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How To Buy Good Stuff
By Ed Welch of The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles
Collectors, the following is a proper procedure to follow when you are considering buying an item to add to your collection. DO NOT LOOK AT THE PRICE TAG.
Place your hand over the price tag or remove the tag if you can. If you can do neither of the above, simply do not look at the price tag. Your goal should be to examine thoroughly the item to decide if it is authentic, if it is in perfect condition, if it is an excellent example of its type, and if you would enjoy owning this particular piece. By making a decision on whether or not to buy an antique based on quality, you have accomplished three very important objectives:
1. You did not let a cheap price unduly influence you into buying an item that you normally would not buy.
2. You did not let an expensive price tag discourage you from owning a fine antique.
3. You let the major consideration be that of value and quality.
There is a term used in the antique trade to describe the best examples of any type of antique. This term is simple and easy to understand: investment grade antique.
There are many drop leaf tables for sale on the antique marketplace, but only a few of these tables can be categorized as being of investment grade. The price range of drop leaf tables for sale in the antique marketplace today starts at $200 and stops at around $10,000. Just because some dealer put a price tag of $2,000 on a particular drop leaf table does not make that table worth $2,000. Some dealers have a tremendous amount of gall; other dealers simply do not know the true value of the items they carry.
If you are in the market for an investment grade drop leaf table, then you must visit several dozen antique shops that carry drop leaf tables and carefully inspect each table. Do not look at the price of the tables you inspect. Look instead at the method used to construct the table. This will give you an indication as to the table's age. Look for signs of alterations and/or repairs. Any alteration or repair automatically disqualifies that particular table. Look at the lines and style of the table, its legs, its height, and its proportions.
Visit all types of shops. Visit shops that advertise fine furniture and visit flea markets. Even if you knew absolutely nothing about drop leaf tables when you began your search, the careful examination of fifty drop leaf tables will make you, at least, knowledgeable about this kind of antique. You could become an expert on drop leaf tables by following up, through research at a library, on the obvious things you will begin to notice about drop leaf tables.
Some tables will have saw marks that run straight across the grain and look like this //////. Some tables will have circular saw marks that look like this ))))))). The straight saw marks are early. The circular saw marks are later. Research will tell you that the circular saw was invented in 1820, but was not used for sawing boards until 1880. This information will help date some of the tables that you are looking at. Other things you will notice and do research on include:
Hinges. Are they wrought iron (before 1820), cast iron (after 1820), or stamped steel (after 1870)?
Screws. Are they brass or iron? Are they hand-made or machine-made? Check at the library to see when the first screw-making machine was patented (1847) and used in the United States.
Legs. How are they fastened to the skirt of the table? Are pins or nails used, or are they glued on? The use of glue to hold major components in furniture construction began at a well-documented date (1885).
Table tops. How are they fastened to the legs and skirt, by pins, by nails, by screws, or are they glued on?
Nails. Are they hand-made, machine-made, wrought iron, or steel? The first machine-made nails date to 1790. Wire nails were introduced in 1856, but were not generally used until the 1880s. The exception is Ohio. Why were drawn wire steel nails used in Ohio thirty years before they became common in other parts of the country?
I am often asked how I can date antique country furniture with such certainty. The answer is simple. The antiques themselves tell me. They tell me by their construction marks, the method by which they are fastened together, and by the hardware used in their construction. It requires very little effort to learn to date antiques by understanding the method used to construct that antique.
At this point, you can begin searching for an investment grade drop leaf table to add to your collection. You have made yourself knowledgeable about drop leaf tables. You know the difference between Period, Centennial, and Custom made tables. You can recognize a country table made by a talented artisan and one slapped together by a homesteader. When you see a table priced at $800, you will be able to determine if that table is overpriced, under priced, or fairly priced. When you see a Period table priced at $2,000, you will know why that table is so priced and can make an intelligent decision on whether or not you wish to own it.
In 1965, I specialized in antique firearms. That year a low-end double barrel percussion shotgun would bring around $75. A middle grade shotgun would bring about $150. A high-grade shotgun would bring around $250.
At that time, I paid $400 for a double barrel flintlock shotgun that was heavily engraved and inlaid with gold and silver. I sold this shotgun for $600. Today, in 2006, a low-end percussion double barrel shotgun brings $125. A middle grade shotgun will bring between $250 and $300. A high-grade percussion shotgun will bring between three and $500. The double barrel flintlock shotgun that I sold in 1965 for $600 recently brought $15,000 at public auction.
Needless to say, I regret that I sold this item. As I said earlier in this article, if you are a collector and intend to keep your purchases for many years, you can disregard today's purchase price if you buy investment grade antiques.
If you were a collector in 1965 buying guns from me, you obviously would have made a greater financial gain by buying my one investment grade shotgun than a dozen of my lesser quality pieces. The same is true today. If you buy for investment, buy the best.
Investment grade collecting is not for the short term. This type of merchandise is always highly valued and priced accordingly. Still, since this kind of antique gains value rapidly, you soon will be ahead of the game.
The following formula is not set in stone, it is a rule of thumb guide, but it has held true ever since I've been in the trade and I see no reason why this guide should not hold true in the future:
If you hold investment grade antiques for more than seven years expect a gain of 100%; more than 12 years expect 300 to 500%; more than 20 years expect a gain of more than 1,000%.
Collecting fine antiques can put money in your pocket, put your kids through college, and provide for you an easy retirement. You do not have to be wealthy to begin collecting antiques.
I made my first purchase in the late 1950s while I was employed as a gas pumper at one dollar an hour. This item cost me $250, which represented a sizeable portion of my then small salary. It is now worth close to $4,000.
You too can make big money collecting antiques. Choose an item that you are interested in purchasing. The particular item makes little difference. It can be a kind of glass or china or tool or furniture.
Remember, if you want your collection to be valuable, it must consist predominantly of investment grade items. You are bound to make some buying mistakes - especially in the beginning. Resist the urge to buy several mediocre pieces instead of one quality piece.
This article by Ed Welch was reprinted with express permission from the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles - visit www.journalofantiques.com
Last Updated: May 9, 2012