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Evaluating Your Collection

So you've started a collection. Or maybe you've been collecting for years. Could be baseball cards, or antique stoves. 18th century maps? Maybe you love Fiesta dinnerware. Matchbox cars, Star Wars figurines, flow blue ceramics, etc, etc. As the cliche goes, if you can think of something, there is someone who is collecting it. The phenomenon of collecting is universal. Why? Good question. Perhaps it's related to food hoarding by our distant ancestors - the urge to gather things as a way of providing security and ensuring survival. On the other hand, flying across the country to attend an auction that will contain that ONE mechanical cast iron bank you have been pursuing for years hardly seems like a way of ensuring survival.

In any case, if you have been collecting for a while, chances are you have developed an eye for what you collect. To a greater or lesser degree, you have become a connoisseur - someone who can recognize "the best" among different examples of whatever it is you are collecting. This is the goal of connoisseurship - to identify and separate something that is superior to its lookalikes, no matter what the category: needlework, wine, cars, teapots, or furniture. This can provide satisfaction, can be fun, is always intellectually stimulating, and, in many cases, can be financially rewarding as well.

However, this definition of connoisseurship begs the question of what we mean by "best" or "superior." What makes this antique bottle twice as desirable (and valuable) as this other bottle which, at first glance, looks identical? Well, learning the finer points that allow such gradation among objects is the challenge and the reward of connoisseurship. Evaluating your collection is a journey that we, as collectors, should always be on, so that we can take greater satisfaction in what we have and so that we can have a better understanding of what we should be looking for as we continue to add to our collections. Here are twelve steps to evaluating what you have. Follow them, and you will be sure to get more and more pleasure out of your collecting activities.

  1. Overall appearance. This is perhaps the most subjective step. Here, you want to ask yourself "Does it sing to me?" But there is also an interplay here between the object and what you already know about the context in which it was made. Does this example "fit?" Does it "work" as a representative of this kind of object? Try to be objective here. The concept of "unity" also is helpful - does the form, the material, the detail of this object fit within the period, or the artisan? If not, it may not be the best of the best.

  2. Form. Here, we focus in more closely on the form. Is this the right form? If it is intended as a functional object, does it comfortably do what it is supposed to? The best glassware, for example, is beautiful to look at, but it also can be used easily - either as a pitcher, a vase, a drinking glass, or other such object. The placement of the handle for example can make a difference here, or whether or not ornamental aspects interfere with the usefulness of the object.

  3. Ornament. Speaking of ornament, the way in which an object is engraved, or painted, or carved, or any of a hundred other ways ornament has been used can make a tremendous difference in the overall quality of the item. One of the major ways that we attach value to objects is whether or not they can be called beautiful. Ornament is often added to an otherwise utilitarian object to make it pleasing to the eye. But ornament takes skill. It can be overdone. It can detract, rather than add, to an object. These factors should be considered.

  4. Materials. Identifying the materials which makeup an object is important and can be challenging. Examine your collection closely, using a magnifying glass and strong light if necessary. Certain materials, such as gold, are recognized as being inherently more valuable than others, such as tin. In other cases, the material may provide advantages over others such as in the case of mahogany over pine when doing fine carving work. The proper identification of materials sometimes requires testing, which may require the assistance of an expert.

  5. Finish. Often relevant in categories like furniture and silverware, finish refers to the surface of an item. Is the surface original, or has it been refinished? Has it been cleaned? Polished? There is some debate as to the advisability of cleaning and/or "restoring" antique surfaces. And of course the most desirable finish depends - sometimes simply on the preference of the given collector, sometimes on the category in question. For example, a 17th century painting after cleaning (when done by a professional!) will almost always be more valuable and more appreciated than one that has not been cleaned.

  6. Color. An interesting category. Here, we are not simply saying that a blue couch is better than a red one. Although it could be! Rather, color can be an important indicator of age or authenticity. And, for objects that were originally produced in multiple colors (such as the Fiesta dinnerware mentioned earlier), there definitely are some colors that are more desirable simply because fewer were made.

  7. Craftsmanship. An object can be made of the finest materials, have the most sublime color, and feature just the right amount of ornamentation, but if it is not executed by a skilled maker, it will not be considered among the best. Inferior craftsmanship can often be revealed by blurry carving or painting, sloppy application of gilding, leaving behind evidence of mistakes or repairs, and many other such errors. Seams should be as near invisible as possible. As you progress on your collector's journey, it may be useful to become familiar with the methods and techniques used to make the objects you collect so that you can become a better judge of craftsmanship.

  8. Trade Practices. This area of connoisseurship is not about increasing your appreciation of the object itself. Instead, as you become more knowledgeable about the history of how this object (or group of objects) was bought and sold, you can develop a better ability to sniff out fakes or to better place the object in a definite time frame. Many times, this has to do with being able to read labels, hallmarks, maker's marks, etc. One of the best examples is the "Made in" labels you may see on objects. In the United States, it wasn't until 1891 that these labels were required for objects made overseas. So, if you see an object with such a label, it is very unlikely it was made before that date.

  9. Style. Just as with clothes and cars, the look and features of many other kinds of objects change over time and can be grouped into definable styles. These styles can be associated with particular times and places and this knowledge can help us to identify what we are looking at and this helps us to reach determinations of value. One must be aware, however, that certain styles enjoy revivals later and so something in a given "style" may or may not actually be from the time during which that style first came into existence.

  10. Attribution. Everyone is familiar with the idea that the value and respect given to a painting by a "known," or "listed" artist is often far greater than that given to a painting by an unknown artist. This is also true in many other areas of collecting, such as ceramics, glass, or silver. The name of some of these artisans is unknown to all but devoted collectors of their wares. Nevertheless, when an object that can be reliably attributed to one of these skilled artisans comes up for auction, you can count on far higher interest and consequently a higher hammer price. It behooves the collector to learn who these artisans are and how to properly identify pieces made by them. The same is true when making attributions to famous manufacturers, such as Tiffany or Chanel.

  11. Provenance. Provenance simply means the history of ownership. For many reasons that we won't discuss here, collectors are keen to own objects that have previously been owned (or are thought to have been owned) by noteworthy persons. This could be as obvious as a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe, whose fame is widespread indeed. Sometimes, however, it can be a 18th century chair previously owned by a respected collector, renowned for his or her , taste, and lifetime of amassing a superior collection of similar objects. This person may have no recognition by the general public at all but their previous ownership is taken by current collectors as an imprimatur of respectability and authenticity. Confirming provenance can be very difficult and should usually be considered as secondary, or supporting, data.

  12. Condition. I have saved what is perhaps the most obvious for last. A broken Ming vase is not worth nearly as much as an intact Ming vase. Even when all other aspects of quality are present in a given object, if there are condition issues then it simply will not be as desirable. This is often one of the first things that collectors who are seeking to upgrade their collection do - replace otherwise perfectly desirable objects that have condition issues with other examples that are free of blemish or decay. That said, one must be aware that collectors will accept and overlook condition issues for certain objects where some decay or damage is to be expected due to use, age, or the nature of the material.


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