December 2023

Michelle Knows Antiques

To appraise or not to appraise

by Michelle Staley

As I type this month’s column, the weather is very fitting for early November, chilly and raining. What better activity to undertake on a day such as this than to binge watch “Antiques Roadshow” especially when one is an antique dealer and appraiser?

My mind began to wander through my long career as an antique appraiser. I have assisted in several archaeological digs, appraised some amazing items, and even took a side trip into a forensic assessment, dating and identifying a young man whose skeleton was found in a dried-up river bed. If you have seen the movie “Dirty Dancing” there is a scene where the main characters are dancing on a log laid across a river. In reality, several years ago the river dried up and a skeleton was found. A detective from that area of Virginia reached out to me. I used the shoes to come up with the approximate year of his passing and a ring found on his finger led me to a nearby men’s university. There was initials inside the band so then I turned to yearbooks from the university and identified him using all of the information I gathered. Through my research I learned that there used to be speak-easies scattered about in the woods. The detective speculated that the young student had spent the evening drinking and while stumbling back to the university he fell into the river. I never heard from the detective again to see if he had located any family members.

My favorite archaeological dig was performed in central Caribbean Panama. I was contacted by a gentleman from the University of Texas to assist in dating, and in some cases identifying items that were found in specific areas along the Panama Canal. Some of the cultural components found dated back to the second millennium BC. They also found the first documented samples from the Caribbean slopes of Monagrillo Ware, the oldest known pottery in Lower Central America.* They also investigated the area along the canal where the workers who dug the canal lived. This was really when my experience was needed.

Hopefully, I have not lost your attention by reflecting back on these opportunities. I found the CD from the Panama Canal dig today while cleaning off a shelf in the office and felt the need to share with you.

Ten years ago, Bruce Rodgers, the former owner of Discover Vintage America, brought me onboard to write a monthly column, which I sincerely hope that y’all enjoy. Several years ago he paid for me to become a certified appraiser. When you take classes in something such as appraising you quickly learn how little you really know. I am always looking for ways to increase my knowledge, besides the education, conducting appraisals on a frequent basis is always a learning opportunity.

People get items appraised for a number of reasons. Some are simply curious about the value of things they own, appraisals for insurance purposes are popular, as are appraisals for the family once someone passes on. This hopefully prevents higher value items from being sold for a couple of dollars. Later this week I will conduct a full house appraisal for that very reason.

I certainly don’t want to talk anyone out of hiring me to conduct an appraisal but there are a few appraisal questions that are asked on a regular basis. Ashton Drake, Bradford Exchange, and Danbury Mint are all known for advertisement/order postcards inserted in magazines and they declare that their items are “Limited Edition.” Limited edition can denote several things. There are limited edition items that are actually limited to a predetermined number of pieces if you see a notation similar to 200/1000 this is telling you that you have number 200 on a run of 1000. This is the best that you can hope for. The above companies mention in tiny print that the dolls, plates, and other items they make are limited to a particular number of firing days, for instance 365 days. The great unknown is how many of a particular doll or plate the company can produce in a single day times 365 days. I can bet that they have the capability to craft several thousand items a week. Due to mass production the doll that you are paying $90 for is now worth $10 to $20. The plates and other small items created by these companies are for the most part valued at $5 or less. There are a few exceptions but they are rare.


A Lambert push plow. (Image courtesy of the author)

Amanda doll

Amanda doll. (Image courtesy of the author)

A Lambert push plow. (Image courtesy of the author)

Varaflame Starfire lighter by Ronson

Ronson Lighter and box. (Image courtesy of an appraisal customer)

Lighting is another question that comes up often. Some people see stained glass lamps and immediately assume that Tiffany was the manufacturer. Many of the lamps that you see today date to the 1970s by an unknown company or by homecrafters who create hanging lamps as well as tabletop lamps. Tiffany pieces are generally marked and the work is masterful. A Tiffany lamp will sell for thousands of dollars with better known pieces selling at auction for six figures. My hanging light MIGHT sell for $30 to $40 despite the fact that it has about 60 hours of labor, $200 worth of glass, and lead came in it.

Glassware took a big downturn in 2008, but the better pieces are making a strong comeback. It is often pretty easy to distinguish old from new glassware. Old glass has a bit of a greasy feel to it. Older glass such as Depression, Carnival, and pressed glass will have tiny blemishes in the glass such as bubbles, small defects that look like scratches, and will be light weight. These types of glass were made as giveaways in oatmeal, laundry soap, and dish night at the movies. They were inexpensive to make and purchase. Using the above guidelines it is relatively easy to tell the old from the new.


A Lambert push plow. (Image courtesy of the author)

Sainted glass light

Hanging sainted glass light. (Image courtesy of the author)

Books and Bibles can be a bit tricky. A run of the mill Bible will sell for $5 to $10, whereas one that is heavily illustrated, is a family Bible with hard covers can fetch several hundred dollars. Bibles dated pre-1800 are difficult to find but they too can sell for a tidy sum. A 1,100-year-old Codex Sassoon Hebrew Bible, which is one of the oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, sold at auction for $38.1 million, on May 17, 2023, in New York. When it comes to books, there are several factors that determine value such as condition, a first edition, original dust jacket, author, and illustrator. A signed first edition, first printing of “To Kill a Mockingbird” can sell for $30,000 to $50,000.

Then you have the flip side of the coin where items you might think have very little value can actually be worth a few dollars. Cigarette lighters and certain styles of ashtrays can be a surprise win. A Ronson Varaflame Starfire in the original box, in like new condition can sell for $50 to $80. Older office supplies can be another surprise.

I love conducting appraisals; please keep in mind that for many appraisers this is their sole means of income. I charge $25 per item and am willing to work with people who have multiple items. As much as I wish I could, it is impossible to keep up with incoming questions without payment.

Now, take your newfound mini tutorial knowledge and visit an antique store to put it in play.

Happy Holidays!

*All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop, or other resale outlets. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawn shop prices are about ½ or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade.

Send questions with photos to Michelle at or Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. There is no guarantee that your question will be answered or published.

Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to for a one-on-one appraisal. Please note new web address.