As location is to real estate agents, condition is to every Antique Roadshow appraiser. Indeed, for twentieth-century collectibles, condition is absolutely paramount, because when nearly everything has been mass-produced, the piece that survives in the best condition will necessarily be the most desirable. And when there are some two million of a thing out there, the one that you choose for your collection can even be one of the perfect ones.
In fact, it can be almost more than perfect when it's unused and still in its original, unopened box. "Mint" collectibles like these are infrequently available, and in some categories, they may be extremely rare, so your fellow enthusiasts have agreed to allow certain deviations from perfection-dirt, dings, and slight discolorations, for example. If a thing is suitably rare, however, even scratches, dents, and chips may be acceptable if you keep in mind, always, that somewhere, perhaps, an unopened box awaits.
Anyone who watches Antique Roadshow knows that original finish is the absolute bottom line-on toys, on tables, on paintings or dolls. If someone in your family, with the best of intentions, repainted an otherwise rare clockwork toy ship, your ship may still float, but its market value has sunk. Original finish-whether paint, varnish, the set of a doll's hair, an unaltered hemline on a dress, or an unshellacked baseball-is always preferable to any type of prettying up.
This hasn't always been the case (which explains all those well-meant repairs), and the experts may change their minds again. Until they do, however, don't touch a thing. Patina — otherwise known as dirt — is always a personal preference. Some collectors like it, others don't. Patina, however, is most acceptable on furniture and metal wares. You can't call perspiration stains on a dress patina. Nor can you dignify the brown spots on posters with that name. Note and be wary of creases, tears, trimmed edges (on paper memorabilia), old repairs, replaced parts, missing veneers, rust, cracks, and splits in whatever category of collectible attracts your interest. To be safe, and to determine what is dirt for yourself, when you're out hunting, keep a flashlight and a magnifying glass handy at all times.
On posters, in tablecloths, on Nancy Ann Storybook dolls, on vintage peanut-butter tins, on every sort of collectible, color is at its most desirable when it is as strong and fresh as the day it was printed, woven, painted, or dyed. Any sort of fading, staining, or discoloration is detrimental to collectibility. One exception to this rule is Bakelite. Clear Bakelite, over the years, has turned the color of apple juice, and collectors have come to love it.
Color can also be a useful gauge of the approximate age of a collectible, because certain color combinations typify their eras. Art deco ceramics, for example, are often boldly colored in primary hues, while Italian glass of the fifties is particularly noted for its vivid-some say too vivid-color combinations. (Vaseline yellow and tomato red are typical.) When you recognize that the colors on a piece you're examining are appropriately combined with a characteristic shape of the era, you'll go a long way toward satisfying yourself that it's legitimate.