So many people are searching for the true value of art, antiques, and collectibles online. Spending hours, even days searching, hunting, seeking out information that most will never find. No, I’m not a defeatist when I say that most will never find the answer. I just know that most people are approaching the problem the wrong way. The way to tackle the problem of finding valuables is to know how to identify them first. Everybody always wants that answer that fits every question. So many people, when it comes to art and antiques, think that one answer will fit all. That’s not how it works, folks.

So, let’s tackle this problem systematically with these three ways to identify valuables. Starting with some typical or common fine art and collectible objects, here’s how to tell when a valuable is right under your nose on a thrift store shelf, at a busy flea market or in your Grandpa’s garage. Here are some of the most common tips for identifying valuable vintage or antique objects:

1. How to tell if a ceramic is hand-painted

Fruit Bowl

Prompted from a fan’s question who wanted to know how to tell if a design is hand-painted or transfer? This fan had heard the terms used here and there but didn’t know what they were all about.

First you have to know about ceramics in general. Learning the difference between hand-built ceramics and those manufactured by a pottery firm is one important distinction. Learning what type of ceramic your item is — porcelain, earthenware, etc. — is another. But, one easy identifier is knowing if your piece is hand painted or not. Most people can tell the difference between a glazed piece (shiny) and a unglazed piece (matte or dull) of ceramic. But, it gets harder when you try to spot a hand-painted piece. I’ve been known to say getting to or figuring out the correct answer doesn’t have to be pretty or neat, you just have to get there. So, ask yourself some questions about your ceramic as you try to figure if it is hand painted or not:

a. Can you see brushstrokes on the surface?

b. Can you see brushstrokes under the clear glaze?

c. Do you see a straight-line seam in the pattern or decoration on your piece of ceramic like one you might see if you were looking at a piece of floral wallpaper?

Most hand-painted ceramic pieces have visible brushstrokes in various colors that look similar to brushstrokes you would see on a painting or watercolor. Most of these hand-painted brushstrokes are found on top of and underneath a clear glazed surface which is the final protective coat applied to most ceramics. If you see that straight line seam in the decoration of your ceramic, you probably have a piece of printed or transferware ceramic where the ceramic is decorated with an image that has been transferred onto the ceramic similar to an applied decal or piece of wallpaper. If you use a magnifying glass, you can immediately tell that you have a piece of hand-painted ceramic and when it comes to value, hand painting, in some cases, is more valuable than other mass produced, mass decorated pieces.

2. How to tell a print from a poster

Toulouse-Lautrec work

The easy answer to this identification problem is to use a magnifying glass in order to tell a print from a poster. Ok, that sounds easy. It is, sort of easy. Ok, so you have a magnifying glass. Which magnifying glass should I have? I use a 10x magnification lupe like those a jeweler might use but you could use any magnifier that you feel comfortable using. Also, I rely on my $5 readers in addition to my contact lenses and prescription eyeglasses. My vision is far from 20/20 so I use all the help I can get. That being said, you don’t have to have 20/20 vision to tell the difference between different types of prints. You have to have patience and the right tools. Yet, no matter how many tools you have at your disposal, if you don’t know what you are looking for, then they aren’t much help.

So, when trying to tell the difference between a print and a poster, you need to know that there are many, many, many types of prints. Read 3 Marks on Prints that Equal Money. Lithographs look different from serigraphs and etchings look different from engravings and aquatints look different from drypoint prints. Don’t give up yet, here comes the good news. Posters don’t look like any of those types of prints. And that’s why it they are the easiest to spot. So, let’s go with easy. The easiest and most highly recognizable print is the one you should be looking for–that’s the poster, a.k.a. the collotype. Don’t go messing around with trying to learn how to spot what all those other difficult to recognize prints look like. Look for the easy poster. Are you with me? Let’s learn the easy stuff first and then build on that.

When looking at a poster, you will see using a magnifying glass or lupe patterns of very tiny dots. The patterns are important and they help you to identify age. But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Sometimes these dot patterns are printed onto a piece of poster paper in concentric circles and sometimes they are in small rectangular dot patterns similar to the way a dot matrix printer would spit color onto a page. Look for the dot patterns and then, you’ll know you have an inexpensive or not so valuable poster.

But, remember, posters can have some value for what they promote like vintage movie posters from the early to mid-1900s which are collected for their historic importance rather than for the quality of the printing. Read about travel posters. The same goes for Japanese woodblock prints which are inexpensively produced but speak volumes about an important era in Japanese culture. Look for the dots and in future blogs I will get into tips for identifying other types of prints.

3. How to tell silver vs. silver plate

sterling silver plate

So many people have silver in their closets, cabinets, and curios. Kitchen cupboards and dining room cabinets are choc-full of all types of silver and silver plated objects. Yep, here it comes, most people don’t know what the valuable silver or silver plate really looks like. Let’s start with the easy stuff that all of the newbies or novices out there just love… marks and hallmarks. I know, I know you all love the marks. Can’t get enough of them and once you have found the mark, you just ignore the design, age, or function of a piece of silver or silver plate. People love to look at them research them, compare them, discuss them, etc. Well, the mark isn’t all that, you know. And the marks are exactly where most people go astray. Read about sterling silver.

Help is on the way. Often when someone is trying to identify a piece of silver or silver plate, it is the mark that sends them off track. My advice, look at the object itself first. Consider its style first, its function, perhaps if you review lots of objects you can pinpoint its age. And, only then should you start dealing with the marks. Why? If the style and the mark don’t match up, then you’ll know you probably have a reproduction or a pseudo or fake hallmark or set of hallmarks. What I mean is if you have a silver teapot that looks like it is Colonial American in style but the mark on the bottom references a silver manufacturer that didn’t come into business until 1925, then you know you have a reproduction. Get it? It’s not difficult but again, you need the right information and tools to get to the truth. Much of the time, you won’t get the right info from all those websites you are searching. And who knows what type of education or experience that website author is offering. I’m the source, let me show you how.

The sterling mark is the best mark in my opinion. Not only because sterling silver is high quality, but also because the sterling silver mark is immediately recognizable. It is easy and that was intentional. No fooling around when it comes to sterling silver marks. Sterling silver pieces will be marked and have been marked since the 18th Century as either “Sterling” (can’t get easier than that), “925” indicating that the piece is 925 parts per 1000 parts pure silver or approximately 92.5% pure sterling silver meeting what is known as the sterling standard. And, sterling silver on some pieces will be identified by a hallmark that features a lion figure in profile looking left.

On the other hand, silver plate is marked in a litany of ways and with so many marks it can be mind boggling. Yes, more than just a few marks exist when trying to identify silver plate. Some silver plate is valuable, like Sheffield silver plate, and some silver plate is not as valuable. Silver plate may be marked Sheffield, Silver on copper, A1A, AAA, Triple plate, Quadruple plate, EP, EPNS, AI Plate, and in many, many more ways.

This is just how to tell sterling silver from silver plate as I did not touch on the subject of town stamps, date marks, maker’s marks and pseudo hallmarks (the fakes!). That’s a whole other silver mark story.

When it comes to identifying valuables, remember to consider the overall objects as well as the markings, details, and characteristics of the piece. For instance, not every painting is the same just because it is a portrait and not every piece of silver is the same just because it is sterling and not every piece of Fiestaware is the same because it has a Fiesta maker’s mark. Objects are different and when you are trying to identify valuables, these differences are important. Of course, I can always help if you want to send me photos of your antique, show me your antique at one of my event locations, or you can schedule a video chat with me so I can see your pieces.