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Understanding vintage furniture’s shifting values

This coffee table was one of the few pieces of furniture my wife’s grandmother bought new in the early 1930s. Since inheriting the table it has lived everywhere she has, including college housing. Is it valuable? You better believe it is to her.


CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – A while back I presented the second most often asked question regarding older and antique furniture. That question: “Will I destroy the value if I refinish it?” I chipped in my two cents on this subject at that time, trying to soften the Antiques Roadshow hard-line attitude about original finishes by applying what we called in the 1980s “situational ethics.”

I specifically addressed the subject of finishes in that column, original or not, their importance or lack of it depending on the situation and the artifact at hand, and, having given what I consider to be the facts, I threw the question right back to the owner of piece and said, “You decide.”

But there’s more to it than that, of course. I know that it is impolite to answer a question with a question, but sometimes etiquette must take a back seat to clarity. From now on my response to that question will be: “What is your definition of value?” Naturally the comeback will be, “Market value, of course!” And once again it is not quite that simple. Let’s explore the concept of “value” and see what it is we really want to know.


If you decide that monetary value is the guiding principle then you have to determine the monetary value, if that is possible. That is easier said than done because there is no “blue book” of firm antique values, although some will claim this or that price guide is the law. But monetary value is the market price, what someone is willing to pay for that object in that place at that time, not what’s written in a price guide that may be out of date or out of step. But, as always, there’s a catch. Not only do you have to decide which market, Boston or Dallas or eBay, for example, you have to decide which type of market value you seek.

The monetary value of an antique most often quoted by appraisers is the “fair market” value. Fair market price is basically a wholesale price that a dealer in the trade would pay for the object. A fair market appraisal is the amount you would expect to realize from the sale of an item to a reputable dealer in the field or what you could reasonably expect to receive, before seller costs and premiums, through an auction service that deals in that particular type of item. For example, you wouldn’t expect to do well selling 20th century art pottery at a service that specializes in Federal furniture. The market is more specific than that. This fair market approach is the one used by the IRS in assigning value to items donated to charitable causes. Unless specifically otherwise noted, most insurance companies will also use this valuation method in settling claims.

The “otherwise noted” reference is to the other kind of value given in an appraisal known as the replacement value method. A value assigned by this type of appraisal is what you would expect to pay for the item if you purchased it on a retail basis from a dealer or gallery in an arm’s length transaction. This is also the amount for which you would insure a specific piece, the replacement cost.

The most important thing to know about these two kinds of appraisal values is the fact that they will produce markedly different values for the same item at the same time in the same place. A fair market appraisal value will generally be 40 percent to 60 percent below a replacement cost value. When you read that a major dealer has purchased a period American antique at Sotheby’s for $1 million, you may rest assured that when you visit his showroom in New York or Philadelphia, the retail price of that item a year or two later will greatly exceed the quoted auction price. Fair market is what they paid at auction. Replacement is what you will pay them for it in his space.


But monetary value is not the only kind of value in the real world. Of course it’s the most important if you make your living buying and selling nice old things, but if that is not your gig there may be other types of “value” that are equally as important, if not more so in some circumstances.

If the piece is not old or rare it still may have significant value based on its utilitarian functions. For example, a Colonial Revival china cabinet from 1935 may not have the intrinsic collector’s value or the current market value of a Georgian breakfront, but it will serve as a place for the display of your cut glass collection as well as or maybe even better than a brand new curio cabinet from the local furniture store and certainly as well as the Georgian cabinet, provided that the Colonial Revival piece is in good working condition, has a good dust seal and the finish is decent. In addition, the Colonial Revival piece has already proven itself to be durable by surviving 70-plus years so far, and it probably will last a good many years yet and someday may even attain some collectors value even if it is a factory-made 20th century artifact.

Another popular item in this category is the 19th century armoire that has been converted to an entertainment center. As armoires, few pieces have much collector’s value, but when conversion is completed in a craftsman-like manner and no great violence is done to the piece, the utilitarian value is actually enhanced by finding a new use for an old piece. If you have to do some restoration work on a piece in this category, you probably will not reduce the value at all, but rather enhance the utilitarian value in the long run if the restoration, including refinishing, is well done.


Then there is the most important value of all in some cases, the sentimental value. The piece may have belonged to a relative from long ago and it is the only artifact you have with a known personal attachment to the ancestor. Or maybe it is the first piece of old furniture that you bought at a yard sale when you set up housekeeping, and somehow it has survived the last few decades in a battered but still useful and reasonably dignified condition. Or maybe it was part of your first child’s first bedroom set. Or maybe it was the first real antique you acquired, or what you considered to be an antique at the time. Could you sell it for anything to speak of? Would the insurance company even bother to list it separately in your household inventory? Probably not. Will you hurt the value of it by repairing or refinishing it? Probably not. Why not make that old piece of your memory look in real life like it looks in your memory – functional, clean, presentable and respectable? This is the kind of value that lasts a long time. But be mindful that sentiment can become a very expensive hobby.



Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format.
His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture” ($17 + $3 S&H) is also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. Eastern, M-F only), fax 352-563-2916, or All items are also available directly from his website.