How to Get a Value for Your Antiques
You’ve come across an antique item — maybe a pendulum clock, a Tiffany lamp or an old emerald ring. Whatever the object is, you think it might be worth something. Before you take it to an auction, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the object. Use this guide to help you determine your antique’s value.
Looking for Markings and Signatures
When pricing rare antiques, check for a maker’s mark. Signatures and trademarks are common on pottery, porcelain, silverware, jewelry, lighting and other antiques. They may help you ascertain a time and setting for your object, including the country of origin and the manufacturer.
What Marks Should I Be Looking For?
Archaeologists and collectors have cataloged thousands of different identification marks. You might find initials, a signature, a series of symbols, a date or a manufacturer’s mark on your antique. Check the underside of your object for any markings.
What Are the Different Types of Marks?
Some of the identification marks you might find include:
- A maker’s mark or engraved signature — common on bronze, glass, pottery and other materials.
- A standard mark on silver, guaranteeing the silver content.
- A foundry mark on metal, identifying the workshop or factory of casting.
- A pewter touch mark of a specific pewterer.
- A design registration mark or trademark.
More Resources for Identifying Marks
Museums and universities are home to experts in antiques. They offer guides for determining a country of origin, a mode of creation and a date. You might start with a Smithsonian guide to identifying the “real thing.” If you think you have something of worth, contact an appraisal service for an expert valuation.
Any valuable item has its “knock-offs” — antiques are no exception. Reproductions are worth much less than authentic antiques, so it’s important to recognize a reproduction’s giveaways.
- Recognizing reproduced materials: Examine the materials of your object. Synthetic materials are a recent phenomenon, invented in 1938. You’ll only see natural materials in any older pieces. This is helpful when evaluating upholstery. Antique upholstery might be full of horsehair or down feathers, while an imitation will include synthetic fluff.
- Clues in the condition: Antique reproductions are often aged in appearance. However, you can distinguish between genuine aging versus imitation. On a reproduction, signs of wear might be too consistent. Look for wear in logical places, such as the seat and armrests of a chair or the finger holes of a wind instrument. If signs of wear follow no rational pattern, covering the entire object, you may have a reproduction.
- Signs of manufacturing: Manufacturing means uniformity. Objects made by hand are less perfect and symmetrical. Look at the carvings, hardware pieces and other elements. If you find irregularity and asymmetry, it’s more likely your object is a genuine antique.
Other Signs Based on Type of Antique
Depending on the type of antique, look for these signs differentiating antiques and reproductions:
- Furniture: Dovetail joints should be irregular, with imperfect lines and edges. Look for different wood types — crafters of the past used less expensive wood where no one would see it.
- Jewelry: Look at the hardware elements. Hooks, clips and clasps have changed over the years. Make sure the hardware is from the right era.
- Clocks: Check out the materials of the movement. Older clocks have wooden movements, while newer ones have brass.
Get a Professional!
With untrained eyes, you might find reproductions indistinguishable from genuine antiques. Contact a professional appraisal service to help you determine the value of your antiques. This will ensure you always earn what you should for valuable pieces.
What Makes an Antique Valuable?
Finding antique values requires a thorough understanding of what makes an antique special. After all, many antiques are worn and unusable for their intended purposes. So why are they worth so much money?
- Rarity: Following the basic principles of supply and demand, rarity contributes to value. Maybe few were made in the first place or most have broken over the years. Perhaps an object has an uncommon color, size, design or subject matter. In any of these cases, an antique can command a much higher price.
- Aesthetics: Of course, beauty can increase value. If a piece is aesthetically pleasing, it will be more desirable. Though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, art galleries, museums and books will help you determine if your object fits the standards.
- Desirability: Trends in the antique market come and go — an object worth a small fortune now might have been inexpensive a few years ago, and vice-versa. For instance, Tiffany Studio lamps were once dismissed as gaudy and undesirable. Now, they can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
- Authenticity: While reproductions are a popular option for the frugal, authentic antiques are much more valuable. As imitations become increasingly realistic, separating truth from fiction becomes a more significant task. Collectors prefer objects sculpted by a famous artisan, aged many decades and shaped from precious materials.
- Condition: Some flaws might be welcome, contributing to the story of an object. Other flaws may diminish the value. For instance, if your vintage porcelain doll is missing an arm, it may not be worth quite as much as it would be if it were whole. An antique can be in mint, excellent or good condition, descending in value. Chips, cracks, tears, discoloration, missing pieces or signs of repair may reduce an object’s selling price.
Depending on the object in question, different clues will help you form a valuation. Use this antique collectibles price guide to help you determine your object’s worth. If you think you have a marketable antique, be sure to seek appraisal.
How to Get a Value for Antique Furniture
If you’ve come across a piece of antique furniture, you may have something valuable. Follow these steps to help you put a price tag on your antique furniture.
- Examine the furniture: Write down everything you know about the furniture. List all of its materials. Take note of any dents, chips, scratches or signs of repair. Search for maker’s marks. Take well-lit photographs from as many angles as possible, including photographs of anything noteworthy.
- Trace the ownership if possible: Determine as much as you can about the piece’s history. For instance, if a rocking chair has been a family heirloom, look through old photo albums for pictures that include it. Ask its previous owners if they know more about its origins. This will help you determine age but may also contribute to value. A notable or famous past owner can increase an object’s desirability and price.
- Identify the age: Because of style revivals and reproductions, determining a piece of furniture’s age can be challenging. Look for signs of handcrafting — asymmetry and slight variation can indicate an object was handmade. Determine the type of wood, as different woods have waxed and waned in popularity. It’s important to note that woodworkers used hand saws before the invention of circular saws. Different saws leave behind different patterns — see if you can find evidence of old-fashioned tools. Though handcrafting does not guarantee status as an antique, modern production methods rule out the possibility.
- Research the rarity: Antiques that were once mass-produced are bound to be worth a lot less than rare objects. See if you can find similar objects on the market. Identify if there’s anything special about your piece. Maybe it’s a color unusual for the time and place of its manufacture. Maybe it’s a bespoke design for a specific client. Anything that makes it unique may make it more valuable.
- Compare to similar items: The best way to manage your expectations is to find similar objects on the market. Comb through past auction records for selling prices. A similar item’s selling price will give you a realistic impression of your piece’s value. Keep in mind possible differences regarding condition or rarity.
- Have your furniture appraised: An expert will be able to tell you how much your furniture is worth. Each piece is different, so a collectibles price guide may not give you accurate estimates. An appraisal is a necessary step before selling an object — it confirms authenticity, which boosts value. Your piece may be worth more than you imagined, so you could be cheating yourself by skipping the appraisal.
How to Get a Value for Antique Lamps
- Examine the lamp: Check the underside for a maker’s mark, sticker or stamp. You might need to lift protective felt to reveal the underside. If safe, test the lamp to see if it’s working, as a workable lamp might be worth more. Only test a lamp if the cord is secure, with no fraying or popping wires. Also, check for any signs of damage or repair. Do some research to ensure the shade and base are an original pair, neither replaced.
- Trace the ownership if possible: Look through any records or photographs concerning the antique lamp. Gather receipts or inventories if available. Any documentation of ownership is helpful for appraisal.
- Identify the age: Certain clues indicate an older lamp. For instance, cords and plugs have evolved over the years. Older lamps may have screws and wires around the plug, while more recent lamps might include grounding prongs. To help you determine the age of your lamp, read about artificial lighting through history. Your lamp’s mechanisms and fuel type play an important role in aging.
- Research the rarity: Research popular color schemes and motifs to determine your lamp’s rarity. For instance, Tiffany lamps tend to have natural motifs, including poppies, daffodils, dragonflies and peacocks. If you have a Tiffany lamp, determine how rare its pattern might be.
- Compare to similar items: Read through auction press releases to find how much your lamp might be worth. Take note of the high-end sales, like a Tiffany Oriental Poppy Chandelier that sold for $665,500. However, keep your expectations as realistic as possible. Not all antique lamps are Tiffany’s, and not all Tiffany lamps are worth six figures. Still, with the right lamp, you could win a great sum.
- Have your lamp appraised: Lamps can be worth a few dollars or a few hundred thousand dollars. No matter how much you know about your lamp, you’ll need an appraisal. Market trends can be tricky and unpredictable.
How to Get a Value for Decorative Arts
Decorative art is a broad category encompassing a wide variety of styles and mediums. Decorative art refers to objects that are both functional and aesthetic. The element of functionality differentiates decorative and fine art — decorative art pieces serve a practical purpose.
- Examine the decorative art: A piece of decorative art might be furniture, silverware or even architecture. Examining decorative art to determine value depends on the nature of the item. For instance, a complete glassware set from the “American Brilliant” era can command a high price at auction, while a recent, mass-produced set would not.
- Trace the ownership if possible: Since decorative art is usable, past ownership is an important part of its narrative. Did the piece belong to a Civil War-era plantation in the South? Did it cross an ocean with an immigrating family? These objects often have rich histories, so try to learn as much as you can.
- Identify the age: Clues and markings can help you determine an item’s age. For example, England has a complex hallmark system for silverware, including letters of the alphabet symbolizing the manufacture year. Early American silversmiths also embedded marks onto their silverware. If you can learn to decode such marks, you’ll uncover a lot of detail about your silver items.
- Research the rarity: Once you’ve determined the age and past ownership of your decorative art piece, research its rarity. Is it part of a mass-produced line or was it a special order? Do you see its color, etching or pattern often?
- Compare to similar items: Look through past auctions for similar items and record selling prices you find. Look for objects as similar to yours as possible.
- Have your decorative art appraised: If you suspect your decorative art antique might be valuable, seek an official appraisal. Because these objects vary so widely in worth, an expert valuation is a must.
How to Find a Value for Antique Jewelry
Jewelry pieces tell unique human stories of romance, grief, friendship or belief. They’re also likely to contain precious gems and intricate details. For those reasons, antique jewelry pieces can be some of the most valuable resold objects.
- Examine the jewelry: Give the jewelry a closer look. Does it show signs that it was handmade? Use a magnifying glass to search for stamps, which might indicate verified materials. Look for the logos of popular designers.
- Trace the ownership if possible: See if you can find any paperwork associated with the jewelry. Documented authentication will make it much easier to determine value. Ask around to trace ownership — if you bought the piece in a second-hand store, ask the store manager if they can provide any information.
- Identify the age: Research eras of jewelry styles to determine an approximate age. You can also evaluate hardware elements to date jewelry. More technical clasp and closing designs have emerged over time. If your piece has modern, machine-produced hardware, it’s not an antique. In addition, certain stone cuts are no longer produced, so they can signify an antique piece.
- Research the rarity: Once you’ve approximated the origin of your jewelry, search for related variations. See how common your piece is compared to other jewelry of the time.
- Compare to similar items: Look through the sales records from past jewelry auctions. Try to find jewelry comparable to yours — get a feel for comparable jewelry’s prices. Using any information you’ve uncovered, determine a possible price range.
- Have your jewelry appraised: Determining the value of jewelry is a complex undertaking with many factors at play. For an accurate estimate, you’ll need an expert appraisal.
How to Find a Value for Porcelain
Porcelain is dainty and beautiful, invented in China thousands of years ago. Depending on its age, style and rarity, it can merit high prices. You can find porcelain dishware, dolls, statues and knick-knacks.
- Examine the porcelain: If you have a porcelain doll, examine the coloration, glaze and features. The earliest porcelain dolls had a finishing glaze for a shiny look, while Bisque dolls had unglazed porcelain, creating a more realistic skin tone. On any porcelain product, you’ll likely find a company marking. Imported porcelain goods are usually marked with a country of origin, as mandated by American tariff laws.
- Trace the ownership if possible: As with any antique, it’s a good idea to gather as much history as possible. Look through documents and ask questions about where porcelain objects came from.
- Identify the age: Research porcelain design trends to see what era your piece might be from. Discoloration in the glaze can signify aging, as can crazing.
- Research the rarity: See how common your object might be compared to others on the market. Is your piece unique in any notable ways? Is it an unusual variation for the company that created it? Note that many porcelain items were mass-produced, making them less expensive.
- Compare to similar items: You can look through auction records online to see if items like yours commanded a high price. You can also peruse booklets and history books with details about porcelain goods.
- Have your porcelain appraised: Porcelain is a popular material used for many thousands of objects. It’s best to seek an official appraisal for your porcelain goods.
How to Find a Value for Clocks and Watches
Clocks and watches are often intricate, expertly crafted and beautiful. What’s more, they’ve served an important function in human lives, changing the way people work and live. It’s no surprise some clocks and watches are highly sought after.
- Examine the clock or watch: First, look for a maker’s mark, which might be on the face, mechanism or case. For example, some E. Howard & Co. clocks have the markings “E. Howard. & Co.” You may also want to look for the slight irregularities that indicate a handmade item. Look for wear on moving parts to indicate age.
- Trace the ownership if possible: Identify where the clock came from. Find any documentation available. Just as you might find family photographs including antique furniture, you’re likely to find pictures including an antique clock or watch.
- Identify the age: Certain clues will help you determine the clock’s age. As mentioned above, wooden movements signify older clocks. You can also look for signs of natural aging, like wear and discoloration.
- Research the rarity: Search around for clocks or watches similar to yours. Look through past auction records. If your clock looks like nothing you’ve seen before, it may be valuable.
- Compare to similar items: If you’ve found a maker’s mark, try to find other clocks or watches by the same company. Research the type of clock — grandfather, cuckoo, pendulum — to see if others have similar designs.
- Have your clock or watch appraised: To ensure proper valuation, you’ll want an official appraisal from a clock and watch expert. They’ll be able to determine the age and rarity of your piece.
Why Should You Get an Expert’s Opinion Before Selling Your Antiques?
Finding an antique’s value is a complex task. Each item is different, so standards can only guide a valuation. An appraisal expert understands antiques — how to determine an item’s age, what similar items are like and what makes an item desirable. They’ll know if your antique is special. For instance, they’ll know if your item is in better condition than most others like it, which would contribute to its worth. Additionally, appraisal paperwork makes any antique more desirable. You may have an exceptional item in your possession — seek an appraisal to find out.
Choose Fontaine’s Auction Gallery
At Fontaine’s Auction Gallery, we serve thousands of buyers and sellers like you. We’ll help you realize your item’s maximum value through an expert appraisal with no hidden fees. We specialize in appraising and consigning rare antiques. Contact us to learn more about our appraisal and consignment services.