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Dispersing a relative’s estate can be daunting for even the most confident of us. A lifetime of accumulating often results in a varied collection of silver, crystal, art, furniture, rugs and decorative arts. The two steps of dispersal involve 1) valuing the items and 2) selling them.

How do you decide the monetary value of something? First, you must disregard the sentimental value. Just because your grandmother bought it on her honeymoon does not necessarily give it monetary value. Second, do not expect a dealer to appraise an item over the telephone. Many factors enter in, including the quality of design, means of construction, condition and amount of restoration. None of these can be determined by phone.

For duty purposes, the U.S. Customs defines an antique as 100 years old. Many dealers consider anything hand made before the industrial revolution (about 1830) as an antique. Armed with this information, the next step is research. There are many books to help you date antiques. The downtown library has an excellent selection. To date silver and porcelain by their marks, try Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks by Frederick Bradbury and S.W. Fisher’s English Potter and Porcelain Marks. Your eyes and sense of touch can help you determine if furniture was made before of after the 1830’s. Look for circular saw marks (made by electric saws) on the ends of boards, as opposed to parallel plane marks that denote hand planning. By running your hands under the top of a chest or drawer bottom, you can feel these parallel ripples. Note dovetails: only machines cut perfect ones; those with slight irregularities have been hand-cut.

After your preliminary research, you may decide you need a written appraisal. There are two kinds for personal property. The first provides replacement values for insurance purposes. For example, in case of fire, a twenty-year old dining table would be replaces at today’s cost instead of its depreciated value. The second type is for estate purposes. In this instance, that same dining table’s value would be compared to prices of similar items such as used furniture at garage sale prices. Emyl Jenkins writes in Appraisal Book, “A true antique, however, would be even closer to its full and ultimate value because it would sell for what it is-an antique- under all circumstance. Thus an 18th century walnut chest of drawers that would sell locally for $3,000…would be stated as having an estate value of $3,000.”

Once you’ve determined you need an appraiser, check the yellow pages. Although this profession is not licensed, membership in a professional organization is a good indication. Three of the most notes are the America Society of Appraisers (A.S.A.), Appraisers Association of America (A.A.A.), and the International Society of Appraisers. The A.S.A. does require education and examination in a member’s specialty, ethics and appraisal principles. Their web site (www.apo.com) will search the country for members by their specialties.

How much does an appraisal cost? Beware of fees based on a percentage of the appraised value or on the amount of estate tax saved. It is against the A.S.A.’s code of ethics to charge in these ways. The recommended practice is a fee based on an hourly rate. The rate may vary from $35 to $150 per hour and includes research and writing time. There is debate whether an appraiser should also be in the market to buy items he/she appraises. Some dealers feel this is conflict of interest. There have been cases (some settled in court) of items being undervalued so the appraiser or someone they refer, can buy and re-sell at the fair market price. Emyl Jenkins writes, “Don’t accept an appraisal from a dealer without a signed statement that he or she has no present or future interest in the item being appraised.”

*Published in NFocus magazine in October 1999.


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