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Value of antiques depends on demand

Readers of antique-oriented articles are involved readers: They write letters. For a writer reporting on the antiques scene, that comes as a pleasant surprise.

When I reported on the abrupt decline in auction prices for good usable antique furniture, a reader in Washington State wrote asking how to take advantage of those bargains.

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Recently a reader in Ohio wrote complaining of the prices offered by dealers in her area for her antiques. Others have the same questions: How does one know how much to pay for an antique? How does an owner get the best price for those family heirlooms?

Antiques aren't like other commodities such as stocks, bonds, gold, and silver. The price structure of antiques fluctuates widely around one key point: demand. But there are some general rules you must know to both buy and sell antiques successfully:

1. Know what you have to sell or want to buy. When you are selling, spend time at the library or at shops, shows, and museums to determine just what it is that you own. It may be worthwhile calling in an appraiser. Your local museum or historical society may hold an identification day. Take your antiques, or good clear photos of them, to experts.

If you are considering buying antiques, know what you want. Read books, visit shops, shows, and museums, and pick the style, era, material, and quality you want to own.

2. Now the big problem emerges: price, or value. If you hired an appraiser you have those prices. If not, you must go to the price guides or auction reports and match your pieces with those listings. Get a current guide at your library or bookstore. Now you have to find what similar pieces actually sell for in your area.

Here's why: The price guide listing for an average Empire era sideboard might be $1,000. You might find in your area (a rural location, perhaps) that no dealer or auctioneer can sell a similar piece for more than $400. That price guide example was for a city piece sold at a city auction.

Anytime you use a price guide to determine the value of an antique, you must balance that figure for your area. Follow the same steps for prospective purchases. Set realistic limits.

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3. Don't forget to factor in the effects of demand for quality. If you stick with that $400 figure for an average Empire sideboard in your area, you might not buy it at auction if the piece was so far above average that it attracted the attention of discerning collectors and dealers. These buyers will ignore your local price structures and chase this prime piece to that national figure of $1,000 or more.

Similarly, if the piece you own is above average in any degree, that should raise its value. You have to be able to determine these qualities.

4. There's another step involved in selling your antiques, and it's a sobering one. You're going to have to give up some of that retail price to someone to sell your antiques.

No dealer will pay a retail price for stock. Most will pay around 50 percent of retail for average-quality pieces. Particularly choice and salable pieces will bring up to 80 percent in some cases, but they must be offered to those who specialize and want them. Taking the same pieces to the wrong dealer could result in greatly reduced prices.

Auctions? There's an auctioneer's commission of from 10 to 25 percent to deduct from any sales. Send your antiques to the right auction, or you are in for disappointments. If you have specialized pieces, like dolls, choose an auction house that specializes in them. Choose a general-line auction house if you have a variety, but look for one that will advertise your offerings.

Still looking for that full retail price? You could advertise in a national publication, but there are drawbacks there, too. The majority of responses will probably come from dealers. If you sell at the asking price to a dealer, you have probably underestimated the retail price. If the antique doesn't sell, you have probably priced it too high.

Tricky, isn't it? A lot of people find the auction route the safest way to sell. If you can't judge the value and demand for your antique, maybe you should take the advice of one old country auctioneer. When someone asked him what a piece was worth, he answered: ''It's worth whatever it'll bring on the auction block, no more and no less.''

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