Monday, April 29, 2013

Two-by-Two to the Floating Zoo

QUESTION: When I was little boy, my grandfather gave me an ark, complete with all the animals, each made of wood. I’ve kept it all these years and wonder about its origin. There are some words in German on the bottom. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: You’re very lucky to have such a wonderful toy and to have kept it intact all these years. The problem with toys with lots of pieces is that those pieces tend to get mislaid or lost.

Many religions prohibited frivolous play on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. The only toys they allowed with those religious in nature. And what could be more religious than a toy ark. Children spent hours loading and unloading the animals from the ark, marching the birds and beasts in columns two-by-two.

But these toys were anything but playthings. Their exquisite carvings elevate many of them to the level of folk art and their prices to locations high in the stratosphere. But for those collectors with the means to purchase them and the space to display them, the world of ark collecting can be colorful and satisfying.

Often referred to as “Sunday” toys back in the 19th century, arks came into popularity around the 1850s.  The people of the village of Erzgebirge started making them as a cottage industry. Some families built the arks while others handcrafted the animals and still others painted and added details to finish the pieces. German arks feature lathe-turned animals which later have details carved into them.

The British also made arks but started a bit later. Arks became a popular thing to make to raise money for war relief during World War I. Makers painted them red and green and affixed a war-relief emblem to them. At the same time, German prisoners of war in England built arks with stockade-style roofs. Even the folks in Ireland got in on the act and attached a white dove to the ark as a sign of peace.

Toy arks come in all sizes. Larger ones can be up to 30 inches long and contain over 400 animals, plus 8 human figures representing Noah’s family—Noah and his wife plus three sons and their wives.

It’s hard to tell the age of antique arks since most aren’t marked. However, specific construction characteristics can provide some clues. The shape of the bottom is one. Flat-bottomed arks are older. And those planed by hand rather than machine are also older.  The amount and style of the decoration can also be a clue. Earlier arks tend to have less detail and decoration.

The frieze—the decorative border immediately below the ark’s roof line—can also be a clue to its age. An ark with a more elaborate and colorful frieze is more likely to be newer than one with a simple one. Some makers used a strip of decorative paper as the frieze.

Early arks had fewer and simpler animals since it took longer to make them. As tools improved, ark makers made more animals. The animals that came with German arks were always made of wood that a craftsman first turned on a lathe. The marks of his cutting tool appear on the bottom of each piece. All these clues apply to arks made before 1900. After that, construction became more standardized.

The number of animals was directly related to the production cost of antique arks. As there became greater demand, craftsmen built larger arks with more animals. Antique arks, especially ones with all their parts, amount of detail, and in excellent condition, can sell for as much as $40,000. Most smaller ones sell for somewhere between $250 and $800.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Oh Happy Days!

QUESTION: I found a box of old McDonald’s Happy Meals toys in my attic that once belonged to my kids. Do these have any value as collectibles or should I just toss them?

ANSWER: You may or may not have hit upon a buried treasure in your attic. Depending on the age and condition of the toys, they may be worth a little or a lot.

Of all the McDonald’s collectibles, Happy Meal toys and related display memorabilia remain the most popular. Each Happy Meal has a specific and variable number of toys, including a special U3 toy which meets particular standards for children under three. The boxes and bags in which the food came in are also collectible. Display items include counter boards, banners, posters, and signs.

The McDonald brothers opened their first drive-in in 1948, and by 1954 they were well on their way to franchising success. A 1950s McDonald’s item could have a hefty price tag.

A beginning collector could amass hundreds of Happy Meal toys in a short time. In a typical year, McDonald’s produces nearly 100 different toys and issues millions of each. Recent ones sell for $1-2 each, but a manufacturing variation or a recall may create a toy with a higher value.

Because McDonald’s produced millions of these toys, they must be perfect to have any value. Loose ones thrown in a box have little or no value since the paint rubs off and parts disappear. Paper items need to be clean and unmarked to bring top dollars.

Figurine Happy Meals toys are the most popular, especially those featuring well-known characters. Special packaging can also increase their desirability. The idea behind Happy Meals is to get the little ones to collect a particular set. Parents usually order by character needed rather than by what the food offering may be. This keeps the kids dragging their parents back for more.

Happy Meals featuring books, buckets, or little-known characters are of lessor interest to collectors.  But there are exceptions. The four small soft-cover Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit books from a 1988 Happy Meal, in mint condition with the mint Happy Meal box are worth about $80 as a set since this Happy Meal was distributed only regionally.

So depending on the age and condition of the Happy Meals toys in your box, they may not be worth all that much.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beauty and Collectibility Are in the Eye of the Collector

QUESTION: How do I determine an artist’s most collectible works? Are they the ones that sell for the most money? And, if so, are they the ones I should be collecting?

ANSWER: Collecting art can be tricky. More than any other collectible, the popularity of certain artists and their works ebb and flow with the trends in the art world. An artist that’s extremely popular one year may fall to the bottom of the heap the next.

An artist's most collectible works usually depict subject matter that has gained popularity among art collectors. If more people collect the works of a particular artist, those works will go up in price and value. In this case, outside forces play a large role in the determining what type of  subject matter looks like, not necessarily the artists, themselves. One year, it could be landscapes and seascapes, another year city scenes, abstracts, portrait, or interiors. The only way to discover  what an artist's most collectible works look like is by talking with dealers, collectors and others familiar with that artist's body of work.

The farther a particular work departs from favored subject matter, the less collectors of that artist’s works will be interested in it. You might compare this to a musician who becomes famous for one or two songs because his or her fans insist on hearing those songs over and over regardless of what direction that musicians career takes. That doesn't mean that artists or musicians have only one or two noteworthy moments in their careers, but rather that tunnel vision of fans affects what’s perceived to be popular or collectible. The same holds true for writers who become successful based on a particular style of writing or subject matter. When they deviate from that, their fans find someone else to read.

Art work featuring the best, most collectible subject matter usually sells for the most money. But determining whether or not a work falls into the "most collectible" category based purely on how much it sells for isn’t how the art business works. Instead, an individual piece of art must be evaluated by experts in terms of the artist's entire output, his career evolution, and with respect to what was going on around him at the time. Price does not enter into that evaluation—it’s the consequence.

Works of art can also sell for high prices even though they may not fall into an artist's"most collectible" category. For example, a piece might be valuable because an artist produced it during an important time in art history. It then becomes more collectible by fans of the movement rather than by fans of the artist.

As for what art work you should or should not collect, follow the golden rule of collecting— collect what you like. If your tastes center around pieces that don't have that "most collectible" look, fine. Go ahead and buy them. Just know the artist's market well enough so that you pay the going rate for that type of art, not the going rate for the most collectible types.

Also, pay attention to collecting trends in the art world. Subscribe to publications that offer news about recent auctions or sales of art. Know which artists are hot and which are not. And know if a scam may be afoot. One woman hid her late artist husband’s work from the public for a number of years so that it would appear to be rare and pristine—translation: never appeared on the market before. She thought that doing so would raise the prices of the works when they did appear. When she did begin selling his works, she did so in dribs and drabs, so as not to flood the market with his works, thus lowering the price.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tips for Buying Antiques at Garage and Yard Sales

The ordinary garage/yard sale is an American institution. Every Saturday morning there’s one or more going on somewhere in the country. Collectors find it hard to pass them up since they’re the entry-level market for antiques and collectibles.

Most people who cruise the yard sales every weekend are casual shoppers, driving from one to another. If you’re a serious collector, you know how to find antiques and collectibles hidden among the plastic kitchenware and cheap florist vases, but you need a plan.

Generally, garage/yard sale ads appear in local papers on Thursday and Friday evenings. Mark those that mention antiques or collectibles. Don’t waste your time noting those that don’t advertise antiques. After all, you must complete your rounds in just a few hours, at least by 12 Noon.  

As you read the addresses, map a route starting with the sales closest to your home or those with the earliest starting times, then move on to more distant ones. The purpose is to get to the good sales before someone else snaps up the antiques.

Every town is different when it comes to finding antiques at good prices at these sales. You’ll usually find more antiques and collectibles at the lowest prices in older, middle-class neighborhoods. In many cases owners of these homes have lived there for years and years and have stored a mass of castoffs in their attics and basements. These people are usually not trying to get top dollar for their things. They just want to get rid of them.

By contrast, the owners of homes in upper-class neighborhoods are usually quite knowledgeable about antiques values. At their sales they set close to retail prices on any antique or collectible, so you’ll seldom find much to buy at such sales. Remember the cardinal rule of collecting: Buy low, sell high.

As many sellers get more savvy with the Internet, they look up their items on eBay to see what they’re going for. But they don’t take into account that this is an auction, as well as entertainment, so prices can be higher than they should be.

At these sales possession is nine-tenths of the law, so to speak. The unwritten code of the yard sale is that whoever has his or her hands on an item first has dibs on it. You need to be able to pick things up quickly and hold on to them. Take along a large sturdy plastic tote bag or a box, into which you can drop anything that interests you. This way, you can pick up and carry much more than you could in your arms alone. Then examine your finds carefully, put anything that isn’t promising back on the tables, pay for the items you do want, and move quickly to the next sale.

To be honest, you probably won’t find an antique or collectible of outstanding value at a garage or yard sale. You’ll find china, glassware, pottery, and kitchen collectibles, all of modest value. Every once in a while, you’ll come upon a piece of furniture—a bed, small table, brass bridge lamp, framed mirror, or whatever. Inevitably, these finds must be refinished, polished, or rewired.

Every collector has at least one story of a spectacular discovery, a real treasure bought for a pittance. To make sure you buy the real thing, take at least one of the current antiques and collectibles price guides with you—you can leave it in your car. Otherwise, unless you have a phenomenal memory, you’ll have a hard time remembering the thousands of ever changing retail values of items you’ll run across.

Some collectors learn this lesson the hard way. Many novice collectors go to yard sales without taking any price guides along. You might find an item you think is priced well, but you don’t know for sure. If you had brought along a general antiques and collectibles price guide, you’d have been able to decide if the price were too high or if you should make the purchase. If you left the sale to check on the price back home, you might return and find that the item had been sold. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Clean Out and Clean Up

Garage and yard sale season officially starts today, April 1. No, it’s no April Fool’s joke. As the weather gets warmer, people start thinking about doing some Spring cleaning and getting rid of a lot of junk that’s piled up. I thought I’d take a break from the usual question-and-answer format to offer some tips on setting up and selling at a garage or yard sale.

It’s time to get rid of that old waffle iron, those old copies of National Geographic, your teenager's baby clothes, grandma’s costume jewelry. But before you do, you should do a bit of planning.

From now until the end of October, depending on the weather in your region, Americans will hold more than 10 million yard and garage sales. These sales are the bottom rung of the antiques and collectibles market. It’s the entry-level position where items, long hidden in attics and basements, see the light of day and join the thousands of others in the giant stream to flea markets and antique shops and coops.

Since garage and yard sales began in the mid-1960s, they have become an estimated $1.5 to $2-billion -a-year business. For some buyers its entertainment on a Saturday morning, for others it’s serious business finding inventory for their booths and shops.

Sellers get rid of a lot of junk they don't need and in the process make a few bucks. The average garage sale takes in about $150 to $200. And it's all free. These sales are one of the great unregulated sectors of the U.S. economy. No one cares about child labor laws, sales tax, or product guarantees. And generally, everyone has a good time.

Of all the items sold, dressers, beds, tables, especially smaller ones, are always in demand. More buyers are looking for antiques and collectibles, many of which end up on eBay. Antique mirrors, furniture, art, rugs, pottery, and glassware often sell at garage sales for a fraction of the price they’d sell for in a dealer's shop.

Fabrics—curtains, blankets, quilts, and tablecovers, all expensive in stores, sell well, especially if they’re  custom-made.

Household items are another favorite. Everything from a salad spinner to a potato peeler, new or old, sells, especially if priced under a dollar.

While the majority of buyers at these outdoor sales are women, men like to poke around, too. Tools of all sorts are popular with them. Antique tool collectors scour the sales far and wide looking for that piece to fill out their collection.

There’s even a market for old sports equipment—ice skates, tennis rackets, old baseball gloves— anything from the early days of a sport, especially if they’re in good shape.

To make sure a garage or yard sale is profitable, the seller must plan carefully. It’s a good idea to go to a few sales in the neighborhood to see what others are selling. And it’s just as important to watch the crowd since many of them are regulars who will end up at future sales.

It’s important to check local ordinances. Some municipalities don't care. Others have restrictions on sales. Many require a permit which is often free. Some restrict the number of sales per year.

Good weather is important. While the seven-day forecast can’t always be trusted, it’s a start. But plan for any contingency. Setting up a backyard canopy is good in any case as it will draw visual attention to the sale.

Ads for the sale need to be specific. While a seller doesn’t have to list every item, listing groups of items is a good idea. But don’t say ‘Antiques” if there’s only one or two pieces. And unless the ad states "No early binds," eager shoppers will show up way ahead of time. And don’t fall for some sad story on a Thursday evening about how the person has to work on Saturday and can’t come to the sale. Could they just have a peek? The answer is no. Being fair to all buyers is the mark of a good seller. A telephone number in the ad is helpful for directions and for people to see if you have what they want.

Attract buyers with  easy-to-read street signs, balloons, or streamers. Make all signs legible and the lettering dark enough to read while driving by.

Prepare everything ahead of time. Most of the action occurs in the first hour or two. Price all items. No buyer should have to guess how much an item is. Ask friends to help out and make sure to have plenty of dollar bills and coins on hand for change. Many buyers stop at an ATM machine before setting out and come armed with $20 bills.

Offer several boxes of smaller items that buyers can rummage through. Perhaps group these items by price from low to high in separate boxes. This stimulates buying. Also, a table of giveaways keeps people lingering. Some sellers serve coffee, always good at the beginning and end of the garage and yard sale season..

For those selling antiques, it’s important to know how much they’re worth before selling at some ridiculous price. But remember, this is the lowest place in the antiques market, so even valuable items can only go for a fraction of their value. A good rule of thumb is to send valuable pieces to auction. 

Be flexible on pricing; especially at day's end. Sometimes, it's better to get rid of an item than make money on it. One seller smashed an old crock against a tree rather than sell it for $1.

Next week: Tips on buying at garage and yard sales.