Understanding the Theory of Good,
Better, Best by Ed
There is a theory in the antique trade
known as good, better, best. The theory is also known by other names
such as low-end, made range, high-end, and quality, mediocre, and
The American Heritage
Dictionary defines theory as "systematically organized knowledge
applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, especially
a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of
procedures devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the
nature or behavior of a specific set of phenomena."
The good, better, best
theory is used in the antique trade for several purposes. One use
of this theory is to sort similar items (Queen Anne Highboys, for
example) into categories for setting relative value. Another common
use of this theory is to explain why the best examples of any type
of antique or collectible sell for many times their value while
mediocre examples of a given antique sell for about their value and
low-end examples sell for less than they are worth.
Place any antique dealer
into a room with a dozen Queen Anne Highboys and ask that dealer to
sort the highboys into groups of good, better, and best, and chances
are that most dealers will choose the same four highboys for each
Place a dealer into a room
with one Queen Anne Highboy and ask that dealer to grade that
highboy as being a good example of the style, a better example of
the style, or the best example of the style, and most dealers will
have a difficult time doing so.
The skill required to
correctly judge the relative value of one antique in isolation
requires much study, experience, and first-hand contact with many
examples. The study must come from books on the subject. The
experience comes from buying and selling similar examples. The
contact with many examples comes from visits to museums, antique
shows, and antique shops.
The best source of
information on sorting similar items into good, better, and best
categories is Fine Points of Furniture: Early American written by
Albert Sack in 1950. This book has been through 6 to 8 printings.
It is required reading for all serious antique dealers. It makes no
difference if a dealer specializes in glassware, porcelain or
furniture. The principles of classifying like items are the same.
Albert Sack published an
updated version of his book in 1993. However, his earlier book is
better suited for teaching the principles of good, better, and best.
The 1993 edition can be confusing if one does not clearly understand
and utilize Sack's principles.
I use a modified good,
better, best theory as a guide in purchasing inventory. My theory
is simple, "The best, and all the rest." I am willing to overpay
for the best, but I underpay for the rest.
I have never lost one cent
buying the best. In 1968, I bought an 1861 Colt pistol for $175.
The going price for such firearms at that time was between $65 and
$125. However, I was able to resell this fine pistol for $350
within two weeks. Keep in mind that at that time fuel oil cost 13
cents a gallon, gasoline sold for 18.9 cents a gallon, bread cost 12
cents a loaf, and I had a good job that paid $42.68 a week. The
$175 I made on this sale was a lot of money.
I will pay less than 50
percent of the value for everything else. No dealer can make money
paying more than 50 percent of the value on common, mediocre, or low
value merchandise. For example, an item that sells for $100 and
cost the dealer $50 is almost a break even item. Overhead in the
antique trade ranges between 20 and 25 percent. Income taxes are
about 18 percent.
The bottom-line price
breakdown of an item that sells for $100 and cost $50 is: $50 in
cost, $20 to $25 in overhead expenses, and $18 in federal income
tax. If you pay state income tax, add another six percent.
The total possible
in-your-pocket profit ranges from even money if you live in a state
with income tax to a possible $12 under the best of circumstances.
The problem with
overpaying for the best and underpaying and for the rest is that
this system works best in a depressed marketplace.
A depressed marketplace
favors the buyer who has money to spend and is willing to spend that
money. Because demand is low in a depressed marketplace, prices are
I will use an example from
the stock market to help make this point. Around Oct. 9, the stock
price for General Motors Corporation dropped to nearly $30 a share.
This stock nominally trades in the $50 to $70 range.
One would think that there
would have been a stampede to buy General Motors stock at such
bargain basement prices. Does anyone reading these words believe
that General Motors is going out of business? Does anyone believe
that the price of General Motors stock will not recover to its
normal $50 to $70 trading range?
The prices of most
antiques and collectibles have been lowered by the recent downturn
in the economy. The very best antiques still sell but at prices
considerably lower than prices of just two years ago. The sale of
mediocre antiques and collectibles, which are always hard to sell,
has slowed to a crawl. The sale of low-end items has all but
Dealers, who depend on the
antique trade to make a living have two options: buy only the very
best and, if you must buy "any of the rest," do not pay much money
for it. Buy cheap!
The only time that low-end
antiques produce a profit is when you can sell them for less than
their perceived value. In order to sell an item for less than its
value, you must buy it for much less than its value.
The only time that
mediocre antiques produce a profit is during a rising market. The
market is still in decline. Do not buy mid-level antiques that are
not price below value.
Cupboard number one is a “good”
example of mid 1800 cabinetmaking. However, the cupboard lacks
proportions. The cupboard is too wide for its height and the
full-size draw in the base contributes to the squat appearance. The
hinges are fixed to the surface rather than fitted into the door
jams. The cabinetwork is just adequate.*
Cupboard number two is a “better”
example of mid-1800 cabinetwork. The proportions are correct. The
fancy cutout base and the cookie cutter corners on the raised panels
add a whimsical, almost folksy feel to this cupboard. The cupboard
is painted green and the trim is charcoal. The problems with this
piece are apparent only when you touch the cupboard. It is rickety.
The doors do not fit well. The drawer does not fit well. The shelves
are loose. The mortising work is sloppy. The cupboard wobbles. These
problems existed since Day One. The maker lacked the skills
necessary to build a cupboard.
Cupboard number three is an example
of the “best” in mid 1800’s cabinetmaking. The proportions are
correct. The two silverware drawers and the half moon pie shelf add
to the appearance. The cut out base and the moldings are not
overdone as in cupboard number two. The cabinetwork is flawless.
Both cases are dovetailed, mortised, and pinned. The doors open and
close smoothly. The cupboard has been painted blue three times. It
is possible to see all three colors in the worn areas.
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