YOU HAVE ONE CHANCE TO SELL YOUR COLLECTION, SO WEIGH THE OPTIONS, DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE LETTING GO
By Danielle Arnet ● Illustration by Michael Jantze
WHEN THE TIME
WHEN THE TIMEcomes to thin out a herd of paintings, coins, film memorabilia or other collectibles, an intelligent collector needs a clear head.
When Going To a Dealer
►Make an appointment to meet and show up.
►When an item is large or awkward to move, take clear photos instead. Shoot from all angles, and include any marks and flaws. Jot down measurements and, when possible, the history of the piece.
►Do enough research that you know what you have and what kind of sales results you expect. Slapping an item on the counter and saying “I saw this online” is not productive.
►Be pleasant and informed. You’re a salesperson and the dealer’s time is important.
When Going to an Auction House
►Select the right auction venue for your merchandise. A country box-lot sale is not for fine art glass. Do your homework.
►Go online – LiveAuctioneers.com is a good start, and it’s free – and scout for prices realized on your item. Most auction houses, including Heritage Auctions (HA.com), also post auction results. For a minimal fee, WorthPoint.com and other auction databases are well worthwhile. Get a general feel for recent results.
►Scout out selling rules and regs on auction websites that look promising for your items. Check info on fees. Many allow digital uploads of images and info.
►If they show interest, connect to a specialist and follow their advice.
►Parse any document that you are asked to sign.
Perhaps the need to pare comes from a life change – such as one or more of the four Ds (death, divorce, disease or debt). Maybe it’s something you’ve inherited and simply cannot love. Or it’s an item you can’t face cleaning/dusting/looking at/storing any longer. Whatever the reason, the decision to unburden is perhaps the easiest step in the process.
It’s the “how” that’s tough.
When the decision is to sell, even the smartest collector can be paralyzed by an abundance of options. One basic choice is auction vs. selling to a dealer.
In some cases, selling back to the jeweler or dealer where you bought an item seems easiest. Ah, but any experienced collector knows that it is easier to buy than to sell. Buying is fun. Selling can be a minefield. Simply put, you have one chance to sell that carefully amassed collection. Do it wrong, and regrets last forever.
For a seller, the goal is to monetize a collection so that you maximize your dollar. On the other hand, dealers are, according to Heritage Auctions consignment director Marsha Dixey, “always in the game to make money.” Both sides want a winning deal.
As a former dealer, Dixey knows how things work on both sides of the fence. One thorn she spots with dealer appraisals is that sometimes they set high expectations for the owner. We’re talking about dealer appraisals done for insurance purposes. Many collectors have them. The problem is that appraisals for insurance purposes factor in the cost and inconvenience of hunting down a replacement. As a result, most quote a high estimate that exceeds current market value and sets unreal expectations for the owner.
Armed with such values set by a dealer, many sellers come to an auction look-see or approach potential buyers waving an outdated and inflated figure produced for replacement value.
Bottom line, insurance appraisals are not current market value.
The reality is that dealers need to buy low so they can make a profit. It’s in the best interests of an auction to sell your goods high, because that’s how they profit, through buyer and seller fees.
Lisa Casey co-manages a not-for-profit furniture consignment shop in a suburb of Chicago. She’s seen people walk in with items they have previously shopped around to dealers. Some come armed with an appraisal for insurance purposes. Most have a price, perhaps from an appraisal, in their head. Some are formulated in mysterious ways.
“I think sometimes the expectation is based on their lack of knowledge,” she tells us.
Some base their expectations on something similar spotted on Antiques Roadshow. Others swear by say-so from a friend who may or may not know beans about antiques, coins, paintings and the like. Novices do not understand how prices are calculated. The problem is compounded when dealers do not take the time to explain market factors and/or how they base their offer.
In considering sales for the furniture consignment shop, Casey bypasses approaching dealers when an item “has more potential for a broader audience and when I do not think that there are local outlets for this item.”
As example, when a potential seller brought a promising oil-on-canvas painting, Casey advised the owner to shop the art to auctions in a large city where it would sell best. “I thought she could do significantly better elsewhere,” she says.
A serious downside in selling to dealers is lack of exposure for the item. Intelligent collectors approach dealers that specialize in or sell a good amount of their item. Don’t take fine silver to a seller who specializes in antique dolls.
Consider the viewpoint of Danny Alias, co-owner of Broadway Antique Market, an antiques mall with 75 dealers in Chicago. One day a man walked in with pictures of 200 mid-century beer steins to sell. Alias, a dealer with more than 30 years’ experience, looked them over and figured that kitsch sells. Maybe he should buy the steins. Then he realized that 200 steins could take forever to sell. He ended up taking the ones he could sell and, knowing that collections often sell well at auction, advised the owner to send the rest there.
Therein lay several truths of selling. First, a dealer will pick and choose because they want only items they can sell. Hapless sellers may find the best items cherry-picked, leaving them with the less desirable lots.
Dealers generally will offer half retail or less, and that’s only for what they think they can sell. Harder-to-sell items get far less while items the dealer can move rapidly may rate more. Tough sells are bypassed entirely.
Depending on quality, comprehensive collections often do sell better at auction, where the aggregate may bring more than selling separately in a shop. For that reason, shop and show dealers also send merchandise to auction. “Sometimes it is better to sell to a dealer,” Dixey says. Her advice: If it is a common piece that you can find every day of the week online, find a dealer.
According to Alias, “I absolutely tell people that I will send to auction, because auction gets killer action. I can get the most for some merchandise at auction. There’s a sweet spot where that happens: It’s like Macy’s vs. Neiman Marcus.”
You never know what an item will bring until it is placed before a worldwide public at auction. Putting merchandise in the hands of a reputable auction is the only way to determine true market value at a specific point in time.
Each individual we contacted for this piece agreed that better and more important items do best at auction.
There are costs to selling at auction, starting with the seller’s premium, a percentage added to the hammer price – the amount called when the gavel descends. Depending on the house, that fee generally ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent or more. If your painting sells for $2,500 and the seller’s premium is 20 percent, you owe the house $500. Add to that possible charges for insurance, a catalog photo, transporting the item to auction and other costs the house might levy.
Some charges are negotiable; ask first.
Fees add up and eat into seller profit. Be sure you are completely clear on what you’re responsible for before you sign anything.
Things happen at auction and it’s never a sure bet. Bidders sit on their hands, several comparable items sell at the same time, or the market for your goods is down at the time of sale. But when things go well, results can soar past anything a dealer can achieve.
The final call is up to you. Your job is to weigh options and do your homework before letting go.
DANIELLE ARNET writes a nationally syndicated column on collecting for Tribune Media Services. She also covers the auction and collecting scene for Maine Antique Digest.