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Antiques and Collectibles: How to Value and Sell Your Old Things

After inheriting her grandmother's collection of antiques, Dolores has maintained an interest in the care and sale of vintage items.

Learn more about determining the value of antiques and collectibles.

Learn more about determining the value of antiques and collectibles.

  • Condition influences value
  • Values change rapidly
  • The popularity of certain antiques and collectibles changes quickly
  • How to find resources to help identify an antique or collectible
  • Demand creates value

What Is an Antique?

Many people have valuable antiques in their homes. Whether purchased or inherited, objects 100 years old or older are considered to be antiques. Of course, plenty of people call that 1940s dining room set antique, but it is not. Interesting, desirable, older objects less than 100 years old are collectibles.

Value Has Many Meanings

When we talk about the value of an antique, we can mean several things. I greatly value the things passed down to me from loved ones and would never part with most of them as the sentimental value is too great.

Maybe I never met my great grandmother, but I look at her beautiful Flow Blue china and can touch something that she touched. The family came to the United States during the Irish Potato Famine in the mid 19th century. My great great grandfather was a laborer. So, I know that this lovely dishware meant a lot to the family. It meant that they had arrived into the middle class, that the family was established enough to spend money on a few fine things.

I remember seeing the Flow Blue at Auntie's house, how it was rarely used, but treasured, set in a bow front cabinet to be looked upon—not touched. This is the most valuable antique of all. It's priceless!

Depression Glass is a vintage collectible but not an antique.

Depression Glass is a vintage collectible but not an antique.

Using Price Guides

We can look at antique books and price guides that document various types of antiques and their values with a grain of salt.

One day, while looking at Depression Glass at a lovely little shop, the proprietor and I checked out a price guide to Depression Glass values. The dealer said that she would never be able to get the stated price because the value of each piece is actually determined by how much money people are willing to pay for it. She said that she could never get the suggested prices, and this was during the height of its popularity.

Value depends on the economy, the region where you are attempting to buy or sell the piece, and whether or not someone will actually want to purchase the item and whether a similar item is available in the shop right down the street. Or on eBay.

Price guides can be an excellent resource in helping to identify an item but are not the best way to understand its value.

Selling Your Items

If you have antiques or collectibles and want to sell them to a dealer, remember that the dealer will need to make a profit. The dealer must take into account overhead costs as well.

You may decide to sell an antique or collectible on eBay. If so, first you must establish yourself as a reliable dealer on that popular site so that people have confidence in the items you have for sale as well as confidence in your shipping practices. Don't forget that, on eBay, there is a huge group of available buyers, but there may be stiff competition, too.

Gebruder Heubach Figurine—Girl in a Pleated Dress

Gebruder Heubach Figurine—Girl in a Pleated Dress

The Importance of Condition

I have a beautiful porcelain figurine of a young girl holding up the skirt of a pleated dress. Some years back, I found information about the figure that was made in the late 1800s or early 1900s by the Gebruder Heubach Company of Thuringia, Germany. The bisque figure can be identified by the look of it and the mark on the bottom, as with most valuable china and porcelain pieces. The mark is a divided circle with a sunburst on top and two over-lapped letters below.

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The article suggested that the figure might sell for $500.00 in good condition. And that was 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, someone knocked the figurine's head off some 40 years ago. The head was neatly glued back on, but the damage was done. No way I would ever get anywhere near the suggested price because it is damaged. In addition, changing markets decreased the value.

Antique Textiles—a 200-Year-Old+ Sampler

Antique Textiles—a 200-Year-Old+ Sampler

How to Take Care of Your Old Things

Take proper care of your antiques and collectibles. Keep them out of harm's way.

Do not attempt to refinish a piece of old or antique furniture. Part of the value of an old piece is determined by its patina, the changes that occur in the aging process. If you remove old paint or finish, you may destroy both the charm and value of the piece. This holds true for high end, very old, or significant pieces by master craftsmen. A damaged, ordinary piece of old furniture may benefit from a restoration or refinishing.

Antique Textiles, Prints, Paintings, and Photographs

Antique paintings, photographs, prints, and textiles can be destroyed by moisture, heat, and lighting conditions. Also, body oils transferred by handling can damage old things, particularly textiles and paper.

Never attempt to frame or remove an old photograph, print, painting, or textile from its frame. This is best done by a professional or an expert who knows how to handle such a fragile piece.

Do not allow someone who claims to be an expert to handle old textiles or such delicate antiques unless they are wearing gloves. If they do not wear gloves, they are not expert in the care and handling of valuable antiques.

This lamp may look old, but it is not.

This lamp may look old, but it is not.

Do Not Assume an Item Is Antique

Just because something looks old, or someone else thinks that it is old, does not mean that the item is actually old.

The lovely lamp shown above may appear to be old or antique to some people, but was purchased at TJ Maxx in the 1980s. Not old.

Often older pieces, or antiques, are copied and sold just because they are popular. During the height of the collecting craze of the late 20th century, reproductions were often intended to fool naive shoppers. Reproductions can be fun to buy and use but they do not have the value of a genuine antique. Reproductions of old dishes are better to use than the real thing. Today's regulations prevent the addition of toxic elements in the production of dishware. That was not true in the past.

When to Have an Antique Professionally Appraised

Maybe you love your old stuff. I do. Maybe you have no desire to sell it. But it is a good idea to have it appraised for insurance purposes.

If you plan to keep your valuable antiques til the day you die, you want to ensure their safekeeping for posterity. You are treasuring history here. You do not want your dim witted son-in-law to throw the Victorian Renaissance Revival table in a dumpster or ship it off to Goodwill. If the kids are not interested in keeping your antiques, they may earn some cash by selling them, something made easier for them with your written appraisal. You can find an appraiser in your area by checking out the American or the International Society of Appraisers.

Do not have an object appraised by the person you want to sell it to, unless you know and absolutely trust them. An unknown or unscrupulous antique dealer may offer you $150.00 for something which sounds just fine to you. But if they turn around and sell it for $5,000.00, you might not be so happy. And there is nothing that you can do about it.

When selling your antiques through a dealer, it behooves you to establish a relationship with a trustworthy and reputable person.

Antique Flow Blue cup and saucer

Antique Flow Blue cup and saucer

Identify Your Antique

Before you learn the value of a piece, you must first identify the item. If you want to identify an old item yourself be prepared to do some research. If you love antiques, this process can be a lot of fun as there is a lot to learn. Your local library will have a section of antique and collectible guides for everything from old furniture to hardware. These can be a valuable resource. Of course these kinds of books are available to purchase at a bookstore or online.

Online sites like Kovels and Replacements are an excellent resource for the identification of dishware.

There are collectors clubs for almost anything you can imagine. Find one appropriate to your item and check out the group's website. They can be a valuable source of information.

Search eBay or Etsy with a description of your item to see if something very similar appears for sale.

When trying to locate similar items make sure that you use a thorough description. The more information you have will increase your ability to learn about your antique. Go from the general to the specific.

Look for maker's marks on the item. Dishware, for example, should have an image on the bottom called a back stamp. You can then look up that stamp. There are many types of, say, dishware that appear similar. My Blue Fjord plates may look a lot like the highly collectible Royal Copenhagen but a quick check of the back stamp (shown below) tells me the truth.

Many products have marks that change slightly over the years which can help you learn when the item was produced. Some furniture will show identifying marks as well. An authentic Stickley Morris type chair should have a decal on the bottom.

A reputable antique dealer may be of great help. Many dealers specialize in certain items so will be most helpful in their specialty.

An example of a backstamp.

An example of a backstamp.

Sterling silver forks.

Sterling silver forks.

More on the Value of Antiques

Certain types of antiques hold their value even in a recession or in hard economic times. Metal such as bronze statues, silverware or other antique metal items can earn you a tidy sum of money. Of course sterling silver is worth much more than silver plate. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver. Silver plated flatware, trays, coffee pots, sugar bowls, creamers, and trays can be picked up at thrift shops for very low prices.

Religious items may not get you what you want. Old things are often valued due to scarcity. People keep religious items and pass them down for years. Also, may religious people feel uncomfortable selling a religious painting or statue, especially if it has been blessed.

Just because an object is attractive does not mean that it is valuable. A friend of mine was selling off some pieces and found that a very ugly old lamp sold for an impressive amount of money. The fact was the piece was rare and in demand by collectors.

The popularity of various items vary over time. Something that may have been a hot commodity in 1999 may have fallen out of fashion. Demand sets value. If lots of people are hunting for a particular item, the value will rise. Today, people like mid 20th century furniture and dishware so they can be quite expensive.

Design trends change the demand for antiques and collectibles. Modern buyers often look for the cleaner lines of minimalism. Overly ornate Victorian furniture does not fit that look. That means Victorian furniture, dishware, and decorative items may be cheaper than it was twenty years ago which is good news for buyers but bad news for sellers.

Modern trends favor Arts and Crafts styles with clean lines and simple forms in furniture, dishware, home decor, metalwork, and pottery.

If you bought an item because a company promised that it would eventually become valuable that does not mean that it has actually increased in value. Think about it - if everyone and their brother ran out and bought, then hoarded tons of say, Franklin Mint plates, then all decide at the same time to sell them, they will not be worth much. No one can see into the future so promises of an increase in value are meaningless.

1902 Adjustable chair by Gustav Stickley in the Arts and Crafts style

1902 Adjustable chair by Gustav Stickley in the Arts and Crafts style

Selling Your Antique or Collectible Item

Selling Your Antique or Collectible to a Dealer

Do not have an object appraised by the person you want to sell it to, unless you know and absolutely trust them. An unknown or unscrupulous antique dealer may offer you $150.00 for something which sounds just fine to you. But when they turn around and sell it for $5,000.00, you might not be so happy. And there is nothing that you can do about it.

When selling your antiques through a dealer, it behooves you to establish a relationship with a trustworthy and reputable person. Talk to people you know who can recommend an antiques or collectibles dealer that they have done business with in the past.

Selling Your Antiques and Collectibles on eBay

If you plan to sell your antique or collectible on eBay, you better know what you are doing. You can't just show up one day hoping for a bonanza, but need to establish your own reputation as an honest and trustworthy seller, especially if you do not have a bona fide appraisal to go along with the object that you are trying to sell. Learn the ins and outs of ebay auctions and always use PayPal.

Create a buzz for the antique that you wish to sell by hawking on other sites including social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Draw interest in your product by advertising, or writing articles about antiques, featuring the types of antiques or collectibles that you wish to sell. EBay charges a listing fee as well as a commision on the final sale price. PayPal also charges a fee based on the selling price.

Selling Your Antique or Collectible on Craigslist

I know plenty of people who have arranged successful deal s on Craiglist both buying and selling. But there are horror stories too. If you must ,arrange to meet the buyer in a public place for your own safety. Only accept cash. Of course, you can't sell a Victorian armoire and meet the buyer in the parking lot at Denny's. Well, maybe you can, but it may be a bit cumbersome and kind of ridiculous.

Selling Your Antique or Collectible at a Consignment Shop

Most consignment shops will arrange to pick up and item at your home. They generally charge 1/3 of the selling price. Pay attention to the contract and their sales practices. Some consignment shops lower the price drastically if the item does not sell in a specified amount of time. You want to be sure that you are comfortable with the lowered price.

Selling Antiques at Auction

An auction can be a good resource if you have a large collection of smaller items or one real good item. Auction can be good for you if you want to move a piece quickly, but you might not always be happy with the price.

The Antique Liquidators Association can provide you with information on reputable firms in your area. Liquidators will help you sell large quantities of items. If you have an entire house full of goods from an inheritance or if you are downsizing, these are the people for you. As they get a percentage of each sale, it behooves them to sell at the best price.

That's my chair!

That's my chair!


In the case of a very valuable antique, significant art, or a historically significant antique, you may want to establish provenance. If you want to sell the piece as an important artifact, you will have to do so. Provenance means that a paper trial has followed the item throughout the years. Receipts, letters, and other documents that have been handed down along with that item will serve that purpose.

Face it, anyone can say that George Washington ate off a particular plate. Someone's say-so is not proof. Some sites claim that a photograph can show provenance. A photograph may help but to say that just because you own the same chair shown in one of Mathew Brady's Abraham Lincoln portraits does not mean that your chair is the exact one shown in the picture.

Questions & Answers

Question: I have a $2 bill and I want to know what the value is?

Answer: Two dollar bills have been issued since 1862. Printing stopped in 1966 due to the unpopularity of the bill. It was brought back in 1976 for the U. S. Bicentennial. Another new series was printed in 1996. The two-dollar bill with Thomas Jefferson and a green seal on front; an engraving of a painting by John Trumball and Declaration of Independence 1776 on the back is a current bill. It is worth $2.00.

There is a perception of the rarity of two-dollar bills. After the Bicentennial printing, people kept them as souvenirs. The collecting craze of the late 20th century encouraged hoarding of the bills as a kind of investment.

Two dollar bills are often used at the horse races because the minimum bet is two dollars.

Valuable two dollar bills feature a red seal and were printed between 1928 - 1966 and are valued between four and twenty dollars.

For more information about paper currency, check out the website of the U.S. Department of Treasury, Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Question: I have a large set of Royal dishes. Could you give me advice on how to set a price and where to go to sell them?

Answer: When trying to research your dishware, you need to be more specific in a search pattern. The word "Royal," for instance is used on many products including Royal Doulton, Royal Copenhagen, Royal Albert, Royal Winchester and more. Royal Doulton has produced dishware since 1815 and there are countless patterns. Today, they even produce dishware for Target.

By using the term "Royal" you could also be referencing dishware produced as souvenirs featuring the British Royal Family made to commemorate events such as coronations and weddings.

When you try to learn about what you have, read the maker's mark on the bottom. Use a magnifying glass. Describe all that you see including the full name of the company or the lettering that is shown. Also note whether the name of the company is enclosed in a shape like a circle or wreath. Look for other images in the mark such as crowns, ships, animals, etc. Makers marks sometimes change slightly over the years so that can be a clue to the item's age.

Dishware companies often made hundreds of patterns so you need to identify the pattern as well. In your search mention the basic color scheme, shape, images in the design (flowers and type, bird and type, landscapes, Asian motifs, etc), and edging.

Only when you identify and clarify what it is that you have can you decide on pricing. You can try online prices guides, check out clubs or groups dedicated to the company's products, or follow the suggestions posted in the article.

Question: Do I have an antique item that is worth money? It is a electronic drive for a voter's machine built in 1905

Answer: Electronic voting machines did not exist until the 1960s. If your machine is from the 1960s, then it is not an antique. An antique usually refers to items that are one hundred years old.

Perhaps you have part of an old punch card voting system used in the late 1800s. The votes were punched in paper and counted by a pneumatic machine, not electric. A psephograph, used for a very short time in the early 1900s features a slow where the voter droped a token that released a lever that triggered a counter to register a vote.

If you have a mystery machine and want to learn what is it, you should check out the site called My Old Machine.

Question: I have a collectible metal sign. How do I find out worth?

Answer: As old metal signs are very popular now, many sites offer to identify and value them. Look for a site that has information on your particular sign. Include the size of the sign in your description. Collectors Weekly features some information on the topic.

The value will depend on demand, rarity, and the condition of your piece. Many old metal signs were lost to World War II scrap drives, and many deteriorated due to weather or sloppy storage. Remember that during the collectible craze of the late 20th century, many reproductions were created as decorative pieces and were popular wall hangings in restaurants.

Is a price listed on the sign? If so, it is probably not authentic. As prices change and a sign is an expense and not easily altered, stamped or painted on prices may mean your sign is a repro. Hold a magnet to the sign. An older sign has a greater chance of actually being old if it attracts the magnet.

An old sign will probably show some damage including small dents, rust marks, fading, scratches, or chips. A tiny hole or small dent will show some rust around it.

"Vintage Signs of America" by Debra Jane Seltzer is a new book published in 2018. Older books will not reflect current value.

If you have the sign of a product produced by a company that is still in business, you may learn some information on their website. For instance, Coca-Cola has a page on memorabilia, trays, and signage.

Question: I have a large amount of old silver coins. I want to sell them. How do I determine their value?

Answer: The value of old coins depends on the condition, age, demand, materials used and many other factors. Before you attempt to sell, learn about what you have.

Some websites may help you identify your coin, its condition, and values. Try Coin Today, Numistra, or the Professional Numismatics Guild. Also take a look at an appropriate book like: Standard Catalog Pf World Coins.

You can also join a coin collectors club. Visit trade shows and dealers to see what they have and how they price their coins. Look around online at the kinds of prices various sites offer. There can be a wide variety of asking prices for old coins, so you need to shop around.

Once you gather all your information, you can determine the value. Then you can attempt to sell them yourself online, contact a collectors group, or find a dealer who will give you a reasonable price.

Question: I have a men's hat from the 1800's by Genin 214 Broadway. It is in pretty good condition. How d I determine the value?

Answer: First, define what kind of hat it is - top hat, derby, straw boater? This will help refine your search.

The Hat Museum in Portland Oregon displays many old hats. You can learn a lot from their website.

Genin had a huge business in New York owning one store near the corner of Ann and Broadway, and another department type store. His specialty was theatrical costume design.

A free online book may help you. "Hatatorium An Essential Guide for Hat Collectors" by Branda Grantland, Mary Robak, etc. (2013). Also, check out "Antique Trader Vintage Clothing Price Guide" edited by Kyle Husfloen and Madeline Kirsh.

Question: How can I learn the value of a real ivory lamp that is 5' tall?

Answer: I am assuming that you are wondering about a small lamp that is made of ivory. Are you sure that it is really ivory?

Ivory has been a popular luxury item for a very long time. It has been faked for years as well in order for people to mimic the look at a lower price or to fool buyers into thinking they were getting a bargain.

Indications that your piece is real ivory would include :

Slight yellowing or browning with age

Very smooth surgface

Irregular grain when looked at closely with a magnifying glass

If it's bone it may show tiny pits when looked at with a magnifying glass.

If the grain is perfect with regularly place lines, it's not real ivory.

Check out the Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes by the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. There are several tests to help identify and age ivory.

Before y