Monday, December 12, 2011

Antiques or Not–An Age-old Question

QUESTION: How do I find out if items I have are really antiques?  Do dealers need pictures to come look at my pieces? How do I find honest reliable ones?

ANSWER: Many people ask themselves these same questions. Unless you’re an antique lover and collector, it’s often hard to figure out what’s an antique and what isn’t. First, let’s tackle what is an antique.

To anyone who browses antique shops these days the question "What is an antique?" seems to have many answers. Side by side with ancient-looking furniture and old- fashioned china, you may find souvenir spoons and colorful carnival glass. The problem bewilders not only buyers but dealers, too.

In 1930 the U.S. Government ruled that objects had to be at least a 100 old to be classified as antiques, so they could be admitted duty free into the U.S. But that was a legislative  tax decision. Since then antiques have often been defined as objects made before 1830.

Here in the U.S., dealers and collectors count among their antiques both items made by machine as well as those made by hand. Most of these are later than 1830. That date does, however, serve as a dividing line between the age of craftsmanship and the machine age. As the 21st century moves on, objects from the early 20th century are now reaching the 100-year mark, thus technically making them antiques. But if you talk to a high-end antique dealer, he or she will probably consider them just used goods.

A fine antique comes with a provenance or written pedigree. This isn’t just what your Aunt Milly says is an antique. It's proven to be one through a detailed history of its creation and ownership.

But while the personal associations of heirlooms add to their interest, they can’t be relied upon to place their date and source. Not every old piece has a pedigree or a maker’s mark or label, but every one has characteristics that identify it which make it valuable to someone else. The secret of where and when and by whom it was made is in its material, its design, and its workmanship. So an antique is what the collector knows or perceives it to be. Nothing more.

Collectibles are items that usually have a less-than-100-year history, although not always. You could collect Limoge porcelain boxes from the 18th century and consider them collectibles. But for the most part, collectibles are objects from popular culture—old detergent boxes with the soap powder still in them, old bottles, old souvenirs.

So begin by determining, if you can, what it is that you have that’s an antique or just a collectible. Do Image searches on Google for your items and see if any photos come up that are like what you have or similar, then click on the photos to go to the Web sites where the photos have been posted to learn more about the item. Go to your public library and check out an antique encyclopedia or other books that have pictures of antiques. See if you can find objects like yours.

Once you have a good idea of whether an object is an antique or collectible, take some good digital photos of it. And, yes, dealers really appreciate seeing a photo or two of an item before they’ll make the trek to your place to see it. This applies even more to dealers you may find online. Take an overall shot, perhaps several from different angles, as well as a couple shots of details—carvings, signatures, hardware, etc. If you’re going to make the rounds of local dealers, you’ll want to get your photos printed. Small 4x6-inch photos will do nicely.

Asking where you can find honest reliable dealers indicates that you assume all antique dealers are scoundrels. They’re not. In fact, most are honest, hard-working business people. They’re in business to make money, so don’t expect that any of them will pay top dollar for your pieces. The most you can expect to get is half the value, on a good day.

One way to tell a dealer who may be less than honest is to see if the pieces in his or her shop are priced. An antique store is a retail business and all retailers price their items for sale. A dealer who doesn’t price their items may be planning on taking advantage of you—deciding what to charge for an item on how you’re dressed or how much you seem to know about antiques. Avoid shops that are piled high with goods in which the shopkeeper says, “Have a look around and let me know what you like, and I’ll give you my best price.”

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