Tourist or Treasure

Dean Batson Blog

In the Estate Auction business we are often contacted by people downsizing or liquidating a loved one’s estate. Many of these contain collections from travels abroad. And should these former curators of collections from their world travels have been lucky enough to have stumbled upon, or carefully selected their treasure from the right places, at the right time, they might just have some extraordinary things. I call this article “Tourist or Treasure” for just this reason.


Most people collect a memento or two from their travels abroad at gift shops, souvenir stands and tourist traps. These things 40-50 years later may become a collectible. However, they are most likely just a tourist souvenir. Case in point, many Japanese Kutani Tea Sets that were purchased by GI’s on furlough or by tourists in the 1960s. Although beautiful, they do not have all that much value as they are just that, tourist souvenirs. Still, I end up the “shot” messenger when I have to break the news. It’s about a $150 tea set, not the $1 million dollar treasure your grandfather brought back from the war. Everyone brought one back.


However, recently we have run into several cases that are just the opposite. A CEO that had many dealings abroad that was gift real treasure by royals. A wealthy widow that traveled the world and had an eye for the exotic. A retired Colonel that visited over 120 countries in his lifetime. Plus a touring dancer that captured the eye of many suitors who lavished gifts from their cultures on her. Jealous? Me too. Maybe you or a relative have a similar story. For good measure have an expert take a look. Many, including myself will have to consult with other experts as some of these genres are quite specialized.
Recently at auction we offered one of these collections and the bidders from all over the world let us know by their bids, just what they thought of this collection. A pair of small Gilt Buddha’s sold for over $2,000 each, their tourist type copies would fetch around $100. A set of African Ibeji Dolls sold for over $1,000 whereas many souvenir replicas fetch $50 on eBay. Knowing the difference is $100s or $1,000s of dollars of difference. Locally we see this most often in Native American Collections. A $20 Kachina or a $2,000 Kachina, a $50 Native American Pot or a $5,000 Pot.
I write this article to give you pause before you dispatch a relative’s collection glibly. Many just assume, it’s a “nothing.” Or, grandmother didn’t have money, so she wouldn’t have owned anything expensive. All hypotheticals. Unless you know the answer to, “Is it tourist or treasure?” Ask an expert or two before you have a yard or estate sale. That’s I’ll I ask.