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A Question Of Value

People often ask what an item might be worth, in fact TV shows like Antiques Road Show or similar make an answer to that question appear very easy. Quite frankly I doubt that anybody ever reality-checked the prices given there. Hold in mind that literally everybody can give somebody else a totally made-up price on TV or the internet as nobody can check it anyway.

Before the collectibles market started to be shaken up by online marketplaces like eBay and later Ruby Lane, etc., the value of an item was basically what a certain group of (local) people or members of a certain (collector) group agreed on. Print resources were used as to publish these values, hence the term book value: the value of a certain item was based on what was stated in certain reference books. This however on a certain scale caused different market/price structures as a given item was not always freely available at the point of sales, for example an original Meissen centerpiece was easier to come by (and thus cheaper) in Germany than say in New Zealand and of course the book values in these different areas were different. On another scale certain items were differently priced on the West Coast of the USA in comparison to the East Coast simply based on offer/demand, just like jolly Texas Longhorns are cheaper in Texas than in New York.

What people do not (or simply don't want to) understand is that ever since eBay and other sources started to weld together their international sales platform(s), folks suddenly started to see for example that their 'rare' and/or 'valuable' heirloom in reality was a cheap, mass produced item freely available elsewhere if only one cared to glance over the rim of the personal soup bowl. In addition, other totally overrated items suddenly encountered reality as many scamming/cheating persons suddenly ran into trouble because information formerly restricted to (overrated) reference books or collector groups suddenly became a tool everybody could use. One can say that the following five years since the founding of eBay in 1995 saw many collections completely collapse or dramatically lose value; overall one can say that prices in all sections simply went through a reality check.

The re-calibration of prices of course greatly influenced other markets, like insurances. Common trend is that insurance companies like to charge rates for (old) book values but only pay up the much lower local street prices in case of damage or loss. A known example is the case where folks over years paid rates for US$ 137k coverage only to end up finding that their collection of figures was only granted a replacement value of then 62k (!) following the complete destruction of the collection during a house fire in 2003. Hence people should themselves check on insurance policies to make sure that insurances don't pull a funny one on them, a re-evaluation every two years should be a must, depending on collection/coverage.

What remains is the more or less daily value. How can people expect to be given a reliable price or estimate if the prices themselves change in under 24 hours and depending on location, condition, shipping costs, etc.? An item may have been sold on eBay for US$ 100 one week but another (even in better condition) may remain unsold for days on end before it ends up at measly US$ 25 even if some old reference book claims that the item is 'worth' around US$ 400. Sticking with that example the item may cost one person just that plus a few bucks for postage but somebody else may have to pay much more for transport plus additional insurance, taxes and custom fees. So what is the real "value" or what is an item really "worth" ? Folks should ask themselves this question before trying to nail down a collector, expert or appraiser because there is no way they would get a good (correct) answer.

Knowing all that helps to understand why appraisers are often called "professional liars with legal coverage" : you actually have to pay for a price quote which even the appraiser does not believe in as he knows all mentioned above. And if you try to get back to his quote after falling flat on your face you are pointed at the small print which states that there is no guarantee on quotes at all.


Nobody can guarantee a trustworthy estimate, simply becasue such a thing does not exist per definition, especially not nowadays. If you need a price range, take a given item and check closed sales on different available websites. Why closed sales? Well, closed sales prices are (more or less) realistic while running sales or auctions often merely state some made-up fantasy price and are therefore unreliable.

Anyway, wait a week and retry, repeating the cycle for a larger scope if required. The result in changing values is called market fluctuation due to changes in offer and demand, sometimes even on one platform only (depending on overall sell-through rate, e.g. Ruby Lane is generally slower than eBay).

And always remember: a value is simply what one person is willing to pay for a specific item, at one specific time and place, not what people "believe" it to be worth ...

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