Snowing like crazy today. Good...I'm up to my hips in finishing up paperwork, mostly appraisals.
If you're a big fan of Antiques Roadshow, the word "appraisal" probably brings some 'expert' to mind, looking at a person's item while they register shock on how much it's worth.
Well, yes and no.
Appraisers do this, certainly. But the value they set on the piece is their best educated opinion...and may not be what the items go for when they're sold. Case in point: the top item on the list of Antiques Roadshow's most valuable items, a group of jade pieces collected by the viewer's father from WWII China. The appraiser valued them as 18th century, extremely rare, and worth more than a million dollars -- but they sold at auction for $494,615. (Oh darn.)
There's no doubt in my mind that the appraiser knew his stuff -- but what must be remembered is that prices are affected by other things than just the quality, age and workmanship of an item. Is that style popular right now, for example? (Blue and white quilts consistently outsell yellow and white quilts, partly because they fit in more decorating schemes -- and partly, I believe, because the staff at Country Living magazine is partial to blue and white.)
Another issue is the current state of the economy -- antiques took a header when the stock market crashed a few years back, and are only starting to crawl back up. (The obvious exceptions are classics, like works from artists that have remained of great interest to the public. "The Little Model," a Norman Rockwell painting, was just appraised on AR for $500,000... probably not that far off the mark.)
And finally, it's not uncommon to see auction houses, including online sites like Ebay, finish up at 'wholesale' prices: approx. half (or less) of what the retail price of that piece would be. Sure, some things go for breathtaking prices -- and they're generally exceedingly rare, and in outstanding condition. But there are always bargains to be had, if you educate yourself and bid carefully.
There have been 'professional' pikers, as well -- take the case of Russ Pritchard and George Juno. They ran an antique business together, but also appeared as experts on Antiques Roadshow. One episode showed Pritchard examining a Civil War era sword the man claimed he used to cut watermelon. Turns out the "watermelon sword" story was bogus, and the man had met with the pair beforehand.
Even worse, though, is this (excerpted from Current.org):
Pritchard and Juno are controversial figures in the small world of military antiques. Last summer, their company, American Ordnance Preservation Association, was found liable in federal court of defrauding George "Ed" Pickett V, descendent of Gen. George Pickett, a Confederate commander renowned for his bravery. The general led the ill-conceived Pickett's Charge, the Confederacy's desperate last assault at the Battle of Gettysburg.
According to published accounts of the case, Russ Pritchard III went to great lengths to befriend George Pickett V and convinced him to sell his famous ancestor's numerous artifacts for $87,500—less than 10 percent of their market value. AOPA promptly sold the items to the city of Harrisburg, Pa., for more than 10 times what Pritchard had paid Pickett.
A federal jury ordered AOPA to pay Pickett $800,000, and a judge last August rejected the defendants' request for a new trial. Juno and Pritchard dissolved the company, and Pickett never received the money.
There are ways to protect yourself and your collectibles.
*Research your piece. The Internet makes it so much easier, nowadays.
*Research your appraiser. Are they experienced? Have they published anything? Have any certification? (They should...my own comes not only from AQS and PAAQT -- both specialize in textiles -- but USPAP.) There are excellent appraisers out there who are not certified; I know several. But they should have a number of years of experience, as well as other skills, to prove that. And every appraiser, regardless of their past exploits, should be continuing to study and research Ask for credentials.
*Don't make a quick decision to sell. Stop. Think about it. If you're not sure, get a second opinion. No one is infallible, no matter how good their intentions.
Finally, take a leaf from poor Mr. Pickett. Never ever sell items to someone who's appraised them for you. It's not only unsavory -- it's downright dishonest.
Update: for another appraising story, go here.