Time and Value

July 23, 2021 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 64

I recently recovered my old coin collection from my parents’ house and it got me thinking about time and value. There is a natural tendency to assume that older things have greater value, but any economic history can disprove that pretty quickly. The value of things fluctuates greatly over time, but we tend to think values go up over time.

Not true.

During my teaching career, I remember having a hard time – before 2008 – explaining to students that real estate values can go down. No one at that time had ever seen that, but as a historian, I had seen it 150 years earlier.

This was the example I used – cost $10,000 to build in 1863 and was worth less than half that 50 years later. Allen House, Cape May, New Jersey, photographed 1996.

I thought of this when someone posted on an historic preservation forum posted about having to deal with all of these people trying to donate pianos. We get a lot of those here as well, And I actually personally took a piano off someone’s hands in 2006 or 7, only to ditch it a decade later. We think that old things have value, but the fact that so many people are trying to give them away…means they don’t have value. People are trying to give them away.

It was a Schultz, made in Chicago.

I love old stuff, but that does not mean it has monetary value. I once had a woman become fairly rude when I explained that we were not going to accept a particular piece of furniture which she intended to have us display in one of our house museums. Her bold and presumptuous intention was met with a realistic collections and donation policy. Now, you might say “But that is where something like this has value! In a house museum!”

Steves Homestead, 1876. Open weekends 10-3, $10 per person. Fully furnished, no room for more.

Yes, it has educational value there. But its economic value is likely a negative number. Let’s do the math. There are 10,000 Victorian homes around here of which exactly four are museums. That creates a market demand for 4 old pianos, maybe 5. Let’s say that 4,000 of those homes had pianos at one time. Basically we have 3,995 extra pianos, and let’s say, generously, that 500 of them are restored and tuned and used regularly. So now we have 3,495 old pianos and supply and demand says their value is diddley plus squat plus sweet FA, as the English would say.

That’s not even getting into the dismal economics (is that redundant?) of the house museums themselves, which require a pretty massive subsidy to survive as what they are. Your museum admission generally pays about 20% of the cost of keeping those houses. So who is paying the four-fifths and is it worth it to them?

Like many late 19th century houses near downtown, this is now an office. Wanna buy it?

Used, rehabbed houses are not the problem that house museums are. They have use value as well as historic value and they exist in a market where they retain value – because they are used.

But let’s get back to my coin collection. I’m sure Mom was glad to have it gone, and it can’t have much value. It reminded me of a discussion we had at Vogt Auctions in 2019 about how certain items – china, silver service, and probably pianos – no longer have monetary value because demand is gone. They had several experts letting people know that many of their treasured collections were not going to be wanted or kept by their descendants.

Read ’em and weep.

That does not mean there are not valuable things – they are just different than the things that were valuable 20 years ago. Mid-century Modern furniture is at a premium. Victorian furniture is on clearance.

It was already on sale when someone bought it 30 years ago and installed it in a house museum as if it belonged.

Young’uns pay for vinyl, but I’m not sure about those cassette tapes.

It is kinda like fashion – some very strange 70s and Victorian stuff is back in vogue now, like baby doll dresses. Meanwhile I am trying to see if I can skate through a whole decade without acquiring pointy brown shoes. I know, don’t say it – it is illegal and I am in big trouble.

Quads in the days when only hockey players had in-line skates.

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