We all ooh and awe when a collectible item fetches a record price. Sometimes we mutter under our breath when a much desired collectible is financially out of reach. In a market based on nonessential spending free market economics reign supreme. Its strictly about who has the goods and who wants to acquire them. In business law the combination of the “willing buyer and a willing seller” makes commerce possible and delights the hearts of capitalists everywhere. But what forces bring your favorite collectible to the magic price point which brings it into our possession. Conversely, how do we account for stratospheric prices that give us pause when the gavel falls at auction.
Value is a complex concept, read Robert Pirsigs Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. I will identify five factors that give value to the things that reach out and grab us at the flea market.
1. Rarity is the most important factor in determining the value of collectible artifacts. The classic example is the inverted Jenny air mail postage stamp of 1918 in which the Curtiss biplane depicted on the design was printed upside down Only one pane of 100 stamps was ever found. This interesting little error fetched $2.7 million one fine October day in 2205. Now 1918 was quite a long time ago in our minds but not as postage stamps go. many things far older can not hope to rouse this kind of interest simply because there are many examples still in existance.
2. Some would count age as the defining factor in determining value but for the reasons stated above I hold it to be secondary. Age comes closer to rarity in importance as we move back along the time line of history. Truly ancient items have historical value that translates to monetary value. That valuation must often be supported by proof of age. Beware, Age is one of the easiest things to fake. Oh! Did I mentioned that there are shady characters in the antiques and collectible trade? I am truly dismayed.
3. Historicity plays a role often in relationship to the possessor of an artifact. The events that surround an item will give it significance. A Civil War era musket will have greater value if it is known to have been the property of a particular soldier. Where the musket has been and even who owned it in subsequent years may lend further value. In this category provenance takes on primary importance.
4. Occasionally an item may gain particular value due to it’s utility. Antique tools in the hands of a skilled craftsman can be valuable aids in reconstructing the past or in building things using nearly lost arts. Many woodworkers love to use old saws and handplanes thinking them superior to modern technology. Personally I wouldn’t give up my old Stanley planes. It’s hard to find really good chisels. Even their decorative value is so much greater than their modern counterparts. When have you seen anyone hang a biscuit joiner or cordless drill/driver on their den wall?
5. One factor remains as especially important right at the point of purchase of a collectible item. The condition of an item is going to support every other aspect of value. To be utilized it must be strong and not corroded. Maker’s marks will be sharper and easier to discern on clean surfaces that haven’t been worn away. In some cases rarity may not be a matter of finding an example of the artifact one desires so much as finding one intact and in good condition.
Naturally these areas are subject to compromise for many collectors. Our natural acquisitiveness can drive our pocket books. Ultimately this question of value which we express in dollars is answered by our definition of quality.