Selling Antique Furniture

Antiques Roadshow on PBS Television

Time to Sell?

selling antique furniture - 1913 baby carriage

They don't make 'emlike they used to, as this c. 1913 photo (created for a baby carriage ad)reminds us.

Perhaps it's time to move or downsize, or maybe you're settling an estate. What to do about all that furniture? Our experts tip you off.

By Jane Viator

As with any antique, establishing the best way to sell your furniture depends on having a clear idea of value. An independent, impartial, expert opinion is essential for a fair sale and- just as important-for peace of mind.

Auctioneer and Antiques Roadshow appraiser Ken Farmer cautions that haste not only makes waste, but it practically guarantees poor sales and low prices when you're selling antique furniture (or anything else). The top tip we heard from Farmer and our other experts: Before you decide how or where to sell a piece of antique furniture, take the time to find out what you have-and consult someone who really knows.

If you want a piece of furniture evaluated, ask a reputable, experienced source. And you may find that you need to consult more than one. Farmer notes that a good generalist auctioneer or dealer-if he or she isn't certain about an item-will refer you to an appropriate specialist.

The quality, age, and importance of some pieces may dictate that you pursue a formal appraisal. But keep in mind that a professional appraisal costs money: It's an elaborate, detailed "written document based on research, and it can cost anywhere from $100-$400," and sometimes more, explains Beth Szescila, an Antiques Roadshow appraiser based in Houston.

"Most appraisers have a minimum fee based on an hourly rate," Szescila adds, so with some objects, an appraisal "might not be economically feasible." A recommended first step: Take some good photographs of your antique furniture and send them to an appraiser for review or show them to a reputable antiques dealer in your area. In hiring an appraiser, ask whether he or she is a member of a recognized appraisers' association.

Once you know what you've got, you can start the process of determining where you'll offer it. Options:

selling antique furniture

. If you're trying to sell only a well-used table and set of chairs, your best bet might be to use an index card on a community bulletin board, hold a yard sale, or place an ad in your local paper's classified section.

. If you're selling several pieces, the right choice might be consignment. Consignment shops allow you to set the selling price; items that don't sell can be reclaimed. But like the antiques dealer's shop, consignment shops have space limits, so they may not accept everything you want to sell. Most have automatic price reductions that go into effect after a certain length of time, so keep track of what you've consigned, and check in every month.

. Local auctions offer another outlet to consider. Here, as with consignment shops, you'll find advantages as well as drawbacks. An auction can ensure sale but not price; consignment can ensure price but not sale. As Antiques Roadshow furniture expert J. Michael Flanigan puts it, you can't have it both ways. At least, though, you can set a reserve price, so that you won't be selling antique for less than what it's worth. (See "To Reserve or Not to Reserve" in our February 2005 issue.)

If speed and simplicity are important (for example, if you're moving, or if an estate must be settled), then an auction may be your best bet. It's also the most practical route if you're selling other items at the same time: rugs, silver, ceramics-whatever.

You'll have the best experience all around if you deal with an auctioneer who has a solid reputation and clearly stated standards about what he'll accept. (Some auctioneers have a policy, for example, that they won't handle worn upholstered furniture or used appliances.) Do some research on the auctioneer; ask for recommendations.

A tip from Farmer: The initials "CAI" after an auctioneer's name stand for Certified Auctioneers Institute, a training program whose graduates are pledged to high ethical standards. And as always, don't be left wondering. You'll avoid regrets later if you ask the right questions of an auctioneer up front:

  1. Where do you advertise?
  2. How many pieces like this do you handle in a year?
  3. What are your payment terms?
  4. How soon after the sale will I receive a check?
  5. Does the commission I pay include all costs, or will I be billed for insurance, cataloging, or anything else? Be sure that you understand all the terms, and get everything in writing.


Most household furniture falls into the category of "second-hand": usable, but not particularly valuable. And make no mistake: Mass-produced pieces from recent years and upholstered chairs and sofas are not very saleable. So be willing to donate items that a dealer or auctioneer won't take-and be aware that in some areas it may be hard to find an organization that will accept furniture donations.

Furthermore, accept the possibility that you just might have to throw away or give away some pieces. Flanigan offers this reality check: "People think they're doing the auctioneer, consignment shop owner, or dealer a favor to let them have everything.... Sometimes the cost of cleaning, fixing, and hauling something away is more than it's worth, so you may end up paying someone to just haul the stuff away."

If it's a world-class piece of antique furniture you'd like to sell, your best option is to contact a major auction house, whether it's Sotheby's, Christie's, Doyle New York, Skinner, Bonham's, or another high-profile firm.

selling antique furniture sets

Of course, hooking up with a bigcity auction house might be impractical for you: "It's much trickier in a rural situation, where your pieces are locked into what things are selling for around you," Szescila says. "If you're within 100 miles or so of a city, take some photographs of the furniture and bring them in to the auction house, and at least get a verbal approximation of value."

It can be hard to separate facts from feelings, especially when selling antique furniture with a family association. The bottom line is that sentimental attachment doesn't add a penny to the value that someone else places on that beloved old chair.

Antiques Roadshow Insider- Jane Viator Senior Conriibuting Editor

Senior contributing editor

Senior contributing editor Jane Viator operates a decorative arts consulting business, Past Perfect, near San Francisco. In last month's Insider, she covered antique chess sets.






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