When money gets tight, flush buyers get selective

Posted Oct. 31, 2008, at 10:13 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:27 a.m.

Q. No one in my family seems interested in my baseball card collection. I’m not good on the computer, but I want to sell. Can you suggest someone who will help me sell at a fair price? — Collector, Boynton Beach, Fla.

Q. I inherited a Chinese tapestry given by a Chinese banker as a wedding gift in 1944. It was supposedly made in the 17th century for the emperor and hung in his palace. There is nothing to authenticate this. A San Francisco museum evaluated it at $35,000 in 1955. I have no papers on that. A Chinese art appraisal place in New York wants $500 to appraise it. I cannot do that at this time, but I need to sell it. Advice? — Fran, Green Valley, Ariz.

Q. My Audubon print is from the Elephantine series. It is in fair condition. Is it really worth prices I’ve seen for others? — Bill, Boca Raton, Fla.

Q. Can you help me find Web sites for vintage greeting cards, old typewriters and German cookie boxes? — Connie, Tucson, Ariz.

Q. I have a team-signed ’69 World Series Mets baseball. How do I get a fair estimate and sell? — Pat, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Q. My first edition plate showing “The Lord’s Supper” is in excellent condition. I think it may have some value. — Pauline, Richmond, Va.

A. When times get tough, many think about selling treasures to raise cash. But think: Who is buying, today? And more to the point — if (and that’s a big if) people buy, what kinds of items get the gold?

I’ll make this easy. Look at the photos that accompany this column. Note record prices realized as recently as the past week. Not incidentally, the items shown share traits. Both are rare, one of a kind, in superb condition, and have impeccable provenance. Both are fresh to the market, from distinguished collections.

Smart collectors know this axiom about the collecting world: When money tightens up, buyers become very, very selective. They buy exclusively what they want, and pay for only the best.

Signature pieces at the top are always easier to move than middle-ground merchandise. Worse is mid- to lower grade merchandise with any taint of condition issues. Today, everything but the best is dead in the water.

With that in mind, let’s review the reader questions.

The writer who wants to sell on eBay but needs help can find a local trading assistant on the site. Assistants do all the work for a percentage of the sale. Know their rates before you commit.

The second writer thinks her tapestry may be valuable, but she has no documentation. Since intent is to sell, she should photograph it from all angles and send images plus all verifiable info to several auction houses. If any think she has something special, they will provide estimates and invite her to consign. About that appraisal: Was the quote for a full written appraisal? An oral appraisal costs much less. It pays to ask.

Artist and naturalist John James Audubon produced a series of more than 400 paintings of birds and quadrupeds of North America. Very early hand-colored etchings of his work were authorized, but his paintings and prints have been copied for more than a century, in all grades of quality. Authentic double elephant (extra large) folio sheets are so rare that certain authentic, early prints such as the Snowy Owl sell for six figures or more if in excellent condition.

The reader’s print must be authenticated. “Fair” condition is not good. Only when the print is authentic and of a desirable subject is leeway allowed.

Smart collectors seeking Web sites use Google. That way they find collector clubs, a great resource. Antique typewriters have their own clubs and collector books. Standard vintage typewriters sell online.

Several sports auction houses sell signed team baseballs. I’d shop the Mets ball to www.mastroauctions.com, www.greyflannel.com and www.robertedwardauctions.com. If interested, they’ll tell you what the ball might bring. Of course, there’s online — the best bet is to present it to a pool of motivated, moneyed buyers. That’s the auction advantage.

Two factors work against the “Lord’s Supper” plate. First, collector plates are a dead market. And religious art is a hard sell. I’d try it on eBay. You need to find someone who wants that plate. Don’t expect a bundle, and hope for the best.

Auction action: While world markets plummeted and financial woes overwhelmed just about anyone with a pulse, records were set on the auction front. Smart buyers with means always pay big for the very best. In Maine, auctioneer James Julia sold a Colt Walker pistol made for use in the Mexican War. The $920,000 result set a world record for a firearm at auction. In Hong Kong, Sotheby’s realized almost $8.7 million for a rare piece of Chinese history, a pair of historic Qianlong (1662-1746) scrolls painted on silk showing the emperor reviewing his troops.

Collector quiz

Q. Mexican silver jewelry tends to ride waves of popularity. Currently popular are original pieces from what decades?

1. 1935-1955

2. 1920-1940

3. 1945-1955

4. 1930-1940

5. 1940-1970

A. Pieces from the Art Deco period (2) and midcentury (5) are generally most sought after. Source: “Mexican Silver Jewelry Details” by Leslie Pina (Schiffer, $89.99). Worth every penny, the book is comprehensive, complete (includes prices), highly illustrated, and covers marks, makers and types.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to smartcollector@comcast.net or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

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