Rare antiques can bring in thousands—even millions—of dollars. Take, for instance, a 1909–1911 “Jumbo” T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, which sold for $3.2 million in 2016 or the 18th-century Florentine ebony chest that went for $36.7 million at a London auction house in 2004. Not everything that is old will net you a fortune, though, which is one reason why it’s important to be able to identify an antique when you see one. In most cases, a professional appraisal is your first step to knowing what might be valuable—especially if you have a roomful of antiques. “One of the benefits of a professional appraisal is that you avoid ‘Exactly Like That’ syndrome,” explains Helaine Fendelman, a fine arts dealer and appraiser based in New York City. “A table from the early 1900s might look exactly like one from the 1700s but won’t have the same value.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t research an item to find its potential value on your own. Certain distinctions require a trained eye, while other antiques may only need an Internet search on sites like eBay or Barnebys to find out what people are willing to pay for the item. How much do you want to get from your antiques? If your goal is to maximize your profits on an item, you want to be as thorough as possible in your research to find out its value before you decide to sell it.
Research the item and its worth.
You have several options when researching the worth of your antiques. Nicolas Martin, flea market expert and founder of Flea Market Insiders, says that you can do online searches on sites that are dedicated to antiques (think Ruby Lane or 1stdibs) or even a quick search on a search engine like Google or Bing if you can identify the item. “Fortunately, Google reverse image search services like CamFind can help make the whole search process a breeze,” explains Martin. “On a personal note, out of 10 tests I personally conducted via the app, CamFind managed to accurately identify 60 percent of the items I searched (vintage cameras, desk fan, desk lamp, toy gun, watch, vintage glass bottle, Hohner harmonica, antique apothecary bottle), which is more than fine!”
You can also hire an antiques appraiser or use an online service like JustAnswer Appraisals to get the scoop on your items. “In addition to online services and search engines, it is possible to find out how much your antiques are worth by simply asking an antique dealer or an appraiser at an auction house, for instance,” Martin says. But you will want to research the appraiser before hiring them—check reviews, their experience level, and whether or not they’re certified as an appraiser. Additionally, some appraisers specialize in certain types of antiques, and you should look for an appraiser that is well-versed in your item.
Reconsider selling on consignment.
Consignment is a selling process in which the item is not purchased by the seller outright. Instead, it sits in their store and you only get paid once the item sells. The consignment shop also gets a hefty cut, sometimes as high as 50 percent. Fendelman says that you may want to avoid consignment altogether. “The chances of your antique being lost or damaged is much higher,” she says. “Then, it becomes a question of who’s liable when that happens.”
However, if you don’t think you have a rare find, you might be able to earn some money on your grandmother’s dresser if you put it up for consignment. Sometimes, it’s better than nothing, and you could get more for it than if you sold it at a yard sale.
Know the marketplace.
Before you sell, know the marketplace. Fendelman says that you want to not only know the market value of your antique but also the fees and other charges that the marketplace will take out of the sale of your item. “It’s usually a good idea to hire someone who can guide you and negotiate for you at the auction house,” she recommends. “If an antique is valued high enough, for example, you might not even have to pay a commission fee or for repairs to the item.” Auction houses may also specialize in different types of antiques, so choose wisely if you want to maximize profits.
The same thing is true if you decide to sell the antique online. “1stdibs, Ruby Lane, and Barnebys usually offer buyers the guarantee that they’re buying something genuine,” advises Martin, “while buyers need to do their due diligence on websites like eBay and Etsy.” Understand the terms of your chosen marketplace and all of its selling procedures, including whether antiques are vetted before being put up for sale. Sites may also take a listing fee for the item, holding you responsible for sales taxes. Accurate documentation of your sale, whether you do it through an auction house or online, also makes a difference for accounting purposes.
Know when to restore or preserve.
You might want to think twice about restoring an antique before you sell it. Why? Lofty aspirations could make the item lose its value. Fendelman recalls a colleague who stripped the ultramarine paint from an antique dresser years ago, only to learn that the value in the item had been in the paint itself. “Original condition is usually the best way to go,” explains Fendelman. “The buyer may want to decide if they want to restore it or they might want to keep it the way it is.”
But what if you want to upcycle your antique instead? Even if it doesn’t have marketplace value, if it’s attractive enough, it would appeal to buyers who like repurposed items. In that case, it might work in your favor to clean and restore the antique for sale. An old hutch that’s only worth fifty dollars as-is might increase in value as stylish upcycled décor if you give it a whole new look.