Condition Is a Real Sign of Its Value

Times Staff Writer

Question: I collect historical tradesmen, tavern and inn signs that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most are made of wood and are painted or have the individual's or establishment's name carved on them.

I'm particularly interested in a wooden sign I have in my collection that is carved like a boot. I believe it dates back more than a century. To put it in some sort of historical context, what can you tell me about how long American boot makers have been engaged in their craft?--F.S.

Answer: American boot and shoe production dates back to the early 17th Century. So, although your sign has good value, its value is not entirely linked to its age; uniqueness and condition count for a lot in this collectible category.

Generally, early American shoe and boot makers worked at home and, from time to time, went on the road to sell their work. Additionally, many worked in small shops before the advent of factories and mass production techniques. Hence, the proliferation of their unique signs, oftentimes shaped in the form of a shoe or boot displaying their name.

Other sought-after signs found in the early days of this country include guest house and tavern signs with many collectors opting for wood over the wrought-iron variety.

Such signs are extremely popular and usually sell at a premium. For example, thousands of dollars have been paid for authentic 200-year-old flat wooden signs.

In fact, a dealer told us that even a century-old boot sign, such as the one you have, could exchange hands in the $2,000-$3,000 range if it's in top condition and can be proven to be an original and not a fake.

In the early history of this country, inn, tavern and trade signs could be found along country roads ranging from Virginia to New England. Because this region has severe winter weather, not many of these signs survived in collectible condition, thus contributing to their high price tags.

In terms of appreciation, such signs have shown steady dollar increases over the years, with the more valuable ones changing hands on the auction block rather than the antique shop.

Q: As a bottle collector who wants to expand into flasks, what would be a simple characteristic to look for that immediately defines flask in collectible terms?--W.P.

A: Most collectors and dealers define flask as a bottle that's flattened on the front and back sides. Usually, their liquid contents measured no more than a pint.

Most popular, they say, are flasks produced in the middle of the 19th Century--particularly those that once contained wild medicinal cures and promotional bottles produced by distilleries of that period.

Rare patterns and colors appear to bring in the highest prices. Dealers recall that it has not been unusual for rare flasks to sell for as much as $15,000 or more.

On the other hand, dealers say, it's still a good field for the collector of moderate means, because many interesting flasks, produced in the late 19th Century, can still be purchased for less than $100.

Q: Can you give me some early history on Smith & Wesson, the gun producer?--V.M.

A: Smith & Wesson opened its doors in Norwich, Conn., in 1855 as the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. It then moved to Springfield, Mass. and reorganized under its current name in 1857.

Smith & Wesson antique handguns, such as its frontier models, have sold for well in excess of $1,000 when in good condition.

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