What Makes A Collectible Valuable?

My fascination with antiques and collectibles started roughly two decades ago.

Over the years, I've learned three irrefutable truths about assessing the worth of memorabilia: It generally calls for painstaking research, unending patience, and a boatload of trial and error.

That isn't to say that evaluating collectibles isn't fun, but it definitely calls for a bit of sweat equity.

Not only will this tutorial provide you with insight on how antiques and collectibles are appraised, it's designed to help you conduct your own appraisal. You won't be an expert of course, but you'll know how to get the process started.

You'll also gain a better understanding of what qualifies as a certified appraisal (certified appraisals are actually legal documents).


Step One: Understanding Value Classification

One of the issues with evaluating antiques and collectibles is that a piece could fluctuate in value for any number of reasons.

The estimated or perceived worth of an item may differ considerably from one seller to next, one dealer to the next, one auction house to the next, etc. This is known as value classification.

We'll briefly review how values are commonly classified in this section:

1. Auction Value (also known as Open Market Value) - This is the price that an item ultimately sells for at auction. Keep in mind however, it’s not uncommon for bidders to create a bidding frenzy by incrementally increasing their offers. For that reason, auction value isn't necessarily a refection of an items actual retail value.

2. Fair Market Value - Represents the selling price that both the seller and buyer agree to. Neither party is pressured into making the deal, and each participant must disclose all pertinent information about the item that's being sold.

3. Insurance Value or Insurance Replacement Value - Insurance value is determined by a certified appraiser, and is generally considered to be the highest monetary value that can be applied to a piece. It's typically a good idea to have high-end items appraised for insurance value in the event that they're damaged or stolen.

Because of the increase in online appraisal services, it's possible to have a collectible assessed for insurance value without spending a fortune. In fact, a number of online services offer free appraisals (check out the list toward the end of this lesson).

4. Online Value - Simply the online selling price of an item. This value is defined by individual web merchants or independent sellers.

When a collectible is sold online, in many cases, the merchant or individual seller will list the item for what they think it's worth without regard to it's actual retail value or fair market value.

When this happens, the item may have one value on eBay, a different value on Ruby Lane, and so forth. It just depends on the knowledge and experience of the merchant or individual seller.

5. Price Guide Value - This a monthly, quarterly, or year publication that details the estimated resale value of items within a particular market (comic books, dolls, etc.).

6. Actual Value - Despite all else, an antique or collectible is only worth as much as the buyer is willing to spend. Although it’s a sobering thought, this value often trumps all other value assessments.

7. Retail Value - The price that an item sells for at an antique or collectibles shop.

8. Tax Value or Estate Value - This value is based on an average. The piece that's being appraised is compared to similar items (or exact items) that have already sold. The prices of the sold items are then averaged; the final result (or value) is applied to the piece that's being appraised.

9. Whole Value or Wholesale Value - As the name implies, this value represents what a dealer is willing to pay for an item. Although it’s not engraved in stone, whole value is generally 30 to 50 percent below retail market value.

It’s also worth mentioning that the value of an item may vary by state, region, etc.

Guidelines for Assessing Collectibles

Now that you're acquainted with the concept of value classification, you're ready to start assessing your collectibles by applying the following guidelines.

Keep in mind that this isn’t an exact science. And although it's impossible to thoroughly review the process of evaluating collectibles in a single lesson, this tutorial covers a fair amount of ground.

As you gain more experience, you'll know when to apply a particular rule and when to abandon it.

And finally, after you assess an item, remember that your estimation may differ considerably from another's estimation (again, this is the essence of value classification).

Here's to your success!

Guideline 1.  Is The Piece Authentic?

More often than not, you’ll need to do a bit of detective work to determine if an item is the real deal or a duplicate. There’s no shortage of unscrupulous charters who are willing to pass off counterfeits as originals. Find out as much as you can about the piece.

This isn't to say that all duplicates are inherently worthless. However, originals generally command a higher price.

4 Tips to Help You Avoid Forgeries:

1. Do your research before you invest in an item

2. Ask for a guarantee

3. If the price of an item is far below it's estimated market value, the item may be a forgery

4. Use caution when a seller is being too secretive about an item

Knowing how to determine the authenticity of a piece is a matter of honing your research skills.

Guideline 2.  Find Out Who Created The Item - or Who Owned It Previously

An item may be financially worthwhile if it originates from someone famous or a noteworthy manufacturer. This is known as provenance (meaning place of origin). The idea is to look for unique marks or signatures on the piece in question.

Kovels.com provides a great deal of information on how to identify marks and signatures. Visit their home page and click on the MARKS menu option toward the bottom of the page.

Guideline 3.  What's the Regional Value of the Item?

An items monetary worth may increase or decrease based on how it's valued in a particular region. For example, the artwork of a moderately well known celebrity may have more value in that celebrity's hometown than any other location.

Guideline 4.  How Old is The Item?

A collectible isn’t inherently valuable just because it’s old or an antique.  However an aged item may be valuable if it's:

⚫  Rare
⚫  Authentic
⚫  Historically Important
⚫  Desirable or Popular
⚫  In Good Condition

Guideline 5.  What’s The Condition of the Piece?

The condition or quality of a piece inherently affects its value, regardless of the market. This is a fundamental truth that can't be overemphasized.

For example, an item that's in mint condition is worth more than an identical item that's in good condition, and so forth.

It's also worth mentioning that condition standards may differ slightly from marketplace to marketplace. For example, Ruby Lane's definition of mint condition may differ slightly from eBay's definition of mint condition.

The terms Prestine Condition and Mint Condition are often interchangeable.

Guideline 6.  How Rare is The Item?

Providing that an item is financially worthwhile to begin with (meaning that there's a market for it) the rarity of that item may increase its value. In such a case, the rarer the better. However, if a piece is otherwise valueless, the fact that it’s rare may be inconsequential.

Guideline 7.  Does the Piece Have Aesthetic Value?

Aesthetics has to do with the beauty of a piece, or more importantly, a collector’s appreciation of that beauty. Some collectors argue that aesthetic value is a matter of individual taste. Others assert that aesthetic value is a provable concept due to the global appeal of painting like The Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night.

Some collectors may go as far as to take courses in aesthetic value. However, even an untrained eye can distinguish the difference between a piece that’s arguably unattractive and a piece that’s appealing to the eye (don't underestimate your intuition in this regard).

Although taking a course in aesthetic value isn't absolutely necessary, it may be worth your while to do a little research on the subject.

Guideline 8.  Keep In Mind That Value Guidelines Somewhat Differ Based on The Type of Collectible that You're Assessing?

The guidelines that are used to assess the value of a an antique book are a bit different from the guidelines that are used to assess the value of an antique coin.

The goal is to learn the basics of how to evaluate collectibles, and thereafter conduct more in depth research as needed (based on the kind of collectible that you're evaluating).

Guideline 9.  Seek Out Free Professional Assistance

Even if you’re confident that you’ve done a good job of evaluating your item, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek professional assistance from a free web-based appraisal service (in-house appraisals can be very expensive).

There's no shortage of worthwhile services to select from, and a number of insurance companies may actually accept online appraisals. It's simply a matter of doing a little research.

Keep in mind that web-based valuations can fluctuate considerably. For that reason, it's generally a good idea to take advantage of more than one service. And because the evaluation is taking place online, the smallest details or imperfections of a piece may be inadvertently overlooked by the appraiser. And finally, there's no guarantee that the individual who's appraising your item is actually certified.

With that being said, this is still a viable approach toward having your item appraised as long as you consider the drawbacks. If nothing else, you'll walk away with a fairly good idea of what your collectible is worth. Based on my experience and research, here are some of the best services:

AntiqForum (appraises plates and Meissen figures)

Appraisal Day.com



Country Livng.com (for antique furniture and home-wares)

Gannon's Antiques & Art (furniture valuations)

Indian Territory (free appraisals of Native American art and artifacts)


Just Answer Antique Appraisal


Sotheby's Free Appraisal

What's Next?

As you can see, it takes a bit of elbow grease to effectively assess collectibles. Be that as it may, I sincerely hope that you’ve been encouraged to press forward.

Don't let the process overwhelm you. Seek assistance when necessary, and most of all, remember to have fun.

I also welcome your feedback or questions.

Happy hunting!