Critical Considerations in Collecting

Critical Considerations in Collecting  by Rosemary McKittrick

What are some of the important points for beginning collectors to keep in mind when they’re starting out?

Not everything old has value. An 18th century religious text may be 200-years-old and may be only one of five in existence, but without demand, the cash value is small.

If I had to bottom line it below you’ll find a list of essential things to remember.  And if you think ahead and do a bit of research, you can save yourself the expense of learning through mistakes.

You want to look for the best examples of things in the best possible condition.  Condition is everything in the art, antique and collectible field.  And that’s across the board.  Even in a bad economy top-quality merchandise in good condition commands interest.  While lower quality items may sit on the shelf for eons.

The next area to consider is age.  The dictionary defines an antique as anything at least 100-years-old.  If you visited shops lately it can be difficult to find anything much over 50-years-old.  Whether you’re talking bottles or bicycles, the older, the more valuable rule still applies to most antiques. 

But not everything old has value.  An 18th century religious text may be 200-years-old and may be only one of five in existence, but without demand, the cash value is small.

The law of supply and demand determines price.  The best examples are always going to be more in demand and harder to find.  That’s why collectors sometimes trade up.  Maybe they’ll buy something they love like a 1950s cookie jar they remember seeing on mom’s kitchen table.  Maybe it’s chipped and the condition is iffy.  A collector might buy it anyway and hold onto it hoping to come across the same cookie jar down the road in better condition. 

Rarity.  Documents describing important events in history are an example of the types of things feeding demand.  Collectors are discerning.  They want what’s important which is often rare.  This is painfully true with ephemera.  Old photos, broadsides, letters and autographs deteriorate when exposed to light and time.  As they disappear, so does history.

Museum exhibitions, auctions, and galleries expose audiences to the delicate distinctions of good, better and best in art, antiques and collectibles.  They’re great laboratories for learning.  It’s the delicate distinctions that can make all the difference. 

Provenance is the history of ownership.  Every antique you pick up has history.  So what’s the big deal? 

When you can document (paper trail) where an object has been over time and who owned it, you have solid provenance.  Nobody is going to take your word for it.  They need to see the documentation.  The provenance adds credibility and value to an object.  It might be a letter attached to the back of a painting, or an old sales receipt.  Even when provenance is established, the value of a piece will ultimately lie in its own merit.

Quality.  The idea of something being valuable merely because it’s old is shortsighted.  No matter how much age something has, the value will depend on its quality.  Age can be a secondary issue in antiques.

The best (highest quality) works of art, painted by the best artists, will command the highest prices in the marketplace.  It’s a good argument for buying the best you can afford in any category.   

In the end you’re going to have to trust your gut reactions to things.  If it’s a great Victorian oak table, you’ll always remember the feeling you had the first time you looked at it.  The way you heart pounded.

Remember that feeling and bring it to everything you consider buying.  Also remember to buy with your heart and your head.  Shrewd collecting can be profitable as well as fun.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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