THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENT AND OFTEN MOST DIFFICULT QUESTIONS WE GET ON THE WEBSITE: Thanks to ESA member Philip Moorhouse for these wise words endorsed by the Ephemera Society of Australia’s committee.
The question “I have an XXX. How much is it worth?” comes up frequently in comments and questions on The Collecting Bug.
This common question is more complex than it first appears, and the quick answer is “Whatever someone else is willing to pay for it”. Just because something is old, or unusual to you, does not mean it is valuable. Something is only valuable if someone else is prepared to buy it.
I once purchased a newspaper from the 1860s for around $10.00. This was a unique piece of history, 160 years old, complete and in immaculate condition – why was the price so low? Well for a start, nobody collects newspapers. It wasn’t a particularly special edition with an historic headline, and a library had de-accessioned ten years of daily papers as they had been digitised. The dealer who bought them had hundreds to sell – all for $10 each!
Your object may be a treasured family heirloom that has been carefully passed down many generations, or it may be something you found yesterday by the roadside. Be aware that none of this matters to a potential purchaser.
How do you make an assessment?
The first step is to identify and define what you have. Look for publisher, manufacturer or product/brand names, and any identification marks. Is it obviously a collectible sort of item – if so, what sort of collector might be interested in it?
Condition can be all important in the worth of an item. For example, a small chip in a glass bottle may reduce the value by 80%, or a bent corner may halve the price of a trading card. Be ruthless when you examine your own item.
A. Looking online
- If you know what your object is called, do a general Google search and see what comes up. Look carefully at the terms used in descriptions, which will usually give you some additional, more precise terms to use in a second, more refined search. If there is a manufacturer or brand name use that in your search.
- Try Ebay. You will quickly get a sense if your item is common, or not particularly valuable. Remember that listings only show what the seller is hoping it might sell for, it does not mean that is what it is worth.
- Try a Google image search to see what similar images you can find.
- Often, like a daisy chain, if you can find one link, it will lead you to further links.
B. Google Lens
Google Lens is a remarkably powerful image recognition technology based on machine learning. It is inbuilt with most android phones, or you can download the app from the Google Play store. Open your smartphone camera, aim at the item, and then tap the Google Lens icon. If you have an iphone, you can use Google Lens via the Google app or you can use Google Lens on your laptop or PC instead.
Google Lens will analyse the image and text, try and identify the object, and give you a search result of remarkably similar images, frequently identifying your item immediately. If it finds any Ebay listings of similar items, it will also show you these in the results.
Tip: Google Lens can also do automatic text translation, so if your object includes text in another language, it will translate for you at the same time!
C. Dealers and Antique Stores
You can try contacting dealers and antique stores. You might find antiques and collectibles dealers online, or perhaps at a local vintage and antiques market or fair, or they may have a store.
If you have taken some good quality photographs you could email the dealer, but they are under no obligation to reply to you. If you visit and see them face to face be ready with clear photos on your mobile phone or actual objects.
D. Auction Houses
If your item is really special, you can try contacting an auction house. They often have a number of staff who are experts in different areas. However, they will usually only give an appraisal if the item is “appropriate for auction.”
E. Emailing and/or asking collectors
If you can locate collectors for this type of item, or perhaps an online collecting forum, then you could try uploading a photograph of the object and see if collectors can identify it.
In general most people are extremely loath to give any sort of valuation based on photographs alone, as so much depends on condition. Particularly collectable items often have rare originals and common replicas – again, this is impossible to tell from a photograph, but the price difference might be a hundred-fold.
F. The ESA (Ephemera Society of Australia)
As you are reading this article on the ESA website, chances are your item falls under the category of “ephemera”. This can make it more difficult to value, as there is often not a ready market with many buyers and sellers. The ESA does not give valuations, for all these reasons previously given.
However, there are twice-yearly ESA Ephemera & Collectables Fairs held in Melbourne, and you could always bring the item (or clear photographs) to a Fair, and somebody may be able to assist.
G. Pay somebody to do an appraisal
You may find somebody who is willing to do a paid appraisal. In this case, they will carefully examine the object, do any required research, and give you a short report and valuation at the end. This is a lot of work, so it does not come cheap.
All this seems like a lot of work. Well, it can be. It depends on what your item is. You might find an approximate valuation in 15 minutes online, or it may take several months just to find somebody with expertise in the required specialised area.
I just want to know how much it might cost to replace. A quick online search will tell you if it is easy to replace and the likely cost.
I want to know for insurance purposes. If it is potentially valuable, then you should get a professional appraisal, with an independent valuation.
I don’t want to sell it; I just want a general idea. Look online, that will give you a general idea. If you are asking other people, remember you are asking for free advice, possibly from experts who have spent years developing that expertise. Most will be happy to help, but they are under no obligation, so ask politely.
How do I know if it is rare? A lot of things are rare, but that does not necessarily make them valuable. Again, an online search will often give you a reasonable idea. We’ve all heard stories about a valuable Ming Dynasty vase being used as a doorstop, until somebody recognised it! That’s why these stories are published – because they are so unusual. Rare things are rare.
I have an accumulation of objects, not a single item. Nobody collects an accumulation of objects, so you may need to select several items and do individual searches to give you a representative cross-section view. If you have inherited a complete collection, that is a more complex question beyond the scope of this article, and it would be worthwhile spending the time seeking an expert opinion.