Determining what a Balisong is worth Prof. Roland Phlip
One of the most common questions we receive here at The Institute for Advanced Balisong Studies is "What's my balisong worth?" Unfortunately, the balisong market is both small and, at the same time, difficult to track. Unlike collectible stamps, or coins where the markets are well-defined and tracked by formal, professional publications, the balisong market is harder to get a hold of.
The first step in estimating a balisong's worth is to answer the simple question, "What do we have here?" Consider this picture that arrived by e-mail just the other day:
The sender helped out a bit by saying that it's made by Frost Cutlery and that he bought it about ten or twelve years ago. Well, we recognized it immediately. The Institute's extensive collection includes virtually the same knife. It's one of Frost Cutlery's Silver Dragon line. It has a 4" Surgical Steel Drop Point, two-piece open-frame handles made of brass without bolsters but with full-length "inserts" of green Pakka wood and a brass Batangas latch. This is a nice piece because Frost didn't import very many of these. The color on the wood on this one looks really good too.
But, how can you tell what a knife is without access to the vast archives here at The Instutute for Advanced Balisong Studies? Well, that's why there are so many pictures of identified balisongs on The Balisong Collector's website and many more on sites found via the links page there.
But, even these resources do not include every balisong ever imported or made, far from it. That's why we also collect catalogs and books and pictures of tang stamps. So, look for either a picture of your knife or a tang stamp to identify the manufacturer or importer, the model number, etc. There are also several excellent books full of pictures of tang stamps and information about companies and makers. Mr. Bernard Levine's book, Levine's Guide to Knives and Their Value is an excellent resource. You can find out more about it on Mr. Levine's own website.
After identifying the knife, the next step is to identify the materials. In the case in question, the blade is made of "Surgical Steel" (a generic term, often Japanese, for Stainless Steel). The handle liners and latch are brass, and the inserts are green Pakka wood.
Next, evaluate the condition of the knife. We use the following scale:
NIB = New In Box: Exactly as it came from the manufacturer including the original box and all paperwork. The knife is in Mint condition.
PR = Pristine: Knife is in absolutely mint condition and is outstanding!
MT = Mint: Knife is the same as it was when produced allowing for normal aging. Minor scratches on the tang due to gentle rotation of the handles and minor scratches on the handles due to latching are acceptable. Blade must have absolutely no evidence of use, sharpening, polishing, or any cleaning more aggressive than a gentle wipe with a soft cloth. Absolutely no evidence of manipulation (chips on the blade, damage to the latch, scratches on the handles, etc.). Tang stamps, etching, and inking are 100% perfect.
NM = Near Mint: Knife is nearly in mint condition. Any deviation from mint is very minor. If the knife has been expertly cleaned, it must appear as mint. Blade must have no evidence of use or sharpening. Handle inserts must not have any cracking or chips. Absolutely no evidence of manipulation. Tang stamps and etching are perfect. Inking is at least 95%.
EX = Excellent: Knife is in excellent condition. Minor cracking of handle inserts is acceptable as long the material is still in one piece. Blade may show minor wear but must still have original profile (i.e. not sharpened aggressively). Some discoloration of the blade and even one or two tiny rust freckles is acceptable as are minor signs of manipulation though the blade must not be chipped. Tang stamps and etching are perfect. Inking is at least 85%.
VG = Very Good: Knife is in very good condition. Blade and handles are original. Cracks in handle inserts are acceptable as long as no pieces are missing or glued or otherwise repaired. Blades may show up to 10% wear and discoloration including minor rust freckles. Tang stamps and etching are clear. Inking is at least 75%.
GD = Good: Knife is in good condition. Blade and handles are original. One or two small pieces of handle insert material may be missing. Blade may show up to 25% wear. Tang stamps and etching are legible. Inking is at least 65%.
This scale is not random nor is it our creation. It began with the National Knife Collector's Association grading system. That was then modified by noted knife collector, dealer, and authority William Claussen of Northwest Knives and Collectibles in Salem, Oregon to use in his catalog. Finally, the faculty here at The Institute for Advanced Balisong Studies amended it to be specific for balisongs.
Notice that this scale does not drop below "good." A knife in less than good condition is of little interest to most collectors unless it has some special historic or technical value. The physical condition of a knife with such special value is often significantly less important.
The biggest problem is damage from manipulation. Notice that a single scratch on the opposite handle consistent with manipulation can drop a knife from Mint to Excellent and drop the value substantially as well (often 30 to 50%).
To evaluate a balisong, we typically use a little 8X magnifier loupe to examine the edge of the blade the sides and back of the blade and the handles and latch. A magnifier like this often spots things that are not clearly visible to the naked eye.
Here at The Institute, we tend to be quite critical. The grade descriptions are quite clear and we strictly enforce them. This is the main reason that we can not and will not give you an exact value for your knife by e-mail. We have to see the knife and inspect it.
Once we know what the knife is what condition it's in, it's time to search for recent sales of comparable balisongs. That's why we keep track of every salewe see and that's why, The Balisong Collector Himself started putting those notes on the net as the Market Watch page.
In considering comparable sales, you have to consider three factors: First, just how comparable are the two knives and how do the differences affect the values? Second: how old is the comparable sale and how has the market moved since then? And third: what was the source of the comparable sale.
The price set in a private transaction is the value assigned to that knife by two people, the buyer and the seller. These can vary widely and are often unreliable.
The price set in on of the for sale forums is a bit more valid, but these generally work on a first-to-ask-sold basis. If the seller values the knife to low and astute buyer sees the post quickly, then the knife will be sold to low. Another buyer may come along a few hours later and offer more for the knife, but it is already sold. So, the value is often set to low. On the other hand, if the seller posts the knife to high, but one silly buyer decides he wants it that bad, then it may sell above what the general consensus of the knife's worth would be.
Catalog sales are generally at a fixed price. Hopefully, the appraiser who prepared the catalog knows what he's doing.
Shows are nice, but the number of buyers who come can be limited.
Online auctions are a bit more valid, and certainly can involve the most people. The www in a URL stands for World Wide Web -- world wide. But, there's lots of games that savvy buyers play on these auctions. The fact that the auction ends at a specific time means that another bidder who might bid higher can get cut off at the buzzer.
A live auction is the best if good buyers are there. In a live auction, the buyers are allowed to bid against each other until the last bid is heard. But, sometimes they're poorly attended.
In the case of the knife shown above, this process was easy. The same knife, Mint and in the original box, NIB (new, in box) for short hand, sold on Amazon.com back in July for $66.
So, we ask our three questions. First: how comparable are the two knives? We have not evaluated either knife. The one on Amazon was sold as NIB. The fellow who sent the picture didn't say what condition it is in. Let's assume NIB. This makes the two knives exactly comparable.
Moving on to question number two: the Amazon.com sale was in July. This is November. How has the market changed since then? Fortunately, a Benchmade model 11 sold just a few weeks after that July Frost for $159. An identical BM11 sold just the other day for $185. That's about a 16% rise. So, one might estimate that if this Frost is in mint condition and in the original box, it's probably worth about $66 plus 16% is $77 today.
Third, we have to consider the venue for the comparable sale, an online auction. As said above, we feel that online auctions often give an excellent valuation because collectors around the world have typically a week to consider the knife in question.
The final step in any valuation is a "gut check." My gut says $77 is a reasonable for that knife today.
Let's consider another case. Another collector just sent a Benchmade Model 69 (a 3" Tanto with deluxe finish, i.e. pins polished down and skeleton holes countersunk). The question, of course, is "What is my balisong worth?"
Identification was easy since this knife is well-known, well marked, and came with the original box.
It was carefully examined and showed no signs of manipulation, but, under magnification, one very small chip on the blade that is not consistent with manipulation. The sheath, while otherwise perfect, was missing one of the elastic straps that provide for horizontal carry. It appears to have been torn off. So, we judged the knife to be in Near Mint condition.
So, we know what we have and its condition. Unfortunately, our records do not include a recent sale of such a knife. So, unlike the previous example, there is no directly comparable recent sale to go by.
There have been several recent sales of BM11's (the same knife, 3" Tanto but with "production" finish, i.e. pins not polished down and skeleton holes not counter sunk) in the $150-$185 range with the most comparable and most recent being $185. The $185 was mint NIB. From Mint NIB with a perfect sheath to NM NIB with a damaged sheath, we might knock down 15% at least, so that's $157. That is certainly in line with the excellent one that was sold for $150 with a perfect sheath, but no box.
Four BM30s (3" Weehawk with "production" finish) recently sold in an online auction for $81 each. About that same time, three 35 or 35S (3" Weehawk with the deluxe finish) sold for $70, $100, and $140. The problem is that the 35s were all private transactions. You can see right here the problem with PTs: two identical knives selling within a month of each other for $70 and $140. Let's take the middle of the road here at $105. That seems reasonable. This means that from $81 for a BM30 to $105 for a BM35, the deluxe finish is adding about 30% to the value of the knife. BM put a 25% premium on the deluxe finish when it was new. So, that's right in line.
So, taking $157 for a BM11 and adding 30% for the deluxe finish we can value the BM69 at about $205.
The last step is always the "gut check". My "Gut Check" says $205 about right for that knife. I think that's about what you could expect for that knife at auction.
So, there you have it. That's how we here at The Institute for Advanced Balisong Studies estimate the value of a balisong. We identify it, we evaluate it, and then we look for comparable knives recently sold. If we can find the same knife recently sold, that's great. If not, then we have to try and quantify how the knife in question compares with other recently sold and base our estimate on that.
And, finally, don't forget the "gut check".