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Ground zero: Appraising antiques — old does not equal valuable

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From page C6 | March 08, 2013 | Leave Comment

“Not for sale,” read the lime-green sticky notes slapped on furniture throughout the estate sale. The Post-Its blare my ambivalence. 

Not selling the furniture defeats my purpose, to clear out my parents’ former home to get it ready to sell. But the task is defeating me.

“How much for the little nightstand?” the dealers ask as they stream through my childhood home.

“I don’t know … yet,” I lamely say, and point to the note as some kind of proof.

Their looks rightly say, Then why are you holding an estate sale, lady, if you don’t know how much you’re selling things for?

Or if I should sell or could sell, I want to say, because letting go feels like hawking my fingers.

I don’t know how much the nightstand that came from France is worth, or the gold-leaf chairs in the entry way, or the antique clock that was my grandfather’s or the cedar chest that was grandma’s.

Even if I did know, teasing sentimental value from market value is like separating beauty from a butterfly.

The experts would tell you — and have told me — take your time. Have someone from an auction house or consignment shop, a dealer or appraiser look at the items to determine their value before you sell.

That’s great, but I did not have that kind of time. I live 3,000 miles away and took off work to fly in to get the job done in a week.

I did, however, have one ace up my sleeve. A contact at PBS’s Antiques Roadshow offered to run photos of  some of the antiques by one of the show’s expert appraisers to help me determine value.

Meanwhile, my two-day sale was going on, and, unsure of value, I was turning away interested cash buyers or making a game-time decisions to sell stuff priced using my best guess.

Readers: This is no way to go through life.

At every turn, I was torn between my twin goals of clearing the house so the painters could start and being a good, respectful steward of my parents’ belongings. I did more waffling than a pancake house.

The morning after the estate sale ended, the Antiques Roadshow appraiser calls. Gary Sullivan specializes in high-end antiques. He’d looked at my pictures and was about to tell me how much the items I’d already sold (though he didn’t know that) — or should have sold but clung to — were worth. My stomach is in knots.

Before we get to the particulars of my items, which I will share with you next week, Sullivan offered this general advice. Most made me feel a lot better, and may spare you some of my anxiety:

  • It’s just stuff. “The chances of anyone having something that has significantly great value is quite slim,” Sullivan starts off saying. What a relief! I feel my lungs expand for the first time in three days. “Unless someone in the family was quite wealthy and bought expensive things, then a parent’s home probably does not contain any great treasures. It’s usually just stuff.”
  • Age does not confer value. Age — specifically being 100 years old or more — makes an item an antique. But to be a valuable antique, the item has to also be rare and desirable, he said. My parents had antiques, but most were common. For those that were rare, the market wasn’t that interested. That’s the desirability piece.
  • Worth is a worthless term. “I’m forever hearing this is worth such and such,” said Sullivan. “I wish I could strike the word ‘worth’ from our vocabulary.”  The value the person states is always far greater than what the item would ever sell for. That’s especially true of collectables, he said. “In a collectors’ catalog, an item will be listed for one value, but if you want to sell it you won’t get anywhere near that.”
  • Sell wholesale. Don’t expect to sell an item for what you’d buy it for in a store. Set your price at wholesale or auction value. Dealers have to resell the item for retail, and in some cases have to fix it up. They have overhead, and need to make a profit. Non-dealers are expecting a huge bargain. Sullivan often uses what an item would sell for at auction as a base for how to price it at an estate sale.
  • Condition matters. If something is broken and repaired, it’s almost as bad as broken and not repaired. On furniture, the finish is important. However, dull and worn can be good. Read on.
  • Don’t touch it! During a lull in the estate sale, I started polishing an old brass lamp, but a dealer came in and stopped me. “Please don’t,” she pleaded. “The patina makes it appealing. A segment of consumers won’t like it as much all bright and shiny.” Sullivan confirmed that you should never polish, clean or refinish antiques. “If you alter some aspect of your item, like its finish, you run the risk of greatly diminishing its value,” he said. “I see people make this mistake this over and over. Leave it alone.”
  • Family history is usually wrong. The legend of an item’s provenance tends to grow. It’s like that game of telephone, he said. Everyone changes the meaning a little along the way. “I hear owners say, my great-great-grandmother brought this clock over from England on boat in 1640. There may even be a letter inside saying so. But then I see the clock was made in America in 1820,” said Sullivan. “I’m the bearer of bad news before I’m the bearer of good news.”

Next week join me as Antique Roadshow’s Gary Sullivan looks at half a dozen of my parents antiques and tells me if I sold them short, or not.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.

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