Selling Bells: What do I need to know to sell my bell collection?

Selling a collection can be a long and difficult process. The seller must be prepared to utilize several methods, depending on many factors– the size of the collection, the types of bells involved, the time available, the contribution of effort toward the process and the reputation of the seller in the bell community.

Preparing a list

Each bell must be described (pictures make identification clearer) in sufficient detail to entice a buyer. The bell must be accurately described (size, weight, material, source, manufacturer, age, markings, etc.) –and the condition stated truthfully (cracks, crazing, chips, finish, patina, rust, wear, fading, labels, missing parts, replaced parts, repairs made, discoloration, damage, etc.) so as to be certain the potential buyer is fully aware and can make a good faith offer. The sale is to be made based on the descriptions alone. Many items are poorly described, or the condition couched in terms that make the sale impossible or create dissatisfaction.

Setting the price

The American Bell Association does not provide appraisal services for bells. We do not have a list of certified bell appraisers.

Determining the value of any antique, collectible, or bell is difficult. Value depends on many things such as its rarity, history (who owned it – where, when, and why), manufacturer, the material from which it’s made and its condition. Probably the most important factor is the number of people who are interested in buying it.

Prices also vary by the method used in selling. Auctions have added costs for commissions or buyer-premiums, but the excitement of the sale can drive prices very high. The size of the audience, and the specific interest of some within that group, will affect the auction progress, and therefore the final price. Sales through dealers will require a commission as well, and the return to the seller is less than the sale amount. Private sales will give the seller the full amount of the sale, but the price may not be optimal.

Generally, bells originally made in quantity, if still in excellent condition, with all parts still intact (the clapper is important) are worth at least their original price. Larger bells will be different. The resale market for big bells is limited. With large metal bells, the value of the material itself can set the price. Occasionally, value rises because of demand as with any item. Limited items, or single pieces always command higher prices.

The best way to establish value of a single bell is to research the sales of similar bells. The online auctions are becoming the trading places for many collectibles. Many antique dealers have a web presence as well. Sometimes a search can yield direct price quotes on similar objects. Local antique shops or flea markets in some cases offer an opportunity to test the interest and potential.

Finally, professional appraisers can give you an idea of value, but generally charge for their services, so that must be weighed in with your intent to sell. Showing bells to a local antique dealer may result in a suggested value. They may even wish to purchase one or more for resale, or offer to take them on consignment. For a nominal placement fee, most online auction sites allow a “reserve” price to be set, and you can test the market to establish price, lowering it if interest is weak. It is not for immediate results, but repeated searches yield value knowledge, and may be the only way to set a price.

Utilizing a dealer

Obviously a very large collection will take considerably more time and effort before completion of a sale-out. Several routes are available. The sale can be done through a collection broker/dealer who will prepare all the sale descriptions or utilize a live sale or auction where the buyer can physically inspect the bell before offering to purchase.

The dealer will expect to profit from the investment of time and effort, and you will need to weigh this added expense against your need for assistance. Some dealers may operate on a commission basis, and some on consignment. In those cases, the return to the seller is not immediate. But, a dealer can be a more comfortable route for you to take.

Selling your collection yourself

Smaller groups of bells, selected portions of a large collection (or individual bells) can best be sold through personal contact or the online auction sites. Personal contact allows the potential buyer to examine the bell and make their own judgment as to its value. Online or mail sales must rely on the descriptions.

If the collector is or was an ABA member, often other ABA members may be willing to help or buy some of the collection. Fellow members may be familiar with the collection, or may even have seen the bells during the course of previous meetings. They may have an interest in several. Some chapters hold auctions or sales within their group.

Several online auctions are available, but using them requires an investment of time and money in listing, packaging and selling. Bells sold through such auctions tend to be the unique or special ones. Groups of bells can be sold as a lot.

Although bell collectors visit these sites looking for bells, the sites also have exposure to collectors of other objects, of which bells may be only a part (e.g. railroad memorabilia collectors are interested in all things “railroad” including bells. Some people focus on angels and some bells carry that theme as well).

Renting space in a antique mall (or flea market in some areas) will allow the entire collection to be seen and bells can be handled by prospective buyers (under controlled circumstances if necessary — reduces the need for a list or catalog. This can take a long time and cost of the space rental becomes part of the overall result.

Advertising in The Bell Tower, the ABA’s bi-monthly magazine, is relatively low cost and directs the sale to people who are primarily interested in bells, but this is a smaller group. Special rates are available with membership. Some collections have been sold through that method.

Finally, the ABA has an auction at its annual convention, and members buy and sell bells there. Time and space keeps this method restricted to special bells. Members and dealers also are at these conventions and many bells are sold to convention attendees.

Final analysis

In the end, several or all of these methods may need to be employed, and still there will be many bells left unsold. They can be sold as a lot, grouping many similar types. Often these remaining bells will be of little or no value (they may be simple souvenirs or mass marketed in large quantities). These often become gifts and prizes among members.

Why sell?

Experience has shown that receipt of a collection, or even a few or one single bell, is often the beginning of an interest in bells, and the initial step toward a new ABA member. Several collections (and members) are second and third generation. Sharing a collection, or part of a collection, with children, grandchildren, friends or neighbors can be rewarding and educational. A unique collection of carefully selected specific types can be museum quality and donated to be shared by many people.

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