Pricing Antiques, Collectibles, Vintage Items

Written By Steve

One of life’s biggest mysteries is how to go about putting a “realistic” selling price on an antique, collectible, or vintage item.

Here are some things to think about when trying to come up with a price for any item you are selling:

  1. Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay you for it on the day or days you are trying to sell it.
  2. The price you can charge is what someone is willing to pay and what your competitors will let you charge.

If the second part of #2 confuses you, look at it this way – if you’re at a flea market and have $80 on an old Barbie Doll and four other sellers have the same doll in their space and they are priced in the range of $40 to $60, then it’s unlikely you’ll find someone willing to pay you $80.


Don’t forget, your competitors also dictate what price you can put on an item.

Flea Market Sellers

It’s been our experience that most flea market sellers try to at least double their money on each item priced for resale.

This means that if they paid $5 for a vintage pocket knife, at a minimum they’d want to price it at $10.

Of course, the actual price may be higher based on:

  1. Online research, particularly on eBay, to see what the same or similar items are selling for today.
  2. Years of experience selling similar items and knowing what the current market will bear for such an item.
  3. Advice from an experienced friend or expert about the item being priced.
  4. Gut feel for what the price should be.

The problem today is that too many flea market sellers have little or no experience in buying merchandise from a variety of sources and then pricing it to sell at the local flea market.

So these folks either price too low, which is great for other resellers looking for underpriced items before the market opens, or they price way too high which means the item doesn’t sell.

This is why you can see the same item from flea market to flea market from the same seller as the item is priced too high and the seller refuses to see the error in his or her pricing.

At this point we always bring up the famous Pareto’s Law or the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule states that if you buy 100 items for resale, you’ll quickly sell 20 of them and the other 80 will stick around because of one or two reasons:

  1. The item is priced too high for both resellers and collectors.
  2. The item is simply not in demand either by resellers or collectors.  It should never have been purchased for resale.  You might call such items “dogs.”

Success as a reseller depends more on how you handle the 80 items and not the 20 quick sellers.

Suffice it to say, pricing items for resale is as much a guess as it is an art.

Another factor that comes to bear here is the famous law of supply and demand.

Simply stated, when the demand is greater than the supply, you can charge much higher prices for an item.

When the supply is greater than the demand, you have to charge a much lower price to make sure it sells.  If the supply is too big, you may not sell the item at any price.

This law of supply and demand is why you often see the word “Rare” on a price tag or eBay description.  Sellers use the word “Rare” in an attempt to convince buyers that the item is one of a very few available anywhere and that there are many more buyers wanting it than items available to meet the demand.

This may or may not be true – you simply cannot depend on the seller really knowing if an item is, in fact, rare or in short supply.

People Wanting to Price their Personal or Family Items   

While you may not want to hear this – it’s simply not possible to provide an accurate value of, or price for, any particular item you wish to sell online, in a garage or yard sale, at a flea market, to a reseller, or in an estate sale.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is being untruthful or deceitful.

How can we say this?

Simple, just look at the items up for auction at any online auction site (except eBay) which includes the major auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham and Butterfield’s, and John Moran.  Every item presented in the auction catalog or online includes a price range where the “experts” estimate, in a wide range, what the item should bring at auction.

For example, a vase might show a range of ($200 – $400).  Now that’s quite a huge price range.  Of course, after the auction is over, the actual price paid often falls outside this range – sometimes the final price is above the range and sometimes below the range.  This should be proof that it’s impossible to provide an accurate price for a particular item.

Even the so-called experts can’t do it.

Sure, you can pay big money to have some certified appraiser give you an appraisal price but remember this – these appraisal prices are generally provided for one of the following reasons:

  1. For insurance coverage
  2. To settle estates
  3. For divorce settlements

As such, the appraisal prices are generally much higher than you could ever expect to get by selling the item yourself.  It’s our strong belief that you are simply wasting money getting a professional appraisal if your goal is to sell your item or items.  Plus, the high cost of an appraisal must be paid immediately out of your pocket.  And, if you are getting the appraisal in order to sell your items, you must subtract the appraisal cost from your sale proceeds. The only person who wins here is the appraiser.

If you have an appraisal list for inherited items and are thinking of using it to price your items in order to sell them, our best advice is to throw it away immediately.

The prices listed are obsolete and meaningless.  No one wants to see it.  The prices listed will distort your reality of what your stuff is worth today.

Still, while you will usually be able to find someone willing to provide you with their opinion (substitute best guess here) about what your item or items “might” be worth, we caution you that pricing antiques and collectibles is generally a best guess.

Why is this?

Because the bottom line is this:  Something is only worth what you can get for it on the day you are willing to sell it.  There are many variables affecting the price you can get for your prized piece of pottery, your beer tray collection, or your Grandmother’s jewelry.  These variables include:

  • The overall condition of your piece (mint perfect versus repaired or chipped)
  •  The rarity of your particular item (this is the law of supply and demand at work with rare items commanding much higher prices)
  •  The history behind your item (some folks are willing to pay more for an item when they have the history behind it as it helps authenticate its age and ownership)
  •  The location where you are selling it (items usually bring more in large cities like New York and San Francisco  versus smaller cities and towns)
  •  How you are attempting to sell it (Sotheby’s Auction, Craig’s List, eBay auction, Etsy, a simple ad in your local paper, a flea market, or in an estate sale held at your home or the home of a deceased relative)
  •  The time at which you are trying to sell it (for example, people are usually willing to pay more for items just before a major holiday like Christmas, Mother’s Day, anniversaries, and birthdays as people use these events as justification for spending more for something that will make a wonderful gift)
  •  How long you’re willing to wait to get a higher price
  •  Changing economic conditions (the lingering deep recession has had a downward effect on pricing of antiques and collectibles as has the bursting of the antique bubble some years ago)

As you can see, there are many variables that can affect the ultimate price someone will pay for each item you wish to sell.

Another issue affecting price is the value you place on your item.  For example, many people place a higher value on an item that’s a family heirloom than would a potential buyer.  Just because your great-grandmother got the vase as a wedding gift doesn’t make the item more valuable in the eyes of most buyers.  Usually, you have to dismiss any sentimental value when establishing a price.

Unfortunately, there are no “reliable” books where one can go to find an estimated price or price range.  Sure, there are price guides available but these guides are usually “out of date” within a few months of being published.  Plus, where did the author get his or her prices and price ranges?  Often these prices come from auction houses where prices tend to be higher because of two or more anxious bidders bidding against each other – thereby driving up the price.  Plus, these price guides fail to take in the eight variables listed above.

Another thing that’s absolutely affected pricing today is the growing assortment of fake reality shows on TV including Pickers, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, and The Antique Road Show.  These shows are rehearsed and the items selected ahead of time to provide excitement.  Unfortunately, they don’t represent reality.

These shows give TV viewers the idea that everything is valuable.  We’ve experienced this many times.  Someone will ask our opinion about an item and when we give them an estimated price, they’ll quickly tell us that a similar item on The Antique Road Show was estimated five times higher.  The key word here is “similar.”  Being similar isn’t the same as being identical.  Bottom line, forget what you see and hear on these reality shows.  They are pure entertainment – not educational shows.

Because so many people, family, friends, and co-workers – see these shows, it’s made them all experts in value and they are always more than happy to tell you that your Grandma’s set of china or other item is “valuable.”   You should ignore the advice of these folks.  Ask them if they’d pay the price they just suggested.

Most of us believe the stuff we have is much more valuable than it really is.  When deciding to part with one or more of your antiques or collectibles, you have to ask yourself one very important question:  “What is my goal here?”

If it’s to get the maximum price because you desperately need the money, then you may have to wait a very long time to find a buyer willing to pay your price.

You can elect to send it to auction but remember this, if it sells for $250, the seller gets a piece of this price as his or her fee.   And auctions aren’t held immediately.   It could be many months before you receive a check for the item sold on your behalf.  Plus, you have to trust the auction house to be honest.  And there are almost always income tax implications using a major auction house.

If your goal is to simply get rid of stuff because you are moving, downsizing, or settling an estate, then you are better off pricing your item realistically based on the eight variables above and getting the money right away.  Remember the sage advice:  “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

We’ve known folks who’ve established a price for a collectible item and it sold right away.  Most are happy but there are always those who immediately complain that it sold because their price was too low.  Maybe so or maybe not.  Perhaps they got lucky and the right person just happened to come along at the right time.  Because of this possibility, some sellers set a high price as they are deathly afraid of selling their item at too low of a price.  These folks are never really happy with the price they get and should probably just keep their prized vase or bowl as the emotional trauma of setting a price and selling the item is overwhelming.

So, you have to be in the right frame of mind before deciding to sell your items at an estate sale, a yard or garage sale, or at a community flea market.

Again, undoubtedly, you will be able to find someone willing to assist you with a price or a price range for every item you wish to sell.  Of course, you’ll have to pay this so-called expert for their assistance.  Professional appraisers charge the most which is a percentage of the appraised price which we see as a giant conflict of interest.

Others are willing to provide pricing for a flat hourly rate in the $100 range.

Beware of anyone offering to assist you with pricing in return for taking some of your items as payment.  This isn’t really ethical and most likely they’ll take the most valuable items.

Before hiring someone to assist you, remember everything that we’ve covered above.

And remember, when it comes to setting a price, the realistic price is what your buyers are willing to pay and what your competitors will allow you to charge (meaning you can’t sell your vase for $125 if identical items are available for sale at flea markets or online in the $75 range).

So, think long and hard before asking someone’s assistance in pricing your item or items.

If your goal is to obtain what you feel is the maximum value for each item, good luck, because you are going to need it.

1 thought on “Pricing Antiques, Collectibles, Vintage Items”

  1. Thanks!! I’ve been trying to explain what you just said to some family members and they don’t seem ot get the jest of it. I’m administrating an estate and having to price every thing. They think it shoud be higher and I keep trying to tell them it should be at or just below a reasonable market value. They’re not figuring in the timeeeeeeeee and expence of selling the item. I’m going to get them to read this.


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