That old vase you found in your father's attic could be a fine item for your garage sale. Maybe you could get a six or seven dollars for it. Or it could be a rare specimen worth thousands at an auction.
Thanks to the popularity of programs like Public Television's "Antiques Roadshow" Americans are looking more closely than ever at stuff that, a few years ago, they might have unthinkingly taken to the local charity thrift shop or just tossed into a recycling bin.
Joe Rosson, a Tennessee appraiser, co-author of "Treasures in Your Attic" and co-host of a television show by the same name, tells of a client's narrow escape from the kind of nightmare mistake many people fear when culling through old objects the don't know much about.
The clients had just finished filling a dumpster with "junk" when Rosson came over to appraise some furniture in a house they were clearing out. As it turned out the furniture wasn't worth much.
Then Rosson looked in the dumpster. He spotted Fiestaware dinnerware worth more than the furniture, a diamond ring his client's mistakenly thought had been costume jewelry, valuable baseball cards and an antique doll worth $15,000.
"I think they were embarrassed," said Rosson.
It takes an appraiser to know whether you've got a one-in-a-million treasure or a run-of-the-mill trinket. But finding such a pro can be daunting for the uninitiated. There is no licensing for appraisers, so anyone can take out a Yellow Pages ad calling themselves an "appraiser." Here are some ways to track down the genuine article and avoid the fakes.
1) Hire an appraiser to appraise -- nothing more
Never, ever sell your antiques to the person who's appraising them. You're creating an automatic conflict of interest. There's too much of a temptation for them rip you off by giving you an artificially low value, and there's little reason for them not to do that.
If an appraiser tries to buy your property "drop kick them out the door. Don't be polite about it," said Rosson.
Also, steer clear of appraisers who charge a percentage of your property's value. That just creates a different type of conflict. "There's too much temptation for appraisals to be through the roof if someone wants a big fee," explained Rosson.
Reputable appraisers generally charge by the hour, with rates varying from $100 in rural communities up to $300 or more in big cities.
2) Skip Internet appraisals
Many of us are so used to doing research on the Internet, so it may be tempting to obtain a free online quote to find out how much Dad's Popeye watch is really worth.
But appraisers agree that the Internet is generally not a good place to obtain accurate valuations. A good appraiser will need to see and handle a piece to determine its true value. Online auctions don't provide a good gauge of value, either. eBay sale prices usually reflect gut reactions to merchandise rather than informed bids.
3) Get references
Professionals who deal with appraisers on a regular basis can be a valuable resource. Trust managers at a bank or estate attorneys are a good source for finding a professional, reliable appraiser. Auction houses and dealers, on the other hand, may not be a good sources as their motivation is to acquire property as inexpensively as possible.
Professional organizations also are a good source of referrals because they work to ensure their good name by making sure members are qualified.
To become a member of Appraisers Association of America Inc., individuals must have five years of professional experience. More senior certified members need five years of appraising experience, plus they have to pass a two-part exam on appraising theory and methodology. The Association also has an online search tool for consumers to help you find appraisers in your area.
Another option is the American Society of Appraisers, where members must pass an exam on valuing property and on ethical standards. Senior members must have at least five years of experience and take four classes covering various aspects of appraising.
4) Interview several candidates
Once you get some names, search for appraisers who fits your needs.
"If you have a collection of early Flemish paintings you're not necessarily going to choose someone who specializes in cutting-edge contemporary art," said Frances Zeman, a Brooklyn, NY appraiser and chairperson of the American Society of Appraisers Personal Property Committee.
Look closely at an appraiser's resume to see how long they've been working and what kind of property they usually work with. Since you're not an expert, yourself, it may be difficult ascertaining the extent of an appraiser's skills. But you can get a "gut read" on how thorough someone is if they can tell you about one article you own in great detail.
You'll also want a written estimate of what an appraisal will cost and how long it will take to complete. In most cases, an appraiser may need a month to prepare your report, but someone who's good -- and busy -- may need more time.
5) Know when to use a specialist
As much as we'd like to believe we own unique and precious artifacts, we're most likely to have fairly common objects- - furniture, silver, perhaps a vase or two. That's why in most cases, a good generalist will suffice for most appraising jobs. Like a good family physician, that person should tell you when he or she needs to call in a specialist.
Still, there are some times when you should skip the generalist and go straight to well-honed expertise. For example, jewelry appraisal is very specialized, as is the appraisal of ancient artifacts such as pre-Columbian or Greek art. Coin collections and certain styles of paintings (for example, Old Masters) also need a specialist's eye. When you call appraisers ask them if you should go to a specialist.
6) Decide how you'll use the item
When it comes to appraising, the value of an antique or collectable will vary depending on its purpose. Are you planning to sell something? Insure it? Donate it to charity? A good appraiser will ask you about your plans so he or she can assess your property accurately.
If you want to sell something, an appraiser will look at its fair market value -- that is, the price you can obtain from a willing buyer. This price will be less than what retailers would sell it for. After all, antiques dealers will mark up a price to make a living. But knowing an article's market value will ensure you don't get ripped off.
If you're assessing a piece to insure it, however, an appraiser will look at its replacement value from a source where you'd likely find a similar article. That could be anywhere from an antiques store to auction to a flea market -- or if you had a duplicate made. But because you're going to be going to retailers, who will mark up prices, the appraised value for insurance purposes will be higher than if you were selling something.
7) Don't fix, paint or "improve" unappraised items
See a scratch? Does the paint look faded? Whatever you do, resist the temptation to repair items that haven't been appraised. The pros all have horror stories of clients' who inadvertently slashed the value of their property by fiddling with it.
Rosson once had a client ask him to stop by and appraise an antique bed she just purchased. He sped over, but he was too late. She had stripped the original red paint from the piece just as he pulled into her driveway. That move, he said, cut the value of the bed in half.
Of course, once an appraiser has seen your property you can decide if you want to fix it. In fact, many appraisers can give you references for craftsmen and others who can do high-quality repairs on antiques of other valuables. Local museums and auction houses may also have references so when you do decide to fix up your collection, you can rest assured it's in the best hands possible.
8) Get it in writing.
You'll want to get your appraisal in writing, and you should know what an appraisal will include before you hire someone.
At a minimum, a report should state the reason the appraisal was requested, a description of the methods that were used to determine the object's value, and detailed descriptions of your property. If more than one individual appraised your work, it should be clear who handled various pieces. Finally, the appraiser should give you a clear statement of the object's worth -- not an estimate.
9) Renew old appraisals.
If you're relying on appraisals that are decades old, they're probably way off the mark. That's because the value of an object can rise or fall dramatically over time. When Andy Warhol died, for example, fans clamored to buy his art or other possessions. In fact, the sale of his estate generated a staggering $25.3 million, twice the amount auction house Sotheby's expected. Fans even paid $250,000 for one of Warhol's cookie jars, an object he collected but didn't make. But by 1993, when the auction house put more of Warhol's estate up for sale, only two of 16 original works sold. The market, experts said, was glutted with his works, pushing prices disastrously low.
In most cases, you should have appraisals done every three to five years, said Victor Wiener, executive director of Appraisers Association of America. He adds: "Every appraisal should have some kind of indication of what kind of marketplace you're dealing with," said Wiener. This will help you determine when you'll next need to check in with your appraiser.
10) Educate yourself.
If you're a budding collector, don't just rely on appraisers. Educate yourself. It will make you a better consumer -- and seller should you eventually decide to do that.
Start with general references books to get your feet wet, such as Rosson's "Treasures In Your Attic" or "Know Your Antiques," by Ralph and Terry Kovel, who also have a subscription-based online newsletter. If you can find an art history class or other course related to your collection, take it.
If you're serious about building a collection over a time, you should be able to find reputable dealers who are willing to cultivate a relationship with you and take the time to answer your questions. And go to auction previews and sales to slowly learn what pieces sell for.