Determining the Value of Fine Art, Antiques: Do You Need a Verbal or Written Appraisal?

gavelNo matter what the economic weather, consumers are always interested in knowing the value of tangibles assets, such as art and antiques. Whether selling an object to liquidate funds, or just taking stock of a portfolio, a savvy consumer consults first with an appraisal expert. The best source for this advice is a reputable auction house or independent appraiser. Here’s what you need to know before you contract for their services.

First off, know why you are getting an item appraised. Perhaps you need written documentation for insurance, estate, or tax purposes. You might be interested in selling a piece. Or maybe, you just are curious about its value and origin. In each of these cases, an appraisal of your items will differ, so know the following:

Written Appraisals

If you do need a written appraisal for insurance, estate or tax purposes, then seek out a reputable source. The Appraisers Association of America (AAA), the American Society of Appraisers (ASA) and the International Society of Appraisers (ISA) can provide you with a list of preferred auction houses and independent appraisers that offer this service. A formal appraisal will cost you from a few hundred dollars up to a few thousand, depending on the number of items you’re having appraised. The fee is dependent on the time spent by the appraiser, and is typically based on a flat rate or hourly rate. It’s important to know that the fee for an appraisal should never be based on the value of the item—that’s a clear conflict of interest.

Selling An Object

If you want to sell your item, you don’t actually need a written appraisal and you shouldn’t pay for one; all that’s needed in this case is a verbal estimate of what an item might be worth. Here’s where you’d want to use an a full-service auction house, as most provide auction estimates free of charge for items you are considering selling. Often e-mailing photographs and a brief description can start the process, but your best course of action is an appointment with an appraisal expert who can examine your items in person. This is especially true for items of significant worth. The appraiser will offer his or her opinion on whether a piece would potentially sell at auction and also provide an estimated range of value it might be expected to achieve. You can then decide whether you’d like to consign that item for auction. I strongly advise against selling something outright to an auction house or appraiser—again, it’s a conflict of interest. After all, how can you be sure you are getting full value for your item? An independent appraiser is just that—he or she should have no vested interest in purchasing the item they are appraising.

Curious About Value

If you want to keep your treasure, but are curious as to its origin and value, sources are plentiful: online price databases that feature pictures and prices (some charge a fee to access price information); pictorial antique price guides like Miller’s Price Guides, which can be found in the antiques section of most bookstores; and even auction house catalogs and websites, which give pre-sale estimates on items coming up for auction and also post price lists of what these items actually sold for at auction. Prices at auction are an excellent guide as they indicate the most current value for property on the open market. Keep in mind that comparing pictures of similar items online doesn’t take into account the authenticity of an item, its quality, its condition and whether it has been restored. If you don’t know where to start, you might seek out a research librarian at your local library or attend a local antiques appraisal day in your area. Many non-profit institutions team with auction houses and conduct these events around the country—they’re a fun and informative way to learn about the value of your objects and they typically raise money for a good cause.

The Last Word Of Advice

Lastly, I always like to caution folks that not everything old is valuable—age, rarity, quality of construction, condition, provenance and market trends all play a factor in determining an item’s value. The monetary value of art and antiques can rise and fall depending on the taste of the times and general economic conditions. Lastly, know that while a piece may have historic interest and significance, it may not have any marketable value. A great example of this is a 19th-century family bible; it’s certainly a wonderful family treasure, but so many of these were produced in the 19th century that they are literally a dime a dozen. That’s not to say such an item doesn’t have value to you! The best appraisers will ask a client, “Do you love it? Would you ever part with it?” If your answer is yes, and then no, then forget about its so-called “value”—keep it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Karen Keane is CEO of Skinner, Inc., one of the world’s premier auction houses. Under her direction, Skinner has grown from a New England specialty auction house to a viable player in the international art and antiques marketplace with specialty areas including fine musical instruments, science & technology, rare books & manuscripts, and Judaica.


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