Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - FEBRUARY 2017

Care enough to know what you're selling – or it could cost you

Many antique dealers are also collectors of something. There are two schools of thought about that relationship. Some say dealers should sell what they know. But that may mean selling what they collect, which can in turn make it difficult for dealers to part with their inventory! Others say that, just for that reason, dealers should sell what they don't collect. But whether or not dealers collect what they sell, they at least have to like or appreciate the inventory enough to present it well and at the right price.

This small, exquisitely painted Japanese Kutani double-gourd vase is decorated with Phoenix birds, plum blossoms, and peonies. It bears the mark of the Watano kiln and dates from the Meiji period (1868-1912). The red and gold "brocade" background is a defining feature of Japanese Kutani in the Akae style, and this is an especially fine example of the type. I paid $20 for it in an antique shop – a dealer's loss and my great gain! (Sorry, not for sale...It's in my own collection now!)

I've acquired the vast majority of my private collections from antique shops, many items at junk prices because the dealer didn't know what the item was and, therefore, couldn't price it for real profit. That doesn't necessarily mean – and probably doesn't to a savvy dealer – pricing an item to every cent it will ever be worth. Leaving some price room in it to attract a buyer is an important part of a successful sales strategy.

To illustrate the point I'm trying to make here, there's nothing like a few examples. And I do know that the things on the list below are things I like and appreciate that might not be every dealer's cup of tea. The point is that if a dealer doesn't have some appreciation for what they are selling – at least enough to want to find out something about it – the dealer risks a decent profit margin:

• A tall, c. 1910 Rosenthal tri-crimp vase with under glaze cyclamen decoration, bought for $25 and resold for $200.

• A reverse painted glass Chinese snuff bottle in a rectangular surface with beveled three-facet sides, on the front panel a reverse painting of a monkey in a tree holding a peach, on verso, a monkey seated on a rock, green pine bough overhead. Purchase price: 5 dollars and 40 cents! (Asian art is notoriously difficult to date, so I don't how old this is, but reverse painted snuff bottles tend to be expensive even if they're nearly new.)

• A Japanese Kogo (incense box) in carved layers of red and black lacquer layered one atop the other, probably fairly modern, purchased for $8. (Because this layered lacquer form is so difficult to make and so unforgiving of mistakes, even recent examples of it can command high prices.)

• A large Beswick Cairn Terrier with original Beswick England mark (prior to Beswick's acquisition by the Royal Doulton Group), purchased for $31.50. A relatively scarce model, resold for $75 even in a soft collectibles market.

• A small Japanese cloisonné on porcelain (Totai Shippo) flowerpot with stylized florals on a turquoise ground signed by Takeuchi Chubei, perhaps the foremost 19th century practitioner of cloisonné on porcelain art, bought for $10. (This one's for my own collections, but a very similar pot of this size by this artist sold at auction for $350 and other examples of his work also run to three figures.)

Now, I didn't know all this stuff about these items when I bought them, but I liked them enough to buy them, then cared enough about them to research them later. Because of that, and even though I elected to keep more than half of these for myself, I was able to realize a substantial profit on the two I resold while still holding the price down to well below the value to a collector –including even that 800 percent profit on the Rosenthal vase! Bottom line, it's hard for us dealers to profit-rate what we can't appreciate.

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