Surprise! Your kids don’t want Grandma’s china. And neither do anyone else’s kids. Their reluctance reflects the fact that today’s young adults and even middle-agers are not collectors. They’ve taken decluttering to heart and have little interest in filling their shelves with figurines (or anything else) or their living rooms with uncomfortable 100-year-old furniture. At the same time, generations that did collect now are seeking to downsize.
Result of this double whammy: Sellers of most kinds of antiques and collectibles dramatically outnumber buyers these days. If you try to sell yours, you might discover that they’re worth a lot less than you thought. Some once-sought-after items are selling for prices no higher than they fetched in the 1970s and 1980s.
Antique wood furniture and anything associated with fancy dining room meals—china services and antique flatware, for example—have fared especially poorly, but values have dropped sharply virtually across the board.
Exceptions: Values have been strong among items sporting labels from a small number of famous high-end luxury brands that young adults know and respect such as Gucci handbags or Rolex or Patek Philippe watches…and among 1980s and 1990s toys, games, fashions and music and movie memorabilia. When today’s younger generations do collect, it tends to be things that they are nostalgic for from their youths.
If you’re thinking, I’ll wait for prices to rebound to sell, think again. The antiques-and-collectibles market is unlikely to rebound in the foreseeable future. With prices in steep decline, even people who do enjoy collecting are cutting back on buying—they don’t want to invest in objects that seem likely to continue to lose value.
So what’s the best way to sell antiques and collectibles in this market?
Step 1: Determine the true current value of the item. If your goal is to sell, it doesn’t matter how much you paid for an item…how old it is…or how much sentimental value it has for you. It doesn’t matter that there are similar items for sale for big bucks online—some sellers continue to ask steep prices, but those sellers are not finding buyers. It might not even matter that the item has an impressive value in a price guide, because many prices in guides are out of date in this fast-moving market. If you’re selling, the only thing that matters is what buyers will pay today. To determine that…
Check online sale prices on WorthPoint.com and/or eBay. WorthPoint tracks actual sale prices—not asking prices—in auctions on eBay and elsewhere. Pay most attention to the most recent sales. (WorthPoint costs $19.99/month following a seven-day/seven-item lookup free trial.)
You also can look up recent auction results on eBay. Only the past 90 days of completed auctions are accessible for free, but these recent results are the most meaningful anyway. Enter a description of your item, then click “Sold Items” in the left menu to see the prices that similar items brought.
Pay an appraiser to do a “walk-through appraisal.” Expect to pay $125 to $400 per hour for an appraisal that might take one to three hours depending on how many antiques or collectibles you have, where you live and the appraiser’s level of expertise. Choose an appraiser who is certified by the American Society of Appraisers and/or the International Society of Appraisers. Extensive training is required to receive these certifications. Ignore other appraisal certifications, many of which can be obtained simply by paying a fee. Seek an appraiser who specializes in the types of antiques and collectibles you own…or a generalist if you have a wide-ranging collection. A local museum might be able to recommend appropriate appraisers.
Tell the appraiser that he/she will not be allowed to purchase anything from your collection. That reduces the odds that a disreputable appraiser will provide intentionally low estimates of certain items in your collection in hopes of buying them from you at unfair prices. And ask the appraiser whether he operates according to Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP) guidelines, the profession’s code of ethics.
Step 2: Sell smart. Where and how to sell depends on what you have, how much time you are willing to invest and your goals…
eBay is the best place to sell an item if you discover that comparable items tended to attract multiple competitive bids there recently. To improve the odds that your item attracts bids, list it for a starting price perhaps 20% below the starting price of other, similar listings. In a declining market, it’s better to sell an item for a little less than you might have than risk not selling it at all.
Using an estate-sale company is the best option for items that are not in demand on eBay. Despite what they’re called, these companies don’t sell only estates of the recently deceased. This selling route is a better bet than garage sales, which require lots of work and don’t always draw big crowds or big spenders. And estate-sale companies are much more likely than auction houses to be interested in selling your possessions these days—auction houses are struggling to find bidders and tend to want only very high-end items.
Find estate-sale companies in your area through EstateSales.net—click the “Hire a Company” tab. Most estate-sale companies work for a percentage of the sale’s revenues, generally between 25% and 50%. Before hiring one of these companies, ask how much it charges…whether it has a professional appraiser on its staff (request that appraiser’s qualifications, as described earlier)…and how it will advertise your sale. Speak with at least two companies before making a choice. If the commissions you’re quoted are close to 50%, double-check whether local auction houses are interested in any high-value items before including them in the estate sale.
See whether your china, crystal and flatware have any value to pattern-matching services. Websites such as Replacements.com and IADM.com buy these items to sell to people who need replacement pieces for their own sets. Unfortunately, these companies rarely pay very much—sometimes as little as 50 cents to $1 per piece. The seller is responsible for shipping costs, so this often is not worth doing.
If you want to keep certain items in the family for emotional reasons, take one last stab at convincing your heirs to accept them. Don’t just hector your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews to take your stuff—even if this succeeds, they’ll get rid of it later if they don’t really want it. Instead, try to build happy memories for them around the items by using them at family events.
Donate items to charities, such as your town’s or religious organization’s furniture bank, Goodwill or the Salvation Army, if all else fails. You’ll get a tax deduction if you itemize your deductions (though fewer people will itemize under the new tax law).