Discovering Treasures in Bric-a-Brac : Collecting: A nationally recognized art historian and appraisal expert gives basic guidelines on assessing those old family favorites.


Like most experts on antiques and collectibles, Emyl Jenkins will tell you the real value of any family treasure is in its personal meaning to you. But, at the same time, the nationally recognized art historian and appraisal expert acknowledges that you shouldn’t go throwing out Grandma’s old perfume bottles just because you never cared for that scent she wore.

Recognizing the value of objects is something that comes in time with hands-on experience, says Jenkins. But keep in mind some basic guidelines if you are a beginner investigating some of those old household items.

Jenkins says most potential family treasures fall into four major categories--china, glass, furniture and silver--because they are the kinds of items most of us live with every day.

If you find yourself heir to an attic full of goods and have no clue about their worth, you might call in a professional appraiser. But if you’re intrigued with the idea of investigating the value of a few old favorites yourself, you can make the assessment a learning experience.


First, get a good appraisal guide or handbook to antiques and collectibles. Jenkins, of course, has a couple of her own, including a new one: “Guide to Buying and Collecting Early American Furniture.”

With pictures and accurate descriptions at your side, valuing those old dinner plates or perfume bottles won’t be so intimidating. Beyond that, Jenkins says, there are certain things to consider no matter what you are examining.

The condition an object is in, for instance, is very important. An old and expensive piece of china loses a lot of value if it is cracked or chipped. Similarly, old toys--which are of increasing interest to baby boomers--are more valuable if they are still working, have no missing parts and include the original box and instructions.

Most people know that sterling silver is valuable, but Jenkins warns that not all sterling is clearly labeled. English sterling may just have an emblem on it or no markings at all. And sterling tarnishes, Jenkins warns, so don’t be misled by blackened jewelry or silverware.


Solid gold, on the other hand, does not tarnish. If you find an old, tainted gold ring it is probably made of plated gold or another metal.

“One of the really popular things around today is old costume jewelry,” Jenkins says. “And some of it was actually put in sterling silver settings, even in the ‘40s and ‘50s.” Some inexpensive jewelry also featured semiprecious stones such as topaz and amethyst.

“That’s why you can sometimes pick up a piece of costume jewelry at a yard sale for $5 and get something really nice,” she says.

With very old furniture, you can get clues about its age by looking for saw marks on the underside of drawers and comparing the screws or nails in an antiques guide. Even 20th Century furniture is quite collectible, Jenkins says.


“Furniture from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s was generally made with better materials than much of the furniture today,” which sometimes has pressed wood chips and plastic parts, she says. But that does not mean you should hold on to an old Duncan Phyfe side table with a warped and chipped veneer, unless it has sentimental value.

“A lot of it has to do with fashion when you come right down to it. It’s a matter of taste,” Jenkins says. If you didn’t like Formica and chrome dinette sets in the ‘50s, you probably won’t want one now, even if they are being marketed in antique shops as “collectibles.”

“There always will be a market for nostalgia,” Jenkins says, because every new generation gets nostalgic for something.