Question: In the field of collectibles, age seems to count for a lot when computing value. What are some things collectors should look for when attempting to estimate how old an item is?--W.N.
Answer: Your question is difficult to answer in the confines of a column because many collectibles have complex histories, such as in the area of Americana, and have been the subject of extensive study. Sometimes only a professional appraisal will do when the item is suspected of having exceptional value.
One way to analyze age is to focus on the material with which the collectible is made. For example, if the material is wood, signs of aging might be quite subtle but can be determined by the experienced eye. Wood gradually changes color if left outside and will show signs of "weathering." If the object has been used, for example in a kitchen, it should have marks or scratches indicating the use to which it was put.
Iron objects may show aging signs in the form of rusting--but the rusting pattern should be uneven; if the rust marks look too uniform, then start to get suspicious that the object may be the work of a clever counterfeiter. Also keep in mind that early machine-tooled pieces do not have the uniform look of modern production-line processes. File marks on an item that is supposed to be very old should not have the uniform quality of recently produced goods.
Sometimes only modern techniques, such as examining a collectible under ultraviolet light, will tell you much about the history of the item. Such techniques may show how it was repaired over the years and could reveal if you are examining the real thing or a fake.
Q: I collect, of all things, doorknobs--glass doorknobs to be exact. How far back could my collection go if I concentrated on American-produced doorknobs?--D.L.
A: Individuals who collect glassware are aware of the collectible qualities of glass doorknobs, and so it is not that unusual for them to find their way into collections.
Collectors have found they can date these items by the machinery process used, and that some of the most beautiful American varieties date back to the early 19th Century. In fact, it wasn't until well after the turn of this century that colorful doorknobs began to be widely replaced by the wood and metal variety. So, to answer your question, for purposes of putting together a meaningful collection, you should probably concentrate on doorknobs produced during the 19th Century.
Prices here appear to be more reasonable than, say, those paid for glass paperweights that may have price tags of several hundreds of dollars or more. Generally, say collectors, doorknobs, even of the cut-glass variety, probably shouldn't sell for more than $30 or so each.
Q: I have a note with the signature of the late Army Gen. Omar Bradley. What's it worth?--N.K.
A: Apparently there are quite a few notes and letters in the hands of collectors that were penned by this famous five-star American World War II general. Some recent prices we've seen put their value at something under $100. Naturally, in this case, price would be a function of the length of the letter and whether it was on the general's official stationery.