Learn to buy and sell antiques and collectibles

Using Antique Price Guides

A search on Amazon for "antiques price guides" brings up 35,000 books. Obviously, price guides are popular.

In this article, you will learn how to use a price guide, and some common mistakes made by users. You will also learn how to access the reliability of a price guide.

How Price Guides Determine Value

First lets talk about how price guides come up with the values inside them. There are three ways prices get into guide books:

  1. Prices are taken from auction results.
  2. Guide prices are observed at shows, stores, and within advertisements.
  3. Prices are gathered by surveying dealers
  4. .

Most antiques price guides are compiled using a combination of the three methods listed above. Using a combination and averaging the results is the only way to get reliable information.

Any antique guide that features only prices taken from auction results will give exaggerated prices. This is because auction prices are usually a bit higher due to bidders getting excited and over bidding.

Observed prices are not a good indicator of value either. If something is sitting on a table at a well attended show it is priced at or above the actual value. Anything priced significantly below its value will sell during the show set up. Any desirable antique priced at or slightly below its value should sell at a well attended show. Therefore, anything left over is either over-priced or undesirable. Or both.

All good quality antiques price guides should contain a statement within the introduction outlining how the values are determined. If a price guide doesn't tell you how the prices are determined, do not place a lot of value on the prices.

Another way to tell if an antique price guide contains real prices is to compare the values given for different conditions. Many guides contain two or more prices for each item. For example a "Like New" value and a "Very Good" value. If these prices are mathematically derived, the guide should be suspect. In other words, if the "Very Good" value is always 60 percent of the "Like New" value it's suspect.

This is because the values of rarer items usually have smaller spreads between conditions than more common items. Said another way, common items will have bigger price spreads based on condition. This is because lower grade common items are easy to find, and collectors will pay a premium for really nice examples.

Common Antiques Price Guide Mistakes

  • You are always better using a specialized guide than a generic guide. For example a price guide listing all pottery made in the US will not be as accurate as a book listing only Fiesta dishes.
  • Guides must have depth. There are a large number of small "pocket price guides" on the market. Most of these do not list variations. If you are researching prices on a collectible where variation affect the value, you must use a guide that lists these variations. I once bought a $1500 item for my collection from a dealer for $125 because the dealer was too cheap to buy a detailed price guide.
  • Some yearly guides are updated by changing the values mathematically. These lazy publishers just multiply every price in the guide by 1.05 or some other number to get the new prices. In any category of collectibles, values do not change based on interest rates or other economic indicators. Values change based only on supply and demand. See researching antique values for more information.
  • Many inexperienced price guide users concentrate on the higher prices. Remember, price is dependent on condition. Reading only the highest price is misleading.
  • Forgetting they are price guides. Many antiques and collectibles dealers seem to forget the guides are only guides and base all their pricing on them. Price guides are only one component of researching items. You must have a knowledge base to draw on in addition to the guides.
Remember, price guides can be a valuable resource, but are only guides. Get a high quality recently updated guide and use it to guide you to the value of an item.

PS. See also Antiques Appraisal Advice.


Many of the articles and free reports here on IWantCollectibles were originally sent to readers of my Antiques and eBay Newsletter. Not all articles make it onto the website, and readers also get notices of free reports and special offers.

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