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Ask Martha: Keeping track of fine china

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Q: I have an extensive china collection. What's the best way to keep track of it?

A: It's wise to keep an inventory of your dishware. It can help you remember what you're still searching for at antiques stores and flea markets, and will come in handy when you're deciding how to set the table.

For each pattern, start an entry with the pattern's name. Include a picture of the back and front of one plate. Then, list how many you have of each piece. Keep your inventory in a binder or on your computer.

If you know your collection is valuable, have it professionally appraised. Cataloging is a part of this service and considered by insurance companies to be legal and binding.

Not sure whether your collection is valuable? You can search online sources to find out the price of similar pieces. Try www.liveauctioneers.com, which shows prices for free (though registration is required), or subscription-based www.artfact.com.

Many galleries also keep past auction results online. Note that these prices are the highest amount paid for an item, not what it's likely to fetch in the local market. In addition, how many items you have — and whether the number is even (better) or odd — also affects the value.

According to collecting editor Fritz Karch, six or more of a type of dishware still used today (think dinner plates, not saucers) are generally worth more. Large serving pieces also hold their value.

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