When Thirteen Pines Trading Co. took over ownership of our store a year ago, I had every intention of blogging on the weekly. However, as it often does, life got in the way. (See my single lonely blog post prior to this, about a salvage job we were working. I wanted to continue blogging about that, but the COVID crisis began while we were mid-job, and I didn’t want anyone to come and stop us from working before the house’s demolition deadline! So, I just kept things hush hush for a time.)
I’ve often thought about this blog: it already exists, and I have a whole notebook page of topics scrawled hastily in columns to choose from. I’ve really had no excuse for not writing, but also haven’t had any motivation to write. Fast forward to today, when an ad popped up on my phone displaying a piece of furniture strikingly similar to one we currently have in store at Thirteen Pines Trading Co. The price gave me just a bit of sticker shock at first, Then, the wheels started turning, and before I knew it, this post was in the works!
So, let’s talk valuation. Here is the photo that inspired this post: a beautiful Art Deco buffet listed on Chairish for $1,700 (marked down from $2,500).
Below, see a photo of a very similar buffet—in fact, Chairish’s description could almost pass for a description of this one—that is currently in stock as of August 4, 2021, at TPTCo. It’s priced at $199.
What gives? Which price is right? How do you know if you’re getting a great deal, or if an item is worth what a seller is asking?
You might be surprised to hear that the answer is both. Both prices are “right”–under very different circumstances. What I have to say isn’t news if you’re already deep into the world of vintage and antiques, but for those who are just getting started with selling or collecting, the information here may help you make sense of the seemingly contradictory information you’re finding from various sources.
There are so many factors that enter into the valuation of antiques. Here, we’ll focus on vintage and antique furniture in particular. As in any industry, the national or international market may establish a price range for a certain type of item, of a certain age and quality, in good or better condition. However, within that range, each of the following factors can have significant influence on the asking price of a piece. Let’s address some of the most obvious ones first–these are what I think of as “firm” factors, or things that aren’t variable.
The age of any piece of furniture is an influencing factor over many of the other pricing aspects. As a general rule, quality and scarcity (which I’ll address shortly) both increase with age, which can mean a higher price for an older piece. There are many websites and paper publications out there that can help with dating a piece of furniture, as can any labels, numbers, or maker’s marks on the piece. The way the furniture is constructed (type of wood joinery, for example) can also provide clues to age.
There are certain hallmarks of quality that increase the value of a piece. Being solid wood is a great start. Any original or replacement parts made of plywood, particle board or MDF will decrease value. Veneer can decrease value if it is in poor condition, but conversely, veneer in great condition can be truly beautiful (Google “bookmatched veneer,” and you’ll see what I mean!) and add to the value of a piece. The type of joinery used influences pricing: dovetailed joints, finger joints, cove-and-pin joints and mortise-and-tenon joints are more desirable than butt joints. The overall condition of the finish or paint, and whether it is original to the piece, factors into quality, as does the species of wood used in construction. Mahogany, chestnut, cherry, oak, and walnut often command higher prices than maple, ash or pine. In periods or styles that are traditionally ornate, such as Romanesque, Elizabethan or Jacobean, the more elaborate and extensive the hand-carved detail, the greater the value.
PERIOD and ORIGIN
Each period, style or era of furniture-making has hallmarks of design that make it desirable to those who collect and furnish their homes with it. Though “period” may seem synonymous with “age,” “period” encompasses not only when a piece was created, but also the design elements that make that period recognizable. Additionally, pieces can be of similar age but of completely different physical styles, depending on the region of origin. The more evidently a piece displays the characteristics of its period, the greater its value.
It goes without saying that antique and vintage furniture often comes with “character”–worn spots in the finish, scrapes, scratches, chips, boards that have warped or cracked. If you find a very old piece with no visual or structural flaws, you’re fortunate, indeed! Most collectors will not mind minor cosmetic flaws or even a sticky drawer or two, and many have tricks up their sleeves to restore or repair mild issues in a manner that is all but invisible.
However, missing hardware, trim, or decoration, significant damage to wood, very worn or uneven finish, water damage, and other issues that appreciably affect the appearance or function or a piece will decrease the value. Typically, sellers take these issues into account when deciding how to price a piece.
Then, there are factors I think of as “fluid factors”–these are unique to each region, market and audience, and situate a piece of furniture toward the high or low end of the price range.
In fairness, scarcity kind of lives in limbo between “firm” and “fluid.” If there were only a dozen of a certain item ever made, that’s a firm level of scarcity. However, if that’s the case, there’s a good chance the item is worth thousands of dollars, and you’re never going to see it in our store. Let’s talk about the kind of scarcity that varies by region. This actually ties back to origin–items are usually easiest to find (though easy is a relative term) in their region of origin, and harder to find as you move further away. Scarcity within a certain region drives prices up. Also, if an item is completely hand-built, with few or no manufactured parts, its uniqueness places it high on the scarcity scale: if you’re unlikely to ever find another piece the same, or even very similar, value will be higher. The more scarce an item, the more time, travel and searching antique dealers have to put into procuring a piece, which drives up the price. Finally, the fewer available comps (highly similar items, in similar condition, sold within the same market in the last year or two), the higher the asking price.
Each market is totally different when it comes to value. Overall population density can influence value: how many potential buyers exist within a 50-100 mile radius? If there are relatively few, prices will be lower than if there are many. It’s also important to consider how popular true antiques are in the given market. If people in the given are seeking a certain “look” but aren’t as concerned with authenticity, prices will be lower than if the customer base is driven to seek out “the real deal.” (This is a sad but true fact for those of us who still have careers in the antique world!) Another question to ask: how many people out there need or desire to own this type of item? A dining table is something most households need. A twin bed, in today’s world, is not. Though both items are common, dining tables bring more money than twin beds because they are more useful to the purchaser. Last, but not least, cost of living in a given market influences value. Buyers in urban areas where cost of living is higher are willing to spend more on antiques than buyers where cost of living is relatively low. Also, in today’s digital world, the audience for a certain seller is far less geographically constrained than it was years ago. For furniture and other large items, though, obstacles such as shipping cost and the time-consuming nature of listing and describing items accurately for a digital audience can still limit the market.
This might be the biggest make-or-break factor for price. What’s “in style” can vary tremendously by region. A perfect example: right now, midcentury modern furniture is all the rage in many urban areas. However, in rural areas, the trend hasn’t quite caught up. Midcentury furniture is bringing four to five times as much money in some other markets right now than it is in ours. Victorian furniture, on the other hand, is “out” across the board–magazines are showcasing more casual, cleaner, lighter and brighter looks, and the buying trends follow. There will always be the die-hards (myself included!) who prefer a certain style, regardless of what’s popular, but trends certainly drive the majority of the market. Sellers must, at least to a degree, take the current desirability of a piece into account.
So, How About That Buffet?
I know—I’ve been a little long-winded and unfocused. And I’ve only just touched on each of the factors sellers take into account when pricing a piece. Each factor could span a dozen blog posts, if I let it. But returning to the original Art Deco waterfall buffet that inspired this post. Why is Chairish asking nearly nine times as much for a piece of furniture as we are?
- Because they can reach an audience we can’t. Chairish has a broad international market, and can ship. We have a small local market, and do not yet have the capability to ship. The market for this particular style of furniture isn’t high in our geographic region right now, though with the recent trend toward Boho style, that will probably change! Their likelihood of reaching someone digitally who really wants this particular item, and to whom price isn’t much of an object, is statistically hundreds of times higher than ours.
- Because they (or their consignor) have more money in their piece than we do. When we get a piece for a great deal, we’ll usually pass it along at a great deal, too. This allows antique dealers from stronger markets to buy from us. We don’t mind being the middle man. Chairish’s goal is likely to be the end seller.
A Final Word On Worth
Ultimately, when it comes to antique furniture–or any items of yesteryear– “worth” really comes down to what an item can add to your life, whether that be purely aesthetic value, functionality, historic or sentimental meaning, or some combination thereof. Obviously, buyers don’t want to be massively overpaying for something they can get a mile down the road for a few hundred dollars less. And sellers who want to turn a profit need to know their own market well enough to understand how their pricing should compare to other sectors of the national and international markets. Overpricing items just results in twenty-year-old dust collecting on things that might actually find homes at the right price.
Buyers: Don’t be afraid of a price tag if an item fits your personal style, fills a need or want in your life, and aligns with your budget. Market value will change. Your tastes and needs may change, too. To borrow a phrase from popular culture: if it “brings you joy,” go after it. Use a grain of common sense, shop within your own personal price range (just because an item is too expensive for you, that doesn’t necessarily make it “overpriced”), and make sure to truly enjoy your wonderful finds!
Sellers: Shop smart—know when an item you’re buying for resale is priced too high for you to make a profit in your market, and remember, a narrower profit margin with higher turnover often yields greater success overall than big profit margins, but few sales. Above all else, remember your mission: to keep the past alive and bring buyers what they’re looking for (or what they don’t know they’re looking for!) at a price that’s fair and competitive. Every buyer isn’t your buyer. (And speaking as a buyer—buyers, every seller isn’t your seller!) But if you put honesty, strategy, and passion into your work, your buyers will come to you.