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What Makes an Antique Valuable? Quality, Rarity, Condition and Provenance

Amanda is a keen artist and art historian with a particular interest in 19th-century art, especially the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Classic Roman antiques and glass items on display in the Archaelogical Museum on Paros. Photographed by Cedric Boissiere. Courtesy Wiki Commons

Classic Roman antiques and glass items on display in the Archaelogical Museum on Paros. Photographed by Cedric Boissiere. Courtesy Wiki Commons

What Makes an Antique Item Desirable?

Bed pans, loving cups, teaspoons, Rolls Royces, beer bottles, campaign medals, theatre programmes, film posters. Sooner or later, there will be a buyer for just about any item you care to name. Collectibles come in all shapes and sizes, and there are few hard and fast rules as to what will make one object more desirable than another. Ask any collector what it was that inspired their shelf of eggcups, their wall of Marilyn Monroe posters, or their drawer filled with old bus tickets, and the chances are that they will have a story as quirky and individual as the collection itself.

Whatever the collection might contain, however, you can be certain that its owner will be very particular about what gets included. A dedicated collector will look very carefully at an item before buying. He or she will want to know that the object is in good condition and that any restoration has been carried out to a high standard. They will be particularly interested in its rarity. They may want to know the item's history (provenance), and of course they will be concerned about its price.

Penny Black, the World's First Postage Stamp, 1840. Courtesy Wiki Commons

Penny Black, the World's First Postage Stamp, 1840. Courtesy Wiki Commons

What Does Rarity Mean?

Most collectors have particular treasures in their collection. Some will have sentimental value, or a story attached to them, whilst others will be prized for their rarity. If an item is hard to get hold of, or better yet, totally unique, then it will almost certainly have a higher value than a similar item which has been mass-produced.

Hand crafted, or hand-finished items are often highly prized because no two examples will ever be exactly alike. Sometimes mass-produced items also get a look-in in the rarity stakes. Occasionally a batch of coins might be issued with a fault in them, such as the undated British 20 pence pieces which made the news recently. Also, print runs of stamps have been generated without perforations, or with colour distortions, and collectors will pay well over the odds for these imperfections.

How do you know if you have a rare item? Only research can tell you.

  • If you have an item that you are hoping to sell, take it along to an auction house and ask for the auctioneers opinion. Most do not charge for this service, especially if the item is then entered for sale. Be aware when selling, however, that auction houses operate on a commission basis, and you may be liable for a fee even if the goods don't sell.
  • You can also research common collectibles in price guides, such as those published by Millers. There are good general guides available that show a cross-section of items, but additionally, there are very specific guides which focus on topic areas. Look on Amazon for your specific interest, then buy the book, or see if you can borrow it from a library.
  • Look at online catalogues published by the bigger auction houses. If you see an item similar to yours, take a note of the lot number, then check later to see what it made at auction.
  • Get a valuation from an antiques dealer. Be aware that a general antiques dealer may only have a slight knowledge of specialist items, so either go to a specialist in the first place, or get an opinion from several dealers. This is especially important if you wish to sell through a dealer. Dealers can often offer good and fair advice, but on the other hand, they do have a living to make, so make sure you have all the facts before doing a deal.

Why Are Some Items Described as Being 'Good Quality' or 'High Quality'?

Every manufactured item, whether handmade, hand-finished, or mass produced, will have been made to a specific standard. A 'good quality' item can either be a very good example of its type, or it might be made to a very high standard from top of the range materials.

If a piece of jewelry has been made from gold or platinum, then set with precious stones (i.e. diamonds, rubies, sapphires or emeralds) there's a very good chance that you have a reasonably valuable item. If the item has been made from silver, or another low value metal, and is set with semi-precious stones (such as agate, amethyst, lapis lazuli, rose quartz, etc.) then the item is likely to have a lower value. Silver jewelry tends not to be too valuable unless it is known to have been crafted by a well-known and collectible designer, or is very old and has some history attached to it.

One Example: Majolica Pottery

Collectors often rave about items that other people would place very little value on, and a good example of this is majolica pottery. Majolica items can often appear crude and unappealing to an average person, but this is a case where a 'good quality' example will very often do better at auction than a delicate piece of china. In this case, 'good quality' refers to the condition rather than the materials.

Majolica ware is typically quite solid and sturdy in appearance, and the decorations are generally simply painted in eyecatching colours. The two pieces illustrated are of museum quality, but there are plenty of simpler pieces lurking in dusty attics waiting to be re-discovered. Majolica plates and bowls often have minor damage around the rims and outer edges, and this is usually not a problem to a collector. Larger cracks or chips will, however, affect the value.

What Is Meant by 'Good Condition'?

Most antique and second-hand goods will sell better if they are in good condition. This doesn't have to mean 'as new', but obviously damaged goods will only have a limited marketplace.

If you are thinking of placing your possessions in auction, prepare them for the buyer in the best way you can;

  • Pottery, china, and porcelain should be gently cleaned. Delicate ornaments should probably not be immersed in water, but a soft damp cloth will remove dust and cobwebs, and a cotton bud can be used for awkward areas. If there is damage, do not attempt a repair unless you have specialist knowledge. A bodged repair is worse than no repair at all.
  • Gold and silver Jewelry should also be cleaned. Warm soapy water may be used in the first instance, followed by a thorough rinse. Use an old soft toothbrush, or a cotton bud for difficult to reach areas. There are also good ready-made jewelry cleaners such as Goddards silver polish which are great for bringing your treasures back to life, but do not use these solutions on silver-plated items, as you may damage the plating.
  • Furniture should be dusted and polished, and any cobwebs removed from the underside of chairs, the inside of drawers, etc. Again, don't attempt any repairs on genuine antiques unless you know what you are doing, though by all means make good any more contemporary items if you are able.
  • If you are selling paintings, make sure the glass is clean, or if you are selling an oil painting, very gently dust the surface of the painting, taking care not do dislodge any of the paint.If you have an old painting, peint, or sketch that you'd like to know more about, follow the high-lighted link to learn about researching and selling art.

Most collectors are looking for items in good condition for their age. Reasonable wear and tear is expected when considering older items, but the nearer your goods are to perfect, the more likely it is that they will find a buyer.

What Is Meant by 'Provenance'?

Provenance very simply means 'history'. If you have an old item which was handed down through the family for several generations, then that is its provenance. If you have an object which was a gift from a famous person, again, that is its provenance.

Provenance is important in identifying genuine items from forgeries. This is especially true for items which might have a limited face value, but by attachment to a famous person, they suddenly become very sought after. If you are considering selling an item with a special history, and you can prove your story, then make sure you tell the auctioneer, or the potential buyer, and offer as much proof as you are able.

Not Quite so Valuable!

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Louise89 on December 29, 2019:

I've recently started antique collecting and this was a very interesting and informative article, thank you for sharing your knowledge!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on March 11, 2011:

Hi Betty, Glad you enjoyed the hub. thanks for stopping by and commenting.

bettybarnesb from Bartlett, TN on March 10, 2011:

Hey Amanda Severn: I totally love antiques. Very interesting hub. Enjoyed reading it.

Be blessed....

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on February 28, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by and posting a comment, htodd.

htodd from United States on February 25, 2011:

Thanks,nice information

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on February 04, 2011:

Hi peggy, I'm a great fan of Antiques Roadshow as well. I love it when they have high value items that the unsuspecting owner has found in the attic, or bought in a thrift store. The surprise on their faces when they're told the value is absolutely priceless!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 02, 2011:

I have some wonderful antiques that have been passed down in the family and treasure them. I also love watching Antiques Roadshow. It is amazing to see some of the values placed on things brought to them to evaluate. This was a useful hub. Rating it so.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 24, 2010:

Hi C.J. Wright, thank you for the compliment, and thank you for commenting.

C.J. Wright on November 24, 2010:

Great information and well delivered. While I'm not a serious collector, I do enjoy browsing antique galleries.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 04, 2010:

Hi Prasetio, it's good to see you here. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on November 04, 2010:

I love antique things and find this through your hub. I thought you are great collector. Of course all these things very valuable. Thank you very much. Prasetio:)

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 20, 2010:


attemptedhumour from Australia on October 20, 2010:

And so are we!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 20, 2010:

Hi attemptedhumour, we've also moved around a bit, and you're absolutely right. The heavy pine furniture inherited from my great-aunt has proved far more sturdy than our more modern pieces. My great-aunt would have had the furniture second-hand when she married in the 1920s, and it's still in good shape nearly a century later.

attemptedhumour from Australia on October 20, 2010:

Hi Amanda, who doesn't enjoy the Antique road show? A lot of our furniture is antique as it is a much better investment that modern furniture and not always that much more to buy. It is also more adaptable when moving house and doesn't fall to pieces like a few things we have purchased. Good advice as usual. Tootle pip.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 19, 2010:

"Hi Dolores, I like old things too, and I also have a few pieces of furniture which have come to me through the family. I always enjoy those Antiques Roadshows, especially when you get people on who either have absolutely no idea how valuable their item is, or else, imagine that they have a real gem when actually their treasure is valueless!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 19, 2010:

Hi Amillar,

I think you're absolutely right. I grew up in a house filled with antiques of all descriptions, and the Antiques Roadshow was obligatory weekend TV viewing in my parents home. Consequently I acquired a lot of knowledge purely through osmosis. Having said that,I now own very few really old things other than inherited bits of furniture. Art has always been my big passion, but the kind of paintings I like don't generally come in my price range! So in answer to your question, no I'm not an antique dealer but I do number several amongst my friends, so I guess the connection still continues to this day.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 18, 2010:

Amanda, this was a wonderfully informative hub. I love antiques and my house is full of them, most inherited. I love the video where the gentleman was disappointed. It really struck me funny. We all think our old things are so fabulous!

amillar from Scotland, UK on October 18, 2010:

Hi Amanda,

I suppose things like art, jewellery and antiques are the way to go now, but I imagine you'd have to be an enthusiast before you could acquire the expertise. It’s a bit like music; if you don’t like the subject, you won’t get much out of it.

I wonder if this is your line of work. Or is it just a hobby?

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 18, 2010:

Hi Hello, hello. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on October 18, 2010:

Thank you for a very interesting read.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 17, 2010:

Thanks Sid, and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

sid_candid on October 17, 2010:

Excellent hub and nice pictures.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 17, 2010:

Hi Marie, we have bits and pieces stashed in the attic that probably should go. It's just a matter of getting round to it. There always seems to be more important things to do! It's good to see you here, as always.

VioletSun from Oregon/ Name: Marie on October 16, 2010:

Timely hub, Amanda, and written by someone whose knowledge I trust. My s/o and I were discussing that we would like to sell collectibles down the road, but realize we need to educate ourselves about this. Will pass on your hub to him!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 16, 2010:

Hi Bob, Sorry if I inadvertently offended you. I certainly don't think of you as old though! x

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 16, 2010:

Hi Paraglider, vintage wireless sets! I never would have guessed! I grew up surrounded by dismembered radio and TV sets. My Dad was a fan, too.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on October 16, 2010:

Hi Lynda, thanks for stopping by. It's always good to see you here.

diogenes from UK and Mexico on October 16, 2010:

Hi Amanda: I was so enjoying this article until I came upon "OLD man disappointed," etc. I hate to chide my favourite hubber, but..."older" please Amanada (I'm one, so sensitive)..

Very useful information...Bob

PS I realize the title may have been on the video when you downloaded it.

Dave McClure from Worcester, UK on October 16, 2010:

Good one :) You're right about it being very personal. For example, I enjoy visiting art galleries but have no real interest in owning paintings. But vintage wireless sets draw me like a magnet. Each to his own!

lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on October 16, 2010:

Another excellent article crammed full of information. Great job, Amanda. Lynda