We’ve all seen the TV shows where homeowners wait with bated breath as antique experts deliberate over the possible value of the family heirloom, which has been lovingly passed down through generations, or the somewhat ugly painting, which has been lying face down in the attic for decades.
Quite often it’s the latter which proves to be worth the most, and this reality has seen people across the land scouring through boxes of “junk” which have been cast away into the darkest corners of their home.
But, while stories of granny’s garish painting actually being a priceless piece of art make great TV, they aren’t the norm and, more often than not, the stuff stored in the attic turns out to be worthless.
So how can you determine whether or not you might be unwittingly living alongside an expensive piece of treasure?
Expert Sean Eacrett has some advice on how to spot something of value.
Having worked in the auctioneering business since 2005, he values a huge number of items during his working week, while he also ran an antique shop in Dublin some years ago.
Now based in Co Laois, his firm was the first in Ireland to use “live bidding” and has also featured in British TV series Bargain Hunt and Antiques Road Trip, so he knows a thing or two about finding the “real McCoy”.
“An item is classed as an antique if it is over 100 years old, so we are now into the Art Deco period as the new antique,” he says. “However, mid-century furniture has seen a resurgence in the last few years.
“There is no particular item which stands out when it comes to [finding treasure in] house contents, but if you come across old banknotes like the old Irish ploughman or the odd sovereign you will get a glint in your eye as, when it comes to gold, prices have skyrocketed. Where a single sovereign was worth €260, it is now close to €350 or more each – and collectables are always saleable.
“I would say that you should not throw anything out before getting it appraised. I had an instance once where I was asked to go to a very large house to look at three large mirrors. When I got there, the mirrors were the only things left, so I asked where all the other items were – and was shown out the back garden to a big brown stain of ash on the ground. The house-owner said, “I thought all the other furniture wasn’t worth much”. So many people throw money into skips or fires and don’t think about what an item is worth. But the saying ‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s profit’ still holds true.”
Buy what you love
Anna Hutchinson and her family have been attending auctions for several decades and she has a wealth of experience in buying and selling a wide range of items, from furniture and household pieces to jewellery and artwork.
She agrees with Eacrett that the most important aspect of antiques is not so much the price, but whether or not the piece brings joy. But if you are keen on selling, then don’t be afraid to get something valued.
“The saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is very true for antiques – the value is in the heart and mind of the owner,” she says. “When my parents started out in the early ’90s, ‘brown’ furniture went for crazy prices, now it can hardly be given away – and personally, I love the rich deep colours of such woods as I see the beauty in the flames and the variations and patina you get from aged timbers.
“When it comes to valuing pieces, silver and delph will have hallmarks and stamps. And there is a plethora of online resources to locate information which will enable people to identify makers, designers and whether or not something is ‘real’. Furniture is harder to decipher, as where reproductions are common, pieces can be ‘married’, so a top and a bottom from two pieces are attached together to make something functional. It might not be for the purists, but so long as it’s acknowledged, there’s nothing wrong with it.
“Rare books, particularly first editions, are often sitting in homes unbeknownst to people, and these can be worth quite a lot of money,” she says.
The antiques aficionado says that artwork and old ornaments which have been lying around the home for years can also be of some value.
"Check the fly leaf of your books for edition number, and check online to see their value at present, but remember, trends change, artists become more well known, and with that the market prices go up and go down – so don't worry if the value isn't as high as you'd expected it to be," she advises. "Another area of value that I've noticed is vintage garments and accessories – think Chanel and Givenchy – and also specialist items, which you could possibly sell online in specialist auctions as they may go for more than in a general auction."
So if you feel your home may indeed be a treasure trove, Eacrett has advice on how to check if something is valuable.
Examine silver for marks. If it’s sterling silver, it will be marked with the word “sterling” or “925”. And there may also be a symbol which represents the manufacturer. For example, English silver will have the lion along with a leopard head for London, a crown for Sheffield, anchor for Birmingham, and so on. Irish silver will have the Hibernia mark unless pre-1730, as it was only brought in then.
If there is a pattern on the piece, check silver websites to identify it and if the item is over 50 years old, it is an antique.
The same applies to glassware and china or crockery: check if it has any identifying markings or maker’s mark and research online to identify and date.
When it comes to toys, if it is made of lead or cast iron then it could be late 19th century. A toy in its original box is much more sought-after and much more valuable. Condition of everything is so important.
Also, if toys are old or hand-painted, they could be antique, and manufacturer’s details on the underside can lead to more information online regarding price.
With large pieces such as furniture, check underneath for marks or labels which may give some clue to manufacturer or date. If there are semi-circular saw marks on back panels of a drawer it could have been made using a circular saw, and may be from 1880. If the saw marks are straight, it may date back to 1910.
If the drawers of a chest/cabinet are oak lined and the grain is running from front to back instead of side to side, then this could mean that the cabinet/ chest is pre-1820.
If the drawers are dovetailed and appear uneven or handmade, it may have been made about 1860.
Books and printed materials can often be easily identified by dates inside the first few pages or at the back of the book. And photographs can be identified if the name of the photographer is marked on the piece.
Art is always valued on past auction value when selling at an auction. This would be a totally different valuation for insurance as that would be a replacement value. The same applies for furniture and other items.