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What Does An Appraiser Do, Anyway?

Can you tell me what it's worth? I just want to know what it's worth. How much can I get for this? How much does this go for?

These are examples of the questions that appraisers are faced with just about every day. Someone has something in their possession and they have a hope or a suspicion that it might be worth a lot of money. Maybe they've been watching a lot of Antiques Roadshow or Pawn Stars or Storage Wars or some such programming and they have dollar signs floating in their heads. So, they snatch up grandma's lamp with the stained glass shade and bring it down to the local antique mall to find out what it is worth.

Many people may be surprised that your average appraiser may or may not be able to tell you "what it's worth" on the spot. A generalist appraiser has to value everting from coffee makers to oriental rugs to Russian teacups to antique spinning wheels. Even after many years, it is simply not possible to keep prices for anything and everything in our heads, ready to be quoted at a moment's notice. Rather, it is likely that an appraiser will have to conduct research in order to arrive at a determination of value. So, how do they do that?

  1. Identification. It may not be immediately obvious what the object is. Even when it is, there are several important questions that may come next: who made it? When? What is it made of? These are important questions that can make a very big difference in value. The appraiser must answer all of these questions. It may require research, as when faced with unknown maker's marks on the bottom of a piece of pottery. The appraiser's experience is especially useful at this time, as many maker's marks are hard to find, some are hard to decipher, and some brands are notorious for fakes (such as Meissen). An appraiser has the specialized knowledge and skill to correctly identify many kinds of items. In some cases, positive identification may require the opinion of a recognized expert who may or may not be the appraiser.

  2. Condition. Even a Stradivarius broken in pieces may not be worth much. This doesn't mean that objects have to be in mint condition in order to bring the big bucks at auction. In fact, some signs of age are a good thing - think of the nice green color that oxidized copper turns when it gets old. If you were collecting early American weathervanes, you might pay more for a piece that was green - it is evidence of age and of use, which gives it that authenticity that can be so important. On the other hand, in other cases, such as in pottery or glass, even the slightest chip or crack can significantly decrease value. The appraiser will always pay close attention to condition and take it into account.

  3. Intangibles. An appraiser knows to ask questions about the item's history. This can help with confirming (or not) assumptions that have been made by the owner about age, origin, etc. Also, it can sometimes uncover particularly interesting details about the item's provenance. Provenance refers to the previous owners of the item. An item known to be owned or otherwise associated with a famous or historical person will generally be worth more than one that is not. Other examples of intangibles that an appraiser must be aware of include the changing market for an item depending on geography. An artist unknown outside of a limited area of the country may not sell well elsewhere but can command good prices in his or her home area. Similarly, an artist who has recently passed away may see a surge in interest and therefore value.

  4. Market research. It is only after learning about and considering all of these things that an appraiser can then turn to the market to make a determination of value. Of course, the market chosen will vary depending on the purpose of the appraisal. If you are getting an appraisal done on your collection of antique clocks for insurance purposes, then the appraiser will be looking for replacement value - for example, what it would cost to buy the item at retail. On the other hand, if the appraisal is for equitable distribution, as in the case of a divorce, then the appraiser will be looking for fair market value and this is most typically determined by looking at recent auction results. In all cases, it may be necessary to consult with antique dealers, gallery owners, collectors, and other such professionals who are knowledgeable about the market for the kind of object being appraised.

Appraisers are not simply walking around with valuations in their head. Appraising is a professional endeavor that requires many skills - research, sleuthing, and market analysis, to name a few. When you hire an appraiser, you can be sure you are getting a valuable service based on far more than a hunch or a ballpark guess. I hope this will help to demystify the appraising process a little!


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