Antiques Roadshow & investments

Vintage Jewelry

Sure, I love it. So much so that when Antiques Roadshow announced that it was going to be in Chicago for the first time in years, I applied for the ticket lottery immediately. They had 19,000 applications for 6,000 tickets, so I was thrilled when we won two tickets.

If you’re a fan, you probably find it at least as addictive as chocolate truffles. Watching other people live at the show, I spent a lot of time wondering just what the show offers. Everyone hopes they’ll pick something from a trash bin that turns out to be worth six figures, and we saw one or two folks who looked like they were being pulled aside for the big reveal.  However, given the lines we saw for painting appraisal, and the absolutely horrible paint-by-numbers art being carried in, I can tell you without a doubt that most of us have absolutely no taste in or knowledge of art. Really, I don’t think I could bear to be an appraiser on that beat, the stuff was so horrible. It must be a thrill to their eyes, too, when they finally spot something good. So, my first lesson is that if you’re going to hang it on a wall, make sure it’s something that has meaning for you, because value is questionable at best.

My second lesson while there is that not only do we probably have little idea of the value of collectibles or much ability to judge such value, but dealers don’t really have a clue, either. You probably know that if you’ve watched many Antiques Roadshow broadcasts, and see the terrible prior advice people have been given, but this time it’s personal. I brought a set of jewelry to be evaluated, which I bought at a reputable antiques show (the Winnetka Antiques Fair) from a reputable and long established dealer. Not one single thing I was told about the jewelry when I purchased it was accurate, at least according to the Roadshow appraiser. It wasn’t the karat weight I’d been told (14kt vs. 15kt.) it wasn’t from the era it had been labeled (U.S. Civil War vs. 1870s), and it wasn’t made where I was told (Italy, vs. England). The only “fact” that slightly mattered to me was that it wasn’t Civil-War era, as I was heavily interested in Civil War re-enacting at the time and that was the “fact” that thrilled me into purchasing the piece.

The third lesson I learned is that the demographic of viewers appears to be baby-boomer or older. Everyone is hoping that something from their early life, or that they inherited, has value. It’s a way of recouping your youth through your possessions—and finding that the changes over time that you see in yourself (perhaps losses) can be redeemed by the increased value of things that once had very low prices. Perhaps it’s innate in us that we want to have something of value that we can pass on to our children.

My biggest fear was that the jewelry would turn out to be worth less than what I paid for it, so it was a great relief to find out that it was worth about 60% more than its original price tag. But I have to confess, one of the games I play when watching the show is, “was it a good investment?”  And mostly, I have to answer no. I purchased this jewelry in 2000. If I’d have plunked my money into, say, the fairly conservative Vanguard Wellington fund instead, I’d have a nearly 200% return for the period. Plus, I wouldn’t have paid to insure it for the last 14 years (although I would have had to pay taxes on the Wellington dividends). You can play this game too—listen to how long the person has owned the object, take the amount they paid, and double it for every 10 years of ownership. If they’re not doing at least that well, financially at least they’d have been better off investing it in a balanced fund portfolio. But truthfully, it was much more thrilling at the time to own the jewelry than it would have been to put the same amount into a mutual fund. Fourteen years later, I’m not so sure. I’ve probably worn the darn thing 3 or 4 times.

Then, there are the things that don’t hold their value—most recently, antique dolls and furniture. You may not buy these things strictly as an investment, but you should be very, very careful that you pay on the low side of whatever the current market value is, be able to judge quality pretty well, and be willing to hold the object for as long as it takes for the category to rebound. And be sure it’s insured and properly cared for in the meantime. Probably, don’t own cats or have small children.

The final ouch! is the taxes on collectibles. I have to believe that a fair portion of those who get a big pleasant surprise are thinking about contacting their friendly local auction house.  I have never seen this mentioned on the show, but if your tax bracket is above 15% on ordinary income, you’re going to be hit with a 28% capital gains tax on the gain you make from the sale (most other long term investments are taxed at no more than 15% currently). Maybe your kids actually do want to inherit that ugly picture.

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