July 24, 2012

"But What is it Worth?" (and Why You Shouldn't Answer It) The Price of Antiques

As a person in the history field, I hear this question a lot. Sometimes I explain to a tour group that we can't touch anything in the rooms, because most  of the furniture is over 200 years old. Someone, either adult or child, will invariably point to an object and ask "What is it worth?"

"This object gives historians a lot of information about how people lived in the 1700s. This information was not recorded in books and therefore it is of considerable value to historians."

That's not what they want to hear. They will then clarify their question as if I didn't understand, "How much money is it worth?"

I don't know if it is today's economy, but lately historical artifacts seem to be about the money that can be made. Shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, American Digger and many others put an emphasis on the price tag of antiques instead of their educational, historical and cultural value. It is an even more grave situation, when people are prompted to loot historic sites, like what happened in Gettysburg two weeks ago.


It's really important for history educators to go over the basics of archeology and the importance of artifacts and antiques to our understanding of history. Tell your listeners the importance of the information gained from archeological sites and how the artifacts collected are not the goal, but a result of archeologists excavating for information. Try to bring the focus off the antiques and artifacts and try to emphasis how important these things are for learning about the past.

It's almost never good to put a monetary value on an antique in front of a crowd. Many people have the notion that antiques are worth huge sums of money, and some are. But, most antiques are pretty modest in price compared to the impression many get from Antiques Roadshow. If you tell your crowd that your dug Civil War Eagle Coat button is only monetarily worth about $6.55, many will be surprised at the low "value" but many more won't have an interest in holding it because it's no longer special in their eyes. Putting a monetary value on these things breaks the connection with the past that each individual can make when touching and passing them around.  

Has anyone else noticed this at events and in museums? If someone asks you about the "value" of something, what do you say?

11 comments:

  1. Having scored a few historical items from my family, when I am asked what something is worth - I tell them simply "that depends how much is your (insert body part) worth? and let them know that to take these items from me would be like removing part of my body...

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    1. I agree. There are "prices" things sell for but a lot of times it's much lower than their cultural or historical value.

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  2. Funny how things coincide.
    http://thedreamstress.com/2012/07/why-i-dont-give-valuations-for-textiles/

    I'm not a historian myself, so I don't have much experience with this. I don't recall ever hearing that sort of question here when I was visiting historical sites, but that does not mean they are not asked. Still, with all the castles and chateaus open to public here, I think - I hope - people are more used to the educational and, let's face it, entertainment value of history as opposed to monetary.

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    1. :D It seems everyone is having this problem lately. When I was in Europe, I noticed that historical sites and buildings were very much ingrained into the cultures there. Here, many historical sites are run like amusement parks.

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  3. Whenever I have gone to museums the monetary value of historical items very, very rarely interests me. I think the historical value renders the objects priceless...it's a shame more people don't think this way.

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    1. Absolutely! I never would have thought to ask something like that until people started asking me.

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  4. Really? If I worked in a historical museum and people kept asking me how much an item was worth, I'd be motivated to quietly notify security about them. Especially if they kept eyeing a certain object, they could be planning to walk off with it....

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    1. When I cook at the house, my handwritten recipes get stolen all of the time. How is that for hilarious?

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  5. Regarding Europe, my experience in Ireland was different. At a large monestary site, tourists were climbing all over ancient ruins that still had intact carvings, etc. They seemed to think it was a playground for their kids. Grant you, it wasn't the Irish doing it, but other Europeans who I thought would have respected the history.

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    1. Their tourist sites were open to whatever(Blarney Castle) but, I thought people in general just knew more about their local history. It was part of their culture and local lore.

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    2. I think it's exactly what Stephanie Ann says: we may be less reverent of the historical sites (the sort of reverence I saw in America in places like Mt Vernon...), but they are part of our life today. E.g., churches built in medieval or Renaissance times still serve as churches (the church I go to was built in 1560, the catholic church in my hometown is originally even older, maybe even Romanesque, though rebuilt in Baroque). Ordinary people may have absolutely no idea as to their "value", but they do have an idea as to their function. Does that make sense?

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