What Do I Do When I Cannot Afford An Appraiser?—Part I

Thanks to the media, especially the “Antiques Roadshow” and a rash of HGTV “antiques and collectibles” shows in the late 1990s and first half of this decade, Americans now are alert to the potential value of family heirlooms, childhood treasures and other types of personal property. The dream of finding one or more hidden treasures in one’s attic, closet, basement, etc., or at a garage sale, flea market or antiques mall has become part of the American psyche, a dream that increases exponentially during difficult economic periods.

Once an object is found, the first question asked is, “I wonder how much this is worth?” Finders divide into three categories: (1) those who are convinced they know what their object is worth because they saw one just like it on the “Antiques Roadshow,” (2) those who will refuse to believe what anyone tells them because they are convinced the world is out to cheat them and (3) those who are willing to do the research or hire an appraiser to do a market determination. This column is for the third group.

(Author’s Aside: This column will not explore the differences between retail (what a person pays when buying an object) and wholesale (the selling price into the secondary market) value, a topic covered in previous columns and certain to be touched upon in future columns.)

When uncovering a potential hidden treasure, it is only natural to turn to an expert.

“Hello. I inherited my grandparents’ dining-room set, and I would like to know what it is worth. A friend told me to call you.”

“Have you checked out my Web site, harryrinker.com? My home page contains a list of my appraisal services and their cost.”

“Well, I only want an approximate, not a specific value. Can’t you give me a rough estimate?”

“I do not do free appraisals. Appraising is one of the ways I make my living. Again, please check out my Web site, or I can explain your options now.” Like most appraisers, I offer several options, including evaluation from photographs, a visit to my office, walk-through appraisal and formal written appraisal. All have a specific cost attached.

“How do I know if my object is worth having appraised?”

“This is a risk you have to take if you want me to look at it.” Since almost every call begins with the person telling me what they want appraised, I often indicate that I do not think it worth their while to consult an appraiser. I am astonished at how many times this subtle hint falls on infertile ground. The primary reason online-appraisal services failed is that their $30-to-$40-per-object fee was within a few dollars of what a majority of the objects being appraised were worth.

Personal property appraisers charge fees ranging from $30 to $150-plus per hour. Hourly fees often correspond regionally to those charged by a CPA or general-practice lawyer. “You get what you pay for,” admittedly a tired cliché, applies.

I do appraisals for less than half the individuals who call or e-mail with inquiries about my services. Once I explain my services and fees or they visit my Web site, they exit stage left with the line, “I will think about it and get back to you.” I stopped holding my breath long ago.

You do not have to be an expert to research the value of an object. You can do it on your own. If you decide to proceed, follow these four steps:

1. Authenticate your object. Before you start your value research, you need to determine the identity of the object you are researching.

2. Determine what value you want. If you plan to keep the object, you need replacement (retail) value. If you are selling the object, seek auction or private sale value.

3. Do price research. Confirm all values using multiple sources. Field check all book values. List value is not sale value. Most objects are discounted prior to sale. Relying on a single value, especially if it is one that pleases and surprises you, is foolhardy.

4. If the final value you find exceeds $500, hire an appraiser to review your findings. I was tempted to use 1,000 as the threshold, but chose the lower number after considerable thought.

What sounds simple is not. It is work. After you complete steps one through three, you may find your object has little to no value. At least, you know. The answers we seek are not always the ones we desire.

You cannot tell the players without a scorecard at a sporting event, and you cannot value an object without knowing what it is. There is no wiggle room in antiques and collectibles. Apples are apples, oranges are oranges, etc. When authenticating an object, there has to be an exact match.

I recently received the following e-mail inquiry: “I have several Star Wars toy action figures in what I know to be complete sets . . . 1997 Kenner Collection 1. I read your article in a magazine that said Princess Leia could be worth $500-$600.” If this was the “Gong Show,” I would strike the gong. The Princess Leia in question was the first-issue action figurine still in its near-mint condition blister pack issued in 1977.


Antiques and collectibles picture price guides serve a dual purpose—identification and value. Your goal is to find a picture representation of the exact object you own. If there is a specialized price guide that focuses on your object, start there. When researching, make note of similar items. Ideally, you will find the exact object you own. Realistically, you may have to rely on comparable objects.

Try your local art museum, historic site or historical society. While curators are ethically prohibited from valuing objects, they can and often are glad to help identify object. Pick a museum, historic site or historical society that has like objects in its collection.

Experts abound at auctions, flea markets and antiques show. Most auctioneers and dealers will react favorably to a request for identification help. Do not ask them to value the piece. Although they are not appraisers, they are professionals. Most charge a fee when value information is requested. Do not be surprised if you are asked, “Do you want to sell that?” Over-the-transom (out of the blue) inquiries are a primary source of material for auctioneers and dealers.

Authenticating is not an exact science. If possible, confirm all opinions with a second and third source.

Do not overlook the Internet. Chances are you will turn first to eBay. Beware. Errors abound in eBay listings. Accept no information from an eBay listing without multiple confirmations from non-eBay sources. Artfact.com now offers free access to the past 12 months of fine art and sculpture listing. Go Antiques’ PriceMiner is another source. I have located dozens of reliable independent Web sites, e.g., morninggloryantiques.com for Victorian and other historic jewelry pieces.

Once you have authenticated your object, proceed to step two.

When I began this column, I had a vague suspicion that it was a two-part column. Suspicion confirmed. Part II will discuss steps two, three and four.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT?” streams live and is archived on the Internet.

“SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web Site.

WorthPoint—Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles

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  1. Nancy Leigh says:

    I have a very old teapot (probably at least 100 years–it was my grandmother’s, and I’m now 78). It has no markings or words of any kind to help identify it. It is either pewter or silver plate, with porcelain (I guess it’s porcelain). It’s 9 1/2 inches high, sort of teardrop shaped, with a domed, hinged metal lid with a finial. The spout and handle are the same metal, as is a band around the lower body below the spout. The body is porcelain (my mother said “china”) with identical scenes on two sides, of a bright, highly imaginative sort of bluebird with rose, yellow, and brown wings, sitting on a branch of a rosebush with equally stylized flowers in rose, with yellow and green centers. There is nothing on it to identify it. How can I find out what I have? Thanx in advance for any information you can give me.

    Nancy Leigh

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