An Interview with Terry Kovel by Judy Gonyeau, managing editor
Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with Terry Kovel, editor and publisher of Kovels Antiques, Inc. For over 53 years, Kovels has published the Price Guide for American Collectors (now Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price List), a veritable encyclopedia of antiques and collectibles sale prices for items purchased over the previous year. As you will find in this article, Terry has a great sense of humor and is still having lots of fun as the world of antiques and collectibles continues to spin, as you will see in our conversation.
Today, Kovels is a multi-media corporation sharing information on antiques and collectibles through hundreds of books, bylined columns (the longest-running syndicated weekly column in the country), a monthly newsletter, and radio and television programs along the way. Among its many books, Kovels publishes the annual Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide and, much to Terry’s surprise, a Collector’s Guide to Handbags. “Who ever thought we would have a book on collecting handbags?” asked Terry.
Kovels has also launched its new, updated website, kovels.com, making hundreds of thousands of prices, articles, marks, and other information to help collectors price and identify their antiques and collectibles. The new kovels.com also has sections on Downsizing, Settling an Estate, and 60-plus topical Buy & Sell Guides.
Kovels’ Price Guides
Sixty-seven years ago Ralph and Terry Kovel published their very first book, Dictionary of Marks: Pottery and Porcelain. Their first price book, The Complete Antiques Price List, was published in 1968. Terry likes to say that when she and her husband Ralph started out, “we wrote two books before we even wrote a sentence,” alluding to the incredible amount of data listed in that first issue and their other publications.
In each edition of the Price List, Kovels uses real selling prices that have been verified and edited for correctness. As they said in their introduction to the 2000 edition, “This is a book for the average collector.” They certainly know whereof they speak, for the Kovel family has built their legacy on sharing a reflection of the world of antiques and collectibles. In the 2000 edition, the Guide contained over 860 pages of listings––over 50,000 items with prices––”from the American market for the American market.” This year, over 500 pages are chock-full of images, listings, and ever-valuable tips, market overview, and cross-referenced materials.
During our talk, we covered a number of changes that have taken place within the marketplace for antiques and collectibles as well as its influencers, especially over the last 20 years since this Magazine began. The biggest impact, without a doubt, is the Internet.
How has the information available on the Internet affected the antiques and collectibles marketplace?
The Internet is responsible for most of the changes [over the past 20 years]. The large number of sales at auction, at online shops, and in online catalogs really opened a lot of people’s eyes to how much is out there and how much it all costs. For instance, now you know what someone will pay for a real antique American Chippendale chair. While it used to be $1,000 to $2,000, now more are available and the prices are maybe $300 or $400.
That’s happened to a lot of things. When collectors started selling event items online, like those from a New York World’s Fair, that they thought were so rare, they soon found out many people had them. Prices are a tenth what they were.
I know the Antiques Road Show does a great job with their valuing. They used to travel around with a couple of moving vans full of books and now they can email somebody they know who’s an expert and get all the latest information they need.
What things have gone up?
Well, if what you have is “museum-quality,”––anything, it doesn’t matter what––if it’s museum-quality it has gone crazy.
Look at baseball cards, comic books, advertising––all these things that were everyday throw-aways when they were made––they weren’t meant to be saved, they weren’t meant to be collected, and they weren’t meant to stay forever in your living room.
In general, I think the biggest surprise is advertising and what many people call “automobilia,” like old oil cans from an old gas station, that can be worth more than a thousand dollars.
Does the impact of shows like American Pickers, Flea Market Flip also affect this?
Well, they’re crazy, too! I try to warn people that they might see them buy something for $20 and sell it for $100 and they’ve made $80 But there are costs of running a shop and having someone tell you “this is where you’re scheduled for the day” and then spending two days hunting. You can’t say that “doesn’t cost anything,” but it actually does, and people need to be aware about that.
In the February issue of the Journal, we shared the results of the “2019 Survey for the Antiques and Decorative Arts” done by the Asheford Institute of Antiques. One trend they noticed was that Depression Glass, which has been out of favor for a while, is now being bought up by dealers for a cheap price hoping the values will go back up.
The first collector I knew that said he was collecting depression glass said he was going to pay for college for his daughter with it – and he did! Now the prices are probably back down to where it was when he first bought it.
It’s not that it is “coming back” as much as companies are starting to make it again. It is in the catalogs for several glassmakers. The “new” Fiestaware is popular because it’s very modern looking, but Depression glass is not. It’s a continuation of old styles.
There is a lot of concern about dealing with inherited collections as the Baby Boomer generation enters its old age. What are your thoughts on this?
I must admit that I have a lot of things here that will have to be gone through – like the 20,000 books in my house (That’s going to be a good one!). I have my files and used to be very good at cataloging – this is what I paid for it, where I got it – well, that stopped about 15 years ago and I’m just putting things in a file drawer and I am now sorting through things and finding things that I desperately needed an appraisal for that I want to sell.
The new kovels.com has sections on Downsizing, Settling an Estate and 60-plus topical Buy and Sell Guides that are very helpful when considering what to do when you have to get rid of things. I’m advising people to decide which of the kids (or relatives) is going to be responsible, and then put extra money or gifts aside in your will that covers the cost of the time that it will take them.
And not everybody is going to value your collection for all the money you paid for it because people’s tastes change and what was worth a lot back then has a different story now.
My brother recently passed away and my sister-in-law said, “What do you mean I can’t sell my silver-plated trays?! There must be someone who wants them––they’re beautiful!” And I had to tell her, “I don’t care how beautiful they are, you’re not going to find a buyer!”
Please, whatever you write to collectors, warn them that things that are out of style are out of style! Nobody wants them so give them to a charity. (But even many charity shops are more particular these days!)
Over the past 20 years, the Kovels’ Price Guide has changed its format to include more pictures and more diverse categories. With the new website where information can be accessed online (kovels.com), what are you planning for the next edition of the Guide?
Right now we’re still collecting prices for the 2021 issue and we don’t stop doing this until around March. There’s still a lot more that needs to be added to it.
When we were listing 40,000 entries we used to list all the glass patterns, but now we only select some because there are so many other sales results out there to be included. We will also have 2500 pictures in this book.
What trends are you noticing as you continue to gather information for the 2021 edition?
We have tons of furniture this round – I’m asking for fewer furniture prices because everyone has discovered people are buying it again, so dealers are selling and there are so many sales! Last year you could go to a flea market and not find a single piece of furniture and this year it is selling briskly (well, they figured out Ikea falls apart so they’re buying older pieces and painting it – but that’s a whole other story).
We’re also going crazy on Asian items, and African collectibles are coming out in a big way as is Black memorabilia. Another thing is that tastes are changing. Just look at Hummels – we used to do practically a whole book on Hummels, and now no one is buying them. It’s hard for some people to believe, especially those who love Hummels.
I will tell you that any any painting by a woman painter or things made by women are going up – everyone’s going crazy! All the museums are doing exhibits of works by women. I don’t know if the artwork is any better now than it was 20 years ago but that’s what they’re doing. And I’m delighted. There is no question women were ignored for a long, long time.
I went to Wellesley, a woman’s college. I offered them pictures by Rosa Bonheur and they didn’t want them. I received a letter recently asking “Do you still have those pictures? Did you get rid of them? We would love to have them.” So I am sending them. They’re small sketches of animals, but even a sketch is a good thing for a college art museum. It’s embarrassing to think that at one time, a woman’s college rarely hung artwork by a 19th or 20th century woman in their museum.
You want to know what I can’t believe is selling now? Purses. We even have a buyer’s guide with prices.
This is a “new” antique that was invented by an auction house. One auction house hired people who knew about the costs of vintage and designer purses and started selling. Then another one hired experts and started selling them against the first auction house. I never would have imagined!
As auction houses continue to expand the kinds of events they hold by concentrating on price points or particular artists or special online-only options, where do you see this going?
What’s happening here is probably happening where you are, too. The paint contractor for my house is now a full-service “everything-including-the-house” business where they will come in, go through your house, and give certain things to charities and other things to wherever you want them to go, and then have a whole-house sale. They will even stage and sell your house!
But it pays to do your homework. A lady I had never met knocked on my door and said, “My father said I should come to you when he died and find out how I can get rid of his house.” I didn’t know the father, either, even though he lived down the street! He was single for a long time and was an engineer. He had a lot of very interesting old engineering items like books, maps, tools and other technical things. The woman already had an antiques dealer in who had taken cut glass and what he considered “modern art” (who knew how good or bad it was), but he had left all these other things that were worth a small fortune! She got a lot of money for the engineering books at sale that specialized in maps, autographs and out-of-date technical books. But before that, she had it all waiting to go to a charity that gives books away, so you never know.
What was the first antique you ever bought?
When I was 10, I went to Niagara Falls with my mother and my brother and she gave me $1 to spend. I walked around with it for the whole trip. My mother said, “You have to spend it before you leave. That’s why I gave it to you, to learn how to spend money,” so I bought a mustache cup. Now don’t ask me why I bought a mustache cup with a pretty flower on it! But it’s still on display in the hall upstairs.
How do you view “collecting”?
A lot of people have had theories. Freud thought we were collecting our feces . . . I don’t quote him very often.
The main theory is that you’re born a squirrel looking for nuts and you stash things away for the future. I think there’s some truth in that. You’re either a collector or you’re not a collector. You can be a decorator and buy things, but I think most of them are buying for the look and not the history.
I believe there are 2-D and 3-D collectors. I am a 3-D collector––I didn’t have anything hanging on my walls until I filled up all the floors and cabinets and everything else. And then I have all 3-D pictures––no flat, modern things.
It’s in the genes. Kids collect stamps and stones and things and they’re not going to stop. They just change what they collect. Star Wars collectibles and comic books are perfect examples.
There are many dealers who start out as collectors. They always have something they collect that may or may not have a lot of value – but it’s what they like.