Making Space: 5 Tips for Separating Trash from Treasure


Accumulating things is just something that comes with age. If we’re lucky it’s wealth instead of just aches and pains. But one thing we are destined to accumulate is stuff — lots of stuff. We gather so much stuff over the course of our lives, that often our golden years are spent tripping over it. Many of these things are valuable, useful, or even beautiful, but probably an even greater amount would be more at home in the landfill.

If you’ve had a look around and decided that it’s time to downsize, you may not know where to start, because whatever you do; you want to do it right. To that end, we spoke with some estate and antique appraisal pros and asked them about the dos and don’ts of downsizing your possessions.

Pick the Winners: Separating the Wheat from Chaffappraising a bracelet

If you’re downsizing, you’ll ideally have three piles: one pile of belongings that you plan to keep, one pile that you plan to sell, and one pile that is headed for the dump. But what goes where? If folks were a bit more conscientious about this question, you wouldn’t hear stories about someone scooping up an Andy Warhol sketch worth millions for $5 at a garage sale.

Gary WilkinsonExperienced antique dealer Gary Wilkinson of Gary Wilkinson Antiques, says that it’s important not to make any assumptions while taking your first look around.

People tend to think that because they don’t like an item, nobody else will either and often assume that because something “looks like rubbish” it probably is.

Eric BradleyEric Bradley, editor of the annual Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide and author of Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff, says that, for starters, you have to be thorough when looking around, and even then, things may not be as they seem.

Recently a family brought a ‘junk painting’ that had been hanging in an aunt’s basement to an appraisal event. No one in the family really enjoyed the painting and it was headed to a donation center if the appraisal was very low. The painting was actually a rare work by a very desirable Russian-born artist who spent his most productive years in America. The painting, which no one in her family particularly liked, sold for $118,750 at auction last year. It’s always a good idea to engage an appraiser to help identify valuable items. Another common mistake is not taking the time to fully search through a home for its contents. Paper money is often hidden inside books and cans of coins have been found in the back of closets.

Evaluate: See Where You Stand

After digging around a bit through your belongings you may start to wonder what sort of prices specialty items might fetch. Some of these answers you may be able to ascertain on your own, others may require the help of a professional.

clayton penningtonClayton Pennington, editor of Maine Antique Digest, says that the simply searching Google for an item is a great way to start evaluation.

The world is at your fingertips through the Internet. If you think an object has some value, put Google to work. Not everything old is valuable but many people would be surprised at what is sought after by collectors. Look at an object and try to locate signatures or markings; that information will aid your search immensely.

Bradley mentions that some specialty items require a trained eye to appraise.

The contents of an average home is not likely to hold much value beyond what can be teased out at a well-advertised garage sale. However, items such as original paintings, silver, coins, fine art glass and ceramics, and select pop-culture collectibles all have the potential to be valuable. These items should be inspected by a trusted appraiser, which can be hired for about $100 an hour.

Don’t Undervalue: Selling Yourself Short

Many people look longingly at paintings and coin collections hoping they are going to hit the jackpot at the auction house, but often, tremendous value can be hidden in places you don’t expect. This is why it’s important to avoid undervaluing when planning your estate.

Chris LivingstonChris Livingston, board certified auctioneer and proprietor of C.H. Livingston Estate Services & Auctioneering, feels that each item should be judged on its own merit— even some old papers have value.

Commonly undervalued items are old paper items and collectibles. Pre-1950 decorative, collectible and paper advertisements and premiums can be overlooked as trash.

Wilkinson has noticed that many toys are overlooked as well.

Toys, teddy bears and dolls are very frequently undervalued. When a professional takes a look, you might find things change.

Don’t Overvalue: It May Not Be Gold; Even If It Glitters

The damage of overvaluing something isn’t as bad as undervaluing because all you risk is disappointment. However, overvaluing can be costly if it leads you to take the large, but worthless, china collection to the appraiser instead of the valuable civil war propaganda posters.

Livingston points out that the act of overvaluing certainly has its usual suspects.

China and glass are commonly overvalued and can have little or no value in the current market. There is only a small percentage of china and glass that has substantial value. Furniture is the most commonly overvalued item. Most furniture was very expensive to purchase but depreciates tremendously. Antique furniture can be of value, however just because something is old does not mean it is valuable.

Bradley agrees, and says that high production items are usually on that list as well.

Many people often believe mass-produced prints and sculpture are far more valuable than they are. The truth is collectors are mainly interested in original works or sculptures with a low production run. In fact, many items that have been mass-produced do not carry much value in the secondary market.

Keeping It? Be a Good Shepherd

There are plenty of good reasons to keep your treasures. You may get use out of them still, you may be holding out for their value to peak or a trend to increase their desirability, or maybe you just like possessing them, but there are some tips worth heeding if you plan on hanging on to these valuables.

Pennington says if you are hoping for appreciation, there are no guarantees.

Not every category goes up. Antique furniture—often called ‘brown furniture’—may never get back to its peak levels. There are plenty of examples of antique furniture selling at deep discounts to where it once sold. Also, for storage, you should keep it dry (but not too dry), and keep it away from the sun. Light dusting is ok but deep cleaning should be avoided. Let the pros do that.

Livingston agrees and suggests that if you’re keeping your valuables, you should make sure they are properly stored, while keeping an eye on trends.

Value, as in any market, will rise and fall with interest and trends.  The main factor driving value is rarity. With the advent of the Internet, many items once thought to be rare are consistently available on the open market now and easily accessible to consumers. Storage of an item depends on the type but in general terms the best storage is in a dry environment with a moderate temperature and out of direct light.

Hitting upon hidden value

Downsizing can be a difficult process. You don’t want to throw away anything that you’ll wish you hadn’t later, or sell something for far less than it’s worth. As with many situations where emotion, ignorance, and monetary value all intersect, the best way to avoid pitfalls is to bring in a professional. Just don’t forget, when it comes to family treasures, keeping something for your own enjoyment can often be the most rewarding choice.


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