The Good Life recently published Next Avenue’s popular, if provocative, article “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff.” As the founders and co-owners of Nova Liquidation, we’d like to offer you help in understanding whether the stuff has value and, if so, how much.
Here are a few simple tricks the pros use.
You’ve probably heard that midcentury modern (makers such as Eames and Knoll) is hot now. But there are still buyers for the best of the best traditional makers, as well. Sadly, however, the value of handmade antiques has been dropping since Nancy Reagan was in the White House. In the end, it’s all supply and demand.
If you don’t have pieces from good makers or tremendous age, your stuff probably falls into the “brown furniture” category — think all the stuff made after World War II to furnish the starter homes of GIs and their families. That stuff was mass-produced and has very little value today.
Most of the best furniture from the 20th century was either signed or labeled in some way. Look in the top left drawer or left cabinet door. For chairs and tables, look under them. If the piece is good, it will have a label or a name clearly stamped. Some of the best makers are Baker, Kittinger, Henkel Harris, Widdicomb, Kindle, Century and Henredon.
If your pieces are earlier than 20th-century, look for solid wood construction and dovetails. See how the bottom of the drawers are joined to the sides. If the edges appear to be cut down into wedges (a term called chamfering) in order to fit into the grooves of the side rails, you’ve got an old piece. It took the advent of pressed woods to reach that level of strength and thinness.
If you’re hoping to cash in on the stack of silver chafing dishes, trays, flatware and candlesticks your mother labored to keep clean for 50 years, don’t buy those tickets to Hawaii just yet.
After World War II, every housewife wanted to entertain in style, but not every household could afford solid silver accessories. The bulk of what was produced was silver plate, which is just a micro-thin layer of silver applied to either copper or brass. If the piece doesn’t say sterling, it is not silver.
The best sterling makers are Tiffany, Georg Jensen, Puiforcat and Buccellati. The value of makers like Gorham, Towle, Kirk, Steiff and Reed and Barton depends on the pattern.
If your pieces are English or European, look for a stamp on the bottom that looks like a lion or the numbers 925, 900 or 800 — those are percentage numbers for the quantity of silver used by European makers.
Many silver pieces were stamped with elaborate alphabets or symbols to confuse or excite dinner guests. Marks like EPNS, International Silver, IS, Sheffield Silver, Triple or Quadruple plate or EP are all smoke and mirrors and shouldn’t be given much attention.
If you are lucky enough to have a set of sterling silver, don’t be upset when a liquidator or an estate agent puts it on a scale to calculate its scrap value. In the end, only the most desirable patterns and makers have value over scrap today.
Generally, since the crash of 2008, most sterling silver flatware sets have become uncollectible.
Generally, the value of coins lies in their silver content. Yes, there are exceptions for extremely rare coins, but you’re probably not looking at anything more than scrap.
Coins with the most reliable resale value have been rated by one of the two U.S. rating agencies: the Professional Coin Grading Service and the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. They will be encased in permanent hard plastic sleeves that clearly state their name and level of rating (i.e. quality).
For most other American coins, just look for the date 1964. That was generally the cutoff date for the use of silver in American quarters, dimes and half-dollars. Exception: Kennedy half-dollars were made with silver up to 1969.
Art is very personal. Most of it was purchased because someone felt compelled to make it or someone felt compelled to buy it. Reselling it is a totally different reality. Do not assume that art your parents purchased from local painters or sculptors is worth more than decoration these days.
If you can’t find a signature, try a black light in a dark room to illuminate it or look at the back for a note from a gallery or framer. Several websites record and report the sale price of every work of art at auction over the past 10-plus years by artist name — for instance, Artprice.com, Findartinfo.com and Askart.com. But if you don’t know the artist, don’t expect a premium over decorative value.
We’ve often seen families fight between themselves or with estate agents over the value of rugs. The reality is that rugs are like anything else you buy to fit your taste and then try to resell.
Do you really think you’ll get $10,000 for your worn Vera Wang wedding dress? No, and that goes for your rugs, too. Unless you have truly antique, vegetable-dyed rugs with an unbelievably dense knot count, you will be lucky to get 10 percent of the purchase price.
Turn over the corner of your rug and look at how the rows of knots are lined up. Handmade rugs have very uneven rows of knots with irregular stitching on the corners used to finish the rug by hand. The knots will appear different in size and spacing.
Fifteen years ago, the auction price for a complete Reed & Barton Francis I Sterling Tea and Coffee set was no less than $30,000. Today, you can find that same set for about $10,000, and that’s before commission.
Valuing china is pretty easy because most pieces lying around have a name or mark on the bottom. Google is always a good start for finding values for them; just don’t expect to receive retail prices.
The best porcelain was made by companies such as Meissen, Sevres, Minton, Wedgwood, Royal Copenhagen, Herend, Crown Derby, Worcester and Doulton. Within those makers are ranges of desirability and therefore value.
If all you see are a few slashes or symbols, you probably have a finer, handmade piece. For example, the mark for Meissen is crossed swords and the mark for Sevres is a pair of interlaced L’s. One more important clue is the absence of the words “Made in … ” Such identification wasn’t required until the 20th century.
Once you’ve done some research, it’s easy to find comparable values on eBay, but it’s important to look at the completed sale prices: the “green” numbers.
Values in this category have taken the greatest plunge since the 1980s, leaving only the very best makers at the top. Tiffany, Durand, Stueben, Lalique, St Louis and Baccarat still have a following. But the market for the most beautiful table and stemware continues to dwindle to the point where you can now easily find most patterns of Waterford selling for $20 per stem at auction.
To figure out the maker, turn the piece over and look at the center or the rim. Tilt the piece in sunlight to find an acid-etched mark. If it’s good glass, you’ll find it.
The bottom line
The most important advice we can give is to look at these possessions from the perspective of a third party. It will be far easier to process the estate in an orderly and stress-free manner.
Essentially you need to think like an estate liquidator:
• Separate your items into easy categories.
• Look for the clues to understand quality.
• Measure value against the market.
• Consider what’s left as simply used consumer goods.
This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.com.