Monday, 14 November 2005

Antique price guides - one way of selling with certainty

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Rubens auction

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. It's an oft repeated truism, but I'd like to add a third: selling one's possessions -- as often as not the result of the other two.

But as I'm learning myself -- and, I might add, to my cost - that selling stuff for the right price ain't easy.

Any fool can buy, all you need is cash. But parting with the treasures you've lived with over the years can be a painful experience. Getting back what you paid for them, or better still, making a little profit, takes away some of the sting, but move house as we did recently leaves little time to negotiate the best deals.

Getting rid of junk is easy -- stick it in the back of the car, and take it to the nearest dump. Or if you fancy a little entrepreneurial flutter, drive it to a car boot sale and flog it off. Just be prepared to sell it cheap.

What happens if you've got something special? Good question.

There are basically three options: sell it by auction; sell it to a dealer or sell it to a collector.

A priority before making the choice is to know (or find out) ahead of time what the stuff is worth.

It also helps to know what the things cost in the first place. The difficulty here is that you may not have purchased them yourself. Perhaps aan object was a gift, perhaps it was an inheritance, either way you'll never know what it cost.

Own a collection of objects and the nightmare is multiplied by the number of pieces the collection contains.

So, the first move should probably be to seek opinions. Sell a house and if you've got any sense, you'll ask two or three estate agents for a valuation before selecting which one to go with.

So it is with selling antiques. Show the piece to preferably two auctioneers and two dealers and get a ballpark figure.

Be careful not to hawk the object around too widely. By doing so you stand the risk of over-exposing it -- the trade describe the object as having been "burnt" -- with a sometimes disastrous effect on its likely selling price.

If the ballpark figure is acceptable, than the choice is relatively simple. Needless to say, however, the sailing can be far from plain.

The auctioneer may well have said flatteringly that your granny's vase is worth £2000-3000, but will his buyers agree? His estimation of it's worth will be based on past experience of selling similar objects, but the proof of the pudding will be when the hammer falls at the sale.

Also, it's important to remember the auctioneer's commission charges, levied by him to help cover his costs. This varies from saleroom to saleroom from as low as 8% to as high as 20%.

Add to that charges for carriage, photography, the iniquitous so-called lotting charge levied by some, and the size of your cheque can be somewhat less than you anticipated unless you did your homework first.

Then, of course, the piece might not sell, and to make matters worse, the auctioneer might charge you an unsold fee. As in any business of this nature, be sure to read and understand the auctioneer's conditions of business.

The upside to an auction is the competitive nature of the bidding. If the right buyers are there at the right time and they want the object you're selling, then there is no upper limit to the price it might achieve.

One essential for the budding antiques valuer -- and anyone considering selling anything old -- is a good antiques price guide. There are dozens on the market. Two names stand out among the best: Judith Miller and Miller's.

Time was when the two names were synonymous. Then Judith branched out on her own and formed The Price Guide Company whose guides are published by Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

Miller's, meanwhile, is now a division of Mitchell Beazley and uses a number of guest editors to produce guides on every subject imaginable.

The products of both companies make fascinating reading and ideal coffee table books for the enthusiast and beginner alike.

Flicking through their pages, it's hard to avoid sucking the air through one's teeth thinking good heavens, is it really worth that much? or Wow, I got mine for a fraction of that price.

Remember though that these are price guides, not price lists. They are "based on" actual prices realised had auction or offered for sale by a dealer.

Problem is, they are out of date as soon as they're printed. Fashions change, trends vary, and no one likes paying more than they have to for anything, so the prices quoted -- which in the case of the auction houses includes buyers' premium -- need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

A big selling point for both -- and a feature which makes them extremely handy -- is the addition of explanatory footnotes and snap-shot features giving brief but valuable details about manufacturers and their products that would otherwise take hours of research to uncover.

Selling to a dealer is comparatively simple. Strike a deal leaving room for profit for him and a agreeing satisfactory price for you and he'll give you cash in hand on the day with no charges and no worry that the object might come back to you when it doesn't sell.

But how do you know the value the auctioneer is estimating or the price the dealer is offering is a fair one?

The answer is to do your homework first.

First off, understand that the only way to learn about antiques and what they're worth is with hands-on experience.

Go to as many auctions, antiques shops, antiques fairs, flea markets and car boot sales as you possibly can. Handle the objects on offer and take note of the prices being achieved and asked for. If the sale has a catalogue, mark prices against each lot. On a tour of retail outlets take a notebook and scribble down prices.

Play game with yourself: try to guess the price of an object and compare your opinion with either the printed estimates or the dealers' labels.

Ask questions. Dealers delight in talking to their customers and are generally only too happy to impart their knowledge. After all, that's probably how most of them learned their trade too.

When viewing an auction sale, you invariably find the auctioneer walking the floor. Ask him why two seemingly identical objects have such a wide variation in the prices he expects them to fetch.

He'll point out things that you that otherwise would be a mystery: hidden damage; poor restoration; marriages -- when tops and bottoms of a piece of furniture don't go together; subtle differences in designs and colourways and so on.

Talk to other collectors. They too are delighted to be given the chance to make a convert to their hobby. They are mines of information which make them extremely valuable people to know.

The more you see and the more people you meet, the more knowledgeable you will become.

Go to the library. Find the antiques reference section and read everything you can get your hands on.

There is currently a plethora of TV programmes. Watch them all and try to second-guess the experts. After a while, your valuations expertise will become something of a party piece.

By then you can start making and spending your hard-earned money!

Pictures show, top: Any advance on £45 million? Sotheby's chairman Henry Wyndham selling a previously completely unknown early work by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents, which sold for £49.5 million ($76.7 million) making it the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold

Below, left: Judith Miller's 2006 Collectables Price Guide

Right: Miller's Collectables Price Guide edited by Madeleine Marsh

Judith guideMiller's guide

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