New and need help to identify a mystery model? Read here first!



On a fairly regular basis, we here at MSW receive requests from new members for help with identifying a ship model, such as something like one of these:




The request usually looks something like this:


Hi. I don't know anything about ship models, but I got this model from a(n) auction/relative/yard sale, and I'm wondering if anyone here knows anything about it or its value. I'm thinking about restoring/reselling it.



Now, we are happy to help you with this request, but since we get asked so often, I thought it would be good to finally put some info on mystery models in one topic thread so that you can maybe find your answer before you post. Here are some basic things you should know:


1. Many, many models have been built over the years for the sole purpose of serving as decor or memorabilia. This would be a model purchased at, say, Sea World or Home Goods. These models are usually built to low standards in parts of the world where labor is relatively cheap. Once upon a time, southern Europe was a hot-spot for their manufacture. Nowadays most such models are coming out of Southeast Asia. These models usually have little, if any, historical or resale value. If you shelled out for one at an auction, you are probably stuck with it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of models we get asked about fall into this category.


2. A similar category of models could be classified as folk art. These are, as the name implies, locally built models that are an artistic representation of a ship rather than a scale model. Like the decor models, these also usually have little other than sentimental value.


3. Then there are models that are actual attempts at scale model building, either scratch built or from a kit. Maybe your dad or grandpa built one. The value of these varies widely depending on the subject and the quality of the build, but the number of builders whose work is actually worth a large chunk of change is very, very small. The number of prospective buyers is even smaller.


4. It is an extremely rare model that will turn out to have real value, either due to its artistic merit (built by someone who's a recognized master modeler) or historical value (e.g. a genuine prisoner-of-war bone model). Trust me, there are builders who are good (you would probably ooh and aah over their work), and then there are the builders whom those 'good' modelers look up to - the Stradivaris of our art, if you will. Those builders are few and far between, and grandpa probably wasn't one of them.


5. No matter what kind of model you have, the only people who can give you a true estimation of its worth (meaning, what a real person might actually pay) are those who make their living by doing such things, i.e. museum curators or owners of maritime art galleries. What you get from MSW should only be considered an informed opinion. If you do decide to go to a gallery, just let me prepare you well in advance for the shock you will likely experience upon hearing the appraised value of your model. In our hobby, 'valuable' and 'finely crafted' are not necessarily synonymous.


Nine times out of ten, mystery models shown at MSW are, sad to say, essentially worthless in terms of monetary value. Some of those models, to be sure, still have sentimental value for their owners, and that is not to be taken lightly. If you have a model like that, then do what you can to preserve it. If, on the other hand, you were hoping you found an overlooked treasure at a boot sale, well, you most likely didn't. Sorry.



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Thanks for telling like it unfortunately is, Chris.


To add to your posting, sometimes the model is a wreck but of sentimental value. Folk have no idea how much it will cost for a professional restoration. That is their second shock. I can't count the number of times I've provided an estimate, never to hear back from the correspondent while coughing on the dust raised by their rapid departure!

dadodude, ccoyle, mtaylor and 6 others like this

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Kudos, Chris for telling it like it is and to Druxey also.  


I think, in all the years of MSW (both 1.0 and 2.0 and even DDM) that there's only been one that has ended up being a historic and potentially valuable model.  OTOH, we've had a few who have set out to restore granddad's model and have done well with guidance and help.  

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If you're collecting comments, there are indeed valuable models resembling the usual yard sale/family heirloom.  These are usually hundreds of years old and are already in museums, so yours is probably not one of them.

mtaylor, markjay, dadodude and 1 other like this

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Okay, let's delve into this subject a little further by examining a few Mystery Models and discussing what makes them, um, less than what they sometimes claim to be.


Take a look at Mystery Model #1.

Hopefully, this one doesn't need too much explanation, since it is obviously a curio, something a kid would buy at the gift shop at Mystic Seaport. When the child outgrows it, it might be lucky enough to end up in a yard sale, but more likely it will get round-filed.


But not all cheap models are so overtly cheesy. How about Mystery Model #2?


This one looks nice -- from a distance. Once you get up close, you start seeing the chunky, oversized fittings and less-than-stellar craftsmanship. This is clearly a decor piece. If you have a nautical theme in your office, and you don't want to shell out big bucks for a scale model, you might get something like this. Good luck selling it to someone else, though.


Mystery Model #3 is something we see a lot of around here.


It looks old. It looks antique. It must therefore be valuable, right? Wrong. This is a classic example of an older style of decor model, probably made in Spain. Columbus' ships were especially popular subjects. So was a certain ship called the "Fregatta" (fregatta is Spanish for 'frigate'). Unfortunately, unlike, say, a matched pair of Holland & Holland shotguns, these models don't appreciate in value with age. They just get old. Like shag carpet and avocado green appliances.


Now, to mix things up a bit, let's look at a model that supposedly represents a ship still in existence. First we have the model:



And now we have the real deal, the bark Star of India, the crown jewel of the San Diego Maritime Museum.


At first glance, the model does kind of look like the real ship. But once again, the devil is in the details. Look closely at the real ship. Now look at the model. Notice the difference in the cut of the sails and the way the sails are set on their yards. Notice how fine the rigging looks on the real ship and how chunky it looks on the model. Notice how the model doesn't even have the proper rig (it has square sails on the mizzen mast, the mast at the rear of the ship; the real Star does not). If you could see the model up close, you would see that the lack of fidelity to the original extends to the deck fittings as well. In short, the model is only a crude likeness of the real thing.


Now, here's the kicker. The Star of India model is available to purchase on the Internet for (wait for it) -- $999.99. I kid you not. And, sadly, it's kind of like a new car in the sense that once you drive it off the lot, its value plummets. But wait, you say, it's for sale for $999.99, so it must be worth $999.99. Um, no. In the first place, no one is going to pay $999.99 for your now-second-hand model, because there are tons of brand new ones available on the Internet. Second, I, at least, am certainly not going to pay that much for it, because I know where I can get a brand new, just as kinda-sorta-okay model for less than 1/10 of what you paid for yours.


In the next installment, I'll cue you in on what model ship buyers really want in a model and how much they might be willing to pay for it. Until then!

EJ_L, Cathead, zrag0e and 12 others like this

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In this next installment of How to Spot a Cheesy Model, I want to show you the difference between a mass-produced model and an actual scale model built by a master modeler. Once you know what to look for, the cheap stuff is not hard to identify (and by 'cheap' I mean poorly made, not inexpensive). We're going to examine the stern of each model, so that we can see close up what separates class from crass.


Both of the models I'll show you are of the famous American warship, the USS Constitution. First, let's look at the quality model. This particular model is built from scratch in 1/48th scale. It's currently listed for sale at a reputable maritime art gallery. The price of the model is not listed. It's kind of like shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills -- if you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it.


The word I always think of when seeing a model like this is fine, as in fine wine or fine car. In this case, we're talking about fine craftsmanship. Note the detailed carvings, the meticulously neat painting, the clean run of planking, and the intricate web of rigging. True modelers endeavor to create models that are replicas of the original in every detail, with every part correctly proportioned. A great model looks like a real ship, only much smaller. Try picturing a 1/48th scale Russell Crowe standing by the rail with a quartering wind filling the sails and the Connie with a bone in her teeth as she easily makes twelve knots.


Now let's look at the expensive kindling. This model is available on-line for $535. The owner of the site says this model is built by 'master craftsmen' using 'original plans'. It is purportedly 'highly detailed' and built from 'high-grade wood' using 'plank on frame' construction.


In reality, this model is none of those things. It is probably built in either the Philippines or Viet Nam by laborers who have never seen any plans of the actual Constitution; otherwise, they would have recognized how little their work resembles the real ship. The 'high-grade wood' includes western red cedar and mahogany, which are great for full-sized projects but not good modeling woods. When they say 'plank on frame' it is quite likely they mean 'plank on bulkhead', which might sound nit-picky to the uninitiated, but it's actually two substantially different methods with significant differences in cost to produce and value of the finished product. And as for 'highly detailed'? Puh-leez! Just look at the incorrect hull shape, cheap metal castings, prison bar-like window frames, coarse-grained wood, and stick-on (stick on!) name badge. And are those supposed to be ship's boats hanging from the sides? Really? Remember what I said about fine craftsmanship? This model is the opposite of that in every respect. It is crude, clunky, and misproportioned. Instead of Russell Crowe, there's a Lego sailor at the rail. If these were cars, the first model would be a Ferrari. The second one is a Trabant.


So, if you have a Mystery Model, take a good, hard look at it. Does it look like a finely crafted miniature ship? Or does it look crude and clunky? If it looks crude and clunky, it probably came from an unscrupulous dealer. Maybe the original buyer didn't do their homework before whipping out the plastic, or maybe they knew going in that they weren't really getting a unique piece of art. Either way, on the resale market it's value is going to be decidedly less.


Next: It's a real model, but so what?

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This is great information and although I find myself chuckling quite a lot while reading it as I used to find myself having to give similar explanations on the value of handcrafted wood work vs mass produced pieces when I was selling my own work at shows.


As you have stated often MSW does get a lot of inquiries about the value of random generic ships and many people don't understand the difference between the cheap one from China that was purchased at a store or a well crafted model by a master craftsman. Or the other big misunderstanding that even if it was handcrafted and has been in the family for generations it still may not be of any value other than sentiment as often the quality of the work is no greater than that cheap decoration ship from China.


It is good that you are taking the time to educate people. Much like Chuck's thread on banned ship kits and the reasons behind the ban, this kind of message can seem mean, cruel and unfair but if understanding can be achieved then appreciation of the true values can be had and the community becomes richer as a result.

ccoyle, markjay and mtaylor like this

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Have you ever watched the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel? In this show, clients bring their treasures to the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, Nevada. The viewers then learn about the history of the item brought in and, ultimately, how much the item is worth. Most of the time, the owner hears that their treasure is not worth as much as they thought. Every once in a blue moon, though, some lucky owner discovers that their item is actually worth more than what they had estimated -- occasionally far more. But these instances are rare.


Such is the case with model ships. There are lots of model ships out there in the world, but only a relative few of them are worth some serious scratch. A large number are essentially worthless, at least in monetary terms. In this episode, we'll look further into the question of what makes a model valuable.


Let's suppose you have a model and that you took my advice in my previous post to have a hard look at it. You've decided that your model looks like a real scale model and not a piece of mass-produced decor or a Lego pirate ship. You can easily envision Russell Crowe at the helm. Now you're hoping that since it's a real scale model, it must surely have value.


Not so fast! There are models, and then there are models that people want and will pay good money for. To illustrate this point, I'm going to show you two real scale models. One is worth some money, and the other, sadly, is not.


First take a look at this model. It's a model of a real ship, the English revenue cutter Sherbourne, built in 1763. The ship, that is -- not the model.


Now, you're probably thinking, "Hey, that's a nice model. I can see why it's worth something."


Except this is the cheap model. If you or I were to take my model -- I mean, ahem, this model -- to a gallery thinking we've got a treasure, we'd be headed for disappointment. To you, this model might look great, but to the keen eye of a discriminating collector or knowledgeable gallery owner, it's got some problems. First, it's made from a kit. You, the novice, probably couldn't tell that by looking at it, but savvy modelers, collectors, and gallery owners know. Because it's built from a kit, that means it's not unique -- there's dozens of Sherbournes out there. Besides being made from a kit, it's made by a modeler with middling talent. Again, you might think the model is done very nicely, but experts will see right away the aspects of the model that were not built true to the original, the techniques that were used to make the model easier to build at the expense of scale fidelity. All of these things are knocks against the monetary value of the model.


But there's an even worse thing about this model: it's simply not what most buyers want.


There are exceptions, of course, but the really pricey models out there, the ones that collectors are willing to shell out several thousand dollars for, generally have three things: 1) lots of guns, 2) lots of rigging (sails and cordage), and 3) lots of fancy ornamentation. My model -- I mean, ahem, the previous model -- has none of these things. It has few guns, little rigging, and essentially no ornamentation. What should a seller expect someone to pay for a model like this? If the seller is lucky and can find an actual buyer for the model, they might be able to squeeze a couple hundred dollars out of it, barely enough to cover the cost of the kit and certainly not enough to make modeling a lucrative or even profitable enterprise.


Guns, rigging, fancy stuff. That's what collectors want. Something like this model of HMS Thunderer:


Why is this model worth some dough? Consider the following: 1) It's got lots of guns (well, at least the ports for guns), lots of rigging, and lots of fancy decoration. 2) It's scratch built, not from a kit. That means it's a unique piece of art, not one of dozens of built-up kits. 3) It's built to a high standard of workmanship. Someone who builds models like this has spent a lot of time honing their skills. 


Model ships are like most any other commodity. The prices they fetch are based on two factors, demand and availability. Well-heeled collectors demand fancy models built to high standards. The number of builders who can build that kind of model is low, and it takes a lot of time to build such models, so the builder's output is low as well. For a model like Thunderer, it's a case of high demand + low availability = high prices. For a model like Sherbourne the equation is low demand + high availability = low prices.


So, that basically it in a nutshell. Like the folks hoping to strike it rich at the pawn shop, most model ship owners are going to experience a letdown when they hear what their 'treasure' is worth. But cheer up - that unwanted model will still look good on your mantel, which can't be said for a Trabant.



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But sometimes one get´s a real gem. 


Here is incredible Willi Meischl on the restoration of a "dustpan"-finding, narrowly escaping it´s fate. It proved to be a historical model of a Austrian trading brig from the 1870ies.


See the video of the restoration. Excuse the quality, it is from a VHS from 1988-1989 and we were lucky to still be able to transfer it :-) 





So better check twice :-)






Allow some off topic:

Also enjoy Willi´s build of the model of the arctic explorer vessel "Admiral Tegetthoff", displayed in the technical museum in Vienna.


There is also a nice film from the ORF (official Austrian TV) that shows him building a 1:1 Model for a film of the expedition. Unfortunately not on Youtube as for Copyrights :-(



Edited by dafi
mtaylor and davyboy like this

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