Many believe that age is the primary contributor to an object’s value. However, we often see contradictions to this idea in the sales results for items sold at auction every day. Some contemporary works of art and designer furniture are achieving world-record prices, while many antiquities and examples of early American furniture are bringing weaker than expected results.
Our analysis of the fine and decorative arts marketplace suggests that there are four important factors at work in establishing value – quality, rarity, market appeal, and condition. The most valuable items, regardless of age, usually score high on all four, and value is reduced if any one of these factors is lacking.
Quality is timeless, and it refers to excellence of design and execution of construction, as well as materials used in creating an item. High quality items also can inspire emotions -- particularly those perceived as extraordinarily beautiful, elegant, or innovative. A specific artist, designer, factory, or brand name that has a positive reputation can reinforce or enhance belief in an item’s quality.
For example, early 20th Century stained glass panel table lamps by unknown makers typically sell for $500 to $1,000, while stained glass lamps bearing the name Tiffany Studios generally bring $10,000 or more at auction. Likewise, a typical antique steamer trunk today sells for between $50 and $100, but a sale prices for vintage trunks by Louis Vuitton can range from $10,000 to $25,000.
A handmade object constructed of the finest materials will generally carry a higher value than one that was mass produced, regardless of age. A hand crafted contemporary chest of drawers will command a higher price on the secondary market than a 100-year-old factory made chest. This principle holds true for virtually all goods, such as carpets (hand knotted vs. machine made), glassware (blown vs. mass produced), etc.
Another aspect of an object’s quality is documentation of its history, or provenance. The value added by provenance can often eclipse the value of the item itself. For example, most mid-20th Century leather US Air Force Bomber jackets might be expected to sell for $200 to $400, while John F. Kennedy’s 1962 bomber jacket brought $570,000 at auction in 2013. The JFK connection brought tremendous added value to this otherwise ordinary item.
Rarity, meaning scarcity of available examples of an object, is another factor driving value.
Age can play a role in rarity because many examples of an older item may have been disposed of, lost, or destroyed over the years. It is important to note, however, that not all old items are rare. A great example is ancient Roman oil lamps -- many of these utilitarian pieces were made, many survived, and often can be purchased for less than $100.
There are examples of more recent objects that are valuable because few were made (such as a custom made musical instrument), or because they were often disposed of after use. In the early 20th Century, posters promoting new films were mass produced and distributed to theaters throughout the US. Later, most theaters discarded them, making original examples scarce and in demand today among collectors. A poster promoting Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” brought $1.2 million at auction in 2012.
Works of art, which are generally created as unique pieces, are by definition rare; and works by important artists can bring high prices at auction. However, the relative appeal of a particular artist’s style and the overall abundance of pieces created by a specific artist can also factor in to the value of each work.
current market appeal:
The breadth of current interest in an object also impacts its value. The relative appeal of various decorative styles can ebb and flow with current fashion. For example, interest in the ornate, heavy motifs of Victorian design has declined in recent years, while the appeal of mid-century modern styles has increased.
Additionally, the relevance or usefulness of objects can shift depending on lifestyle trends. To illustrate this factor, in recent years there has been diminished demand for fine china and silver flatware because of decreasing numbers of homes that have formal dining rooms.
The condition of an object can, and in many cases, be the most important factor affecting value. Chipped pottery or glass, damaged artwork, and broken furniture generally bring a fraction of the price of similar, undamaged pieces at auction.
Good, careful restoration of some antique pieces can enhance their value (but not necessarily to the full value of undamaged examples) because it restores their aesthetic appeal and/or usefulness.
However, the decision of whether to restore must be made carefully, as altering a rare, museum quality piece from its original state, e.g. trimming a painting or lithograph, refinishing or painting an important piece of furniture, can reduce its appeal to collectors and its ultimate selling price.
An open mind is important when determining the current value of personal possessions. Sentimental value does not drive price, nor is age of an item a key factor.
While it is impossible affect changes in market appeal, responsible caretakers should strive to protect the value of treasured heirlooms or collected pieces by recording/retaining any provenance or history and protecting condition of these pieces.