- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Imagine you're standing in the basement amid piles of once-prized possessions, in the mood for spring cleaning. Before you bulldoze your way to the dump, remember that one person's trash is another person's treasure.

Nice saying, that, but sometimes it would help to know the difference.

The market for antiques and collectibles is ever-fluctuating, and an object's age and subjective factors such as public interest and sentimental value come into play. Yet, whether you're shopping at flea markets or sifting through the attic, there are ways to determine an item's value if you cannot make it to the Antiques Roadshow, that is.

Antique chic

People are less concerned with the authenticity of an antique than with the "look," says Barbara Fortune, owner of Less Than a Fortune, an antiques and used-furnishings store on Capitol Hill.

"People are looking for pieces that are nostalgic, that remind them of something from their grandmother's house," she says. "Just because [an item] is not an antique doesn't mean it doesn't have any value."

Still, true antiques generally defined as at least 100 years old are highly coveted and paid for accordingly. Ms. Fortune says she makes several buying trips each week and rarely finds a real antique.

The first step in determining an object's value, she says, is to trace its history as far back as possible by asking questions. Who owned it? If it was your mother's and she is 85 and it was a gift from her mother, you know it's an old piece.

Second, check for date markings. Some pieces have plates engraved with the manufacturer's name or logo inside drawers. Experts or books on antiques can help determine the age range, based on when a maker was in business or when certain types of plates were used. Look underneath furniture for printed dates.

You also can check out an item's hardware drawer handles, castings, etc. to determine an era. Are the drawer handles brass or just brass-plated? Turn-of-the-century items will not have Phillips screws, Ms. Fortune says, and older pieces will not have any screws.

Remember that hardware can be replaced to make an item appear older, and style, aging of wood and general condition should be considered. But don't blame yourself if you are fooled.

"Looking for authenticity takes a trained eye," Ms. Fortune says. "Things today are reproduced to the point where it's difficult for even an expert to tell."

Sometimes the experts can spot an antique from a good distance, however. Ms. Fortune recently found herself in a client's cluttered basement. When he stepped through the heap to grab some toys, Ms. Fortune says, his foot dislodged some papers, revealing the corner of an old dresser. It turned out to be a dresser dating to 1820 to 1860 and had a price tag of $5.95 still hanging from it. The dresser now sits in Ms. Fortune's shop priced at $695.

Mass appeal

How "hot" something is in public opinion is a major factor determining value, says local expert appraiser Jerome C. Ford of Items of Value appraising firm.

"The present value of an item is based on public appeal," he says. "It goes up and down like the stock market people have to watch the market trends."

Disney toys and Coca-Cola memorabilia are big now, while the value of Titanic memorabilia already is declining after the upsurge caused by the movie, Mr. Ford says. The value of Persian rugs is going down and will fall further now that the United States has lifted the trade embargo with Iran.

The most important tips to remember are to shop around, check asking prices and consider who is selling what, Mr. Ford says. Also remember that an antiques and collectibles dealer often will give a 10 percent to 20 percent discount on a whim, and the sticker price never should be used alone to determine value.

An item's condition is intrinsic to its public appeal and value, yet people often mistakenly disregard small flaws, Mr. Ford says.

"People generally overlook small cracks or chips in china or glassware because they don't realize the value doesn't drop 10 percent, it drops 70 to 80 percent."

You can use antiques price guides and indexes to determine an item's worth during a certain year, but professional appraisers are the best way to go. They usually take great pains to get this data for you.

Gotta have it

The "gotta have it" aspect of those old items when people buy or keep them because of sentimental value is perhaps the strongest measure of value.

"If you get something for free, you should keep it because you like it," Mr. Ford says, "not just based on monetary value."

In general, people want to decorate their homes with items their grandmother not their mother and father had in their homes. Collectors buy the older items, but they are too pricey and not as appealing to regular folks, says Sharon Shetrone, owner of Mom's Memories, an antiques and collectibles shop in Woodbridge, Va.

"Right now, people are looking at '50s and '60s things, and to me, that is trash," she says. "But I don't like them because I grew up with them I am a grandmother now."

Depression-era glass, pottery, Fiesta ware, old candy tins and other containers are hot items from a bygone day when such serviceable items were luxuries and were repaired instead of being thrown away.

"We are such a disposable society now, but not back then," Mrs. Shetrone says. "Those things shouldn't be thrown away those are somebody else's treasures."

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