It is helpful that, almost across the board, collectors use the same criteria to judge the objects they love. From dolls to furniture to fishing rods, there are standards for valuing collectibles and the same vocabulary can be used almost interchangeably. Whether you're examining a find in your great-aunt's attic or a potential purchase, whatever it is, you can ask yourself the same questions.
As a preliminary to handling the item, stand back and look at it. Is the object pleasing to look at? If it exhibits a distinctive style (Art Deco or retro, for instance), does it look its age? Is it a good example of its kind?
Style is, essentially, a distinctive and characteristic manner of expression, and there is a style, fortunately, to appeal to every taste. Most collectors begin with, or develop, a preference for a particular style. One person likes Art Deco design while another prefers the biomorphism of the 1950s. If you've familiarized yourself with the design characteristics of the style you've chosen for yourself, you will seldom develop eye fatigue at a collectibles show because your selective eye will automatically rule out everything that doesn't conform. Developing an eye for a style will also help you recognize the great mirror in the junk shop that everyone else has ignored or the one Balenciaga gown in a thrift shop otherwise full of secondhand clothes.
Form refers to the shape of an object as separate from its materials, and is an important component of its style. The ability to discern form is important. If you're starting to collect dinnerware, for example, you'll get to know that frequently the same decorative patterns were applied to different shapes of plates, cups, and bowls. You'll learn to "see through" the decoration to the form of the underlying ceramic. As you become increasingly familiar with your field, you will increasingly be able to recognize the unusual form and to ask yourself if the toy or vase you're considering is a rare form of that particular collectible or simply run-of-the-mill.
Materials can give you an immediate sense of an object's age. Plastics are postwar. Chrome finishes tend to be from the twenties and thirties. Satin evening gowns are often from the 1930s. Aluminum kitchenware is from the very late 1940s. The materials of any collectible should be consistent throughout. If four buttons on a Chanel suit are labeled with Chanel's double C's and one is unlabeled, then the unmarked button is likely to be a replacement. That makes a difference to Chanel collectors.
The buttons on a dress, the handles on a desk, the engraving on a piece of glass-all are categories of ornament. Ornament is often an indication of the quality of a collectible, so study it carefully. Is the decoration made of exotic materials (ivory, jade, or lacquer, for instance)? Is it painstakingly rendered or incongruously crude? Does it seem to be stamped out by machine, or is it cast? Does it appear to be handmade? Is there a great deal of ornament, and if so, does it suit the style of the piece? Since certain types of ornament-such as inlay, figures, animal forms-are typical of certain designers, they can aid in attribution. The study of ornament brings out the latent Sherlock Holmes in many collectors.