Developing an Eye for Quality Antiques

Finding Top Shelf Collectibles at Bargain Prices

Shoppers Examine Antique Prints at Avenue Antiques & Art at The Armory
Shoppers Examine Antique Prints at Avenue Antiques & Art at The Armory. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

There was once a Rhode Island antiques dealer whose partner, a number of years ago, found what he thought was a black pearl brooch tossed in a basket of costume jewelry in a shop. He didn’t know the exact value, but recognized that it was a quality antique piece that would likely be worth quite a bit more than its $14 price tag indicated. Long story short, the brooch turned out to be an extremely large, and rare, quahog pearl. The "Golash Brooch" toured the world as a prized collectible.

Had this shopper not developed an eye for quality, he may well have simply dig around looking for flashy rhinestones like the many others who probably pawed through that basket before him. This is the kind of story every avid antiquer hopes to tell someday, and developing "the eye" can be the first step toward that goal.

Reasons to Nurture Your Quality Discernment

It's actually pretty simple; if you know the attributes of the cream of the crop, then you’ll more easily know how to categorize lesser antiques and collectibles. But don’t get this wrong: There are valuable antiques that weren’t high priced or high quality when they were new. Desirable Bakelite jewelry is merely one example. To be a really great picker you need to learn about these types of antiques and collectibles as well.

Of course, the times antiquers actually find a top-of-the-heap item worth five or six figures at a dirt cheap price are few and far between, even if it's a beauty-in-the-eye antique rather than a high quality piece. Nevertheless, nurturing an eye for quality means that if you run across a piece of finely finished yet unmarked jewelry, or porcelain, or furniture, you’ll take another look to see if the price reflects the workmanship. If you’re not prepared when those rare opportunities present, you might walk right past a very valuable antique as oblivious to its potential value.

In addition, armed with a keen eye for quality, you’ll also be more apt to distinguish originals from reproductions. As time passes and your skill develops, you’ll learn to recognize a quality antique or collectible before you even look for a mark.

Getting Started – Study Beyond Your Means

The easiest way to cultivate an eye for quality is to physically handle and view as many upper crust antique pieces as possible. Odds are, these won’t be the types of items you’ll run across on a daily basis, but they’ll certainly be what you aspire to buy or sell when the opportunity strikes. It’s also much easier if you concentrate on your prime areas of interest first before branching out.

In other words, if your own collecting interest lies in pottery, glassware, furniture, or what have you, learn as much as you can about the finest pieces in that genre before moving on to other areas might hold potential for you. Study beyond your means, so to speak, while continuing to collect what you can afford. In addition to reading everything you can find on your primarily topic of interest, and studying photographs, seek out ways to examine those most rare and valuable wares more intimately.

This means learning the feel of fine glass and porcelain in comparison to lesser quality pieces. Looking for nicely detailed hand painting on ceramics, and fine stitching in textiles, for example. Studying the signs of quality craftsmanship and extraordinary design in furniture and jewelry. And especially in your strong areas of interest, be sure you know how to categorize good, better, and best in terms of materials, workmanship, and design so you can look for unmarked pieces that are way undervalued.

Developing “The Eye” Further

You may not actually be able to touch the high end pieces you’re learning about in some instances – for example, if a piece is in a museum, like the many Louis Comfort Tiffany wares displayed in the Charles Hosmer Morse museum in Winter Park, Florida – but even viewing them in person can help you cultivate your unique eye for quality. In particular, you’ll want to note the materials, craftsmanship, and the way in which such valuable items are decorated no matter the setting.

Another great way to view upper crust pieces in person, and possibly examine them more closely, is to take in a high-end antiques show, even if you don’t hope to buy a thing. When you’re not sure what makes a particular piece valuable, or if you see something attributed to a high-end maker but it’s not marked (often labeled "attributed to"), ask the dealer for an explanation. As long as you’re not interrupting a sale, handling things too voraciously, and ask for the information in a respectful way, he or she will usually be more than happy to show off a treasure. They may even gush like a proud parent over their prized possession. And who knows, maybe your honed eye for quality will net a sleeper while you’re at that hoity toity show.

Likewise, if you’re watching Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars or any number of other television programs where the names of valuable antiques, collectibles, and historical items come up frequently, or if you run across very high-priced item while shopping online that you’ve never heard of, be sure to jot down the name for further research. When you’re reading about those items, pay particular attention to what the author or expert being interviewed says about why they are truly unique and valuable finds. Often, it’s the quality of the workmanship and materials used in manufacture, unless there’s some kind of exciting provenance involved.