Maybe you just pulled a gorgeous silver mirror out of your grandmother's attic, or maybe you stumbled upon a rare sculpture during a weekend of antiquing. Either way, you're the proud new owner of what seems to be a pretty valuable piece. But how do you know just how valuable your new memento is? First, it's important to note that age doesn't necessarily equate to value, says Eric Silver, an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. While the term antique refers to something 100 years or older, an item from the early 1900s could very well be more valuable than a much earlier period piece. Even vintage items—objects from the 1930s through the 1960s—can be worth more, says Helaine Fendelman, a fine arts dealer in New York City. The inherent value of your item is largely determined by the current market—something that can change dramatically over the span of 10 to 20 years, says Silver.
In general, collectors tend to look for three specific things: quality, rarity, and provenance (a record of ownership that establishes authenticity), says Rebecca Rau of M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans. In order to have a high value, a piece needs to be in exceptionally good condition; it must be rare or even one-of-a-kind; and it must have a significant maker and provenance. It's wise to have your antique appraised every five years or so, especially for insurance purposes, explains Silver. While this can help you establish a baseline for your piece, it is important to understand that an appraisal is not a certificate of authenticity, says Rau. An appraiser takes the information provided by their client in order to determine a fair market value—they do not do research; they take the client at their word and provide a valuation based on that information.
And, unfortunately, there's not much you can do to increase the value of your item beyond what it appraises for. "It's more about preserving value," says Silver. How can you do that? Consider these expert tips.
Keep the paperwork.
"If you are lucky, a piece will come with an original bill of sale or certificate of authenticity signed by the maker or an expert in the field," says Rau. "However, this kind of paperwork is actually quite rare on the antique market." For antiques, the signature or stamp of a maker is usually enough to confirm its authenticity, she explains. If it is not stamped or signed, be sure you're purchasing the piece from a reputable dealer.
Consider professional restoration and conservation.
If a piece is damaged in a way that affects the aesthetic or functionality, it's important to talk to a professional restorer, says Fendelman. This might include furniture that is falling apart, a small hole in a canvas, a scratch on a sculpture, a stain on fabric, or a layer of dust and debris on a painting. Never attempt this work yourself, cautions Fendelman. Instead, turn to a professional like an appraiser or a museum curator who can connect you with a specialist.
Rethink DIY projects.
Any alteration—painting furniture, for example—outside of common sense restoration will bring down the value of a work, says Rau. "A mint-condition piece that has zero alterations will always have the highest value."
Take care of what you have.
If a piece is in good condition, it's important to keep it that way. Be smart about where you're displaying items of value, says Silver. Don't put fragile antiques in high-traffic areas or in the path of rambunctious toddlers or pets. And consider less obvious factors that can affect placement, like climate. "Sun is the worst enemy of antiques, so always be sure to keep everything from furniture to fine art and tapestries out of direct sunlight," says Rau. "A moderate environment is always the best for antiques, so try to control the humidity and temperature in your home." And finally, be careful when cleaning. Harsh chemicals can destroy the finish on furniture, porcelain, silver, jewelry, and other antiques, says Rau.