Collectibles that may not be worth your money
  • A woman who cataloged her stuff
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    Auction Finds

    Tips on figuring out what your stuff is worth

    I got an email recently from a woman who had three watercolors by MC “Five Cent” Jones that her parents had bought 20 years ago. Her mother is 91 years old, and the daughter wanted to sell them to help pay for her expenses.

    What’s the value of these paintings by Jones, she asked. And how could she go about selling them?

    She had seen a blog post I had done on my discovery of Jones’ artwork at auction last year. Jones was a Louisiana artist whose works detailed a simple farm life.

    Even more recently, I got an email from a man whose 102-year-old mother has a Madame C.J. Walker perfume bottle. In the early 20th century, Walker became one of the first African American millionaires through the sale of hair care products, cosmetics and more. She also sold perfumes and talcum powders.

    His mother wanted to know what the bottle was worth. He, too, had read a blog I had done on perfume bottles.

    I’m starting to get a lot of those kinds of emails, which is good. It tells me that people are being conscientious about determining the value of things they own and not just trashing them with nary a thought. Much of the credit goes to the increasing number of collectibles and auction shows on TV, including the granddaddy or grandmama of them all, Antiques Roadshow.

    I’m not an appraiser so I didn’t have an answer for them. But I do conduct research on the items I write about in my blog, so I can offer suggestions. I also tell folks that items are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them at a given point in time.

    For the MC Jones paintings, I suggested that she have them appraised by a certified and reputable appraiser, and consult an art gallery or auction house ab0ut selling them. I also warned her not to sell to the company or person that appraised them.

    For the perfume bottle (which I’d love to see because there is scarce info on the web), I suggested that he find an auction house in his mother’s hometown that offered free cursory appraisals just so he could get some idea of its worth. Then, get a real appraisal done.

    Here are my suggestions for figuring out the value of your items:

    First, try the web

    It’s obviously easier to research an item if you know its maker. So try to find a manufacturer’s name on it.

    Google your item using any and all keywords that relate to it. Click through to websites, experts or others who may have information about it. Many items have spawned collectors’ clubs and online museums operated by people who have become experts on their collections. Email mail them for assistance.

    Check eBay to see if anything similar is being sold there. Keep in mind that eBay is like a giant flea market. Most people want to pay as little as possible for items – there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just who we are. You’ll sometimes find the same item selling for $10 or $100.

    Nevertheless, it’ll give you some idea of what the item is worth to millions of buyers around the world. Also, if it doesn’t show up, that’s telling, too: Possibly the item is not very common and that can be good. EBay also has a community of experts who show up in forums to answer questions about specific items. Check out the eBay forums relating to your item.

    If you can’t find the exact item on eBay, look for something close to it or the manufacturer’s other items.

    Dorothy Gray compacts at auction.

    Go to the library or browse at a bookstore

    Go to the Collectibles and Antiques section and look for price guides pertaining to your item. If there’s no specific book, look for general antiques and collectibles price guides. Find a comfortable chair, open the books and spend some time looking through them. Take notes. I made this suggestion to a woman who had a Dorothy Gray compact the size of a silver dollar that was uncovered in a back yard. She could not find it in her internet search.

    Go to a local antiques and collectibles shop or an auction house

    These places usually have experts in various fields, so you’re likely to get someone who knows what they’re talking about.

    Research a few of them and choose ones that seem reputable. Ask the staffers for a cursory (or ball-park or eyeball) appraisal: He or she will examine it and give you an estimate based on their expertise. Some are willing to do so at no cost. Be sure to ask, though. Make sure the appraisal is done in front of you. I always suggest caution, especially if you don’t know what your item is worth.

    Get a free or reduced-price appraisal

    Some auction houses offer free or reduced-price appraisals on certain days of the week or a few times a month. Find those places in your hometown or close by. Sometimes organizations will hold them, bringing in experts from these same auction houses.

    Last year, I was reading a newsletter published by Swann Auction Galleriesin New York in which it offered to send experts to organizations for an afternoon of appraisals as a fundraising event. Swann would provide the appraisals free of charge to the organization, which in turn would invite people to pay for three appraisals.

    Perfume bottles bought at auction.

    I went to one of those a year or so ago. The appraisers were experts from Freeman’s Auctioneers and Appraisers in Philadelphia, considered the country’s oldest auction house.

    For $5 each, I had three items appraised – all of which I had bought at auction: a group of 25 or more original drawings by cartoonist Bo Brown, a Japanese painting of a winter outdoor scene and an old print of the Pennsylvania State House. As I waited, I heard the appraiser tell one couple that their painting was worth about $30,000.

    As for my pieces, the appraiser found Bo Brown originals selling for about $250 each on the web (I already knew that because I had found the same information on my own). The State House print was actually a reproduction. He could not tell me the worth of the Japanese painting because that was not his area of expertise. He suggested that I bring it to the auction house (which I never did).

    One website, though, said don’t do it (this expert, by the way, was an appraiser and consultant). He indicated that these types of appraisals were more like drive-bys, and you won’t get an accurate accounting of the value of your piece. I disagree; this is an inexpensive way to have someone with expertise to determine whether you should pay to have a piece legitimately appraised.

    You can find auction houses in your area through http://www.auctionzip.com/. Just write in your zip code and you’ll get a list of auctions along with the name of the auction houses. Check out their websites, do an internet search of them, and go to one or two of their auctions to determine the staff’s trustworthiness.

    Their websites should tell you whether they offer free or reduced-price appraisals. If they do house visits for an initial free consultation, take them up on it. But don’t be pushed into hiring them if you feel uncomfortable. It’s your decision.

    Pay for a real appraisal

    Appraising your collectibles, artwork or other valuable property is something all collectors should do. Appraisals aren’t cheap, but they’re worth it. The cost of the appraisal will likely depend on the amount of work required. Always get an estimate of the cost up front.

    The American Society of Appraisers – which has local chapters across the country – is a good place to look for a certified appraiser. On the website of the Philadelphia chapter, I read the section on members in the news to see whose names were mentioned, who were conducting sessions and who were receiving awards for their work. Those were among the ones I’d call if I needed an appraiser.

    I warn people not to sell to the company or person who’s doing the appraisal. You don’t want anyone low-balling the appraisal so they can get it cheap from you and sell it high to someone else. Even if the company is reputable, I still don’t think it’s a good idea.

    A set of cute cats on sale at auction.

    Selling your items

    The ways to sell are varied, and you’ll have to decide the route to go depending on the item. If you have a house full of stuff, consider an estate sale right there on the property or at an auction house. I’ve been to both. Usually, the sales on site include the house and its contents. I went to one such sale last summer that belonged to a couple who had sold antiques for 50 years. The house was loaded.

    Insuring your items

    After getting your pieces appraised, check the company that has your homeowners policy about insuring your collectibles. Most insurance companies will give you a discount for multiple policies.

    Where to look for more information

    The Smithsonian American Art Museum website provides research tools to help you determine the value of your collectibles. And here’s a site (which sells books) to find out how much old books are being sold for on eBay and Yahoo auctions. The site noted that books may sell less on those two online sites than on retail or booksellers sites.

    The Philadelphia Print Shop’s website offered suggestions on appraisals, along with tips on doing it on your own. Consumer Reports had suggestions on the best ways to sell.

    What are your suggestions?

    If you have other suggestions, please send them along.

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