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What a piece of history's worth

There can be good profit in buying and selling all kinds of old objects. But don't confuse age with value, pros warn

Special to The Globe and Mail

When he was about six, a friend showed Mitchell Solway of Toronto how to make a ball disappear from a vase, and he was hooked.

He started collecting magic kits, perfecting routines and performing at kids' birthday parties through university.

Now 36, the professional marketer is beguiled by magic all over again, in part by learning how profitable his personal passion can be.

Last summer, Mr. Solway bought a top-of-the-line 1950s set of multiplying bottles, made in England, for $300.

A few months later, he sold them for $800.

"After my son was born two years ago, I needed a hobby so I started going on eBay, acquiring stuff and making contacts. It turned out that there were a bunch of people interested in my collection and willing to pay quite a bit for some of it," he says.

Usually, he'll sell a trick to buy something else he wants more. Some magic memorabilia, such as large pieces of apparatus used in illusions by famous magicians like Harry Blackstone Jr., can cost as much as $50,000, way out of his league, Mr. Solway says.

But he has been able to buy other one-of-a-kind items sure to appreciate, such as a remote-controlled candle by Tony Anverdi, an inventor in the Netherlands, now worth about $1,000 (U.S.), he estimates.

Although still collecting magic memorabilia primarily for personal enjoyment, Mr. Solway can see the day he may deal in it as a part-time business.

As Mr. Solway has discovered, there can be a good profit in buying and selling all kinds of old objects, from the esoteric to the everyday.

For instance, household items from the 1950s that most people threw away can be worth far more than they ever were new, says antique dealer Douglas Poole, owner of Douglas Poole Antiques Ltd. in Toronto.

"A set of four Pyrex bowls, each in a different colour, sells for $60 (Canadian) or $70. Those pieces of Italian stretched glass that ended up in the garbage are now also collectible," says Mr. Poole.

One collector he knows who specializes in old Coleman lanterns recently bought one for $9 at a flea market and then sold it for $535 on eBay, says Mr. Poole. Scandinavian teak dining sets that sold for $300 a decade ago now go for 10 times that amount, says Stephen Ranger, senior vice-president of Ritchie's Inc., an auction house and appraiser in Toronto.

But for every great windfall, there are many losses, Mr. Poole cautions.

"I also know someone who bought a table for $15,000 two years ago, and sold it recently for only $5,500. The seller said it was an antique, but it turned out to be a 20th-century copy."

For sure, people who think they can make money from buying and selling old objects are taking risks, the experts say.

"I always tell people to buy what they love because they may have to live with it for a long time, even forever, waiting for it to go up in value," says antiques dealer Uno Langmann, owner of Uno Langmann Ltd. in Vancouver.

If investing in 19th-century ceramic figurines or bottle openers from the 1940s seems more enticing than putting your money in stocks and mutual funds today, remember the same principles are basically at work, Mr. Ranger says.

"Buy low, sell high, buy what you like, and the best you can afford. Don't overpay and be prepared to hold it for the long term."

Buying something just because it's an antique -- at least 100 years old -- is a common error. "Don't confuse age with value. There are a lot of antiques worth practically nothing," says Douglas Stocks, owner of Maus Park antique stores in Toronto and Paris, Ont., and president of the Canadian Antique Dealers Association. "The investment value of a piece is based on its rarity, quality and condition, whether it's an antique or not."

For instance, some Roman coins are virtually worthless, while signed porcelain produced in the early 20th century can be valuable, says Mr. Stocks.

Although there are certainly plenty of pitfalls for novices, Mr. Stocks says there's no doubt that investing in antiques and collectibles can be lucrative for those who know what they're doing. He has some well-heeled clients investing substantially at the high end today.

"These are people who, if they had $500,000 to spend previously, would put $400,00 into stocks and the rest into antiques. I see a tendency now to buy more art or other valuables," Mr. Stocks says.

In fact, Ritchie's sales volume has increased 20 per cent over the past two years, says Mr. Ranger. Prices in some categories have risen as well during this time, such as a 15- to 20-per-cent increase in decorative arts items from the English Georgian period, dating from 1780 to 1820, he adds.

Generally, Canadians are not as informed as the British, other Europeans or Americans about the value of what may be stored in their attics, Mr. Stocks says.

As a result, there are still great deals to be had not only in Canadiana but in furniture and decorative items brought over by European immigrants.

Sometimes the best buys are the ones that are out of fashion, says Mr. Langmann, like 19th-century bronze sculptures and silverware. Mr. Ranger says Edwardian and Victorian furniture can be bought at a bargain now, because they don't fit current design tastes.

"These things can be really undervalued because everything eventually comes back again," says Mr. Ranger, who also suggests pottery from post-war West Germany and Canadian and American studio pottery from early last century.

Some recent trends may have peaked, at least in the middle range of what's affordable, say the experts. For instance, the hot market for the Moderne period of decorative arts, which came on the heels of Art Deco, seems to have cooled somewhat, says Mr. Stocks.

For anyone wanting to build a collection, for fun or profit, there are rules of thumb. First and foremost is the need for research.

Mr. Solway increased his expertise by reading books and researching on the Net. There's a plethora of information on virtually every aspect of collecting today, says Mr. Poole.

Mr. Langmann suggests visiting the best stores dealing in your area of interest and picking the brain of the owner. "I'm opposed in most cases to buying over the Internet, because you can't get a good sense of an object without feeling it in your hand. You have to see the condition, whether it's nicked or been painted," says Mr. Langmann.

Not everyone agrees. Mr. Solway has bought and sold plenty of memorabilia on eBay.

Furniture and decorative items that are signed or stamped generally are a surer bet to retain and increase their value. Authenticity is always an issue, and experts suggest having high-priced goods appraised by professionals who specialize in historic periods and types of objects.

If you do become successful at making money from your collectibles, there are also tax issues, says Scott Gibson, Mr. Solway's financial adviser and vice-president of EES Financial Services in Markham, Ont. "If you're buying things and selling them within a short period of time, and doing it frequently, the government could see it as a business and tax it accordingly." Also, if your collection becomes valuable, you'll probably need theft and fire insurance beyond the standard coverage for your home and belongings, he says.

Despite the vagaries of trying to guess what a piece of history you buy today will be worth in the future, there is one sure way that collecting beats out stocks, mutual funds or other paper investments, says Mr. Stocks.

"If there's ever a true Depression again, you can at least sit in your antique piece of furniture, or sleep in it, or burn it for fuel," Mr. Stocks says.

"That's more than you can say for your investment statement."

© The Globe and Mail

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