Friday, November 12, 2010

Pocket Watches

At a recent appraisal clinic for the Crocker Art Museum I appraised several Pocket Watches and thought that there are some basic facts that might be helpful.

Determining the age of an American antique pocket watch is the first step. Check the manufacturer's serial number, a good reference guide will tell you an approximate date that serial number was used. (The Internet also has this information.)

The serial number on an American watch is on the movement inside the watch. To get to the movement you have to remove the back, it is either a hinged pressed fit or a screwed on cover. The press fit and hinged covers have a small slit opening or tab you can get a finger nail under to pop it open. Some are very tight and a small knife blade can be used but be careful not to scratch the cover. Some watches have double backs with the inner one as an additional dust protector. Sometimes this area is used for a sentiment inscription or gift date. (Not necessarily the same as the manufacture date.) Screw on covers can be tight also, try putting the watch back in the palm of the hand and using that to give a good grip on the whole back while turning the watch.

Older English watches have hallmarks that can be researched to find the manufacturing date. Antique watches made in Europe are more difficult to date. Sometimes they have serial numbers, but often don't. Patent numbers can be used for dating if they are given.

Be aware that the name on a watch's face is not necessarily the name of the manufacturer. Watch manufacturers often printed a retail company name on the dial in return for ordering a large number of them. Mail order and distribution companies did the same thing to have a company “brand” name watch.

Once the back is open the movement usually is marked with the serial number the manufacturer name and sometimes also the model name or number, the number of jewels, and the adjustments.

Determining Value
Manufacturer - who the manufacturer is becomes important to collectors as some made better watches than others are more prestigious, or are just more popular and so some names add value.

Model name or number - some models denote better quality than the average, or are more rare than others and so raise value. Earlier and lower end watches tend to have fewer things marked on them and sometimes you need to compare the movement to pictured movements in a reference to identify it.

Jewels - are actual small rubies and sapphires that are used as bearings. Since they are harder than metal they wear longer and make for a more durable and higher quality watch. There are 17 important wear points so any watch with fewer than 17 jewels is of poorer quality and thus worth less. Some watches have more than 17 jewels these denote higher quality and thus add value.

Adjustments - refers to the positions the watch will be in and still keep accurate time. They are stem up, stem left, stem right, face down, back down, and some times stem down. Later watches might also be adjusted for extreme temperature and spring tension differences. Markings are - adjusted 5 positions, meaning the first five or - adjusted 6 positions when stem down is added. Temperature and wind adjusted are sometimes also on later watches.

Case - the inside of the back case will be marked telling whether the case is made of rolled gold (a form of plating) or solid gold (14kt -18Kt). If it says “warranted xx years” it is rolled gold. It might have a karate mark and say rolled gold which again means it is not solid gold. Most watches are rolled gold which does not decrease the value unless it is worn to the point brass is showing through somewhere. Naturally a solid gold case adds extra value to any watch. Fancy engraving and designs on cases add value as the standard case is fairly plain whether rolled or solid gold.

Railroad watches are a special area of watch collecting - Railroad refers to a standard that railroad companies required to insure accuracy in telling time to help avoid train accidents. These changed over time and by the various railroads. However, a general standard might be - open face, stem at 12 o-clock, Arabic numerals, minimum 17 jewels, adjusted to minimum 5 positions, separate seconds dial, 16-18 size only, maximum variation of 30 seconds per weekly check.

Dial - most dials are a standard white enamel with black numerals and plain arrow hands. Fancy dials and hands add value and can get quit elaborate including painted, enameled, gold or jewel encrusted.

All of these different areas add together and determine value. I hope that gives some help for evaluating that pocket watch just sitting in a drawer that so many people have.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Current Antique Market - End of 2010

With the current economic situation antiques have taken a definite hit in terms of price. This is understandable with fewer people having money available for unnecessary things. And the fact that demand is the major driving factor for the price of antiques. I hate to admit it, antiques are not a necessity, even though I feel they are at times.

The more common items have been especially effected because of high availability and low demand. Those who want to buy can demand and get very low prices as dealers just want to get out from under buying mistakes. Even some less common items are selling for bargain prices as some dealers get desperate for a sale and let items go cheaply to get cash flow to pay a bill.

In the art market items under $10,000 have been slow also, with some auction houses either lowering starting bids or being willing to put unsold items up for sale in a later auction if there are no opening bids.

High end items have been doing well and record prices are still being made. Modern Art is doing especially well right now. A life-size bronze sculpture entitled "L'homme qui marche I" ("Walking Man I") by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (circa 1960) has been sold by the Sotheby's auction house in London for 65 million pounds ($104.3 million). This is the highest price ever paid for a work of art at any auction. A September 2010 sale (New Orleans) sold 60 of 64 John James Audubon “Havell Edition” prints from The Birds of America; and achieved 18 world record auction prices; and came in second place in terms of record sales for 28 more of the bird prints. In February 2010 Masudaya's multiaction “Target Robot” brought 3 times the last record price for an example of its type when it sold for $52,900. It was mint with the original box and all shooting accessories. (Tin shooting pistol plus the two rubber-tipped darts in unopened plastic.)

So what does this overall picture mean to the average collector ? Well first there is hope. The high end items show there is still value in antiques and collectibles. But like other things right now they are in a down turn but will recover. So this makes NOW a great time to buy antiques. We all would like to go back in time to the stock market crash and buy some stock at the record low prices in the early 1930's. That is your opportunity right now. I recommend that collectors today use their leverage (willingness to buy now) to gain some investment quality antiques at rock bottom prices. Do not buy low and middle price items unless you get a fantastic deal. Instead buy one high end piece where you would have bought 3-4 low end ones. This has always been the best buying strategy but with the lower prices it has multiplied.

What to buy is always a question people ask me and I recommend buy what you know. Whatever you love and collect buy the very best and finest you can. Be willing to research some new areas though somebody desperate for cash often does not take the time to research and that can make the difference in a good buy and a great buy. I did a recent appraisal where a customer bought several pieces of art because he liked them and then hired me to appraise. The person selling thought they were lithographs and sold the art at a wholesale price based on that value. They turned out to be original water colors and for around $1000 the client had bought art worth $100,000 - $ 150,000. He did not buy all the art available so there may be more of those sitting on somebodies wall right now.

Be prepared to get less for your items right now. If you bought an item at the height of the old market it might be shocking what it will bring in the current market. However, like many dealers you might be better off to sell and take your lumps rather than paying three or four times what it is worth to store it.

There is hope in selling as well. Right now the Asian and European markets are booming! If you have good quality Chinese, Russian, and Early European items, now is a great time to sell. Especially because the Russian and Chinese economies have grown so large compared to what they were, even a few years ago, the wealthy are buying back their countries antiques. They do not want any of the tourist stuff or items exported for our use. They want real antiques made for use in and by people in their countries. But the market is harder to reach as those with deep pockets are not buying on ebay but through the big auction houses. (In the first half of 2010 Sotheby's and Christie's reported an increase in annual revenue by 67% and 140% respectively compared to the first half of 2009.) Look especially for Russian enamel wares and early Chinese jade but be aware there are a lot of reproductions and out and out fakes on the market too.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Art Clinic

I regularly appraise art at public clinic events for the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Having just completed one of these I wanted to share some thoughts on buying and collecting art for the average person who does not have an in-depth knowledge of art or art history.
Naturally some of the art we see are pieces that have been in a family for years and the owners are looking as much for information on how old, who the artist was, and biographical information as value. But often people bring in items they have bought thinking or hoping that it is worth more than they paid. These are often pieces bought at a flea market, a garage sale, an estate sale, or even found at a thrift store. It is this “investment” buyer group I want to speak to primarily in this article.

Several people in this last appraisal event brought in paintings that were clearly made to be decorative paintings to hang behind a couch. These were signed, oil on canvas, nicely framed, landscapes that looked very nice. However their value is in the decorative market rather than the fine art or even collectible market. That means they are not worth very much. (Quick hint - avoid obviously newer paintings that are sized to fit behind a couch. They are most likely decorative not collectible.)

To determine age look at the canvas and stretchers in the back, if the canvas is white, the wood has no darkening from oxidization, and the canvas is attached to the stretcher with staples you are looking at a painting that is less than 30 years old. Look up the artists name at a library or on the internet. If the artist cannot be found I recommend you skip that one. There are a few times doing this will miss a valuable painting but it is about the same odds as winning the lottery and thus a poor buying strategy unless you have special knowledge.

I really recommend those who might be buying art go to museums or art galleries to develop a sense of what valuable art looks like. It is surprising how that can help develop an “eye” for what is collectible, thus worth money, and what is not. You do not have to become an expert, but the more knowledge you have the better a buyer you will be.

One couple really impressed me with the quality of their buying. They had focused on engravings, particularly copper plate engravings. They had some knowledge about this type of art but were far from experts, so they brought them in to affirm the items they bought were as good as they thought they might be. They brought in 5 pieces which included 2 - 19th century engravings and 3 - 16th century engravings one of which was a small but original “Rembrandt”. All were bought at local sales for very low prices. The lowest valued item was in the $400 range and the “Rembrandt” has the potential to be worth up to $10,000 depending on what state it is determined to be in. (Artists had a tendency to make changes, so an engraving “first state” means first design, second, third etc. state means alterations were made. The date when it was printed off of the copper plate also affects value. Those printed in the life time of the artist are the most valuable. However, they can be printed several hundred years later off the original plate and are still considered original works of art. One indication of this is the copper plate shows signs of wear over the years and so the print is less well defined and thus the engraving is worth less.) I believe this one was a fairly early state but I recommended an expert in 16th century engravings at an auction house look at it to determine the exact state, as I see so few of this type of item.

This couple had a good “eye” plus some knowledge and turned a bit of time at sales into a very nice investment. This shows that collectible art is still possible to buy today at bargain prices. So visit those museums, read up on some type of art you like and go out shopping. I guarantee there are still valuable pieces out there to be found.