Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2019

False Values: Numbers that Cloud Buying and Selling

Appraiser, auctioneers, collectors, dealers, and others in the antiques and collectibles trade constantly encounter values associated with antiques and collectibles that are inaccurate, unsupported, misleading, and more often than not more of a pipe dream than a reality. I was tempted to use “lies” but was concerned my readers would find lies too strong a word, albeit it is hard to view a fabricated value as anything less.

Experienced appraisers, auctioneers, collectors, dealers, and others involved with antiques and collectibles know there are no fixed values in the trade. In addition to being time sensitive, value is subject to a wide range of variables such as location, the individual whims of the buyer and the seller, on site competition, and desirability. Although a known fact, it is surprising how often the “no fixed value” concept is ignored.

The first false value involves how much an individual paid to acquire an object. A common phrase I hear at appraisal clinics is: “But, I paid more for it.” This value needs to be put into historical perspective. When and where was the purchase made? How does the price paid relate to values at the time? Was it a carefully researched and considered purchase or a purchase driven by the heart rather the head? Finally, who cares? The value of any antique or collectible is what it is worth now.

The 21st century and the 2008-2009 Great Recession have established that for the vast majority of antiques and collectibles, value has more likely decreased rather than increased over time. Casting aside the amount paid, valuing an object based on its current market value is one of the most difficult, and in many cases impossible, things to do, especially for collectors and dealers. The fear of having paid too much haunts most individuals in the trade. No one likes to admit a mistake, especially collectors and dealers.

The same is true for individuals who acquire things for free, whether through inheritance or gift. Free never equates to zero value. When emotion and sentiment is involved, false values abound.

[Author’s Aside: At some future point, I plan to write a “Rinker on Collectibles” column about phrases I hear at my appraisal clinics that drive me nuts. Each time one occurs, I have to remind myself to be nice, though that reputation has not been associated with me on more than one occasion. Although some of these phrases will appear in this column, the list is a long one. There are plenty left for a future column.]

When a person explains that an object “belonged to my grand___ (fill-in the identifier),” the twofold assumption associated with that remark is that the object is old and has value. The good news is the object is old; a relative term in its own right. The bad news is that being old and belonging to a grandparent are not value factors. Although there are exceptions to the latter, few individuals’ grandparents, or any family member for that matter, were so famous that the general public would know who they were. If they did, they still would not care.

If I never hear the phrase “this person _____ (fill in the blank with – family member, friend, insurance agent, person from the historical society, a collector but not necessarily of the same object group, or dealer) told me it was worth ‘x’,” I will go to my grave a happy person. No one ever questions whether these individuals have the expertise to offer such an opinion. They should. If asked to explain how they arrived at the number, the answer would be somewhere between my best guess and it seems a good number to me. Really?!

The difficulty is the owner heard the number. If the owner likes the number it becomes firmly locked in his/her mind. It is sacrosanct. It can only be questioned at one’s peril. When the owner’s assertion of value is disputed, the owner immediately assumes the person arguing in favor of a lower value, which is almost always the case, does not know about what he/she is talking.

At a recent appraisal clinic, a person brought a rebound copy of an early Webster’s dictionary. She claimed it was a first edition. Although it was an early edition, it was not a first edition, a fact I later confirmed through research. I explained that the secondary market for old dictionaries is minimal, the definitions in the dictionary were out-of-date, and its value was low. I tried to be nice and suggested a price of around $100.00, especially since the dictionary was rebound.

I can tell by a person’s face when they are disappointed and when they are thoroughly p_____-off. She was most definitely the latter. “A dealer offered me $1,500.00,” she informed me with the “you do not know what you are talking about look” I encounter on occasion. Undeterred, I asked if she had the name of the dealer and suggested she sell it to him immediately. She did not take kindly to my suggestion. She wanted to believe she was holding an object worth its weight in silver (gold was out of the question) and not some inconsequential object worth a hundred dollars.

A dealer’s offer is only valid when the dealer is ready to put his/her cash on the line. My experience has taught me that dealers often make offers they know they will never have to honor. Why would they do such a thing? The answer is that there is no penalty in the antiques and collectibles trade for having fun or snookering someone. It is all part of the game.

My favorite story to illustrate this point occurred early in my career. I was contacted by an individual who wanted to sell a Pennsylvania tall case clock. I made an appointment to see the clock. After I examined it, I asked the individual what she (the proverbial little old lady who was far shrewder than she appeared) was asking for the clock and she responded with “make me an offer.” I never play the make me an offer game. It is the responsibility of the seller to set the price, the price being the offer to sell. As I left, I told her to call me when she knew what she wanted for the clock.

After I left, a dealer came to her house. He quickly realized she was fishing for a free appraisal which she would use to achieve a higher price from another potential buyer. The dealer told her: “You have a fabulous clock. I just do not have the money to pay you what it is worth at the moment, but I would not sell it for less than $25,000.00.”

Immediately after the dealer left, she called and told me she would accept $25,000.00. The clock was not worth more than $1,500.00. I hung up immediately hoping she would not hear me laughing. I assume she died owning the clock.

Auctioneers, collectors, dealers and others in the trade can sense when a person indicates he wants to sell an object but clearly has no intent to do so even if the potential buyer makes an offer that is not only fair but generous. The result is the auctioneer, collector, or dealer provides an unrealistic value to thank the person for trying to take advantage of them. Again, once heard, the number becomes locked in the owner’s mind.

Individuals who take values found in price guides as absolute again are relying on false numbers. First, price guide values are retail – what a person would have to pay to buy an object and not what a person would realize from selling it. Second, price guide values are only guides. There is no guarantee these values are obtainable. This is why values found on internet websites such as LiveAuctioneers and WorthPoint are dated.

The same applies to the values being tossed around on a host of television shows ranging from The Antiques Roadshow to Pickers. Recent articles indicating what a person was told by a Roadshow appraiser versus what they were able to obtain were two different numbers and how the Pickers’ producers manipulate pricing should convince anyone watching these shows to enjoy their entertainment value and ignore the pricing.

The only right number is what a buyer is willing to pay at a given moment in time. This number is not constant. It changes at the whim of the individual. It is the only value that counts.

POSTSCRIPT: This column evolved from a desire to write a column entitled “When Does It Pay To Kiss The Hand And Take the Money.” I have put the concept on my mental “keep thinking about it” back burner. Sooner rather than later, it will simmer to the point where the idea is palatable.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

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