offering advice relevant to sellers anywhere in the world.

Give yourself at least six weeks, more if possible, depending on what you have to sell, to gather the information you need.  Anne H. had a house full of valuable antiques and loved them so much that even when she downsized, she crowded them into her new home. When her severe arthritis grew worse, she could no longer care for them properly.

Dusting became a nightmare and cleaners refused to touch them.  Friends and family kept advising her to start selling things, but she procrastinated, despite increasing health issues.

Then the day came when she had to go straight from hospital into fulltime care, leaving her valuables to be disposed of quickly and at knockdown prices by her son and daughter, both living overseas.

When you are sure you have something of proven value, target your marketing. The four main markets for private collections are:

 Garage sales
This can generate useful publicity but is not really worthwhile for antiques. The dealers will arrive early, and the good ones will quickly make offers on the valuable items – but they are looking for bargains so you must be very sure of your valuations.  And be careful how you advertise. All that good publicity can be an open invitation to burglars.

Direct to dealers
Local dealers offer an advantage in that you can check out their shops and talk to them in person.

With high-end items it’s advisable to deal with members of the Australian Antiques and Art Dealers Association who are bound by a professional code of conduct.

For collectibles there are several specialist dealers in this region; for example, those specialising in military memorabilia.

Do your homework before approaching a dealer and have some idea of the price you expect, remembering that they have to make a profit and will thus offer you anything from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of the expected retail price.

The best way to approach a dealer is to look at the website and ensure that what you are selling fits their business profile.

Jessica Wallrocks of the well-known Brisbane family of dealers specialising in 18th and 19th century European furniture says the next step is to send an email with a single high-quality photo taken in good light, of the item(s) you wish to sell and some basic information.

As Jessica points out, dealers can get 10 or more inquiries a day from hopefuls trying to rid themselves of purported antiques so your first approach must be as pictorially explicit and succinctly informative as possible if you wish to attract interest.

Selling through galleries that hold regular auctions can be an easy and effective way of selling your stuff at the best price. Of course, there are fees to pay and also a bit of paperwork involved. Advice on this is available on the excellent Brisbane Auction Galleries website.

On line
This method of direct communication with buyers reaches the widest market and cuts out the middleperson. It also involves more risk.  You will be expected to post excellent photos and provenance information – the more valuable the item you are offering, the more accreditation and verification you will need.

Good, safe packaging and registered postage is required and while it is easy to dispatch small articles such as jewellery and porcelain around the world it is much more difficult – and expensive – with furniture.

Again, be careful of the information you give online because jewel thieves trawl the net.

Serious, experienced collectors know where to go when they wish to dispose of their possessions, whether these be paintings, coins, stamps or Louis Quinze furniture.

But for the rest of us, the ordinary lovers of beautiful things who find themselves forced to downsize, disposing of the objects we have collected or inherited can be not just a logistical challenge but an emotional one as well.

So, here is some advice from Darcy Thiel of the Aging Life Care Association:

There is consolation in knowing that someone else will get the same pleasure from owning those objects as you have done – and at the end of the day, it’s just stuff!

Useful website when disposing of antiques and collectibles (The Australian Antique and Art Dealers Association)

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