When the subject of natural history comes around, it often conjures in people's minds images of boring college lectures and nerdy "rockhounds" with agate bolo ties. And, having gotten two geology degrees earlier in life, I can attest that those images are not always inaccurate ;-) But make no mistake: there is a thriving market for important geological specimens... think "trophy fossils"... among deep-pocketed collectors.
Chief among the most sought-after specimens are dinosaur skeletons, especially predators like T rex. These skeletons can bring millions of dollars at auction, which is plenty of incentive to loot from public lands or bring in specimens illegally from other countries. China and Mongolia in particular have yielded some amazing specimens but also have essentially banned the export of significant vertebrate fossils. More than one dealer in the US has been caught trying to sell smuggled specimens and gone to jail for their troubles.
Another problem with the market for high-dollar fossils is the incentive to fake items. Morocco has been a hotbed for years of fake fossils, even down to the level of specimens that would normally sell in the low hundreds. China is another major source of fakes, especially small vertebrate fossils and trilobites. Speaking as a long-time fossil collector, I will share that I generally will not buy anything that has either country as a point of origin. That is not to say that some of the specimens aren't legitimate... instead, for me, the risk of buying a fake just outweighs the possibility of getting something good.
Even if you aren't a collector per se, fossils and minerals can still serve as eye-catching objets d'art or decorative accessories. Should you decide to add one or more to your decor, here are a few tips to consider:
First, as with a nice antique or piece of art, always try to deal with a reputable seller who can give you the relevant information about a piece, including any repair, restoration, or enhancement. By "enhancement" I refer to fossils being added to a plate (often referred to as "dropped in"), stained or painted in, or in some cases (hellooo Morocco) completely made up. Second, avoid specimens from "problem" sources like Morocco and China (see my previous comment). Third, research before you buy to make sure you are not wildly overpaying. Some items such as Megalodon shark teeth, have significant nuances in pricing relative to size. A 3" tooth may sell for $60 but a 6" tooth will usually sell for at least $400. With shark teeth in particular, size matters!
In closing, here is a link to a fascinating video that recently appeared on the Wall Street Journal's web site. An excellent look into the public-private debate and one that will give you an idea of some of the values being assigned to trophy fossils these day.
Few businesses will likely emerge unchanged in any way once we are past the current pandemic. Ironically, my appraisal business may one of them, but not so for the broader antiques and fine art fields. Here are some of the trends and aftermaths I suspect we will see.
First, it is likely that at least some of the galleries and antiques stores simply will not return. The galleries are in an especially challenging environment since much of the selling typically happens at crowded openings or when the gallery staff can closely interact with one or more customers. This will not be the norm for a while and whether a gallery can survive the ensuing sales drought will depend on several factors, including overhead and the ability to increase successful online strategies.
Antiques stores may fare better although that industry has been struggling for some time due in large measure to the steady erosion of interest in the merchandise among younger demographic cohorts. Again, moving to a stronger online presence or perhaps going completely virtual will likely be a necessary path for survival in many cases. I have actually been seeing this for some time on the Etsy platform, where it is clear antiques vendors have joined in sizable numbers.
Speaking of Etsy, it has been interesting to watch how Etsy has quickly evolved from being a site for handmade crafts to encompassing an enormous variety of goods, including fossils and minerals, antiques, fine art, and pretty much anything that might be reasonably included in the handmade/vintage categories. For the record, I have a store there myself (MadCatEmporium) where I market my own local finds and have found the platform to be a delight to use.
Another industry that is absolutely being altered by the pandemic is the auction business. In-person previews are largely out now and it is hard to say when they might some day be revived. Again, it is the online strategy that is now being maximized and which will likely benefit most those auction houses with the capital to stand out in already crowed arena. The downside to this trend though is that the major houses are presently shedding staff and ordering significant pay cuts for those that remain employed. Look for leaner staffing with an emphasis on good photography and condition reports.
For those of us who have fond memories of hunting nice pieces at antiques stores or mingling at art openings, the changes being wrought will make us ever more wistful. But, these changes have also long been in the making. To my mind, the current pandemic is simply imposing an unwelcome Darwinism on those business who were already struggling most and also forcing survival changes at an accelerated pace. One thing for sure though is that the retail and auction landscape will be quite different when the pandemic has passed.
By virtue of age, almost any antique object will have a story behind it. Some will be interesting or important, most mundane. Some objects will never have their history or story revealed, others will rely on notes or oral history handed down from prior generations. In a few cases, however, the object itself will have all the information you need front and center.
Such was the case with an antique bottle that I recently found at a local re-sale store. Bottles are not a specialty of mine but the obvious age and the SC (for South Carolina), combined with the reasonable price, was all the incentive I needed to become the new owner. Speaking as an appraiser, I'll share with you that Southern items almost always command a premium in the marketplace for historical items. A little quick research led to an interesting story behind the bottle, which is as follows:
In 1893, the then-governor of South Carolina, Ben Tillman (known as "Pitchfork Ben" due to his farming background), decided to create a state-run liquor monopoly called the South Carolina Dispensary. Located first in Edgefield, SC, the dispensary offered spirits in half-pint, pint, and half-quart bottles. The most common sort are the "Jo Jo flasks" such as the one pictured above. Soneware jugs, made both in SC and VA, were also used. Originally, most bottles were made by out-of-state glass companies but in 1902, Tillman moved the dispensary to Columbia where bottles were then made by the Carolina Glass Co. It was a short-lived enterprise, however, with the dispensary closing its doors in 1907.
The Jo Jo flasks are easy to spot, with a large SCD monogram on the front of the flask and "S C Dispensary" embossed beneath it. The glass company will usually appear on the reverse side... in this case my bottle was marked "C G Co" for the Carolina Glass Company. Hence, it probably dates to 1902-1907. A second type of bottle was the "Union flask", which lacks the monogram but bears two titles, S C Dispensary and South Carolina Dispensary. The common clear bottles usually trade in the $75-150 range but rare forms can bring $20,000 or more.
For a much more in-depth discussion of the dispensary and the types of bottles they used, you can follow this link to Wikipedia. Here is the link:
I found it to be a fascinating read and now know to be much more attentive when I run across old bottles. Whether I ever find one of the really rare SC Dispensary flasks is anyone's guess but the story behind the bottle I did find was a good one.
With 2019 now behind us, early 2020 seems to be a good time to reflect on the state of today's markets for antiques, art, and collectibles. I don't feel that there were any momentous changes in 2019... just a continuation of past trends with perhaps a slight acceleration. Here are my thoughts:
Without a doubt, the fair market value for most things continued to trend lower in 2019. This was largely across the board in all categories, with traditional forms having an especially hard struggle. By traditional, I especially mean categories such as early furniture, china, sterling silver, etc. Or, as one client put rather humorously, "anything that would have been in my grandmother's house". More contemporary categories such as Mid-century Modern seem to retain some strength, although my sense is that the popularity if this particular category has waned somewhat as well since the end of the TV show "Mad Men".
Pockets of strength can be found in areas such as fine wines, vintage automobiles, celebrity memorabilia, and other more esoteric categories. Early technology such as early Apple computers also can bring strong dollars for the right piece.
As in the past, an exception will always be made for the very best examples of anything, even in struggling categories like early Americana. Similarly, blockbuster items will always have a strong appeal as well... an example would be the famous Mustang used in the movie Bullitt, which recently sold for $3 million.
Looking ahead in 2020, I see little reason to think the above-mentioned trends will turn around in any meaningful way. My advice to clients continues to be that if you are thinking of de-accessioning items, do it ASAP while there is at least still some sort of market to sell into. Just be aware that auction houses are getting ever more finicky about their value thresholds, so don't expect them to take just anything. It amazes me to see how so many items that once would have sold in ones or twos are now being shoved into a single lot of 10 or more similar pieces. This in turn makes it harder to attract a lot of bidders, since most people aren't looking for 10 or 12 pieces of anything.
So, to conclude, you don't need to fasten a seat belt for 2020 as far the resale markets go but instead expect a continued gentle descent in values. The one wildcard will be the 2020 presidential election. Depending on how that shakes out, a loss of confidence in the financial markets could make for a nasty downturn, which will only incite more people to sell and make for even fewer buyers. Something to think about...
Beginning in the 17th century, a tradition sprang up among the aristocrats of Britain and the nations to take what became known as "The Grand Tour". The concept was straightforward: in order for the sons of wealthy families to gain knowledge and culture, they would take a trip through the cultural centers of Western Europe. This would expose them to the elements of classicism and the Renaissance as well as foster important aristocratic contacts.
The "tour" could last months or even years and while it did indeed provide cultural benefits, it also afforded opportunities for risqué partying and often became merely a pleasurable extended journey. By the mid-19th century, however, technological advances in transportation had opened the world to far more that just the wealthy and the Grand Tour subsequently diminished as a rite of passage for the wealthy.
Picking up the baton in the late 19th century, however, were Americans. With trans-Atlantic travel increasingly accessible, wealthy American families began making their own "Grand Tour" since at the time, Europe was still considered culturally superior. Many of the affluent American patricians were self-made in humble industries and an extensive travel throughout Europe was perceived to confer a desirable veneer of sophistication.
The impact of the Grand Tour on the antiques and art markets was considerable. Early on, it helped to inspire artists, architects, and other creatives. Later, it became an opportunity for the enterprising class, who sold antiquities and art to wealthy travelers or marketed their services as cultural experts and advisors. This reached a crescendo during the Gilded Age, when the so-called "robber barons" such as Frick, Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and others began to amass important art collections sourced from Europe. Skilled artists in Europe copied museum works for collectors of lesser means, and today even those works can bring substantial sums.
Unfortunately, it also sparked a lively trade in forgeries, especially for works by popular, easily copied artists such as Corot. A running joke in the art world is that Corot painted two thousand works and all three thousand are in the US. Even some of the most storied galleries of the day were complicit in this trade but at the time, the rivalries were fierce and the gallery owners saw money to be made.
No figure loomed larger in this than Lord Joseph Joel Duveen, arguably the greatest art dealer in history. Abetted by a shady art scholar named Bernard Berenson, Duveen sold art literally by the train car load to the robber barons. It was one of the most fascinating times in Western art history and two good books are recommended. The first, "Duveen" by S. N. Berman, is a lighthearted treatment of Duveen and his career. Less flattering is "Artful Partners" by Colin Simpson. Both are excellent and offer wonderful insights into the final peak of the "Grand Tour" era.
The mountain city of Taxco in Mexico has long been a center of silver making. Ironically, it was a North American architect, William Spratling, who first began the 20th century tradition with his silver workshop. Called the Taller de la Delicias, it was founded in 1931. Spratling combined traditional Mexican forms and iconography with hand-crafted silver jewelry that became enormously popular. This in turn inspired generations of Mexican silversmiths in the ensuing decades and Taxco remains an important center of silversmithing to this day.
While much of the silver jewelry produced over the decades in Taxco was aimed at the tourist trade, significant collector pieces also were produced. Some of the best known makers include Spratling, Margot, Los Costillo, Victoria, and Pineda. These makers produced an amazing variety of high-quality sterling silver jewelry, sometimes incorporating stones such as turquoise and onyx in their pieces. As you might expect, however, works from these artisans command the highest prices.
So where is value to be found in Mexican silver? Personally, I feel that a great area to explore is the Mid-century Modern jewelry made in Taxco during the 1950's and 60's. In particular, I feel that excellent bargains can still be had in the so-called "mixed metal" pieces made by lesser-known silversmiths. These are pieces that combine other metals such as copper with the sterling silver (plus stones such as malachite and onyx).
The value stems from three things, as I see it. First, by seeking out works by talented but lesser known silversmiths, you avoid a "name" premium when purchasing a piece. Secondly, the design of some of the pieces can be absolutely striking and thus make a strong statement when worn. Lastly, Mid-Century Modern design remains very popular today, which in turn keeps the Taxco mid-mod jewelry relevant to current fashion trends. This is especially true with pieces that combine bold designs and clean lines, such as the ones shown in the above photo.
As to where to find good pieces online, look at sites such as Etsy and Ruby Lane. If, like me, you also enjoy the true thrill of the hunt, go to antique shows and flea markets and search the large flat cases of jewelry that many dealers put out on their tables. This allows you to inspect a piece closely and also bargain with the dealer for a better price. Most show dealers have some wiggle room in their prices so never hesitate to ask. Expect to pay $100 or less for most pieces which, when one considers the craftsmanship, age, and design, is an absolute bargain in my book.
Discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, the Lewis Chessmen are one of the most famous artifacts found in Europe. Numbering about 93 pieces, the chessmen are mostly carved from walrus ivory and date to the 12th century.
For many years historians have attributed the origin of the pieces to Norway. Researcher and author Nancy Marie Brown, however, has raised the possibility that the set may have in fact been carved in Iceland by an artisan known as Margaret the Adroit. If so, it would then be likely that the chess pieces were given as gifts to Norwegian nobility by an Icelandic bishop or other high ranking official.
Regardless, the highly unusual chess figures have stoked the imagination of archeologists and historians ever since their discovery. Presently, 82 pieces reside in the British Museum, 11 in the National Museum of Scotland, with four pieces unaccounted for. Until last month, the total of missing pieces was five but a recent discovery now has a placed one piece in private hands.
Purchased by a now-deceased Scottish antiques dealer for $6 in 1964, the piece was found in a drawer by the dealer's heirs and brought to market via Sotheby's. Estimated at $670,000 - 1.2 million, the chess piece hammered down for $927,500, thus making it the most expensive chess piece ever sold at auction. The buyer chose to remain anonymous and whether the piece will be placed for public viewing in the future remains unknown.
Although this is an extreme example, it also illustrates a mantra of mine: always get things checked out if you are unsure as to whether an item has value. Odds are, you won't have a Lewis Chessmen piece on your hands, but it doesn't mean you don't have something of value!
NOTE: For further reading on Brown's theory of Icelandic origin, you can track down her book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Carved Them (St. Martin's Press, 2015).
With items across the board bringing less and less each year, finding value in an estate can be challenging. One area that people often overlook, however, is the jewelry box. What many people dismiss as out-of-fashion and costume jewelry can still have significant value just on the metal content alone.
As I write this post, sterling silver is at a very low price point and thus it will take a fair amount in terms of weight to generate significant income. That being the case, the silverware chest will be a better bet than the jewelry box.
Gold, however, is a different story and it doesn't take much to start adding up to some real money. Weighing gold can be confusing since it is often measured in troy ounces, which are heavier than standard ounces. But, a troy pound has fewer ounces than a standard pound so the troy pound is lighter. My advice is to make life easier and just weigh everything in grams, like I do. Problem solved since the internet has free sites galore that will give you daily prices of metals in grams.
Gold content is very important. Your finest gold will be 24 karat, followed by 22K, 18K, 14K and on down to 8K. By law, gold must be marked but often times the mark is very hard to find. And, sometimes instead of a karat mark you will instead see a number, such as "585". This is a percentage number based on 24K as 100 percent. 585 means 14K gold since 14 divided by 24 is essentially .585. Likewise, .750 means 18K gold since 18 is 75% of 24. Obviously, the higher the gold content the better when it comes to value.
One mark to watch for is "GF". When present, it will almost always be immediately to the right of the gold mark. GF means "gold filled" and might as well stand for, "not gold". A "gold filled" item, also sometimes called "rolled gold", means that the item is made of base metal with a thin gold coating. There is no precious metal value in a gold filled item, so be sure to look for it before taking an item in to sell.
A final word of warning: on occasion, a gold chain will have a gold clasp but the chain itself will be "gold tone", i.e. base metal with a gold finish. The photo above is a good example of this. The clasp is marked "585", meaning 14K gold, but the chain turned out not to be gold. As Ronald Reagan famously said, "trust... but verify". A reputable gold/silver dealer will usually perform this test for you while you wait.
Insurance is a topic that sends almost anyone heading for the hills. Face it, most of us would rather talk about anything... March Madness, the weather, annoying relatives, you name it... rather than insurance. But, if you have nice things, insurance is something that you really want to explore.
Perhaps the most common misconception is that artwork, antiques, etc. are covered by your homeowner's policy. In fact, that usually is not the case. To get coverage for your finer things, most insurance companies require a separate policy commonly referred to as a Fine Arts Rider. The value threshold will differ from company to company, so this is a conversation you definitely want to have with your agent.
In most instances, insurers will require a written insurance appraisal for items covered by the rider. While that is good for appraisers like myself, you will want to do the math first to make sure the appraisal cost plus the rider cost makes sense relative to the items you wish to cover.
For household contents, a great idea is to do an inventory, both written and digital. Save purchase receipts and scan them both to a flash drive that you can store off site plus on cloud server such as Google. Redundancy is your friend here! The easiest way to do the digital documentation is to do a slow 360 degree video of each room. Most insurance companies will do the right thing regardless but there is a lot of truth to a picture being worth a thousand words.
Lastly, do your inventory and insurance updates now. Having been through Hurricane Irma here in Sarasota, take it from me: you will have your hands full with plenty of other things besides insurance policies in the event of severe weather or any other sort of disaster ;-)
Adult beverages have been a part of American history from the very first days of the colonies. Taverns were key meeting spots and early accounts indicate that the settlers consumed copious amounts of booze of every sort, often locally distilled. Thus, most of the early glassware made in the US was aimed at both the storage and imbibing of spirits, including the lovely "swirl" bottles made in Zanesville, OH in the early 19th century.
One of my favorite early forms is an ale tumbler referred to as a "firing glass". These were tapered ale glasses mounted on a thick, solid discoidal base. Popular in lodge halls, the lodge members would pound the tables with them as a way of applause, although they were also probably a convenient weapon during the occasional brawl.
With the introduction of sophisticated European wares in the late 19th century, American glass makers strove to produce equivalents here in the US. Some of the best forms were the amazing cut crystal glass decanters and whiskey tumblers made in Wheeling and other US glass centers in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.
By the 1920's, American glass houses were expanding into different colors and adding etches and overlays to their wares. Over time, fussy designs gave way to sleeker, more contemporary looks such as the 1930's Cambridge decanter set shown above. The advent of the Mid-century Modern era furthered this trend. Metal cocktail shakers became standard fixtures in homes along with contemporary highball and martini glasses to go with them. These latter pieces of barware have enjoyed a noticeable return to popularity thanks to the Mad Men TV series.
Prices today across the barware field reflect this trend. Elegant crystal such as Waterford and Baccarat brings a fraction of what it used to. More popular instead among collectors and those just looking for fun barware are the mid-mod cocktail shaker sets and other pieces of barware with a contemporary look. Speaking as an appraiser, I expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future.
Bryan H. Roberts is a professional appraiser in Sarasota, FL. He is a member of the Florida State Guardianship Association, the Sarasota County Aging Network (president), and is certified in the latest Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practice (USPAP) Equivalent