Sometimes it takes diligence, perseverance and patience to finally find the best path for antiques research. But learning to be an antiques detective can be quite rewarding, once you get a few online basics under your belt.
Hit the Mark
Use a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe if needed, but don't overlook a mark. Even cryptic symbols can provide major clues.
Using a guide, like Kovel's New Dictionary of Marks for Pottery and Porcelain, another specialty guide whether in print or online, will help you determine who made the piece and when the mark was used.
There are also several guides to marks listed here on The Spruce pertaining to pottery and porcelain, jewelry, and old silver. Then you can do an online search to learn even more about the particular manufacturer.
After you've used the mark to research the item, then you can move on to valuing it. These articles on valuing antiques can help you move in that direction when you're ready:
- How to Find Values for Your Antiques and Collectibles
- Rules for Valuing Antiques and Collectibles Like an Appraiser
There will be some overlap in basic research and valuing techniques mentioned in these features, like making sure you don't overlook a mark, but those are important points so they're always worth reiterating. And if an item isn't readily marked, or you can't find the mark described online, you might have to continue your research before the valuation process can begin.
Utilize The Spruce
Writers on The Spruce work hard to provide you with information on antiques and collectibles, so this is always a great place to start when researching your treasures.
In addition to information on antiques and collectibles, you'll find lots of articles on dolls, coins, and related topics. You'll also find antiques and collectibles information from a variety of writers pertaining to jewelry, vintage clothing, and flea markets here.
Let Your Library Lend a Hand
Most libraries, even in the smallest towns, have online catalogs these days.
If you do not have a marks dictionary or reference guide on the topic you're researching, visit your local library online to see if they have a copy available for use.
Even if they don't have the book you need, your librarian can often obtain a copy on loan. Many librarians are open to suggestions for books to purchase as well. Don't be shy; talk to library personnel about your needs. After all, your tax dollars help support the library in your community and you might as well use it.
By searching online auction sites and reputable online malls for similar items, you can find pricing information very easily. Many times collectors or dealers selling on these sites will provide valuable descriptions as well. Be sure to confirm what you learn from site descriptions with further research, since there are many inexperienced dealers (and those who might not mind stretching the truth a bit) setting up shop every day, but always keep in mind it's a great place to start.
Be sure to narrow your focus as much as possible when doing these types of searches. If you type in "carnival glass" you'll get hundreds of items to browse. Trying "carnival glass basket" instead, you'll narrow the field to a manageable number.
Narrow the Search
For items like china, silver flatware and crystal, it's also good to keep a china matching service in mind. The big name in this business is Replacements, Ltd. Contacting this company via email, or another in your area, for a photo evaluation not only yields information on who made your pieces but when they were made and for how long.
Email a Friend
When you've exhausted all your Internet resources, think about your friends and family members who love to collect old things. It won't hurt anything to run your question by them. They may have a book on the topic you can borrow or provide a reference to a trusted dealer you can ask. And with so many people connected by email and social media resources nowadays, this can be accomplished more easily than ever.
Don't discount making friends with the owner of your favorite online antiques shop as well.
These proprietors are often good resources on various types of antiques and most will gladly correspond by email with their valued customers. Be sure you don't take advantage of this, however. Try to research things on your own as much as possible.
Off the Mark
So the item you're researching isn't marked, does that mean you like it any less? Probably not. But items that aren't marked certainly present a more of a research challenge.
Take a piece of unmarked pottery you're researching, for example. Once you get a feel for different types of antiques, you'll recognize a piece of pottery as pottery, for example, instead of confusing it with porcelain. Begin from there. Look on sites related to American art pottery and if that doesn't work, switch to English pottery, and so on. Eventually you'll hit the nail on the head. Patience will be your greatest virtue in these situations.
After a while, you may decide you like the item regardless of its origin or value and decide to leave the intense research to its next owner.
Summing it Up
Basically, you'll start broad, narrow the focus and cover all your bases before giving up. Once you get the hang of researching your finds and objects you've inherited, you'll enjoy the discovery part of the hobby just as much as the shopping.