What gives something value? First, I suppose that we have to consider the different types of value. Sentimental value comes mainly from an emotional response to something. Historical value has a major cultural component. But what determines the monetary value of an item? The established rule of thumb is that an object is worth what someone will pay for it. Cut and dried, right? I don't think so.
Anyone who has worked in the antique business, who has bought and sold and traveled to find that good deal, knows that geography matters. Out-of-state shoppers that come to the antique mall tend to comment about our great oak furniture prices, or the affordability of good farm tools. We have Japanese customers who make an annual trip to buy Fire King, because it is cheaper and more abundant here than back home. For Blackbird, a huge percentage of our customers are on the West Coast, and we've learned that people in California will pay a certain amount for certain items that people from North Carolina will not. This is why online works for us, because our customer can be anyone, from anywhere. It also means that pricing can be tricky, especially since we now have a mini-boutique in a local gallery. An item priced on the rack may not have the same price in our online shop. Finding the right balance is key. The most important thing we have learned is this: know your customer. And we now have two kinds of customers--lunch hour browsers from the downtown business district, and Etsy shoppers worldwide. A photography student in our town, on her lunch break, has a totally different price point in mind when she shops for what is, essentially, used clothing, than someone doing textile research for product development in New York. We have to do our research, but we also have to go with our gut. We don't want to give it away, but we don't want to alienate people, either.
This brings me to Pet Peeve #1: eBay as the Be-All-End-All-God-of-Pricing. I can't tell you how many times someone has something they want to sell, and they open with, "Well, I looked it up on eBay, and it's worth..." blah blah dollars. When we research pricing, we look on eBay, and Etsy, and maybe Ruby Lane, and then we use that information, along with our investment value, and a little bit of intuition, to come up with a price. Sometimes, we miss the mark, and have to put an item on sale. Sometimes, we strike gold. Most of the time, it's just right. A completed items search on eBay is great, but sometimes it only gives a window in time. A hot seller this week might go for pennies next week. Plus, the item might have sold to someone in Wisconsin, or Australia, or France (there goes that geography again...), where a completely different pricing norm exists. What would a vintage 36" WWII Russian propaganda poster sell for here? Probably a lot, just for the novelty (and historical!) value. But in a shop in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida), I found boxes of them for the equivalent of $10 each (U.S.). Trust me, geography matters.
We also have to keep in mind two basic principles of economics: supply and demand, and the tendency of all markets to cycle. Ten years ago, Weiss Christmas tree pins were really sought after, and we treated them like gold bricks at the antique mall. They sold, easily, for $150-$250 each. Then, a shift in the winds meant that nobody was buying them. What do we do? We either hold on to them with fingers crossed that interest picks up again, or we sell them cheaper. It is the way of things. Colored glass decanters may be $15 each until Martha Stewart Living calls them the next big thing in decorating, and then you're lucky to find one for less than $75. As soon as Martha decides they're old news, you may not get more than $10 for one.
You know another good resource? Books written by collectors, or even better, talking to an actual human being with a long history of buying a particular item. They have years of experience buying (and possibly selling). They know about the market cycles, the reproductions, the common, the rare high priced limited editions, and what the normal price range is for their area. Sometimes, collectors don't shop online, so their point of reference for pricing is limited to what they see in brick and mortar shops. On the other hand, some collectors are 100% Internet based, and have no concept of what the store down the street has in stock. But, either way, the collectors are the best source of information on how much collectors will pay for an item. Pet Peeve #2: not trusting the people who know more than you do. These are the people who read the books, write the articles, follow the auctions, and put their souls into curating collections. If I had dolls to sell, I might look on eBay, but I'd also take advantage of a local doll collector's knowledge. To disregard someone's experience, and their passion, is to miss a real learning opportunity. It's also a matter of respect.