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The Realm of the Neophyte: Collectibles

Appraisers Stop! Don’t skip over this blog entry. It’s incumbent of you as a practitioner of property economics to fulfill the needs of your clients, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be approached to value a collection of collectibles. So, stifle your gag reflex and read on.

Collectibles gained a foothold in the marketplace after World War II and interest in them was turbocharged with the advent of the eBay phenomenon just a few years ago.  As a category of property, collectibles spans the width of the other property categories, from art to whicker. What emerges today as an object of interest to collectors as a result of an article in Martha Stewart Living, may become a strong independent category of tomorrow. Let’s use Gustav Stickley furniture as an example. Surely we can agree that the Arts & Crafts furniture and accessories from early in the 20th century comprise a well-defined specialty today, right? Certainly. Well, fifty years ago that “stuff” was merely considered collectible. Serious dealers, appraisers, and collectors at the time would sniff in distain as they walked past a Gus bookcase. That same bookcase today might fetch $50,000.00.

Collectibles are often the precursors of future categories of collector interest. They should be taken as seriously by you, the appraiser, as they are by your client. Turning away clients with collections of Rookwood pottery, political buttons, Lionel trains, etc. is a disservice to your client base and ultimately detrimental to your practice. A rejected client will often find solace in the arms of a biased lay appraiser which does not advance the appraisal profession; do this and you have become part of the problem.

As practitioners in the field of property economics most of us are specialists: fine art, decorative arts, furniture, etc. The inherent difficulty with specialization is two-fold: one, our clients usually have more than one category of property, and two, there often is insufficient opportunity in a single narrow specialty to sustain a practice. So what’s an appraiser to do? Well, open your mind if you haven’t already and then dive into a subcategory of collectibles that sparks your interest, like, oh let’s pick toys for starters; toys is a major collectibles category. We all played with toys, right? And depending on several factors in our childhood, the toys with which we played varied: typically dolls for girls and trains for boys. Learn all that you can about dolls or trains. You already know how to absorb knowledge; you’re an appraiser with fantastic research skills. Just do it! And when you know dolls backwards and forwards, then learn trains. This is how to expand your practice, satisfy your client base, and advance the interests of the appraisal profession.

The field of collectibles is far too varied to discuss all of the individual subcategories in this short essay, but there are a few universal general rules. All property values are determined by market demand, scarcity, and value attributes – just like with everything else that you appraise. There is some variation between subcategories of collectibles, but for the most part you’ll be able to apply your experience in the same manner as you have always done. Look for wear patterns, original surface or paint, maker’s marks, paper labels, and damage. Is it mint in a box? Is the box mint, too? More than half of a toy’s value is in its box if it has one. The same is true for the dust jackets on modern first edition books. If you are a furniture specialist and your long-time client has engaged you to value his Lionel trains, don’t panic. Don’t send him packing. Knuckle down and dive into the project. Use the same “eye” you use to peer at highboys. That eye of yours that can tell if the surface of furniture has been refinished can just as easily discern alterations in the surface of a caboose. Put your eye to work. It matters little if it’s a furniture piece or a toy in a box. You already have to skills to determine condition, and that’s the hard part. Finding comparables and determining market demand is merely discovery – the same exercise you do with each and every subject property. Nothing has changed except that your perspective is deeper, your knowledge is now broader, and your practice is more successful. Imagine that.