Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

As a fanatical follower of the price of everything, I have long been an avid viewer of the television program, Antiques Roadshow, for 14 years, and the English version of the show well before that. This is where you learn what stuff like “majolica” is. Many aspiring collectors come into the open appraisal events hoping they have inherited something of untold value from their late Aunt Gertrude.

The show has had its ups and down, and was once ensnared in a scandal where appraisers deliberately overvalued objects to boost television ratings. But some of the stories that come with these objects are amazing, and their educational value can’t be underestimated. Once, they really did discover an original seal of the United States, missing since the British burned Washington DC in 1814, which someone had bought at a Paris flee market for $20.

The knowledge that I gained over the years has allowed me to swoop in and pick up incredible bargains, everywhere from Sotheby’s auctions to local garage sales.

Some of my better deals have included buying a pair of prewar German Zeiss binoculars for $10 (I recently saw an identical pair inside U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago). I also managed to score three cases of 1909 and 1915 Massandra port and sherry, last own by Czar Nicholas II of Russia, for $25 a bottle. Current market price: $1,000. The taste is amazing.

So it was with some amusement that I noticed yesterday that the show recently made its greatest find in history. A man in Tulsa, Oklahoma appeared with five tea cups that he had purchased at a local antique store in the seventies for a couple of bucks. The Chinese antiquities expert was aghast, informing the surprised owner that these dated from the 17th century, were made from extremely rare rhinoceros horn, and were estimate to worth $1-$1.5 million.

It turns out that the previous record for an object was also Chinese, some  $1 million for some carved jade bowls. It has long been a rule of thumb that when a country sees of burst of strong economic growth, its antiques rise in value. I saw this happen to Japanese screens, swords, and woodblock prints in the seventies and eighties during their economic boom, and it is happening now with Islamic antiquities, thanks to the high price of oil.

In the meantime, I will continue to visit the local garage sales with a sharp eye. I wonder about that copy of the Declaration of Independence I have lining an attic drawer upstairs. Could it be the real thing?

Antique Road Show

How about $300,000 Each?

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