You may think age, rarity and craftsmanship are what make for a
desirable antique or artwork... and largely you'd be
right. But these are by no means the only determinants of
value. Here are some other factors to consider.
Above: a Russian silver gilt and cloisonne enamel box, with
marks for Fedor Ruckert, circa 1908-17 which sold for £62,000 at
Lyon & Turnbull in 2007.
The antiques market operates on the principles of demand and
supply, so rarity is a principal determinant.
Buying is all about opportunity and the question 'can you find
another at a more favourable price?' is
paramount. It goes without saying, the scarcer the buying
opportunity, the greater the demand.
Date is a broad but far from irrefutable guide to value. It has
to be combined with quality of craftsmanship and scarcity.
For example, some ancient domestic pottery or coinage has
survived in large volumes. It explains why a Roman glass vessel can
be much cheaper than a novel vesta case made in small numbers in
the 20th century.
However, date is often of paramount importance to objects that
have been mass-produced over many years. In the case of a modern
design classic such as a Marcel Breuer Wassily chair, those pieces
closest to the creative process will be most desirable.
Above: a late Roman
glass flask from 4th century AD which made £50 at auction.
Damage or wear and tear will detract from value and in some
collecting fields, such as diecast toys, where the presence of
original packaging can double the price, has become of prime
importance. In general terms the more original the item the better
and there is, in collecting fields such as oak and country
furniture, always a premium to be paid for those items that have escaped restoration and
repair or acquired a pleasing surface patina and colour.
But just how much condition problems impact value will depend on
rarity. Damage detracts less when there are few opportunities to
source a better example.
The history of previous ownership can add considerable value.
This can be as simple as a famous former owner (the market for
entertainment memorabilia amply demonstrates the added value of
celebrity) or an association with a famous country house,
institution or historical event.
But provenance can be more subtle: the comfort in the knowledge
that an object was once owned by a well-known collector or
authority on a particular subject or a history that provides an
insurance policy against recent fakes.
Most simply, objects that are fresh to the market from a private
rather than a trade source are typically more desirable than those
that have been 'seen'. In the case of antiquities, which are
subject to cultural heritage laws, a failure to provide a
provenance can be problematic. There is always security in knowing
when and where an object was dug up or entered into the stream of commerce.
In short, the more you know about the background and history of
a piece, the more attractive it becomes.
Knowing the name of who or where a work of art was made is
always beneficial. This can be as simple as the name of a town on a
clock face that enhances its appeal to local residents or the mark
to a piece of porcelain denoting it as the product of a particular
In some fields, such as furniture, ceramics or metalwork,
many items are destined to remain anonymous, so a signature,
maker's name or mark will help distinguish it from the norm.
Typically, the market responds positively to new research that
helps group previously anonymous objects: the price increases that
occasioned the excavations at some of the smaller English 18th
century porcelain factories are a case in point.
A new book or a high profile exhibition can also push up prices
in the same way.
Names are particularly important in the decorative arts market
where the work of a specific designer or factory is
The terminology used by auctioneers and dealers is often
specific: the phrase 'attributed to Christopher Dresser' is
typically a much less confident declaration than the description
'by Christopher Dresser'.
In the case of mass-produced products it is worth remembering
that a prototype, often being a one-off or limited edition made by
the artist/designer himself, can have many times the value of the
items that left the production line.
Above: a silver plate
Christopher Dresser teapot manufactured by James Dixon & Sons,
stamped with facsimile signature 'Chr. Dresser', marked 'J D &
S 2273', lozenge registration mark for 1880 which sold for £3000 at
Wiltshire auctioneers Gardiner Houlgate.
Tastes for art and antiques change just as they do in everything
else. The art market is littered with once-popular artists whose
star has dimmed or whose work was largely unappreciated until it
was reassessed by future generations.
The market is in a permanent state of flux, reacting to social
change (that has seen a much-reported fall in demand for formal
dining furniture and silver for example), demographics (that sees
each new generation reassess the design movements of the past and
present) or global economics (that has seen markets soar in rapidly
In the case of the burgeoning market for Chinese works of art,
taste dictates that the highest prices are no longer reserved for
the early blue and white porcelain long valued by Western
collectors but by the decorative exuberance of wares from the Qing
dynasty loved by the Chinese.