Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2018

America's born-yesterday antiques

Smart investors have al-ways included some tangible assets in their strategy for investment diversification. Art works, antiques, and high-end collectibles can be great places to park otherwise taxable assets. It's an appeal the trade could do a better job of promoting. (And before we turn up our noses up at the term "collectible," we should consider that something passes up through the tiers to become an antique because it was considered worth acquiring in the first place.)

An unusually large pot done by Hopi-Tewa artist Joy Navasie (aka Frog Woman), perhaps the most famous living Hopi potter, who died in 2012 at the age of 93 but who had stopped potting by 1995. Joy's mother, Paqua Naha, was known as the original Frog Woman, and Joy credited her with inventing this white ground pottery, which Joy herself later perfected and which became a family trademark. (The mark on the bottom of Joy's and Paqua's pots is actually the image of a frog, which is plump in Joy's mark, narrow in her mother's.) Navasie's work routinely sells in four figures, even for the smallest pots – a unique Native American artwork by a famous potter. Investment grade acquisition? You betcha! (photo by Peggy Whiteneck)


The pros and cons of investment in tangibles

Naturally, there are trends and fads, upswings and downturns in fashion and the trade. But fine craftsmanship has an eternal appeal, which tends to make antiques less volatile than stocks. And considering the pitiable interest rates these days from savings accounts, CDs, and bonds, people really might as well invest some portion of those assets in antiques and collectibles they can live with and love if and until it comes time to divest.

Real estate holdings and the interest and gains on financial assets are both taxable on an annual basis. But after paying any retail tax on initial acquisition, a grandmother's diamond and ruby brooch or someone's Barre bronze sculpture can sit happily tax free for as long as one keeps it.
Unlike stocks and bonds, though, antiques and objets d'art are not liquid assets, meaning they can't be converted into quick cash. While this disadvantage will be obvious to most professional dealers buying for resale, a surprising number of amateur buyers and collectors still expect to turn items for a killing in the short term, which can be an inventory acquisition challenge for dealers.

There's also a huge equity risk should the cost of an acquisition turn out to be "the highest price ever paid at auction" for an item of its ilk. This doesn't just happen in auctions of Tiffany glass, art pottery, 17th and 18th century American furniture with unusually good provenance, and paintings by Picasso or Chagall. Those who wonder at the judgment that, for example, paid $20,000 at a 2005 auction for an experimental and functionally useless Fiesta teapot can take a certain dark pleasure in knowing the buyer is likely to be married to it for life.

Tips for dealing in investment-grade inventory

In general, avoid items touted as "limited editions." With this "come-on" manufacturers of contemporary collectibles have sought to compensate for a lack of age credentials by implying there is something exclusive about production numbers or distribution. In most cases, the edition size is so large that the regular-line batch of other 20th century models produced by the same company could actually be smaller!

For investment sales appeal, pick categories with a track record. Some folks (including one well-known pundit with his storage closet) are betting on the long-term investment potential of late 20th century toys in their original packaging. Wouldn't a dealer be farther ahead acquiring even a few antique toys whose value is intrinsic and doesn't depend on original packing materials?

Buy what you like, at the best value for the money, devil take the fads. As a dealer, your best insulation against being snookered by a flash-in-the-pan fad is to buy what you like and at an attractive price. If you have any taste at all after many years of working in the trade, you should be able to trust your own instinct enough to believe that if you like it, there are plenty of buyers out there who will like it, too.

Leave some room in it. Know what you're buying and what it's worth. Sounds like basic common sense, yet the trade has a lot of inventory bought too dear at auction. The recommendation for the antiques market is the same as for the stock market: buy low to sell higher.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at