What is The Value of Condition?


Dick Withington

Around two dozen years ago, I attended an auction that was being conducted by a legendary auctioneer, Dick Withington, of New Hampshire. Dick was a real character, and he had an amazing memory. If you bought an item at his auction, he would ask your name, and he never forgot it. You could walk into an auction of his five years later, bid on another piece, and he would say “Sold to John Doe”, he always got it right. He refused to use bidder numbers like everyone else until he was late in his 70s.


Dunlap Chest on Chest, Original Surface

At this particular auction there was an offering of a matching pair of NH Chippendale maple chest-on-chests, which translates to a chest of drawers in two parts with the base chest supported by feet or a bracket.The incredible pieces offered were made by the master cabinet maker, Major John Dunlap in the late 18th century. When I say ‘pair’, there was indeed a single difference in the two. One had a mustard yellow original painted surface, the other had been stripped and refinished a number of years ago. It was time for the yellow surfaced one to be on the block, followed by the refinished mate. The room burst with excitement when the first piece crested the $100,000 mark, the competition was heavy between phone and floor bidders battling it out monetarily. Finally when the dust settled, it sold to a floor bidder for an astonishing $245,000! After the crowd quieted down, the second piece came up, the floor bidders who were active on the last one, just stood and watched as the piece was hammered down at $15,500.

In essence, someone had the bright idea of removing $229,500 worth of mustard yellow paint. To be fair, it was probably worked on in the day where no one really cared too much at all about the ‘old stuff’. People would refinish a piece like this for various rationale; changing tastes, a candle burn, water damage or any other number of superficial reasons.

Furniture is just one example, condition being a key factor to a piece’s value, pretty much crosses all genre of collecting. For example, in the realm of collectible toys, the phrase: ‘Mint in the Box’ comes to mind. As a cataloger and appraiser, I rarely use the word ‘mint’ or ‘excellent’, as this can be subjective.

A chip or crack in a Tiffany vase can take a piece’s salable value from $5,000 down to a few hundred dollars. At this point it is considered what as known as a ‘shelf piece’. In other words, it looks good on the shelf (only).

There are always exceptions to the rule, and I will name a few. If you have discovered an extremely rare porcelain, with only a few known examples to exist, then a collector who has been searching for the treasure, will still pay a hefty price. A collector searching for a piece to complete a set may pay a higher price than typical for a piece in poor to fair condition.


Repaired Tiffany Vase

I cannot discuss this topic without touching on what happens to a piece when it is repaired or restored. There are glass & ceramic restorers that work magic, and make it very difficult to find repairs made. Oftentimes, you can see repairs with a UV light aka, black light, or you can simply hear a repair by pinging it with your finger. You listen for the ring of a unrepaired piece, or the thunk of one that is or was cracked and repaired.

It is quite simple actually when you think really about it, people want things that are in good shape, and when it comes to collecting, all collectors strive for things in good order. If not in the beginning, nine times out of ten, they will refine in that direction.

We are the keepers of antiques and collectibles that pass through our lives and onto the next guardians. If it is within our power, we can treat them with the care that will keep them flowing into the future maintaining desirability to the next collector.

by Martin Willis,

gemr Community Manager