If you’ve ever hosted a yard sale and wondered if you could be parting with something rare and valuable before sticking a price tag on it and moving on, you may want to reconsider. “It’s important to know the factors that contribute to an item’s worth: Age, condition, and rarity all play a role, and the older an object is, the more it tends to be worth—but only as long as the condition has held up over time,” says Tony Freund, Director of Fine Art at 1stdibs.
Books, furniture, art, and jewelry all fall into these categories, but before you go schlepping every questionable item in your home over to an appraiser, you should ask yourself the right questions. Allow us to help you with those.
When it comes to determining if the family jewels could be worth a pretty penny (or more), the first step is to to look for markings. “Most designer pieces are signed, so use a magnifying glass and look for signage—whether that’s numbers or the name of a designer,” advises Kendall Reed, Head of Sotheby’s Fine Jewels Department in New York. “Another thing you can do is buy a diamond tester, which will tell you if there is heat conductivity. It’s a pretty simple way of finding out whether you have a real or fake diamond, and it’s easy enough to purchase on Amazon.”
According to Richard Austin, Head of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department in New York, you don’t need to waste your time with reference works like encyclopedias and dictionaries, or general art reference and coffee table books. But if something is signed by the author, has hand-colored illustrations, or looks as if it has had a box or case made for it, then it might be worth exploring further with a qualified book appraiser.
Time to tackle those bookcases!
“If you’re considering any works for appraisal, I always start with the obvious questions: Does it show signs of age, and are there any marks?” says Kimberly Miller, Specialist & Project Manager in Sotheby’s 20th-century design department in New York. “For furniture and objects, there are many pieces executed today that mimic older, pre-war, or mid-century models, so it’s helpful to try and deduce when the piece was produced.”
Nicks and scratches may not look the prettiest, but they could actually be a sign that the piece may be of older production. The same thing goes for scuffs on lacquered metal, or an aged patina to a leather seat. “Signatures or brand marks on furniture or objects are another helpful starting point for providing an execution date, as well as an attribution (aka, who designed or produced the work),” she adds. “For example, works designed by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s have labels that differ from works produced in the ’60s or ‘70s.”
Rugs and Linens
Preservation is the key term when it comes to textiles and their worth. “Certain materials can withstand extended storage better than others, and antique textiles (and rugs), for example, are particularly susceptible to damage if stashed away for long periods of time. Their colors can fade, and they can be munched on by moths,” says Freund.
Materials such as lace and linen are also very difficult to preserve, due to their delicate nature and tendency to discolor. So, if you’ve acquired a hefty stash of these recently, be sure to have them professionally cleaned—and then wrapped—to avoid moisture and insect damage if you want to sell them down the line.
Art and Silver
In order to educate yourself on art and metal objects and their value, Freund recommends checking online to see how much similar items or pieces from the same artist and designer are selling for. Once you get a baseline idea of value, try to understand how your example compares: Is it signed by the maker? Does it still have its original label, or upholstery or finish? Is it from an edition, series, or year that is particularly prized by collectors today? Do you know the story of its provenance? (An interesting origin story or famous former owner can often make an item more desirable.)
All of these key factors play a role in determining value, and as Freund points out, paintings, prints, and sterling silver—for which name brands such as Tiffany & Co. and Gorham Reed & Barton are particularly prized—can command a premium, so look closely for a maker’s hallmark.
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