A dealer once said that an object has no monetary value until the moment it changes hands. Then and only then, for a few seconds, can it be quantified in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. It's a concept I've struggled to get my head around. Some objects are more finely crafted than others. Some objects are in perfect condition, whereas others are broken and restored. Some objects are rarer than others. Some make it to centre display on the living room mantlepiece, whilst others are relegated to a high shelf in the kitchen. On some level, we're appraising the value of objects all the time. If we weren't, how would we know what to pay for them?
Ten years ago, how much you paid for an item depended on where you bought it. Dealers bought from auction houses and paid a relatively low price. Collectors bought from dealers and paid a premium for dealers' services and overheads. But today, anyone with access to the internet can buy at auction or on eBay. This, as much as the recession, has caused dealers' prices to tumble. And yet, if two people in an auction room want something badly enough, its price can rocket beyond all expectations.
A couple of months ago a pretty common 'Thou god seest me' plaque, of the kind attributed to Scott, sold on eBay for over £200. Ian Sharp, a reputable dealer, has a similar plaque listed for under £100. Ian Holmes noticed a frog mug sell on eBay recently for nearly £450 – double what he would have expected it to fetch at auction. Over the last year I've reported over-painted items of lustreware selling on eBay for much more than they are worth. So it seems in these uncertain times, the price an object fetches doesn't necessarily depend on rarity, craftsmanship or degree of restoration; it also reflects the enthusiasm of those bidding on the day. So perhaps the dealer I started by quoting was right after all.
I'll finish with a photo. The plaque below, of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, demonstrates the problem of valuing plaques. Circular plaques are normally more valuable than rectangular ones. Circular plaques with pictures usually do even better. And black and white plaques are generally rarer than those with pink lustre borders. But this plaque has the wrong picture, was likely made in Staffordshire, and has a hard-looking porcelaineous body.
If the picture had been the more common bridge over the River Wear, with pink lustre borders, this plaque might have made £400, but as it is, it struggled to make £150. Of course, if two collectors from Bristol had seen it, it might have been a different story!
Stephen Smith lives in London, and is always happy to hear from other collectors. If you have an interesting collection of plaques, and are based in the UK, he will photograph them for you. Free advice given regarding selling and dispersal of a collection, or to those wishing to start one. Just get in touch...
This website is indebted to collectors, dealers and enthusiasts who have shared their knowledge or photos. In particular: Ian Holmes, Stephen Duckworth, Dick Henrywood, Norman Lowe, Keith Lovell, Donald H Ryan, Harold Crowder, Jack and Joyce Cockerill, Myrna Schkolne, Elinor Penna, Ian Sharp, Shauna Gregg at the Sunderland Museum, Keith Bell, Martyn Edgell, and Liz Denton.