One of the most common questions I’m asked as a long time collector, appraiser, auctioneer and dealer:
“What type of antiques or art should I invest in?”
There is no simple answer, but I do have some suggestions.
It is very important that you collect something you truly love for the following reasons:
- If you love something, you will invest in learning everything you can about it, and will likely connect with other like-minded people for information.
- Having a passion is key. When you live and breathe what you collect, it will often guide you to make more informed decisions and you will have your finger on the current market. Also, if you have a passion for what you’re “investing” in, then it becomes the thrill of the hunt instead of worrying about a return on your money.
- The market for what you collect may go down, so be sure to collect objects that you don’t mind living with forever.
Current trends make a huge difference in the value of an item on the open market, and they change all the time. It’s best not to worry so much about trying to figure out trends. Even if it’s the hottest trend today, it might go out in a few years and your investment may be worth a lot less than what you paid for it. Conversely, a trend can go the other way, and you may get lucky, but don’t count on it. Never collect strictly as an investment. Collect because you have an interest and appreciation of the objects and their stories.
On a personal note, I love impressionist paintings of the late 19th to early 20th century and have some that I paid too much money for just to get them. My tastes have not changed, but the “middle market” of impressionism that I collected has dropped considerably in value. I still totally enjoy looking at these paintings each and every day, never worrying about their value as they are not for sale anytime soon.
All Serious Collectors Refine
No matter what the current trend, the best examples from any given category of art or collectibles tend to retain their value, or increase in value more than any other segment. Whenever I am asked advice on collecting by a novice collector, I tell them that it is much wiser to buy one very good item then 10 mediocre items. In other words, one $1,000 item is a smarter investment/buy than ten $100 items.
It all goes back to what you love. If my passion is carved duck decoys made by Elmer Crowell, I am going to set my sights on refining my collection and getting the best examples of the carver’s work that I can find. I will not be the only collector looking for these specific folk art duck & shore bird decoys, so will other collectors who collect his work and are refining in the same way. That being said, it seems that there will always be value at the top end of anything you collect.
The Three Things that Create Value
In my opinion, the three things that make something valuable in antiques & art are:
Rarity was discussed above; if something is the best of whatever an artist produced, or something that is highly sought after with only a few examples that are known to exist, it would be considered rare. Some pieces are rare because there were only a few examples made. Some are rare because they were usually broken in use, or discarded as worthless at the time.
A common mistake is associating age with rarity. For instance, you can buy a 2000-year-old Roman coin that is totally original for under $40.
Condition is extremely important, especially to the refining collector. Many times at an auction I’ve seen a collector pass over a rare piece, only because of it’s poor condition. This is probably the most important aspect of perceived value. Sometimes a condition issue seems extremely minor, like a small chip on a rare bowl, but it’s a real big deal with the avid collector. An important part of collecting a rarity is to keep it in good condition for the time you own it. We owe this to future collectors as we are only the temporary caretakers.
One exception may be the only example of a rarity that is badly damaged and or broken but could still be sought after by collectors, and this is ancient artifacts.
Provenance is becoming more and more important these days, especially when it comes to art and high end pieces. If you have an important Picasso, and have no knowledge of its history, you will have a hard time when it comes to selling it. Not having the history of a major piece often raises suspicion that it may be stolen. A cataloger at an auction house will perform due diligence to find out as much information on a piece as possible, and sometimes that leads to a wrongful disbursement, or a past theft.
Trend & Quality Example
There are all sorts of examples that I could give on what has happened with trends and values, the one thing I cannot explain is why tastes and trends change. The following is a random example of a trend change, it also reflects how the top end of a category still holds its value in a depressed market. Through the 1970s-1980s there was a very strong oak and Victorian furniture market, if it was oak, it was “golden”. The run of the mill round oak dining table, circa 1900 with lion’s claw feet sold regularly at any auction nationwide for $300 to $600, sometimes higher. One such piece sold in Upper State New York at auction on January 10, 2015 for only $50, and this is not uncommon. However, a top quality round oak table sold for $1,000 on February 21, 2015 in Denver, still holding value at the top.
The Hunt & Connections
So many times in my long career, I have had the pleasure of talking to true collectors and have heard their tales of how they got started, and the joy of their hunt. Each piece has a story which is burned into their memory of how they came upon it. Collecting can bring people closer together, and can create friendships that would have never existed otherwise. Many people love to share what they collect, and I have had great fun seeing some major collections of various genre throughout the country.
The Gemr platform is a perfect way to display your collection and share with it with others, as well as to gather information about what you are interested in.
Collect what you love, whether you feel like you are investing or not.
You just may get lucky, and you are guaranteed to have stories to tell and some great fun.
Martin Willis is a Community Curator for Gemr in Antiques & Vintage, as well as Fine Arts. Martin has spent around 45 years in the antiques world. In his spare time, he is also an appraiser for a leading firm, the Appraiser’s Registry of New England and a Boston regional sales agent for James D. Julia Auctioneers. As a second-generation auctioneer, Martin graduated from Missouri Auction school in 1977 and has dozens of years of experience working at auctions in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Colorado and California. He has been involved in appraising, cataloging and auctioning hundreds of thousands of antiques, collectibles and works of art.