When it comes to Antiques, Rarity has many Faces

Not all antiques are considered rare, but those that are become highly valuable.

For years, I have presented appraisal events to live audiences across the country. I tell people the truth about their antiques. I don’t hold back my opinion either.

I just say it … ”it’s a wonderful, rare antique or it’s a piece of junk.”

One of the most common statements I hear is that an audience member’s object is rare. Rarity is an important and complex concept. 

The interest and related value of something rare can spike once that object comes to the market. What constitutes rarity? Many factors constitute rarity including but not limited to provenance or the history of the item.

Age can impact rarity. For instance, there aren’t a lot of ancient Egyptian mascara jars hanging around today so that makes such an object rare. The mold used to make an astronaut’s boots for the Apollo lunar mission may not be as old as the ancient mascara jar, but it too is a rare object.

Here is an important tip, if someone says that they have never seen an item like yours, that doesn’t automatically mean it is rare. It may just mean that you have not shown your item to enough people.

Here are some examples of rare objects and the particular characteristics that they possess. A fire alarm from the 19th-century is not a typical object. Before the advent of the telephone, a system for alerting people of a fire was a necessary invention. The Gamewell Fire indicator, named for inventor John Gamewell, was a machine that was installed in neighborhoods in many American cities. In 1852, Boston was the first city to have a central fire alarm system. Gamewell boxes were installed in neighborhoods and if a fire broke out, an alarm signal would be sent to a central dispatch office. By the turn of the 20th-century, Gamewell had cornered the market with a machine on every street corner in more than 500 cities worldwide.

Today, these rare objects sell in good condition for $1,000 to $2,500.

On the other hand, there are objects that as a category are not rare yet particular examples are rare. Make sense? Mechanical banks were widely popular and very common objects.

So then why are particular examples worth tens of thousands of dollars while others are only worth a couple of hundred dollars? Mechanical banks have been reproduced in large numbers. These reproductions skew the rarity distinction for the category of antique mechanical banks. The first cast iron mechanical bank featuring a monkey in a building was produced by the Connecticut-based J & E Stevens Company in 1869. The concept behind these banks was to spark a child’s interest in saving by offering a bank/toy. That original monkey mechanical bank commands big bucks on the antiques market today yet reproduction mechanical banks like those commissioned by various book publishers, marketing teams, and toy makers in the 1950s are only worth $50 to $250. These reproductions are not as rare, thus not as valuable.

Also, rarity relates to access and opportunity. Your piece may be rare if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to access something like a personal letter from Marilyn Monroe outlining her views on her failing marriage to baseball great, Joe DiMaggio.

If you were someone who Monroe confided in and you received such a letter then your relationship with the movie star is rare and so it the letter. This is why the friends and relatives of famous artists, athletes, celebrities, and politicians benefit when they sell objects in the antiques marketplace. 

Rarity is not the only thing that will spark interest and drive sales prices sky high in the antiques market, but it sure doesn’t hurt.


Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on Discovery channel’s hit TV show, Auction Kings. For a full schedule of Dr. Lori’s antiques appraisal events, visit www.DrLoriV.com, www.Facebook.com/DoctorLori, or call (888) 431-1010.

Lois Linquist October 01, 2012 at 01:45 AM
Hi Dr. Lori, I hope you will write more on antiques for Patch. I really enjoyed your article. In particular I'd love to know your impression of old and antique Lenox china pieces as a collectible. I have been collecting pre-1950 Lenox for many years concentrating on unusual pieces, colors and the oldest marks. Thanks for any insight, Lois


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »