Some Things Owners of Antiques and Collectables Should Think About
John Mildwaters - Director, Ipswich Antique Centre
25 June 2011
There is an old saying that says- “Do as I say, not as I do!” I have been an antique collector, an antique dealer, a banker and a professional photographer for over 25 years. In January I had a warehouse full of antiques flooded. You can ask me later how many of the things I am going to advise you to do that I actually did myself. And whether life would have been less difficult if I had followed my own advice.
In my various jobs, I have dealt with ‘People With Antiques’ who were in a variety of situations; most pleasant, some neutral, occasionally sad. I will use those three situations as a framework to address some of the things I believe owners of antiques and collectables should, at least, think about when considering the future.
The pleasant aspects of antiques and collectables are many, including -
- The not to be underrated pleasure of simply owning and living with beautiful things.
- Keeping artefacts as a way of preserving links with family history.
- The financial benefits of furnishings that hold their value rather than becoming worthless after a few years.
- Not having to redecorate as fashions change - antiques never go out of fashion.
- The environmental plus - antiques are constantly recycled and any carbon costs were extinguished years ago.
General things can include -
- Maintenance and preservation.
The sad things can include -
- Loss of the items.
- Forced disposal.
- Estate planning.
- Family disputes.
Let us now look at these in greater detail.
The pleasures I will not enlarge on - you know why you have antiques and collectables.
Maintenance and Preservation
Antiques normally need little maintenance if they are in normal use in a home, but little is not none. This is especially so when in storage. Keep prominently in mind that everything I say below is preceded by ‘first do no harm’. Whenever work is done on precious things, first ensure the treatment is not worse than the complaint!
- Check periodically for infestation by insects like borers and termites (white ants). Borers normally attack sapwood and soft woods such as pine and can be detected by their needle like holes and the resulting accumulations of dust. It can be difficult to ascertain whether they are active so do not take chances. They can be treated with various commercial preparations but plain old kerosene is worth a try.
- Termites almost always indicate a problem beyond the immediate piece so get professional help immediately!
Excess Moisture -
- The treatment of items that have been through a flood is beyond the scope of this paper. Each item needs to be individually assessed by an experienced restorer and many, especially those made from solid materials, can be saved. Unfortunately, in the January floods, many items in this classification were needlessly dumped.
- In normal circumstances, excess moisture will be evident through rot or mould in the piece and will almost certainly be due to incorrect storage, in the present or the past. Immediately remove from the source of the moisture. Rot requires expert attention but mould can often be controlled by thorough, but careful, washing and then treatment by an inhibitor- something like Glen 20. If warping is also present, this requires expert attention.
- Excess drying is usually apparent by cracking and / or warping.
- If in storage, check that temperatures are not excessive and that ventilation is adequate. Try placing some open containers of water in the storage to add moisture to the air.
- Even in regular household use, natural drying can become excessive. In these cases, products like Howard Feed-N- Wax can assist.
Normal Maintenance -
- Each item is individual as is its required maintenance. For furniture, a range of products are available for various needs. For waxed pieces, Excalibur Wax is soft and thus relatively easy to apply without excessive build-up of wax. Howard Orange Oil can be effective on some polished finishes. Lightly damaged surfaces can often be improved by a polish reviver such as Howard Restor-A- Finish. Always remember, most antique furniture has been treated with numerous products over its long life and it is impossible to predict exactly how one more product will react so always test carefully.
- I have mentioned Howard products only because they are a line we stock and have a very good reputation. However, there are numerous other products available that may be appropriate depending on the circumstances.
Only you can determine what level of insurance protection you require. Discuss this in detail with your broker or professional adviser especially if the collection includes high risk item such as jewellery. And read, and understand, the policy. If you don’t, keep asking questions until you do!
When a loss is suffered, two of the problems to be overcome are to prove to the insurer that you actually owned the item lost and to establish what it was worth, whether ‘as is’ or to replace. These are not trivial matters- the original documentation may be lost, the item may be completely destroyed or be such a health hazard that it cannot be kept for inspection by the insurer and so on. This is where a photographic record is invaluable. I have personal experience of a Loss Adjuster, in the absence of a photo of the object, asking for a photo of the space on the wall where it had been. Not a joke - go figure!
Detailed individual photos showing such things as the maker’s name, registration marks or artist’s signature help to establish the value of an item. Then an in situ photo showing you holding the item or the item in place in your home amongst your other furnishings or collections clearly establishes that you did indeed possess the item (rather than, say, copying the aforementioned photos from a book or the web). The purchase invoice can also be easily photographed with the item and thereafter be part of the chain of evidence of this permanent photographic record.
But, I hear you say, if the item is destroyed, would not the photos also be destroyed? In the past, photographic records were both cumbersome and expensive, so the answer was likely yes. However, with digital photos, a whole collection can fit on one CD or flash drive which can be easily copied. It is much less burdensome for a friend to keep a single disk for you for safety than it was to look after boxes full of prints (after you had gone to the trouble and expense of having duplicate prints made).
This leads to…
With digital cameras, everyone is a photographer, right? Well, actually no. Everyone can take a photo but that does not make them a photographer. Being able to check the oil in a car does not make you a mechanic; being able to change a light bulb does not make you an electrician. So it is with photography. Blurry, out of focus, poorly exposed photos with harsh, obscuring shadows and with the object appearing as some tiny, unidentifiable thing in the distance are of little use.
Clear, evenly lit, high resolution images, from wide angle to macro, showing all necessary information in fine detail are necessary.
This is not to say that, if you have the equipment and some photographic knowledge and ability, you cannot do this yourself. However, you will need, as a minimum, an ‘enthusiast’ level camera with macro capability and two diffused external lights. A phone camera or equivalent, with only built in flash will not hack it!
If you use a photographer then, as well as being competent, two other aspects should be considered. Firstly, the photographer should be trustworthy and discrete. You do not want the photographer to be a scout for burglars or to discuss your jewellery collection at the pub (or publish your nude portrait on the internet)! Secondly, depending on your own knowledge and the nature of your collection, the photographer should have some knowledge of antiques and collectables.
The exception is if your collection is highly specialised or esoteric ; then you would probably need to direct any photographer as to what is pertinent to be photographed so his or her knowledge may not be significant. However, if the collection consists of many different items or you are not expert about your collection then the photographer must know what to photograph. A photograph that does not show the differences between, for example, an expensive Royal Worcester vase and a cheap Chinese copy is useless. In this case, the image may need to show the factory mark, a date or registration mark, the artist’s signature and a macro close up of the decoration pattern (plus any chips or repairs). And of course, the more direction you have to provide, the longer the job will take and the more it will cost.
As to costs, you will need to discuss those with your chosen photographer. As a guide, I charge around $100.00 per hour depending on the complexity of the job and the equipment I must provide. Some think this is very reasonable, others that it is [expletive deleted] extortionate. The reality is that many professions charge four times this, tradespersons one and a half to two times and even the apprentice who blacks your tyres when you have your car serviced is charged out to you at about this rate. Professional photographic equipment is expensive and sensitive to damage and an accident as simple as someone stepping on a lead can mean a replacement bill for $100. So for less than $100 per hour, I might as well go fishing.
If you are well organised, you may be pleasantly surprised at just how much can be achieved in two or three hours. Don’t be like one client I had who brought me an item one at a time, watched while I photographed it, then took it back out to the garage, wrapped it carefully and packed it back in its box. Then the procedure started all over again- a SLOW process! I was a photographer for the Carters Price Guide to Antiques for twenty-five years. In well organised shops, I sometimes photographed over 150 items in three hours- it can be done.
In the case of a major loss, being compensated for just one extra item may well cover the cost of photographing the whole collection!
Recording and Valuation -
As detailed above, a photographic record is convenient, comprehensive, relatively cheap and meets most requirements when combined with an acceptable assessment of value. Other possibilities are-
• Video - Good for showing items in place but less effective for fine details. Most photographers can also provide a simple, ‘record’ video if required.
• Original Documentation - Best if incorporated into an up to date, visual record but its value alone should not be underestimated. However, paper chains are cumbersome and difficult to maintain over the years and are often lost as part of the accident situation.
• Card Files / Ledgers etc. – See above.
• eBay- Online sites can sometimes provide indications of value. Remember that the various ‘asking prices’ are meaningless- only the prices for which items actually sold mean anything. Location is also important; because a certain item is sought after in America does not mean that there is a market in Australia or that anyone would pay the freight from Australia to America. Most importantly, items on the web are often not what they purport to be and it is impossible to be sure you are comparing like with like. Every dealer these days has a stock of horror stories about people who have purchased on the web, then brought the item to the dealer for confirmation only to have to be told that they have not obtained what, or the quality, they thought.
• Price Guides- Antique Price Guides like Millers in England and Carters in Australia can give an indication of value but you need to be aware of a number of caveats.
o Price guides are just that - guides. Most are compiled largely from surveys of items dealers have for sale at a particular moment in time although some do have a, usually minor, auction or other component. The item shown may well be incorrectly described if neither the dealer nor the photographer were experienced. Most importantly, the prices you read are what dealers would like to get for the item- there is absolutely no guarantee that anything like that amount will actually be realised or that the item is even saleable.
o Some editors normalise the prices. Prices are often given as a range and even the range adjusted if the item appears to be out of kilter with other, apparently similar, items.
o Not only must like be compared with like, but location compared with location. If we are looking at, for example, two similarly aged and constructed bookcases, one English and mahogany and the other Australian and cedar, English and Australian price guides may show a large discrepancy in prices. The English piece will likely be up in the English guide and the reverse for the Australian guide. In addition, none of the four possible prices may bear much relationship due to the quite different markets. Market discrepancies are also a major factor in local markets- for example, Retro was valuable in Melbourne years before it was worth anything in Brisbane.
o Mistakes occur in their compilation and printing. Immediately on publication of one Carters, we received numerous enquiries about a doll- especially, would we like to buy another? Not particularly- it has been very slow to sell. Palpable disappointment. Checking the guide, we found that a $150 item had been printed as $15000!
o In summary, price guides may be regarded as ‘course grained’ indicators of value. They will indicate whether an article is worth closer to $10 than $1000 but are not capable of establishing whether $700 or $900 is the appropriate value.
• Valuations- A formal valuation of each item by a registered valuer is the most reliable record available (and the only one which should be considered for expensive jewellery) provided the valuation also incorporates a photograph. However, formal valuations are expensive and usually being on paper, are subject to loss as mentioned above. A copy of the valuation in digital form for off-site storage is ideal.
• Assessment or Appraisal- An assessment or appraisal by a dealer is less formal than a valuation (as dealers are NOT valuers) but are generally well regarded by insurers. It will usually state that the dealer has available for sale certain items similar to the one in question and list their asking prices or will give an estimate of how much you would expect to pay retail for a similar item from a reputable, registered dealer. Of course, earlier comments about images, permanence of the record also apply to appraisals.
IAC is conducting informal free appraisals here at the Home Show and we also have periodic appraisal days at the Centre which are either free or for only a nominal donation to charity. These services are ideal to identify an item and provide an indication as to its likely value. However, they are verbal and impermanent and should only be used to decide whether a more formal assessment is warranted.
Most dealers are happy to provide an occasional free appraisal (we certainly are), however, a dealer cannot be expected to abandon the shop, travel to your house, evaluate and photograph your large collection and research and type-up a multi-paged appraisal for free. Such a service entails many hours of work and a price or hourly rate should be negotiated with the dealer at the outset.
• This list is not intended to be exhaustive but simply to illustrate the types of records and valuations that could be considered. Remember that knowing the value of an item that has been lost is useless without evidence of its existence and of your ownership- telling an Insurance Loss Adjuster that ‘I saw one like it for $500 in a magazine about ten years ago’ is unlikely to impress.
Disposal of a collection does not necessarily have to be a sad occasion but I think most serious collectors will feel some pangs of regret (even if they pocket the cash and take a great holiday!) when they decide to relinquish their collection. If you are someone who is disposing of items, then I hope it is a happy occasion for you. Reasons for disposal are too numerous to detail but may include-
1. Accidental loss.
2. Financial problems.
Accidental loss from, say, a fire or flood gives no second chances- you must deal with future problems on the basis of what you have left. This has been covered earlier. If some of the suggestions above have been implemented, then the task will be much easier than if no records are available.
Circumstances 2 and 3 leave some options for planning. Moving, in fact, can unearth items and their original invoices and may be a good opportunity to document the remaining collection. Also, an orderly process of disposal may be facilitated.
Number 4 I will leave for discussion until we have examined various ways in which items can actually be disposed of.
Methods of Disposal
Some common methods of voluntary disposal are-
1. Auction- Can be expensive: commission of around 30% and possibly advertising, cartage, storage or other charges. You must set a reserve or risk the item being sold for very little but establishing a value is often a major component of the problem. A too high reserve may mean the item is passed in without a bid. If you have a ‘museum’ article, an ‘Old Master’ or a large specialised collection, then an appropriate auction will probably be the most likely way of reaching buyers with the necessary needs and resources. For run of the mill items, dominant auction buyers are usually dealers who, naturally, will only pay a trade price anyway.
2. eBay- Would require a paper on its own. Suffice to say that it requires knowledge, can be expensive and time consuming and there are traps for the unwary.
3. Donation -
a. Charities - Are now often very selective as to what they will accept so make sure that your collection is not merely picked over until it is worthless to anyone else. Also make very sure that the charity you select meets your expectations for a charity- many seem to be little more than big businesses that don’t have to pay taxes (or perhaps I am just old and cynical).
b. Museums - Can also be selective and remember that all that is accepted does not become part of the National Heritage. As I understand the situation, a few special donations may become part of the museums ‘permanent’ collection and be placed on regular display. Other items are shelved out back and may only be seen as part of periodic larger displays or perhaps only by occasional researchers. These items can also be sold by the museum- I have personally acquired a number of desirable objects that were formerly part of museum collections. In essence, the message is simply to be sure that you are clear as to the possible future of your collection- do not make assumptions.
4. Private Sale - Should realize amounts towards the higher end of the scale but often does not actually do so. Everyone wants to ‘deal’, even friends. Advertising expenses can be high, you must become your own salesperson with its consequent loss of time and, most importantly, your home is exposed to all comers, the honest and the dishonest.
5. Garage Sale - You must set the price which, we have already noted, is a problem for many who do not have this sort of knowledge. Expectations seem to be that items will be offered cheaply and that you will be prepared to negotiate even those prices. The possibility is that valuable items may be sold for virtually nothing. It is therefore suggested that, before the sale, you get in a reputable dealer on the understanding that-a, the dealer will alert you to under-pricing and b, you will be prepared to sell the items to the dealer at the price nominated when it is higher than your ticket price.
6. Sale to Dealer - Many sellers have unrealistic expectations as to the commercial value of items, often gathered from friends and others, who ‘know all about antiques’ but are not prepared to back up their opinions with cold, hard cash. Unless they are, their opinion should be treated as highly suspect.
Sellers seem to be reluctant to tell a dealer a price for items - presumably they hope the dealer will offer some extravagant amount. This is unlikely to happen; more likely you will just force the dealer to offer at the lower end of a possible range. If you do know how much you want for an item, tell the dealer at the outset- if it is not a commercial proposition then the dealer can say so and thus avoid the waste of everyone’s time. Please remember that dealers are not necessarily rogues just because they wish to make a profit. How much profit depends on many factors. Unlike someone selling cars or TVs, antiques and collectables are sought by only a tiny percentage of the population - estimates are as low as 1 person in 1000 are potential buyers. In addition, those few persons are only prepared to buy an item that satisfies some aspect of their collection precisely. They may be prepared to buy any number of similar TVs, but if the antique sideboard is not exactly right, it will not be purchased. This means that stock can sit unsold for weeks, months and even years before that one special person just happens to call into the shop and sees it, convinces herself to buy, convinces her partner, mother, best friend, bank manager… you get the picture. Antique dealers need higher margins than most other businesses- that is simply the nature of the beast.
Are all antique dealers fair, honest traders? Regrettably, no. There are some who are crooks just the same as there are in every walk of life. But those who trade openly from shop fronts or centres, are registered under the second hand dealers laws, obtain identification, issue receipts and who have been in business for years are as deserving of your trust as any other commercial traders and should be considered ahead of the ‘back yarders’ against whom you have no recourse . But be alert- if in doubt, don’t sell.
One scam you should be aware of is the ‘leave a valuable item’ rort. A so-called dealer comes into a house, buys the valuable items for a song, then tells the owner that, unfortunately, he cannot afford the one or two pieces of real value and will have to leave them behind. The owner is left with a very positive feeling about the transaction, thinking only lesser items were sold and the good items are still held. In reality, the items the dealer said were valuable are actually the rubbish.
This really happens. I had an elderly couple come into the Centre recently wanting offers on a pair of old gilt spectacles they had for sale. I said I did not really want them as they were of little value and hard to sell but that I would pay them $30. They were shocked and stated they had been told by another dealer that they would get a thousand dollars for the gold content alone. They obviously thought I was a complete rogue. I was questioning my own sanity so I phoned my wife who chastised me for offering even $30. She said the spectacles sounded very like a pair she had been trying to sell for at least two years. I located these and showed them to the couple who agreed they were identical to theirs except for the case. I then turned over the price ticket- $65! And unsold for 2 years! Needless to say, the people were devastated at having been duped and angry at the other dealer who had apparently bought a number of other items for very little before stating he could not afford the spectacles. I shared their anger as, if an identical item had not been available for comparison, they would have gone away thinking I was the worst crook unhanged.
If you call in a dealer, do not be surprised if he or she will only give a bulk quote, not individual itemised prices. Dealers are not valuers and they need to be sure that their offers are not misused as such. In addition, we have all been called in to give prices on items supposedly for sale only to find out that we were only being used for free valuations and there was never any intention of actually selling to the dealer. The rogues are not all on one side of the fence!
Estates / Disputes.
I do not wish to end on a sad note, but estate planning is a task we must all face at some time. If you have a collection and wish to have some control over its dispersal, then some planning is essential. Here are a few suggestions -
1. Decide what you would like to happen to the collection.
2. Talk to those you would wish to inherit the items.
3. Find out who would like what and has the resources to house the items. There is no point leaving a 9’ high sideboard to someone who lives in a home with 8’ ceilings.
4. Prepare yourself not to be distressed if your beneficiaries do not want your treasures. Collectables are very personal things and you cannot necessarily transfer your love and appreciation for an item to someone else.
5. Identify what is to go to whom- a piece of chalk can be a valuable friend.
6. Try to avoid disputes after you are gone. I have seen bitter disputes erupt because child A was left an asked for item worth, say, $500 but sibling B got something worth $1000, even when A did not want B’s item. Having some idea of values and prior discussion can avoid such situations.
In conclusion, regardless of your stage in life, if you have antiques or collectables, then I recommend that, as a minimum, you should -
1. Ascertain what you actually have;
2. Find out what it is worth;
3. Record this information; and
4. Store a copy of the information off site.
The above will not be, by any means, a total solution but it will certainly be a valuable starting point in a number of circumstances.
This article was originally a Presentation delivered to members of the public attending the 2011 Ipswich Home Show.