smart spending

Junk or antique? The difference means cash

  • "Certain collectibles ... may be of real value at auction."
  • "With furniture, open a drawer to see what the inside looks like."
  • Be wary of dealers who don't display prices on their items.

Matthew Quinn knows all too well that many people don't recognize the value of their own possessions. He rattles off stories of people who'd have tossed away pricey pieces -- and wads of money -- if they hadn't done their research and asked for professional help.

Consider the woman whose father was downsizing to a retirement home. She asked Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn's Auction Galleries & Waverly Auctions in Falls Church, Va., to rummage through her father's cluttered home to determine if anything was worth saving or selling. Sorting through the piles, Quinn found a painting he asked if he could take back to his gallery to research. "That old thing?" the woman replied incredulously. The painting turned out to be the work of American artist Edward Moran. At auction, it netted more than $14,000.

Another woman had purchased four Chinese scrolls in the 1970s and promptly forgot about them. When she brought them to Quinn, they still had the $150 price tag on them from decades before. Chinese art experts recognized them as 18th century imperial scrolls. The bidding topped out at $55,000.

You may not have antiques or collectibles worth thousands in your attic -- few people do. But you may have pieces that are worth more than you think. In today's economy, it's unwise to let even pennies slip through your fingers by throwing away or unwittingly selling valuables for a song. Make sure that doesn't happen to you by doing your research and turning to experts.

In doubt? Don't throw it out

Be careful what you toss or sell. "When you're cleaning out old filing cabinets or going through a dusty attic or basement, don't start throwing absolutely everything away," says Nicholas Lowry, an appraiser on the PBS hit "Antiques Roadshow" and president of Swann Auction Galleries in New York City. "Certain collectibles -- from family archives to old maps -- may be of real value at auction."

Lowry offers a few examples.

Examples of valuable collectibles:
  • Letters or diaries from a war or other noted event. Particularly valuable, says Lowry, are those that tell a story or have a connection to historical figures.
  • African-American family archives. "This category had been overlooked for years," says Lowry. "Letters or historical documents could be worth something at auction."
  • Modern first-edition books. "First books by authors who've become famous, as well as signed copies," says Lowry, "are of particularly high value."

Start your search engine

Think you might have a valuable piece? Look closely to verify its authenticity.

Identify its ownership history. Insiders call this documenting a piece's provenance. "Ask who the piece belonged to," says Connie Sue Davenport, an appraiser and former antiques dealer in Cottontown, Tenn., "and where that person got it." That helps date the piece and lends credence to its history.


Examine the detailing. "With furniture, open a drawer to see what the inside looks like," says Joe Baratta, an appraiser at Abell Auction Co. in Los Angeles. "Is the drawer constructed with nails or by dovetailing, in which the front is joined with the side in a triangle shape?" Nails can reflect more modern pieces, while dovetailing typically indicates hand construction. With prints, posters and maps, consider the paper. "The older the paper," says Lowry, "the more it'll feel like a newspaper rather than a magazine."


          Connect with us

Connect with us