Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Variations of Value

One lesson I have learned from 25 years of antique collecting, seven years of handmade jewelry vending, and one year working estate sales is that material goods can command widely, wildly different prices. Most extreme are the numbers on the tags in posh retail establishments in well-heeled areas, in comparison to the amounts those very same items can command on the second-hand market in less tony locations. Not being a full-price shopper myself, nor one who participates in conspicuous consumption (despite having decidedly Dom P. taste), I am regularly astounded by people who think that just because they shelled out an unholy amount for a mirror or a bed frame they should be able to expect the same insanity from a subsequent purchaser.

For instance, we’ve done sales in several houses owned by multi-millionaires (who aren’t thin on the ground in this area—I myself live below the federal poverty line in one of the ten most expensive counties in the nation), and despite the success of each event, some of these people (two in the medical profession and one in the communications industry) have been chagrined by the relatively small return on what they had “invested” in household d├ęcor. Sure, your decorator charged you $395 for that lamp [this and all other examples are real!], but we can’t ask more than $25 for it, because they are available at Target for $45. She or he billed you $1985 for that gilt mirror, but the most we can hope to expect from the hundreds of people who will come to your sale is $265. Your wife spent more than $100,000 at exclusive boutiques from Paris to Milan and New York, but the most we can earn from that roomful of designer clothes is $35,000. The cushions on your bed cost $400 apiece for the fabric alone, but we can’t tag them for more than $30 each, or we’ll be laughed out of town by our customers.

It seems to be a disease of sorts, this affluenza, where spending vast sums is interpreted as directly associated with real value, when much of what is bought is simply not worth the scrip. What an antique dealer tells you your collection of old measuring cups is worth and what they’ll fetch in the real world are two entirely different things. I’ve been reading a great book by Matthew Brzezinski (the nephew of the former National Security advisor) called Casino Moscow, in which he recounts his observations of New Russians during the free-wheeling pre-Putin 1990s. An anecdote he says was popular at the time tells of two of these nouveau riche encountering one another one the street: one brags to the other about a pair of shoes he’d gotten in Paris for $1500. The other ridicules him. Says he could have gotten the same pair for $1800 locally. The greater the amount spent, in other words, was the prestige factor, as if it magically imparted some greater value to the article, though it was identical in every other way.

This is an attitude, I think, that is shared today by many people living here in the DC area. Whatever economic chaos is happening around them, those with the high-rolling mentality conflate expenditure with worth, and blithely (irrationally) think that they’ll recoup these amounts from consignment. Whereas if one buys really well-made “pre-owned” goods, you are much more likely to be able to get your money out of them should you decide to trade them in later. But at all times, value is variable: an item is worth neither more nor less than what someone is willing to pay for it at a given time. You could even make a few bucks on something you’re selling if you find a venue that sets it off and a purchaser that really wants it.

But I can’t see any normal conditions where you'd be able to make good on a six-foot ficus tree would that cost you $500 originally.

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