The following article was written by Norm Bolotin, The History Bank partner, for Seattle's Museum of History & Industry's "Antiques Roadshow" Day, part of a community outreach program marking the 2009 Centennial Celebration of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. It has been edited moderately for use here.

Without a doubt, the most frequently asked question regarding collectibles, coins, stamps, antiques, paintings, medals, photographs, baseball cards and your grandmother's doilies, pictures, lamps . . . and collectibles, coins, stamps, antiques . . . is "What's it worth?"

Where to Start

When trying to establish value, most people turn to appraisers, dealers, curators, friends, collectors, insurance agents and anyone who is willing to venture an opinion. The odds are, of course, that every opinion will be different, often wildly different. Ask three respected antique dealers to value your 19th century china teacup. One might say $50, one $500 and the other "worthless." There are many variables affecting their appraisal. They know their clientele and they know from experience how much they can expect to get for the piece. And of course, if a dealer has another piece just like yours for sale for $200 in his shop, he won't be offering you $200.

So what can you do? First, ask yourself what you mean by "worth." Value is a subjective word and most everyone has a different definition. That doesn't mean one evaluation is wrong or dishonest and another is right. It's just that the evaluators may be looking at value from different perspectives.

Defining 'Value'

Replacement Cost—If you had to replace the item (even if it's "irreplaceable"), how much would you have to pay? Aunt Gerdy's lamp came from Norway with your great, great grandmother on the boat in 1855, and finding a comparable lamp may seem impossible to you, but perhaps not for your appraiser. After searching through auction catalogs and published sales and auction records, the appraiser determines that the average replacement cost is $1,500. That's a seemingly black and white answer to a potentially difficult question. If it's stolen (and covered by an insurance policy) then the insurance company covers your loss. As an aside, read your homeowner's policy carefully, because defining something as an antique (or coin or jewelry or myriad other things) might mean you have limited coverage.

How Your Expert Determines Value—The insurance company requires that replacement value be provided by a bona fide expert—an appraiser, a dealer, an auction house representative or museum staff member, for example. The expert's valuation method can affect the outcome. He or she will use auctions, catalogs, museum references, prices realized reports, trade publications and other means to track the value in objective terms. The price could fluctuate quite dramatically. Who is buying, why they are buying, where they are buying—and what specific TYPE of item they are buying—all affect the pattern of selling prices. As a simple example, a given item might have sold six times last year, for $1,000 . . . $850 . . . $1,200 . . . $900 . . . $2,000 . . . and $1,500. That "one-of-a-kind" lamp might actually show up in the marketplace with some frequency.

Let's say
  1. The average selling price noted on eBay in 2009 was hypothetically $1,242.
  2. Selling prices ranged from $850 to $2,000 (so an appraiser might quote the median price, which was $1,425 in this case).
  3. Many buyers and sellers would be comfortable citing this item as selling for between $1,000 and $2,000 or just as likely between $1,500 and $2,000.

In #3 above, an insurance company could extrapolate the numbers to establish a value of $1,500 or $1,750. Ideally, a professional appraisal will not only provide some context, such as the tracking above, but also a brief statement on the marketability and collectibility of the item—or even the volatility in its price.

What About the "Paper" Cost?—For most folks who have inherited an item or items from relatives or who shop informally for those unique objets d'art, value means more than the insurance definition. The "paper" value is the legitimate valuation that is possible, perhaps not probable, and certainly not proven, for insurance or other purposes.

It's even possible that the same lamp deemed as "worth" $1,242 or $1,750 could just as legitimately be viewed as a $3,000 lamp by yet another expert. The appraiser cites his or her research, noting beyond eBay that an example in superb, like-new condition, sold in a specialty auction for $2,500 plus a 15 percent buyers' fee, or a net of $2,875 out of that buyer's pocket. Perhaps it was a fluke, perhaps it was about condition, but "on a given day," this is possible too. We noted also that beyond the "when" and "where," the "what"—the type of collectible—is key, and it affects the valuation process dramatically. Perhaps it was a Mickey Mantle baseball card with a published "book" value of $25,000; 5 to 8 years ago you might have gotten 75 percent of book ($18,750) if you sold it, but today you could struggle to get one quarter of that $4,688). Granted, baseball cards have been one of the most volatile collectibles for years, but there is always fluctuation in virtually every type of collectible.

The final variable in determining value (besides perhaps your emotional attachment, which of course means nothing in an appraisal) is condition. Your piece might look terrific to you, but others could disagree. In addition, the experts don't always agree or use the same scales when assigning condition. In one hobby "fine" is quite nice; in another it's mediocre. When an expert deems your family heirloom coin "Very Fine," you might light up, only to discover that "VF" is a fairly poor grade in the ladder of descriptors, below "Extra Fine," "Almost Uncirculated" and numerous grades of "Uncirculated." Condition takes on a huge meaning on many higher priced collectibles: That Mickey Mantle card might "book" at $25,000 in Near Mint condition, but only $2,500 if it's "Good."

Several years ago I was a guest on a Seattle KIRO-TV show featuring collectibles from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Viewers were invited to phone me to ask questions about their items—why they were shaped a certain way, where they were sold on the fairgrounds, if they were given away in a pavilion or how much they cost in 1962. Callers were alternately surprised and disappointed at my estimates of "several hundred" dollars for a Century 21 band uniform and only "a few dollars" for a glass tumbler emblazoned with the fair's landmark Space Needle.

One caller was anxious to describe a fancy Space Needle/Monorail ashtray he had owned since the fair. He planned to sell it to help finance his daughter's college education. He was thrilled to hear I knew of the somewhat obscure piece, and moments later crushed when I told him it was "worth" less than $20, enough perhaps for a favorite college T-shirt, rather than a year or two's tuition!

Many owners or collectors of odd bits of personal or other history are offended when someone says their special piece is worth very little; but money is just one of the measures of value when it comes to antiques, collectibles or Uncle Ernie's photo album from Iwo Jima. You may shocked at how little or how much the item is worth to a collector or dealer; but don't part with something just because someone offered you what seems like a lot of money. Unfortunately, there are a few unscrupulous folks out there. Just like surgery, get a second opinion.

The monetary value may be irrelevant to you, though it may be very important to your children some day. Whether it's priceless to you or not, the best thing you can do today is document the story—about a great, great someone in your family's past or just the second hand store where you found it on your last vacation. Whatever the heirloom or collectible, try to jot down the history and all the facts you can gather. Then, if the time comes to sell it, you'll be armed with all the facts and won't make a mistake you may regret later.

What are those treasures in your grandfather's closet worth? Generally, at the time he stowed them away for safekeeping they were worth more in sentimental value than in market value. But a generation or two later, if you're rediscovering them and you have no emotional attachment, you might consider selling. Ballpark prices for these items on eBay would be 1) large ceramic ashtray from the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (rarer than many from the fair), $10–$30; 2) encased souvenir dime that was "nuked" as a souvenir 50 years ago, $10–$25; 3) 1950 souvenir coin that is a baseball schedule, popular and scarce, $30–$60; 4) Norse American celebration badge, 1925, $50–$75.

2010 #2, May–June
The History Bank Announces Auction Dates

What's It Worth?

Spectacular World's Columbian Medal Discovered in Estate

Personal Diaries: The Best Source of Historical Research, Regardless of Topic

An In-depth Look at R-1 to R-9 Rarity Scales

Past issues:
2010 #1, January–February
View issue contents


We have specialized in the World's Columbian Exposition since the year we founded The History Bank—1979. During those 30 years we have been fortunate to have handled some of the finest and rarest medals, tickets and souvenirs from the WCE. One of those exquisite pieces—perhaps the most beautiful and spectacular in existence, in addition to being unique—has just changed hands. We were not involved in the transaction, but we are pleased to be able to share images of this rare medal with you.

This director's medal was awarded to Howard Owen Edmonds, one of the secretaries of the WCE. Collector Tom Hoffman (also editor of the recently revised Hibler & Kappen So-Called Dollars book) obtained it directly from an Edmonds family member.

Hoffman was kind enough to loan us the photos to share with PERSPECTIVE™ readers. Of the many WCE medal and token rarities we've owned and sold since 1979—such as a German Village cocoa token, an elongated gold piece and a Krupp Gun exhibit token—none can compare in beauty to this medal. The condition is amazing; obviously it has been stored properly for the last 120 or so years, and fortunately it was never cleaned. And as an award medal to an officer of the Expo it is as unique as they come, one of a kind.

© 2010 The History Bank