Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Antique Wagon Values – Taking Another Look

Throughout the nineteenth and early half of the twentieth centuries, millions of horse-drawn wagons were built by tens of thousands of makers in the United States.  With some firms producing as many as fifty thousand to one hundred thousand vehicles per year, it’s surprising to discover just how little is left of America’s first transportation industry.  Clearly, the bulk of America’s wagons and western vehicles disappeared long ago, whether buried, burned, rotted, or forgotten.  Others are vanishing regularly as they succumb to the rigors of weather and lack of care.  Nonetheless, even though the survivor percentages are small, there are still a number of century-plus-old, horse-drawn wagons remaining in the U.S.  Which of these are the more desirable and what are the reasons some will be more significant than others?  Both are great questions and both have fairly involved answers.  

Back in November of 2015, I wrote a piece that highlighted a number of elements affecting antique wagon values.  At the time, my goal was to help others see the power of individuality in different pieces.  I also wanted to help folks recognize the benefits of spending more time getting to know a particular set of wheels.  Every vehicle has a specific story to tell.  Even so, I still receive presumptive questions about the financial worth of an old wagon.  I say ‘presumptive’ because, often, there is an assumption that a wagon should carry a certain value just because another one has been seen listed with that price.  Too many still consider the severely limited comparisons of on-line value assessments to be the first resource in price determinations.  Truth is, the overall evaluation process can be very involved, requiring extensive knowledge of the individual vehicle, brand, condition, originality levels, the industry, historical relevance, current market trends, and more.  It’s also important to know something about the anticipated purchaser.  For instance, buyers of collector-grade wagons often have higher standards and more strict requirements than first-time shoppers.  It’s a reality that can leave some wagons labeled as less desirable due to commonness, poor condition, construction features, or originality issues.

Early vehicles crafted by small makers are not necessarily limited in value just because the builder was out-sized by others.  Design quality, vehicle condition, time-frame of manufacture, and other provenance elements can affect values of all makes.

Ultimately, determining authoritative values for these antiquities is not as simple as checking out an asking price on an internet auction service or the list price for another website that 'appears' similar.  I’ve shared many times that no two wagons are ever exactly the same.  That means we must know more than the asking price of a different vehicle to determine the actual value of a separate set of wheels.  Understanding the variances that distinguish one wagon from another can make all the difference in getting an accurate assessment. 

To that point, there are countless elements that can affect the value of an old set of wheels.  One category that influenced price back-in-the-day was the inclusion or absence of certain ‘Accessories.’  That same consideration can still hold true today.  From the running gear (undercarriage) to the box and a host of completely separate items, there were a lot of options that an end-user could include with the purchase of a wood-wheeled wagon.  Even so, this is an often-overlooked area when it comes to evaluating price differences between similar-looking but still very different vehicles. 

Folding end gates were not necessarily a standard item on an antique wagon.  As a result, a number of surviving farm wagons do not have this feature.

Accessory-related differences can come in a number of forms.  Some distinctions might be as small (not necessarily in importance) as a set of tire rivets on each wheel or as obvious as a third set of sideboards (often referred to as a tip-top box).  Other items that might be listed as add-ons include brakes (multiple types and configurations), a footrest, rein tie, seat risers, spring seat, tool or provision box, feed box, bows, bow staples, cover, bolster iron extensions, folding end gate, scoop board, anti-spreader chain, steel skeins, bois d’arc wood, grain cleats, tongue spring, bolster springs, lock chain hardware, and a multitude of different wear irons spaced around the running gear and box.  Certain wheel and tire sizes were also considered to be an extra-cost item.  Of course, the double tree, singletrees, neck yoke, stay chains, and tongue style could also be options – especially since different configurations were needed if a person used oxen instead of equine. 

As many items as I’ve mentioned here, there are still more features that can affect (both positively and negatively) antique wagon values.  It takes diligence and understanding to wade through the myriad of considerations.  Reinforcing that point, let’s assume we’re looking at a pair of vehicles for sale.  Both may be in similar condition but there are likely to be several differences in construction characteristics.  Let’s say one has taller, 52-inch rear wheels, a matching spring seat, foot board, brake, and western tire rivets.  The other wagon carries a little later (newer) time frame of manufacture and does not have a seat, foot board, brake, or tire rivets.  In this particular example, it’s reasonable to expect more interest to be expressed in the vehicle with the brake, rivets, etc. as it is likely to better exemplify wagons used on the western frontier.  Oftentimes, there is a greater pool of folks looking for that type of wagon.  That said, even these vehicle differences don’t necessarily mean it’s always a slam-dunk that the higher wheeled, better-featured wagon will command a higher price. 

Since other factors like condition, originality, completeness, and documented historical provenance can also impact values, it’s important for both buyers and sellers to take stock of every element that can affect price.    

Not only were rein ties usually listed as an accessory, when purchased, they could be mounted on the front end gate, on seat risers, and even on the foot board. 

Ultimately, every vehicle is an individual and, as such, every evaluation should be done on a case-by-case basis.  Generically lumping values of all ‘similar-looking’ wagons together can bring about frustration and remorse.  Likewise, attempting to focus too much attention on one element without taking stock of the entire vehicle, can also create misunderstandings and disappointment.  At the end of the day, the most accurate evaluations will consider a host of factors without ever focusing on what someone is “asking” for another wagon.  

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