Terry Kovel celebrates her 100th book (below right) on antiques and collectibles. Her first price guide (below left), published in 1967, was the first book sold in book stores that was compiled with the aid of a computer.
Price Guide - 1969
Price Guide 2012
Our 100th book, Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2012, has just been published, and people are asking us to explain how we got started and how the writing and publishing world has changed since the 1950s and ’60s.
My husband, Ralph, and I started writing in 1953. Our first book, Kovels’ Dictionary of Marks, explains the marks found on pottery and porcelain—a list, no paragraphs, a sort of telephone book. It has been in print or online ever since.
In 1967 we talked to our publisher about a unique idea for a price book for average collectors. Our syndicated newspaper column was attracting letters asking “What is my antique worth?” So we wanted to write a book that would be a straightforward list of accurate prices. And we planned to do it with a machine that used keypunch cards to record information. Each entry was recorded by punching a hole in the card for every letter or number.
We bought keypunch machines, hired part-time typists, looked in antiques publications for prices of things average collectors were buying, listed prices of things we spotted in shops, and asked collectors we knew all over the country to send us lists of current prices. Then we invented a style of recording items that could be alphabetized by category (furniture), object (chair), description, date, price. I took bundles of punched cards everywhere I went—I proofread while waiting to pick up a child, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or watching television. If even one letter was incorrect, a new card had to be punched.
When we had about 40,000 cards with prices, we sorted them alphabetically. There was no commercial alpha-sort available and we couldn’t find a sorting machine, so we sorted the cards the old-fashioned way—by hand. Fifteen college students sat at card tables and alphabetized boxes and boxes of keypunch cards. And after a few days it was done, all 40,000 cards in alphabetical order through the first three words of each listing.
The boxes were sent to a local company that ran the punch cards’ information on a huge computer in a large and very cold room. The computer liked a temperature in the 60s. It took several hours to produce a huge printout with a number next to each line entry (we needed numbers to tell the computer what to correct). That first book had 436 pages, over 28,000 prices and 283 paragraphs that summarized the history of factories like Meissen and Rookwood. There were no photographs or line drawings. The book had only two typefaces, one a computer typeface for prices, the other a standard typeface for the pasted-in paragraphs. It went from start to manuscript to published book in less than a year, a good six months earlier than it could have been done by the usual (non-computer-aided) methods. The prices were up-to-date and there were no estimates. We were later told that The Complete Antiques Price List (as our first price book was grandly titled) was the first bookstore book written on a computer.
Through the years, we switched from keypunch machines to DECmates to a series of personal computers. Now we can sort thousands of prices, check spelling, correct errors, choose typefaces and sort entries on our own computers in a matter of seconds. We have gone from under 30,000 prices and 500 black and white “pasted-in” photographs to 40,000 prices and 2,500 color photos. And we have uploaded hundreds of thousands of prices and thousands of photos from our archived price guides to our website, Kovels.com.
We still write the entire book from scratch each year—no estimates, just actual realized or asked-for prices. Some categories in the first book, like Beam Bottles, Barbed Wire, Pigeon Blood Glass, Swansea and Sun-Colored Glass, have been dropped; and new categories, like Fiesta, Telephone Insulator, Stone, Aluminum, Textile and Art Nouveau, have been added. Other categories, including Christmas Plate, Royal Doulton, Carnival Glass and Collector Plates, list far fewer prices than they did 44 years ago.
So while technology has changed and collecting tastes have changed, we continue to help collectors figure out what their antiques and collectibles are worth.
Terry Kovel has written 100 books about collecting, including the best-selling annual price book, Kovels’ Antiques and Collectibles Price Guide. The 2012 guide is now available. Terry publishes a subscription newsletter and writes a syndicated newspaper column that appears in more than 100 newspapers and digital publications. She and Ralph starred in the weekly HGTV program, Flea Market Finds with the Kovels. The Kovels website, Kovels.com, offers 800,000 free prices and other information for collectors, including books, special reports, a weekly emailed letter to collectors, marks and an archive of other informative material. Since Ralph’s death in 2008, the Kovel brand has been continued by Terry Kovel and her daughter, Kim Kovel.
Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2012
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