Know Thy Silver

Silver is wonderful isn’t it? Nothing quite makes a festive meal like silverware. Even though some consider it high maintenance, it is so worth it when that beautiful shine comes through.

Silver hallmarking boasts the claim (at least in England) of being the oldest form of consumer protection. The regulation of the goldsmith craft (the term “goldsmith” was formally used without distinction for both goldsmiths and silversmiths) dates back to Medieval times.

As with anything valuable or collectible, fakes are found. It always pays to buy from either a reputable dealer and/or check the items with acid (which can be bought rather inexpensively and can be used for silver, gold and platinum). That said the penalty for faking hallmarks on any precious metal has been severe for centuries in most countries. After all gold and silver since ancient times are in essence the purest form of universal currency.  

Knowing and understanding hallmarks and makers marks is really important, both in determining value and age. Take a glance at the candlesticks in the picture, would you have guessed they were French, circa 1738 just from looking at them? Much like with furniture and jewelry, styles constantly come back into fashion or never fell out of fashion like a classic silver goblet. The value and rarity though can vary tremendously.

I was recently asked by a few people only days apart what resources I use to check silver, especially when at a market or fair, and that has been the inspiration for this blog. I personally come across a lot of English, Irish and Scottish silver so I carry a small book called English Silver Hallmarks by Judith Banister. A truly excellent book that is easy to use and can be purchased for about $8. I love silver from the British Isles because it is so specific in its markings, which usually includes a makers mark, silver standard mark, city mark and date mark.Those who need to check up other hallmarks such as American, German or French and/or have smart technology with them when they go picking, here is an excellent reference website: http://www.925-1000.com/Easy to use and with a truly global reach.

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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest

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Guilt Free Indulgence: Fine Jewelry

With consumer confidence waning as it tends to do when the economy is down, or when there is political unrest (the US federal government shutdown definitely qualifies) discussions generally turn to preserving wealth and tightening one’s belt to conserve. ‘Real money’ aka gold has started to become a hot topic again and with prices having retracted to 2010 figures, it is looking more and more attractive.

What does this have to do with the collectible world? Well a lot actually. Many of my clients regularly buy high end jewelry. Even though they don’t see it as such, they in fact have amassed quite incredible collections that are valuable even merely as just scrap!

Why is this so important? Because I just made a large sale recently thanks to a discussion with a client who was shopping for jewelry for his wife. He realized he was likely to buy a whole bunch of gold coins anyway soon and could kill two birds with one stone.

A fine jewelry collection built over a long period of time brings wonderful joy to the wearer. In addition, a collection can be and often is, quite a considerable part of a couple’s or individual’s wealth.

With the purchase of most things such as clothing and cars, it takes many decades to build a collectible group of any note, except in the very rare instance. Until then these items will likely decrease considerably in value. They might not become collectible at all, especially since many of today’s fashionable items are mass produced.

Precious metals and precious gems on the other hand have been steadily increasing decade after decade. Gold in the last decade alone has risen 300% despite coming down from its highs. Diamond wholesale prices have increased 925% since 1960 (according to wealthymatters.com). And that is just for a generic one carat white diamond! The fact is it is becoming more and more expensive to mine these valuable commodities at reasonable prices. They are harder to get to, the density of the finds is far less, labor is higher and gas prices have risen 400% since 1993 alone!

People are not losing interest in precious metals and minerals. On the contrary even just the loose stones are racking in record prices. Take for example the flawless white 118 carat diamond that raised $30.6 million on October 7th at Sotheby’s auction. And in November Sotheby’s is estimated to raise more than $60 million for a 59.60 carat pink diamond. An expected record breaker for any gem auction!

Indeed bling is as popular as ever.  With prices of the underlying raw materials continuing to rise decade after decade, at a rate far higher than inflation, so has the price of good quality jewelry. Given that the world population continues to grow and the mineral reserves depleted there is no reason it shouldn’t.

So this is where the guilt free pleasure comes in. Many people keep a portion of their wealth in gold or other precious metals – physically in the form of gold bars and coins, or in other less tangible forms like securities. Why not view your household’s collection of jewelry as a long term investment and on the downside a solid hedge.

Heaven forbid you should ever have to sell under duress. It is comforting however, in times of uncertainty to know you have a liquid and portable collection that can be sold at the very least for scrap and likely more. Most dealers in fine jewelry are willing to buy back pieces at wholesale prices at the very least, and much more for rarer items. Short term loans with jewelry as the collateral are becoming more common and allow one to not have to sell the items at all.

The shoe collection will bring you pleasure over the years like the jewelry, but will do little more than keep your feet warm in a time of crisis.

Obviously fine jewelry will be sold at a premium price, it includes labor and many other costs (especially in the case of good vintage and antique pieces). This premium is worth it, especially since you will hopefully get a lifetime of pleasure from it. As long as you purchase for a fair price you will know in the back of your mind that you have a good hedge for any crisis. Don’t be scared to haggle a bit with dealers, or make offers. After all you are not just buying something pretty, you are making a serious investment.

So enjoy your stunning treasures, guilt free, you know you deserve it!

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International Shipping – What I Have Learnt

Shipping anywhere, even locally is arguably the most ‘dangerous’ part of our trade. International shipping however is in its own league. It is cause for such anxiety and fear among some dealers that many I know, in the continental USA, will not ship abroad, period. I have found though that most of the stress, pain and suffering can indeed be minimized and this blog will try to explain how.

Though I have never been offended by my American colleagues who had fixed policies that they would only ship within the USA or Canada (alright I was once, I emailed a gentleman on Ebay all excited to bid on an item I had been looking for and asked if he could ship internationally, offering to pay a large amount to do so, the reply a single NO!) I myself have not had the luxury of being able to shrink my business world so small. I am a bit of a globe trotter and currently reside in Jerusalem, Israel, so for me to try and concentrate my buying and selling in a place with 7 million people would be rather limiting. The trial and error process of working with different shipping companies was painful but thankfully, these days the anxiety I used to have when sending or receiving parcels (especially expensive ones) has all but gone away.

In short, if you are going to be sending all over the world use a private company, be it FedEx, UPS or DHL (The Big Three). Here are the main reasons in my opinion why:

First, delivery speed all of The Big Three pretty much keep to their promised delivery time (give or take a day). This for me is very important, because when it comes to my clientele many of them are buying gifts and should items not arrive when they are supposed to, well that wonderful birthday present will just never get there (let’s not even discuss late anniversary gifts). In addition, as a seller I need my stock ASAP! Wasted days in transit mean wasted potential days for selling. Just to put things into perspective a box sent to me recently with USPS (their highest priority service with tracking and signed for) that was running late arrived after 27 working days (it on average takes 12-15 working days), a similar box sent with UPS arrived after 3 and when running late due to a storm arrived after 5. Similarly, I received a parcel recently from Royal Mail (United Kingdoms USPS equivalent). It arrived at the high end of its average time i.e. after 10 days (I happened to return the item and did so with UPS, the item arrived there within 23 hours). My all time favorite situation was a book sent with USPS that arrived here after a week and then sat in their depot for six days (after clearing customs) before they delivered it to me (they weren’t short of any information apparently there was just some “priority delay”, whatever that means).

Secondly we have the issue of tracking. when you send with USPS or Royal Mail internationally, (please understand that though I fully recommend you send with tracking and sign for, it does make the box more important to them) the tracking will not be updated regularly, especially since both of those companies (just like EMS the Israeli equivalent) outsource to a local carrier, and so the relay of information is a lot slower. It has happened a few times where I only find out two days late that they tried to deliver the parcel because I was not home or the cell phone was not provided (it should not come as a surprise that items get lost completely or for a couple of weeks often enough to matter).

Lastly, there is the matter of package TLC (tender loving care). This is a two fold matter, first you have the companies themselves, The Big Three all have their own chartered planes, warehouses, etc. meaning that during the entire process the parcel is handled by a single firm who applies its care policy up and down the entire chain of command where as the other companies such as USPS rely on foreign companies they outsource to, to uphold their standards. That USPS staff are very careful in USA does not mean their ‘ambassadors’ have the same reverence for your beautifully packed parcel marked fragile (everywhere in red!). Then there are the customs who apparently will not open a parcel being delivered by a private shipper unless the scan indicates it has illegal content, where as they will happily open parcels sent by government owned/sponsored postal companies. The logic being that the legal implications can be far worse with private companies. I have not been able to verify the last point as fact, but I will say this I have never received a parcel from The Big Three that has been opened.

But, I am sure many of you are shaking your heads, there is after all a large price difference between the private companies and the postal companies? Here is the exciting bit, if you work regularly with one of The Big Three, they will give you far better pricing. I have used both UPS and DHL often in the past but now use UPS exclusively as their bulk pricing (since I use them so often) is excellent, they pick up at my door for no extra charge and I have a dedicated relationship manager. To put this into perspective it costs me about 10% percent more than I would pay if I was sending with EMS who do not pick up. In addition I give all the vendors I buy from my International UPS number when they ship to me and I pay for shipping when it arrives this has saved me a lot of money as well since a private person sending from e.g.: California might be quoted $100 plus $3 Insurance for every $100 of declared value and I will be charged instead $45 and 1% percent of declared value Insurance for the same parcel.

As a side point, I am still shocked at times by how poorly some people pack goods, to try and save a couple of bucks by sending in a small box when the item is so valuable is beyond me. Most of the shipping companies have very strict rules about paying out insurance. The short of it being if the item can wobble inside the box, does not have at least 2 inches of padding in all directions and isn’t sealed properly you will not be reimbursed. If you hate packing let a professional do it, it is so very much worth it (anyone who has had to try and deal with shipping insurance claims knows how horribly long and bureaucratic it can be). Also if an item is heavy write in big red letters on the box heavy and the same for fragile, it does matter to The Big Three, who will toss to their co-workers seemingly small, light or not easily broke boxes.

It is becoming more and more apparent, that we live in a global village and to limit oneself to a small market is often short sighted and could be financially unwise. Many have had there own little horror stories with different shipping companies but after all has been said and done I am very grateful to have The Big Three for international shipping.

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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest

Royal Doulton: More Than Just Collectibles? (Part 3)

So what makes some Royal Doulton pieces more valuable than others? Like with most collectibles rarity, scarcity, quality and in some cases the subject matter.

Most of the valuable pieces were produced in very limited quantity which happened for many different reasons ranging from war putting production to a halt (like with the rare WWII pieces), copyright issues (found with productions of famous people such as the Clark Gable jug), marketing concerned an item was to costly to produce (often only after the production was already underway which sometimes meant a remodeling took place like with the iconic Pearly Boy jug or it was discontinued completely), the companies financial problems, causing the restructuring and often the discontinuation of lines, concern an item could break too easily which meant the piece needed to be remodeled (making the earlier version far more valuable) and lastly prototypes or trials that never went into production at all.

Terms are often thrown around (in order to entice the buyer) so let us define the most important ones according to the general industry standards.

Prototype: an item that was commissioned but never put into production. This term includes any piece that was not put into production at all such as John Gilpin Jug or was the item was produced but with remodeling differences from the originally proposed version. These differences could be a remodeled handle or facial changes. Very few prototypes can be taken from the original clay mold and so with early prototypes usually only one or two samples were made and later pieces anywhere between two to four samples could exist.

Design Trial: these pieces are the standard model but have a very clear design difference often with such things as flags. Where as the standard production piece might have a Union Jack flag on the trial their will be a St George Cross flag. Many design trials are unique and at the very most there can be as many as three or four.

Colour Trial: these pieces have the same model as the production piece but were painted in different colors that were never put into production (these differ from colorways that were put into production such as the Jester which was released in multiple colors each with a different production number). As with early prototypes the older pieces in color trials are usually unique where as with later trials there are usually two to three and in some cases a few more. Please note that some items, though rare, are not color trials but are just missing the over glaze (such as with white Santa jug or blue flambe Genie jug).

Firsts/Samples/Photo Samples: these were the first mock ups of an item to be put into production. They are painted with greater attention to detail and are the pieces from which the catalog photos are taken. These pieces do sell for a premium and are marked sample or photo sample.

Unique: only one is known to exist, this means that no other piece like this has come to auction or been sold to the best of the knowledge of the dealer (who has checked thoroughly with all the known authorities and the specialist auctions). The Charlton and other guides will use the term unique or one known to exist (sometimes the term none known to exist is also used when an item was put into production but is only known due to the Royal Doulton archives listing it). With early pieces it is likely they are unique and with later items as many as three may have been made (whether all have survived is another matter entirely).

Extremely Rare: this is the term generally used to describe items that were put into production but of which very few are known to exist and have not been sold at auction often enough to establish a retail price in the guides.

Rare: this is the term given to items that were put into production and more than a few are known to exist but have not come up for sale often enough at an auction to establish a retail price in the guides.

Scarce: these are items that were created in sizable production numbers but are so beloved that they seldom come up for sale (of course this is also a fairly subjective term). One such example is the Character Jug of Marley’s Ghost that was a limited edition of 2500 pieces in 1999 which is so sought after that I have seen it currently retailing for double or triple the listed book value with known Doulton sellers).

Please note that in part two I mentioned that one of the ways of identifying if an item was made outside of the factory is if the stamp is over the glaze. This is not the case when the special property of Royal Doulton stamp is used (for prototypes and other trials).

Royal Doulton sadly never kept the best records. In fact the first complete list of the HN series was only published in 1978. Prototypes and trials that were never assigned production numbers were often not recorded at all! With the closing of the Royal Doulton offices in Stoke on Trent unique and previously unknown items now need to be authenticated by known dealers and auction houses (of which luckily there are many).

It is with these rarer items that the value gains have been seen. The prices are likely to continue to rise now that the production of character jugs & figurines has been so greatly shrunk or been halted entirely. There could not be a better time to start collecting or dealing!

Many of the Royal Doulton collectors are not keen about buying items produced after 1999, In the year 2000 Royal Doulton came out with a new stamp and soon after moved production of most items to Thailand. Though some of the models are exquisite it is clear that the painting quality has suffered and many of the jugs receive a lot of transfer paint The exception is the prestige series which is still produced in the UK and done, by the very best painters, by custom order. I am personally still purchasing later prototypes and some design trials as these items were also produced in the UK and are completely hand painted.

If you intend to focus on the rarer pieces I recommend keeping in contact with known dealers or purchasing from reputable specialist auctions. Though finding three fakes every few month out of the 58000 items listed on Ebay may not seem like a lot, when those fakes are valuable pieces selling for a couple of thousand or more the experience can be quiet painful so be careful. Those looking to just find the pieces they adore that are fairly common should indeed make use of the online auctions as one can truly find bargain prices.

One opportunity I am seeing at the moment for those wondering where to start is in the earlier pieces. Focus on the rare pieces of the WWII period. Many of the estates of early Doulton collectors have been coming up for sale in the last few years and pieces that were coming up for sale once every few years are now reaching the market at a fair price and with more frequency. These include items that were produced with very special back-stamps to mark special events often in very limited productions. This trend will definitely not last as the collectors that started in the 90’s are grabbing them up. It is important to note that many of the earlier pieces though originally produced in decent quantities have been damaged, lost or destroyed over time and this only makes those still around all the more valuable.

In conclusion, Royal Doulton collectors are indeed alive and well. Those who just want to amass a lovely collection with pieces they enjoy should purchase these pieces at a fair price and understand they will likely not appreciate. As for those wanting to see steady appreciation, the focus should be on the rarer and unique pieces as these will undoubtedly continue to increase in value.

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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest

Royal Doulton: More Than Just Collectibles? (Part 2)

At the time of this writing there are approximately 58,000 active listings of Royal Doulton on Ebay (30,000 items have sold there since February), 16,000 pieces are listed on Ruby Lane and more than a dozen specialist auctions happen annually with rare and unusual pieces, worldwide (it would be impossible to track how many regular auctions and estate sales have at least one piece of Royal Doulton for sale each time).

So is the Royal Doulton market alive and well? Most definitely! Even though in the last decade the Royal Doulton company has been in and out of bankruptcy and lost its independence to become part of the WWRD group. Their production levels are down and most of the pieces are now produced in Thailand! The reason for their demise is mostly attributed to poor management, proliferation of too many new lines in the 90s and the bad economy, but clearly not due to a lack of interest. As Steve Mullin, curator of the Toby Jug Museum says in his new supplement (I paraphrase) ‘though Royal Doulton’s situation is disappointing and their marketing teams disregard for the lines such as character jugs that have promoted their brand over the last 100 years there is no reason to see this as a debilitating blow to the Royal Doulton collector world. On the contrary there are many makers which seized operation in the last two centuries whose character and toby jugs continue avidly to be sought after’.

It is true that the sheer volume of online sales has affected the availability of Royal Doulton pieces thus lowering their price. In my research though this has only been the case with the more common or regular production pieces. The truly rare pieces actually now have buyers all over the world looking and bidding for them, ever increasing their value. In addition the ability for collectors anywhere in the world to now easily purchases pieces (even if there is no active market in their country) has significantly increased the number of global collectors. I for example am in Israel and buy practically nothing locally.

As I mentioned in part 1 of this blog, as a collector one should always buy what appeals to them but if possible why not do so with pieces that hold their value at the very least, or better yet appreciate? If there is an ordinary piece you love by all means buy it, but get it for a great price.

Before I go any further, if there is one thing as a collector, or dealer you should take from this blog it is to buy a Charlton Standard Catalogue. It is the most widely used guide in the industry and lists all pieces produced and their current retail price. When dealers or collectors say book value they are referring to the Charlton Catalogue. There are specific guides for Character & Toby Jugs, Figurines, Animals and Collectibles (which covers bunnykins and other collectibles such as Harry Potter, Disney characters). In addition if you intend to focus on Character & Toby Jugs, The Century of Royal Doulton Character & Toby Jugs by Steve Mullin is an absolute must (if you purchase it from the author directly you will receive a price guide and the new supplement that came out in February, please email me and I will pass on his contact details). Those focused on Figurines should purchase the Royal Doulton Figurines book by Louise Irvine (the author has also published a number of books on Series Ware should that be your area of interest).

A short note about fakes. They do exist and to the seasoned collector they are pretty obvious as they usually lack quality and their stamps are always wrong in some way so check those carefully. Luckily the items that were generally copied (in most cases) were not valuable to start with. Some character jugs have been converted into lighters outside of the factory, these are identifiable by their heavier weight and often paint marks around the lighter. Please also be careful about items being sold that have been restored as damage (anything that is not a minor firing flaw or crazing) can drastically lower the value of the piece (no matter how professional the restoration). There is also a lot of discussion about color trials. It is possible in some cases that unfinished items were removed from the factory and painted outside. There will always be some debate as there is no complete list of trials from the factory but generally if the colors are too exotic it is a bad sign (many designers painted pieces in fabulous colors for their own practice or use and these were often noted by visitors to the Doulton factory and these were not authorized releases). The stamps and writing on the base should be checked to be sure that it is all beneath the glaze and has not been applied later. Lastly since black, red, silver and gold are the colors most used over glaze please view these items with extra care. Bisque items (mostly character or toby jugs) are pieces that were never painted (either due to war time restrictions or some slight defect) these pieces often sell at a premium to the regular production pieces. Lastly a Royal Doulton second can be identified either with a cross scratched through the lion and crown symbol (as was done with earlier pieces) or with the four D’s being drilled through.

In part three of this blog I will go into what specifically makes some pieces rarer than others and where the opportune new collector might wish to start.

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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest

Royal Doulton: More Than Just Collectibles? (Part 1)

Wide eyed, at the age of seven, I found myself sitting in the middle of a Sotheby’s auction, in Cape Town, South Africa, with my astute mother and a wide array of smartly dressed bidders. A story in and of itself as to how I got involved in ‘antiquing’ so young but for this blogs sake we accept the premise that such a thing happens and is normal. And what did I end up bidding on, what caught my attention enough to convince my mother to bid for an early birthday present for me? It was none other than a Royal Doulton Character Jug of Dick Turpin. And as they say the rest is history. As I got older I began to understand that though the first rule of collecting is acquire what you love and enjoy, there is in my opinion a bit of fine print to apply to that.

Like with many before me, Royal Doulton has managed to attract a loyal following, holding them for a life time, and have continued this cycle for over a century. One could say the reason for their success is due to the sheer range of items that they create. In truth there are many factors that have contributed but for me that day and ever since then the key has been that Royal Doulton Figurines, Character Jugs and Tobys have soul. Unlike many of the Austrian, Hungarian and even French potters and sculptures, Doulton did not try to create perfectly proportioned statuette pieces in the classic styles mastered by the Romans. Rather they wished to convey realness and feeling, which required them to use a far more abstract style. Their pieces are whimsical, beautiful, scary, strange and fun often all at the same time!

It is not surprising though that many of the same principles that apply to acquiring other forms of antiques and collectibles apply to Royal Doulton too…Yes you should buy what makes you happy, what you love and what you enjoy but if at all possible why not do so with items that in the very least hold their value and possibly even appreciate? Surely you will feel less guilty over the years (especially if the spouse or significant other thinks you are just an addict of sorts).

In my next few blogs I will be taking a look at the pieces of Royal Doulton that have done just that, appreciated (after which I will be moving to other collectible categories that I have seen do much the same). I will be addressing why and will hopefully leave you with practical ideas to follow and pitfalls to avoid (yes, there are fakes and dodgy items out there, but there ways to avoid them).

I am a strong believer in antiques and collectibles as an asset class that can be utilized to create and sustain wealth, while having fun! I hope through my blogs you will be able to see why. As my mother once said to my late father, ‘I would really much prefer a check on the wall (a valuable painting) to more bric a brac.

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Dylan of The Gryphon’s Nest