Like most markets, the rise of the internet and the shift from a baby boomer to Gen X consumer base has brought big changes to the antiques industry, said Brian Witherell, COO of Witherell’s Inc., a Sacramento-based auction house.
Witherell, a local antiques dealer who works as an assessor and has appeared as a furniture expert on “Antiques Roadshow,” has some tips for how to figure out if your old objects have a hidden value.
Q: When you’re looking at antiques you might have, say in your grandma’s attic, what are some ways to tell if something’s valuable?
A: As a rule of thumb, traditional antiques are not what they once were. Age doesn’t mean anything anymore: Things made in 1960 are worth more than things made in 1860, almost exclusively, so that’s why they say the world is changing.
For the most part if you have furniture, if you have china, if you have glass, things that your grandparents had – those collecting categories (have) almost disappeared. The old generation is selling, but the new generation isn’t buying. This new era of collecting really needs to be able to be transported. That’s why furniture isn’t as valuable. If you’re transporting a $1,000 chest of drawers and it costs $700 to get to Ohio, it’s a $300 chest of drawers.
Q: What is valuable on the market right now?
A: Small things in all categories that have value are desirable right now. Everything from silver, coins, jewelry, paintings, Chinese art, Russian art, guns, military, vices, gas and car memorabilia are all actively wanted.
You can still make some money on furniture and decorative art, but it takes great objects – things made by top designers, interior decorators, furniture creators, not mass-produced materials – or things that are trendy and the right look, even if they are mass-produced. But in general, stick with smaller things that you can ship, and in those categories – that’s the easiest, safest approach right now.
Q: Once you’ve found things within a desirable category – like art or jewelry – how can you tell what’s valuable and what’s not?
A: The best way to learn is getting exposed to the items you’re working with. There’s no shortcuts to learning these things. The internet hasn’t changed the world that much. Pick a category you’re interested in and read books, go to museums, see as much as you can, get people who are expert in those topics as sellers or collectors and talk to them.
You study it and learn about it; you’re going to make mistakes. Try to buy the best of that category if you can afford it. If you buy the best of a category, once you live with something great, it’s easier to identify greatness next time you see it.
Once you get a base of understanding about what you’re selling, you’re looking for five major points: design, craftsmanship, clarity, provenance and condition. You look for all these in something if you want to know if something’s worthwhile. If you apply a 1-to-10 scale on each of those factors, you want to be above 40 for something that’s investment worthy.
Q: Are there tools online that people can use to assess their antiques?
A: There are places you can find online that will help you assess, but you need to be wary. There are a lot of people looking to buy who may not be as forthcoming about pricing. If they suspect you are naïve, they might capitalize on that. But in terms of gathering information, it’s very quick: Everything that every major auction company has sold in the last 10 years is on a website. As long as you know what it’s named, the price and specifics are all published and very easy to access.
While that’s a great thing for a researcher or an appraiser or an auctioneer, or even someone collecting, what you don’t realize is that if you were ever to resell that, that recorded price doesn’t go away. This is a problem because it’s not like there’s a big line of people that say: “Great, so I know you paid $5,000 for this basket, and I’ll pay $10,000 for it.” No way! They’ll say: “I’ll give you $5,500.” It makes it much harder for anything to increase in value.
Q: As things are changing, are there any emerging markets or specific items people should keep an eye out for?
A: A lot of people are clamoring for midcentury design, modern art, postwar art as an emerging market, but in a lot of ways I think it’s overpriced. But the markets are going to adapt to the new buyers in it.
For example, the antiques car market is changing a lot. In the past, ’50s cars were very popular because people who grew up in the ’50s were ferocious buyers, and it was their heritage and what their childhood was like. But now they’re selling and no one’s buying the cars unless it’s something really exceptional.
But this new generation, I’ve seen a (Nissan) 280Z going for as much as a ’57 Chevy went for, because the buyer drove that Z and that’s what they’re thinking: “That was my childhood.” If I’d say there’s an emerging market, it’s going to be items from the 1960s to the ’80s. Buyers and collectors tend to be 50 to 70 years old.
Q: Do you have any advice that you think people overlook when getting into the antiques market?
A: I think you need to be prepared for things to not pan out the way you’re predicting them to. I’ve watched markets fall really quickly. So I’d say buy things that you love and really bring you joy and hope for the best but expect the worst. Don’t expect to make money.
People do make money, and you can make money in antiques, but a lot of people lose a lot of money. Make sure you’re prepared for any economic fallout or that the things you’re buying still have intrinsic value even if the market loses popularity.