Question: Growing up on a farm led me to collect farm items and related rural memorabilia. In the area of farm tools, I keep an eye peeled in country stores and flea markets. How difficult is it to authenticate the age of such equipment?--W.O.
Answer: Tool collecting--both the farm and home variety--is very popular. But it's also difficult to determine the age of the items.
Documentation becomes easier if you have a specific manufacturer's name that is still legible on the tool or a design that you know is specifically linked to a certain period.
To differentiate handmade tools from those generated by mass-produced machinery of a more modern era, some collectors say they study the metalwork.
For example, a smoothly finished metal part is more likely to be the product of a machine rather than something that is handmade. But the work of a blacksmith--even an expert one--is likely to leave irregular dents on the metal and, therefore, give you some idea of the tool's age.
Old pitchforks and rakes are very popular and are scooped up fast at flea markets by people who want to hang them on shed walls or other places where they serve as neat decorative pieces. Such items are no longer as cheap as you would think--it's not unusual for a half-century-old pitchfork with an authentic wooden handle to sell for $50 or more.
Occasionally, if you keep watching for them, farm auctions can be good sources of bargains, particularly if you purchase entire lots of equipment that might contain real "finds" of authentic farm antiques.
Q: How difficult is it to date old cowboy boots? I have acquired several pairs that could date back to before the turn of the century.--M.W.
A: Check out some books on cowboy boots or talk to boot-shop owners, and you'll find that shapes and styles have changed over the years and that such changes will provide keys to a boot's age.
For example, following the Civil War, cowboy boots had narrow, flat toes and low heels. Usually the top of the boot was straight rather than tapered. A couple of decades later, manufacturers began attaching straps to the top of the boot to make it easier to pull on.
Collecting old cowboy clothing can be a difficult chore--particularly finding clothing in good condition. One reason, of course, is that if the clothing is authentic, it was probably put to rugged use, and any that survives without severe wear and tear is eagerly sought after by collectors of Western gear.
Easier to find in good condition, but probably more expensive, is cowboy equipment such as spurs and holsters. Again, design is a clue to age. Through the early 1870s, one dealer said, a holster was usually designed to fit a particular gun, so if you know the gun for which it was made, you can probably come within a few years of the holster's production date.
Q: I have a fairly extensive sign collection--three-dimensional signs that depict a merchant's trade or the goods sold by a particular store. Is it my imagination or in the past year have they become harder to find? And have prices for such signs skyrocketed?--W.T.
A: Individuals who closely follow the Americana market can't say with any certainty that the supply-and-demand situation you describe has occurred just in the last few years, but they do confirm that such signs have become enormously popular among collectors in the past decade.
Prices too have soared, and any visit to a collector's show will tell you that it's not unusual for a particularly desirable sign--say, a century-old, wooden, watch-repair sign--to sell for hundreds of dollars.
Three-dimensional signs--the wooden cigar-store Indian, the Heinz ketchup bottle--are considered relatively rare among sign collectors. In fact, any signs displaying people or animals that, in turn, depict a particular product or service, are sure to attract collector interest. They are also among the most costly and can sell for $1,000 or more at trade shows.
Ronald L. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.