Vintage and value

Tracing the reasons things become collector's items

July 11, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

As the youngest of five children, inevitably I became the repository for many hand-me-down toys, clothes and furniture. My "Yankee Thrift Gone Amok" upbringing might well have turned me into an avid consumer of the latest and greatest. Instead, even when I could afford to do otherwise, I've usually chosen to outfit myself or decorate with items found in junk shops, flea markets and even on the street.

Along the way, I've squirreled away loads of dubious things. For example, there's my scandalously large accumulation of religious kitsch, seashells from around the world, vast quantities of vintage fabric, lamps, globes and lots of books. Like all collectors, I occasionally wonder, "Is any of this stuff valuable?"

Now that yard sale season is here -- some call it summer -- it seemed an opportune moment to learn about the mysterious way an everyday object (an alarm clock, say) can increase in worth and turn into something extraordinary. In other words, how does something become an antique?

"It's not as complicated as you might think," said Sandra Ellington, president of the Antiques Dealers Association of Maryland, and proprietor of Onslow Square Antiques in Kensington. "As soon as you purchase an alarm clock and bring it home, it becomes used. Over time, the clock may become a collectible. Then, after a hundred years or more, it's considered an antique."

"But things come and go, and mere age isn't necessarily any indication of value," suggested Michael Merson, a healthcare consultant in Baltimore who's also a collector of 20th-century decorative arts. "I see 100-year-old antiques that people pass by over and over again. So-called collectibles -- little toy men, or giveaways from McDonald's -- are by their very nature passing fancies. The real question is, can someone hope that what they are buying today will be desired by future generations?"

Some have the touch

Experts agree there are old, and even relatively new, items readily available that are quite likely to increase in worth, and offer various guidelines for how to spot them when you're browsing at a flea market or garage sale. (See box.) But -- and here's the rub -- don't bank on it. Chances are also good that today's treasure may become tomorrow's trash.

"I'm often asked, how can one know the true value of an antique? Well, a few people are born with an innate sense of quality; most need to be educated," said Frank Farbenbloom, organizer of the annual Baltimore Summer Antiques Show. "I tell people to visit museums and study objects, or go to a high-end department store, and touch what they have on display. It's a matter of developing your senses, and training your eye."

Don't be afraid to make mistakes, either. "When you get a piece of century-old porcelain home and find out it was actually made five years ago, you learn to look closer," said Ellington, with a chuckle. "Grossly overpay for a few things, and you'll get smarter real quick."

James Abbott, curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art, also believes that experience is the best teacher. "So many different criteria play into what makes an object worthy beyond its natural lifetime," he said. "But there's usually something about the design or a quality of workmanship that makes it exceptional."

Good ways to assess an object, he continued, are to think about how it was made, noting any particular precision in its manufacture or if pieces fit together in an especially clever way. The more wonder a thing evokes as you study it, the more potentially valuable it may be.

When he lectures on collecting, Abbott often surprises his audiences by citing the actor Vincent Price who, in addition to starring in best-forgotten horror movies (The Fly, The Pit and the Pendulum) was a Yale graduate, an accomplished cook and the author of an autobiography with a title that turns conventional thinking about art on its head: I Like What I Know (Doubleday, 1959).

"He was a great connoisseur, yet Price was a firm believer that there was no difference between a print you buy for 35 cents, or a sculpture that costs many thousands of dollars," Abbott said. "Both move you in the same way."

"Things don't have to be made from rare materials to become valuable, but they must represent a rare intelligence and sensibility," agreed Merson.

Age only one factor

Surprisingly, the newest trend is that an object doesn't even need to be exceptionally old to increase in value. Visit the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian's National Design Museum in New York City, and you'll see a Sunbeam Mixmaster from 1955 in its permanent collection. For every Victorian soup tureen that's valued on PBS-TV's Antiques Road Show, much newer items such as architect Frank Gehry's cardboard furniture or a juicer designed by Philippe Starck command top prices on eBay.

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