In this article i’m going to highlight certain aspects of the antique tool collectors market that go far beyond the obvious. There are Norris, Stanley, Preston and Record tools collectors amongst other makers which are obvious choices due to the literature available to collectors.
But there is another side that’s a little bit more complicated and for this reason, many collectors shy away from. Early types of tools that have very little literature to draw on regarding makers etc. are harder to understand but also hold less demand due to their complexity of understanding them. It’s the same can be said in other aspects of antiques, i.e. furniture or ceramics to name but a few.
I’ve always wondered why this was the case but I guess much of it stems from the fact there is uncertainty or too few items around to really drive prices unless the demand is there through them being exceptionally rare. I’d say there are many genuine antiques selling under their true worth because of this.
What is truly rare? Well, there are rare tools from many makers that’s true but these pale insignificance compared with a 17th-century ivory slide rule that recently sold for £11k + 18% buyers premium or an artefact that comes from the Titanic for example for its historical significance. Rarity can come in many forms whether that’s because of the survival rate or purely because not many were made. Rarity has to be widely appreciated for them to have a higher commercial value and this only comes when certain aspects of the community start to also appreciate that topic.
Who would have guessed a few years ago there would be such interest in rulers, saws or hammers? Traditional tool collectors were generally only interested in woodworking planes but were drawn to Norris planes due to them being so revered in the woodworking trade for their quality and usability, yet early metal plane makers such Towell were lesser-known and therefore less valuable. I’d go to say that with the right information laid out to those early collectors that Towell was far more scarce and should be far more valuable than they were.
The market is changing, it’s changing through knowledge and peoples ability to make better decisions when buying antique tools through researching the internet. There have been triggers such as Paul sellers and his opinions for using tools and we have seen this in the prices of I. Sorby Planes and Preston & Tyzack router planes. Whilst I get Paul is a woodwork guru and his comments hold weight, I’d say not all his suggestions regarding old tools are factually correct as they are only based on his experiences rather than those of understanding the whole used tool marketplace. There are also factors becoming more obvious though, such as genuine rarity through lack of online appearances over time.
Personally, I like tools that are unusual and I like tools that have had the skill and thought put into their design and the quality of construction. There are also tools that are rare survivors such as an 18th century Jointer plane, I’ve only ever found one and they are practically no existent due to them all being used to destruction. As you can appreciate a plane like this would have been valuable to any user for more than a hundred and fifty years after it was manufactured. These usually always made from beech also had to survive the rigours or damp houses and workshops and very susceptible to rot. So it could be said some tools really should be appreciated for what they are rather than from whom they were made by, but also they need to be appreciated on a wider scale for something like this to reach its full potential in value.
There are collectors who are authorities within their niche subject and some tool dealers who specialise in very rare tools, these dealers usually put their money where their mouths are and should be respected for their knowledge and judgement. I’d say there are some historians and writers who research details but not necessarily understand the antique tool market, these are very interesting and are a vital part of the industry. Auctioneers on the other hand just need to know facts and leave the bidders to decide prices but again those final prices are only subject to who was available to bid at the time and not necessarily the true full worth.
The important factor in all this is knowing why prices and values are established and to make this public knowledge to the wider community. Once collectors appreciate the reason why prices are paid this also brings them into understanding a tool’s value and if they want one they would understand the reasons why they expect to pay certain prices. Obviously, condition, originality or other factors such as providence plays a role in future values.
How would you value a chisel once owned by Thomas Chippendale? The chisel in itself would only command a price compared with others of the same type, period etc. but with proven providence, with it, the same chisel could maybe multiply this by a hundred times the usual price or more to a specific person or corporation. That same tool sold on eBay for example would fetch much less as we all know how many fakes are sold on there. So where and how it’s sold has a significant influence over its value, likewise the marketing or the audience it is sold to.
Yes, it’s a bit of a minefield at first but those who learn to love antiques will also know they are only custodians of what they and others cherish, saving them for future generations who one day appreciate the importance of keeping them safe.
I’d say the antique tools market is still evolving, it may only be around 50 years since it first started properly but with the age of the internet, the room for expansion is massive. We all know primarily the antique tools market has been woodworking lead but with new emerging markets such as edge tools, gardening and as I said before, wrenches, hammers, saws are all establishing themselves as will other crafts and trades. Likewise, eventually, there will be more emphasis on 19th-century tool makers as will there be on wooden planes. Even I have to remind myself sometimes that Queen Victoria’s reign ended 120 years ago (22nd Jan 1901) and it’s now those makers from the start of her reign that are now only a few years from being 200 years old (Jun 1837).
The old tool market has come a long way over those past 50 years, I remember how it was for my father back in the late 1970s. He tells a story of a Sunday market he did and heard a little boy say to his mother he needed the toilet, the lady told him to have a pee behind that old junk. Yes, that junk was my father’s old tool stall. He also sold a Towell mitre plane for a fiver, those were the days when antique tool books hadn’t been thought about, let alone composed or published. Back then there was no internet and all knowledge was hard-earned usually at a price too.
So to conclude I’d say there is much to learn about tools in many aspects, there are going to be new markets and many existing ones that are going to develop further. Supply and demand will ultimately drive prices up and those who are passionate about their subject are wise to be involved with the wider community and start teaching others about those elusive tools.
Knowledge ultimately brings competition but has its advantage in that it increases genuine interest and ultimately raises prices which also bring further interest. ‘Lest not forget antiques have a financial benefit and no-one likes a downward spiralling market’.