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March 2002 Issue

By Ed Welch

 

 

 

 

Reference Links
You'll enjoy
www.metiques.com
This is an online directory
of Maine Antique Dealers

www.maineantiques.net
This is a Search Engine database for New England and Northeast Art and Antiques Trades

www.theappraisernetwork.com
This is a do it yourself message board that users can use free of charge to ask questions about the value and identification of antiques

  
       In 1986, I purchased a child’s size cupboard in old blue paint. The cupboard was just the right size for use in a child's room. It looked to be about 100 years old.  I paid $150 for this item and I intended to sell it for $275.  Remember, these are 1986 prices.  

   When I brought the cupboard home, my youngest daughter, Michelle, fell in love with it and wanted it for her bedroom. Because I had recently given her several antique schoolbooks to add to her collection and because she often asked for cute child's size furniture, I told her,” no”. I felt that this cupboard should be sold as part of the family business.      

   Three weeks after I purchased the cupboard, my family and I took our annual trip to Florida for the February school vacation. The trip was half vacation and half fun. We hauled a trailer full of antiques to sell. My wife and I share selling duties.

   We arrived in Florida on Thursday and set up our booth for the three day show. My daughter once again made it known that she would really like to have that blue cupboard in her room. She asked me to raise the price to $325 and not to sell it for less, not even one penny. After some debate, I agree to this figure and even agree not to discount.      

   On Friday morning, my wife took the children to Magic Kingdom and I stayed at the antique show to sell. My daughter was delighted when she returned that evening to find the cupboard still there. As we sat around our campfire that evening discussing the day’s business (it was quite profitable), Michelle became concerned that we were selling so many things that my wife would probably sell the cupboard the next day. It was my turn to take the children to Sea World. My daughter badgered and pestered us into raising the price of the cupboard to $375 in an effort to prevent its sale.  

   She was persistent in her request, using arguments such as "we are really having a fine show; we really do not need to sell this cupboard that this time." I finally agreed again to raise the price of the cupboard and not to discount.           

   When we returned from Sea World, the cupboard remained in our booth unsold. It was one of the few things that we had left. My wife had an extraordinary good selling day. She had sold most everything we had brought to the show. The following day, as my wife and children once again headed off to an amusement park, the price to the blue cupboard, now commonly referred to as “Michelle's Blue Cupboard”, was raised to $450.  One hour after the show opened, all the items in my booth were sold except this drastically over-priced cupboard.     

   As somewhat of a joke, two of my neighboring dealers set up a display in the middle of my now empty display area. They stood two eight-foot tables on end as a backdrop and covered them with a fancy drape-like material, ribbons, and with a few artificial flowers. In front of this backdrop, they placed “Michelle's Blue Cupboard”. It became a joke of sorts for all the nearby dealers to set in my empty booth and stare at the cupboard and to openly talk about the cupboard whenever anyone showed the slightest interest.       

   The fact that so many people were sitting around staring at and talking about this cupboard brought much attention and a type of respect to the item. Because I had removed the price tag, it was impossible to know the selling price without asking. When people did ask about the price, their tone of voice was almost apologetic, “Would you mind telling us the selling price?” When I would say $450, most would nod approvingly (almost knowingly), go back and look at the cupboard little more then leave the booth.

   The cupboard sat in my display area receiving this kind of attention from 11:30 AM until after 5 PM. At this time, the show was winding down and most dealers were packing up and getting ready for  the trip home. I was not packing. I had sold everything but the cupboard and did not expect my wife and children to come back from Epcot Center until 7 PM.    

   A couple, who had been back several times during the day to look at the cupboard, returned and asked permission to sit in the empty chairs in my booth. They sat for quite some time talking with one another. Eventually they called me over. They told me that they had heard me say twice that the price was $450 and not negotiable. They would, however, like to make an offer of $425. I, of course, accepted the offer, made out a  sales slip, and they went happily on their way with “Michelle's Blue Cupboard”.    

   When my family returned and Michelle discovered that the cupboard had been sold, she was not very happy.  She asked, "Daddy, did you get your price for it? "  To which I answered, “I sure did."      

   However, an hour later while we were in a restaurant having supper my daughter discovered that I had sold the cupboard for $425 instead of the $450 as we had agreed upon, she became very upset.  Michelle, at that time, was a freshman in high school and quite articulate. I can remember almost every word as she expressed her disappointment. She said that it was not so much that I had sold the cupboard but the fact that I had broken my agreement with her that made her so disappointed and angry.    

   Over the next few years every time my daughter and I had a disagreement over family matters, dating, grades, or whatever, the sale of this cupboard was sure to be brought up. Many father-daughter disagreements ended with the statement "and besides that Daddy, you sold my blue cupboard."    

   Michelle has been through college, married, has a child, and now teaches. Years have passed. Still, at family gatherings, the subject of “Michelle's Blue Cupboard” comes up. Should I have sold it? Should I have given it to Michelle? Did the amount I received justify the sale? What about value per dollar spent? Is there such a thing as set value in the secondary marketplace? Value is difficult to describe. I can easily illustrate selling price.  

   I once purchased a case of old toothpaste, 24 tubes for $30.00. The toothpaste dated to 1925.  The tubes and the individual boxes were extremely graphic Art Deco. They were also in like new condition.  I sold one tube for $57. I sold three tubes for $35 each. I sold four tubes for $20 each. I sold fifteen tubes between $8 and $12 each. I sold a tube for $5. I still have one tube remaining. How much is that tube of old toothpaste worth? Certainly, the prices I received are no guide to value. 

   I became a dealer before price guides. When price guides were introduced, I bought one. A couple of years later, I bought another. In 1984, I bought my last price guide. Price guides are based on selling prices, not value. They are no more accurate at setting value than my example of toothpaste tube sales. As a buying guide, they are useless. As a selling guide, they over-inflate asking prices.           

   With several notable exceptions, price guides are written by collectors and dealers who specialize in that antique or collectible. Many are too emotionally involved with their specialty to be objective. Moreover, either consciously or subconsciously, they have a vested interest to inflate values.

   Do not confuse price guides with reference and research books. I am a believer in reference books and own hundreds. Before I add a new category to the antiques that I carry, I buy and study every reference book on the subject that I can find. I visit museums. I visit dealers and collectors who specialize in this antique. I visit shows and shops to get first-hand knowledge of current selling prices.         

   Reference books provide knowledge about the product. I can find when the product was first marketed, who made it, major and minor changes in design, which examples are common, which examples are rare, and if reproductions and copies are a problem.          

   Armed with this basic knowledge, I can research selling prices to see if prices are aligned with rarity, a certain model or color, a certain company, age, and so on. The rare examples may not be the examples that collectors and dealers pay a premium for.  

   My research is aimed at establishing value. The value of an antique changes slowly. Most antiques increase in value over the years. A few do not increase in value at all.  Some antiques and collectibles decline in value. On the other hand, selling prices are tied to the whims and fancies of dealers and collectors. Selling prices can increase to new highs then plummet to new lows in a matter of months. This is especially true for collectibles.   

   February 2001, I purchased a Civil War field surgical kit made by a company that had a contract to produce such kits for the Union Army. This was the fourth kit by this maker that I have owned in the past five years. In addition, I have owned nine other 19th century surgical kits, three of which were manufactured by other known makers of Civil War kits.   

   I tried to sell the kit on eBay. The high bid was $3800, which did not meet my $5000 reserve. In April, I sold the kit at an antique show to a dealer for $5000. The buyer had bid on the kit on eBay but was cautious because “many eBay sellers overstate condition and fail to point out defects.” 

   In June, another Civil War surgical kit by the same maker came up for auction in the Manchester, New Hampshire area. I made one trip to New Hampshire to inspect the kit and another trip to attend the auction. The kit was in good overall condition but had some problems. Two scalpel handles were cracked and another handle was broken. The blades of the amputation knives were stained and had a bit of rust. The brassbound mahogany case had a crack in the lid and one of the brass corner inlays was missing.  

   Complete Civil War field surgical kits are rare. My judgment was that the kit had a value less than the one that I sold in April. Nevertheless, I could sell it for around $5000 because the missing brass corner could be replaced and scalpels by this maker are available in the antique marketplace. Obviously, the person buying this kit would receive less value for dollar spent than the dealer who bought the kit I sold in April.  However, value received for dollar spent is the responsibility of the buyer, not the seller. A New Hampshire dealer purchased the surgical kit for $9300 including buyer’s premium.      

   Folks, how much is “Michelle's Blue Cupboard” worth? To a couple in Florida, $425. To the person who sold it to me, $150. To me as an antique dealer about $275.  To Michelle, who knows?           

   To me as a father, it has become priceless.  If I ever see that cupboard again, I will buy it at any price and give it to Michelle. My daughter is right. The high price was to prevent the sale. I had agreed to that price and I had agreed not to discount.  I allow greed to influence my judgment.     

 

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