Treasures In The Attic - That old item might be worth a fortune…or not

Published on Wed, 04/25/2018 - 11:12am

You found an old book, really old, when cleaning out grandmother’s attic. It’s worth thousands, right? Or maybe it’s furniture, toys, jewelry, or artwork from another century that was found lurking upstairs.

Being old, it’s worth a fortune, right? Hold your horses, and don’t start buying a private jet. You need to turn to an expert, and experts that come to mind can be found on the PBS television show, Antiques Roadshow.

It seems like there are about four themes on Antiques Roadshow as to how people came to have their treasured tchotchke.

“I bought it at an auction—paid about $250 for it if I remember correctly.”

“I just found it in the dumpster. I thought it looked beautiful.”

“My great aunt left it to me. I had seen it in her home and admired it every time I would visit and she gave it to me. That’s all I know about it.”

“We found it in the attic when my grandmother died. I don’t know anything about it.”

Then we all watch until the end of the segment when the professional appraiser delivers the good news, at which point the item’s owner says, “What? You’re kidding me! Wow, that’s really great news!”

Or, alternatively, if the owner paid too much or labored under misconceptions that their cherished item should be worth thousands, the usual rejoinder is a polite “thank you” and they’ll hold on to it.

So, what are the chances that your old farmhouse or barn holds priceless—or at least valuable—treasures? And more importantly, how can you tell? After all, you wouldn’t want to leave money on the table, would you?

Four places to start

Your best bet is to turn to the internet for a very rough idea of value. The auction website eBay.com is a good start, but keep in mind that people selling can fall into two groups: Those who think their stuff is worth a lot, and those who just want to get rid of it.

TIP: Remember that a seller’s eBay price is what they hope to get, not what an item is actually worth—only the actual “sold” price reflects an object’s value…the same as an in-person auction.

If eBay falls short giving you a clue, stay on the Internet and search for special-interest groups that might have an interest in your item. Chances are someone can refer you to a collector or professional who can tell you about your item, or at least advise you of its market value.

You can also turn to the local library, as special-interest group members often publish books or pamphlets discussing subjects related to your item, its history, and most recent auction or retail sales at antique stores.

Speaking of which, antique shop operators often have an eye for your item’s value. Because they obtain their shop’s stock by attending auctions, yard sales and estate sales, a lot of potentially valuable antiques, artwork and memorabilia passes under their gaze.

So it turns out that your local expert, the antique dealer, may actually be the best source of information.

So, what’s valuable today?

Antiques, artwork, and other potential valuables suffer from one thing that makes them unreliable investments: Their value is set at the whim of others.

There was a time, for instance, that the category known as Chinoiserie was deemed as too arcane or obscure to have much value here in the West. Then, China’s economy improved and grew the world’s largest middle class. It turns out that the newly-affluent, collectively, have money by the ton to research and purchase items that link them with their past.

Bottom line, because the Chinese have so much money, legitimate Chinese items are selling at record prices.

On the other hand, domestic furniture, artwork, books, and Americana have generally held their own, but they don’t often live up to high prices obtained by Asian counterparts.

At least, that’s as far as today. Antique value is driven by flavor-of-the-week, so if you think your item might be valuable, it’ll pay to hold on to it and research values over time.

Where to find prices

Books—Who knows more about books than the Library of Congress? They suggest two places to begin your quest for appraising an ancient tome: Your Old Books, a pamphlet written a noted researcher and curator, and the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, publishes an annual membership directory to help you contact booksellers who might be of assistance.

Furniture—Sadly, most antique furniture falls under the category of “used” rather than “collectible.” Would you believe the Antiques Roadshow maintains an archive online of more than 400 pieces of furniture? Visit the show’s pages at pbs.org and search for “appraisals.” Also, reach out to the Antique Appraisal Association of America (antiqueappraisalassn.com) for finding a professional appraiser near you.

Artwork and Household goods—The Appraisers Association of America, established in 1949, is a national association of personal property appraisers who focus on fine and decorative arts. They have more than 700 members. Their website, appraisersassociation.org, lets you search by keyword, location, or specialization.

The International Society of Appraisers requires their members to complete training and ongoing educational coursework in their field, upon which they are tested. Their website isa-appraisers.org also helps you find appraisers

What you treasure

At the end of the day, the Antiques Roadshow offers some instruction on supposed valuables:

If it is valuable to you, then it is. Keep it, cherish it, and pass it along to others who would love it, too.

That’s why it’s called treasure.