Ouch! Not an easy question to answer, for many reasons. Why? Well, do you want to determine something’s value “for insurance purposes” or do you want to make sure you can resell it at a profit? Maybe you want to know its “fair market value” because it’s part of an estate being split amongst siblings. The IRS probably lists about fourteen hundred different grades or levels of “value”, and while the variety keeps accountants employed, it only adds to the confusion over the question of “worth”.

On top of the many different grades of value is the fact that any given thing is worth an entirely different amount to each and every person you ask. A person more wealthy than yourself will understandably pay more for a desired object than will you, because time is money and his/her time is worth more than yours. Or you may pay dearly for that one last piece you still need to complete a series or a set – much more than a less motivated buyer. No one would question your sanity.

The “worth” or value of a thing is not fixed, but rather depends upon the motivation and capabilities of available buyers. On top of that, the flow blue market fluctuates with the economy and with the changing tastes of flow blue collectors. Still, YOU have found a piece of flow blue that YOU like, you’re not sure if the price is FAIR, and you’d like a straight answer to the title question. OK, accepting that value is a terribly relative concept, let’s look at some of your options. A logical way most folks try to find out “what it’s worth” is to get some expert advice, and the usual choices are to either ask a trusted friend or to consult a price guide. You will find, however, that those options rarely will give you the information you need.

First of all, asking a trusted friend is a BIG mistake. If your friend knows this field better than you do, chances are he (or she) might PERSONALLY be interested in your find. Conflict of interest time! Not good for the friendship. Or else the question puts them on the spot, because they have to consider their complicity in ruining your personal finances, or some other muddy issue. And if your friend DOESN’T know the field all that well, then why ask in the first place.

Next, let’s dispatch the notion that price guides are the answer. They’re not. Their information is dated before it gets published, and almost always reflects interference from variables (such as auction fever, item condition, seller and/or buyer ignorance, etc.) which cannot be quantified. (When was the last time you saw the phrase “It snowed that night” next to a ridiculously low price in a “guide”?) Granted, most price guides state that their prices are for items in “fine” condition (or some other ambiguous, nice-sounding term.) When did you ever see an auctioneer who was really good at detecting AND REPORTING hairline cracks or well-done restorations?

Price guides also tend to become dated as markets change. Some try to avoid obsolescence by publishing regularly and frequently. These guides necessarily focus on a limited amount of fresh data, and their results are overly influenced by the interference’s mentioned above. They also lack the ability to track long-term trends.

Other guides attempt to avoid becoming completely worthless by making comparative generalizations. For example, in her Volume 3, Petra Williams graded all of the patterns in each of her flow blue categories a “+”, “average” or “-“, and then directed the reader to the appropriate range of prices for each category. The idea was that a “+” pattern piece’s value should be closer to the top of the price range, and so on. The problem with this scheme is that the information has gotten quite old. Petra probably didn’t anticipate that twenty years later her compendium of patterns would STILL be the reference of choice for most collectors of flow blue. Back in 1986, she graded the oriental “INDIAN” pattern an “A+” and the brushstroke “HEATH’S FLOWER” pattern an “A-“. While those grades undoubtedly reflected the experience of her associates at the time, today they would be reversed. The market has changed.

So there’s no easy answer to the question “What’s it worth?” A wise collector will study the field BEFORE spending hard-earned cash. Where to start? Well, assuming that you have already done enough homework to know what you need to know ABOUT flow blue (what it is, who made it, how to tell a fake from the real thing, etc.) then you just need some direction in the pricing department.
It would be, well, “different”, if there was some central “Flow Blue Exchange” that listed real prices. While the prices for some of the more common and popular pieces of flow blue actually DO behave similarly to the prices of commodities (such as soybeans and pork-bellies), they are not, and cannot be accurately reported in anything like a stock or commodity exchange. There are simply too many variables (color, amount of flow, distribution and amount of crazing, condition of the glaze, position of the decorations, quality of any restorations, etc.) affecting value. And only the common-piece prices behave “normally” – the prices for the exceptional stuff are all over the place. And it is usually the rare and obscure items that stimulate the question of value, anyway.

Now, Flow Blue doesn’t exactly fall into the “essential-for-life” category, no matter what you feel when you spy a nice piece at an antique show. It’s not food or shelter, and you cannot melt it down and pour it into ingots and sell them to your local precious metals dealer, either. (It has no intrinsic value.) Instead, it “charms” us, and we “create” demand for it. One visit to a good auction house will show you first-hand the out-of-control creation of demand. It takes only two determined bidders (or one plus a shill-bidder) to drive a price up WAY TOO HIGH, and remember that plenty of price guides get their numbers from auction houses!

According to Adam Smith, supply and demand play a key role in determining the value of our beloved flow blue. There simply is never enough of the very rare and desirable, and that’s why it’s so expensive. Just “HOW” expensive a piece “SHOULD” be is yet another silly question. Yes, greed plays a role, but this is trying to be a no-fault essay, so we’ll ignore greed. Instead, here are a few valuable points to consider:

  1. Advanced collectors pay top dollar for the really rare stuff, regardless of condition. Sure, if it’s perfect it will be worth more, but if it’s the only one known and it has a restoration, who cares?
  2. Common items that are damaged or restored are generally worth WAY less than corresponding perfect pieces, because a prospective buyer won’t have to wait very long before a piece in better condition comes along.
  3. At the very top of the market, the addition or subtraction of any one player can drastically alter the market dynamics. (It’s a seller’s market when two rich guys slug it out over the cream of the crop. But when one of them dies, it becomes a buyer’s market for the other.)
  4. In spite of the Global Economy and the Internet, markets are regional. Early Victorian flow blue tends to do better in the Northeast, while Late Victorian does better in the Midwest.
  5. Experience is everything. Take your time. Learn the prices and the markets for your particular field of interest. Check eBay results, attend flow blue auctions and come to the annual FLOW BLUE INTERNATIONAL COLLECTORS’ CLUB conventions! One hundred price guides won’t begin to teach you what you’ll learn at your very first FBICC convention.