The BIG Price Guides: How Good Are They?

In the storehouses of our collected past, the answers to two key questions separate the treasure from the junk: What is it? and What is it worth? For decades, amidst the burgeoning drive to collect, publishers have hurled themselves directly at these questions with the price guide. Perched atop the annual price guide pile are a number of general guides devoted to an astoundingly wide range of antiques and collectibles.

Now we ask about these guides: What are they? and What are they worth?
All of these price guides have much to offer at the same time that they are plagued with limitations. They differ in how and how much they help us to identify and price collectibles. The editors have made choices and compromises concerning how many and which items to include, how many photographs to provide, what tips and background information to squeeze in, and what size to make the book. No single book could ever include everything. No price guide could ever guarantee an accurate price for all circumstances. In the antiques and collectibles field there is no book value for a secondary market driven by a host of variables. The more I study and use the guides the more respect I have for the overwhelming task confronting the editors and their teams.

The price guides fall into two general categories: those that include a large number of items but offer little help with identification, and those that cover fewer items but, through photographs, provide more information on each item.
Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List, published by Three Rivers Press in New York, retailing for $14.95, focuses primarily on prices. Few pictures and a text simplified to essentials allow the Kovels to pack an astounding number of collectibles into the compact format, clearly designed for field use. A librarian hypothesized that more Kovels' from past years are around because the smaller book size holds up better. The book is easy to use, but the user must be able to recognize the item by name or brief description. It is not an identification guide.

The range of objects covered is good, from serious antiques to less expensive items including many 20th century collectibles. Generally, if an item is covered at all, it is covered extensively. Some areas, especially certain modern pop collectibles, are not included. The section on furniture is strong.

Schroeder's Antiques Price Guide , published by Collector Books in Paducah, Kentucky, is $12.95. The larger format makes this book slightly less portable, but allows great coverage. Strong introductory sections for each area of collecting are very helpful for anyone looking for background information. These sections provide some critical information on fakes and reproductions-the kind of information that can help you avoid costly mistakes. The extra space also allows for a few more photographs, but the emphasis is still on providing prices. The range and depth of coverage in Schroeder's is also comprehensive and eclectic. Schroeder's covers some particular companies that are not included in Kovels', but is not quite as strong on furniture.

Warman's Antiques and Collectibles Price Guide is the oldest of the price guides, but was recently picked up by another publisher. Now published by Krause Publications in Iola, Wisconsin, it is $16.95. Its coverage appears to be slightly less extensive than the other two, but it does have a few more photographs and marks. Reproduction alerts are boldly set off, making them easy to find. Warman's is also known for strong coverage of glass patterns.

Miller's International Antique Price Guide, published in England, distributed here by Antique Collector's Club of Wappinger Falls, New York, has a completely different emphasis. Unlike the first three books, Miller's is useful for identification. Each item is photographed and the descriptions are more informative. I consider this book, with its high quality photos and excellent text the most useful for learning about a wide range of valuable antiques and collectibles. Often specific reasons for pricing variations are provided along with good background information.
The trade-off is that it does not begin to include as many items as most of the other guides. The items also tend toward the high end. There are few entries for items valued at less than $100, and as might be expected from a British book, many American companies are not included. It is definitely not the place to go for kitsch, advertising collectibles, or twentieth century American pottery companies. This is the only hard cover book in the bunch, but is also, at $35, the most expensive. Here is a quality book for quality items.

Lyle Official Antiques Review from Perigee Books of the Berkley Publishing Group in New York is $14.95. Lyle's covers a very wide range of items. Like Miller's, it relies on international auction houses for its information and caters to an international market. Unlike Miller's, it covers many of the less valuable antiques and collectibles, but it also does not include much kitsch. In exchange for a photo of every piece, the depth of coverage for any one collectible is limited. However, Lyle's often includes items not included in the other price guides. The furniture section is strong, but it is not the best choice for someone interested in a particular company.

Although not truly general price guides, a number of books provide breadth of coverage, but for a defined segment of the market. Harry L. Rinker, Official Price Guide to Collectibles, published by the House of Collectibles in New York deals almost exclusively with collectibles from the 1920s and later. Here's the book that has the kitsch. Rinker has selected a middle ground for balance between photographs and number of items priced. Since the scope of collectibles is more focused, this works well. Miller's has a series of small conveniently-sized guides which focus on particular areas like pottery; Harvey Duke has an excellent price guide covering pottery, and Krause publishes Warman's Americana.

Most of the price guides update their guides with new items and new prices each year. Lyle's, for example, starts over with a new set of photographs obtained from the items which have gone to auction during the previous year. Kovels' also starts over so that while the categories generally remain, the specific pieces change. Hull pottery will appear year after year, but different Hull pieces will be priced. This practice can make it helpful to save guides from earlier years because the chance of finding a particular item will increase.

On a quest to find out how dealers and other collectors used the general price guide, I stopped at Valinda's Obsessive Collective at 529 Lake Avenue in St. James, New York. Valinda DeMato herself led me past the racks, shelves and cabinets crowded with pottery, glassware, vintage clothing and jewelry, fishing gear, and all the other you-name-its of collectors' dreams. The tags with initials (did I see one marked NUTS?) identified a multi-dealer store. We skirted the dog gate and entered the nerve center of the shop where coffee, information, and a very friendly vintage dog are generously shared. Several shelves jammed with books obviously help augment the knowledge of the dealers and are available to assist collectors as well. Many sales occur in that back room according to DeMato.

Sprinkled in with the books on particular collectibles I noted not just one, but several general price guides-Kovels' for a couple of different years, a Miller's, and a Schroeder's. DeMato reports that she also uses Lyle's to look up some unusual items. Schroeder's Antiques Price Guide is her favorite. She always keeps a copy in her car when she is going to auctions or shows.

These books provide a quick reference to help make decisions about a huge variety of collectibles. DeMato is quite clear that none of the books can possibly replace becoming familiar with the feel of a particular antique or collectible. They are not the books that helped her identify a rare, unmarked Rookwood, or check the color of a McCoy cookie jar to confirm a piece as a reproduction. For that she needed the specialized books.

Terry Kovels advises that a furniture dealer should not be buying her book to identify or price furniture. Their knowledge should already exceed the level of information provided in the general price guide. However, the book will be useful to them for something outside their immediate area of expertise, such as glass for example.

How useful are these guides in pricing a particular item? Warman's has a critical warning in its introduction. These books are buyer's guides, not seller's guides. Unless you are selling to a motivated retail buyer, you cannot expect to match these prices.
Even with that warning in mind, a general consensus is that they generally only help provide ballpark estimates. They do not replace knowing the market. They do not accurately reflect prices in a given region, nor do they provide enough advice or information to accurately price a particular item in a particular condition.

Andrew Katz of Windham Antiques Research and Appraisal Services in Norwich, Vermont uses the price guides "for value comparison purposes, but not for the sole purpose of finding the value of an item." He warns against treating them as a "Bible." "The biggest advantage to using the book," he says, "is that they can give you a quick, general value overview of a particular category of items and can be used as a quick identification reference tool."

He identifies as a serious limitation that the "descriptions generally lack important evaluation factors," especially the specifics of the item's condition. For this reason Katz prefers those books, like Lyle's, Miller's and The Antiques Directory, which show a picture of each item. While the condition is not always easy to identify, even with the photographs, there is some basis for evaluating the item and comparing it with a similar item which he is pricing. Katz also appreciates the fact that these books are explicit about where the price has been obtained. They are actual sale prices at an identified auction.

DeMato finds the books predictably off for her market. For most items the books set a price which is as much as 20% higher than the price she will set for her St. James market. Certain pottery on the other hand, will sometimes sell for more. Both Katz and DeMato contend that the general price guide provides only a ballpark estimate for any particular piece and that there is no substitute to knowing your own market.

Stephen Griffin, who frequents flea markets and garage sales looking for additions to his numerous collections also identifies Schroeder's as his favorite. He reports that he and his collecting friends enjoy checking the price guides after a purchase to celebrate a great find. "Books do not replace taking the time to become familiar with what things sell for." However, he agrees that if someone is interested in a wide variety of fields, these general price guides are useful for providing a general reference for value and they can be helpful when you are looking for deals.

Griffin is also concerned that some of the people who run garage sales or have flea market tables mis-identify items. They will use the price guide to price something without knowing much about that piece. For example, they may price a piece of Roseville pottery like a quality piece from the guide, unaware that their piece is a poor example of Roseville, worth much less.

My own experience suggests that in addition to all the caveats about the market forces which affect the price along with the condition of the item, that simple mistakes can creep into the books. The infamous typo can greatly skew a price. Be careful, pay attention, and think when you are using a price guide. If a price seems really wacky, that may be exactly what it is–wacky.

Having identified the benefits and limitations of the general price guide, the final consideration is which one to choose, from among the several. Identification will be easier with the picture price guides like Lyle's and Miller's. Miller's is probably the best book to help educate. Schroeder's, Kovels', and Warman's are better for flea markets, garage sales, and Americana. But while one price guide is good, more are almost certainly better.

Every collector or dealer I talked with who uses any of these books, regularly uses more than one. Stephen Griffin and his friends share books. Many of the dealers maintain libraries with a number of reference guides including several general price guides. A collector or dealer who focuses entirely on one or two collectibles is better served by a more focused book, but for anyone who covers a range, these books provide a resource to help maneuver effectively in a very complicated secondary marketplace.

Written By: Alison Levie
Source: New England Antiques Journal