Rinker On Collectibles: Selling a Specialized Antiques or Collectibles Collection: Some Considerations

I frequently am approached by individuals seeking advice on how to best sell a specialized antiques or collectibles collection. Whether the inquirer is the person who assembled the collection, a widow or widower, or the executor of an estate, my answer rarely varies.

First, seek professional advice. If the asker is the person who assembled the collection, this is doubly true. A collector is too intimately involved with his collection to objectively evaluate it for sale purposes. He needs advice from a neutral party. Fellow collectors are not neutral. Since they are potential buyers, they should play no role in developing a dispersal plan.

Historically, when faced with the sale of a specialized antiques or collectibles collection, the standard approach was to do one’s own research by going to a local bookstore and/or public library and obtaining one or more reference books and/or price guides. This approach is no longer valid.

The secondary antiques and collectibles resale market has grown in complexity during the past two decades. The Internet, especially eBay’s impact on pricing, rapidly changing collecting and decorating trends, and development of a global marketplace are three primary reasons. This complexity requires (1) all prices, especially those in a price guide, be interpreted and (2) a wider search for sale opportunities is necessary.

There are a small, but growing number of independent appraisers and other individuals specializing in collection disposal management. These individuals are not dealers and have no ties to specific auction houses or other sale sources. Their clients are their only interest. Beware of individuals who offer to help for free or request the right of “first” buy from the collection for their services.

Alas, America is a “do it yourself” nation. Most individuals faced with the disposal of a specialized antiques or collectibles collection will ignore the above advice, primarily because they do not want to pay for something they feel they can do just as well themselves. The next step is the same, whether done by the professional or the amateur freelancer.

Second, make a list of the collection using Excel or graph paper. Allow for four columns to the right of the descriptive listings column on the left. Record condition information (graded on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 the worst and 10 the highest grade) in the first column, pricing information obtained from a price guide in the second, pricing information found on eBay or other Internet sources in the third, and an estimated “reasonable” secondary market sale price in the fourth. If the person who assembled the collection maintained a purchase price journal, create an additional column with this information between the third and fourth column.

This information is essential before developing a dispersal plan. Pay careful attention to the pricing differences between price guide values and those from Internet sources. Assume eBay prices are retail. Do not fall into the trap of equating eBay with a standard auction house.

Dealers purchasing for resale are one of the main auction buying groups. Since they wish to profit , they have to place a higher value on these items when offered for sale at their mall, shop, or show booth. When a collector is the final purchaser, an auction price can reflect full secondary market retail, but not always. Even collectors find bargains at auction.

Is there a specialized price guide for every collecting category? While the answer is no, not for “every” category, over two-thirds of all major collecting categories have been the subject of a price guide at some point in the last twenty-five years. There is the rub. Although specialized price guides exist, not all specialized price guides are current. Always check the copyright date of any specialized price guide before using it. Specialized price guides appear when a market is strong and disappear when it is weak. No one likes purchasing a specialized price guide whose prices indicate the value of their collection has decreased.

Specialized auction catalogs, general auction catalogs with substantial listings of a specific collecting category, and sales lists from collectors’ club convention auctions can be helpful, especially when no printed price guide exists. In order to obtain the price received by the seller, subtract the amount represented by the buyer’s penalty (remember, it is not a premium as far as I am concerned) and the auction house commission for the final sales price.

Take the same approach with pricing information obtained from eBay. Prices realized do not include shipping. When shipping exceeds five dollars, bidders will deduct the shipping cost from their final planned bid, not something they would do when bidding if present at an auction or contemplating a buy at a mall, shop, or show. EBay has layered fees. Again, these need to be deducted from the final sale price if one wishes to obtain an accurate price realized by the seller.

There are many electronic pricing sites, especially in the fine arts area. Go Antiques’ PriceMiner covers a much broader market spectrum. I recommend it.

Third, understand where value rests. Value is not spread evenly among most collections. Typically the top twenty percent of a collection’s value represents more than half of the collection’s total value. If the goal is to sell the collection as a unit, this top twenty percent is a primary inducement for the buyer to purchase the whole. Allowing one or more of the top items in a collection to be cherry picked, i.e., sold separately, disproportionably diminishes the value of the entire collection.

Understanding where and how value resides in a collection is critical to deciding whether to sell a collection as a unit or break it apart and sell it singly or in smaller groups, either privately or via auction. Identifying and understanding sale opportunities is another.

Fourth, study the antiques and collectibles secondary resale marketplace. Focus on these two truths: (1) the resale market is global and (2) the more time you are willing to commit to the selling process, the greater the financial return.

Collectors dream of their collections being sold in a single-owner sale, i.e., one grand, glorious, multi-day catalog sale attended by every major collector in the world. Can the dream come true? The answer is no for general collections. The answer is maybe, possibly yes for a specialized antiques or collectibles collection.

Auction is the most common method used to sell specialized antiques or collectibles collections, especially high-end collections. The key is finding the right auction, one with a reputation for selling the specialty and with a strong buyer base. Under no circumstances sell through an auctioneer or auction house who does not utilize Internet bidding, either via ebayliveauctions.com, proxybid.com, or a similar Internet firm.

Private treaty sales, sales negotiated by a major auction house directly with a private buyer rather going through the bidding process, are increasing in number. Most private treaty sales are single-object sales. As this method of sale increases, it will branch out and include collections.

Collection disposal managers also act as sale agents, i.e., serve as the principal contact person with an auction house(s) or a private or corporate buyer. It is important to have a signed contract or letter of agreement indicating how the manager is to be compensated. Although the standard practice is a percentage of the total sale, an hourly fee with a cap often serves the client better. Clients also should ask if the manager plans to ask the auction house or buyer for a “finder’s fee,” i.e., a fee paid for bring the business to the auction house or buyer. If the answer is yes, the client should pay a much lower to no fee to the collection manager.

My Sell, Keep, or Toss?: How to Downsize a Home, Settle an Estate, and Appraise Personal Property, published by House of Collectibles / Random House Information Group, provides additional information pertaining to the sale of antiques and collectibles collections. It is available at your local bookstore, amazon.com and similar on-line sites, and autographed through www.harryrinker.com.

I end as I began. Only a fool tries to sell a specialized antiques or collectibles collection without sophisticated pricing and market sale dispersal knowledge. This knowledge is not something one learns quickly, certainly not when time is a factor. If you need it and do not have it, hire the services of someone who does.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out www.harryrinker.com.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live and is archived on the Internet at www.goldenbroadcasters.com

SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group, $16.95), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via www.harryrinker.com.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2008

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