Julie Francis opened the envelope in late May, two weeks after an appraiser had spent hours measuring, opening, closing and peering into an antique buffet, dresser and armoire in her sprawling Waxhaw home.
The verdict: The three pieces of furniture, hand-carved in France in the 18th century, were worth $64,000.
Francis and her husband, a financial analyst for a large bank, had ordered the appraisal for insurance purposes, but suddenly, they found themselves discussing selling the furniture. The economy had battered their stock portfolio, and for months, they'd been considering ways to replace the nest egg.
"The appraisal came back pretty strong, and it kind of gave us a light bulb moment," said Francis, 39, a stay-at-home mom. "I think everybody's having a tough time, and we're no exception. We really don't want to sell them, but we feel like it's a pretty good option for us."
It's a story personal property appraisers are hearing more and more, as the recession leaves thousands out of work, with a home they can't sell or, at the very least in need of some extra cash.
Appraisers around the state say business is booming, thanks to clients who want to know whether they can strike gold with their grandmother's china or the table they picked up at a yard sale years earlier.
Nationally, appraisers, who can specialize in items such as jewelry, antiques or fine arts, are seeing a similar bump in business, according to the American Society of Appraisers, a trade association.
"I feel like I'm an economic barometer," said Jan Robbins Durr, the Matthews appraiser who researched Francis' pieces. "People are calling saying, 'I think I need an appraisal because I want to sell something,' whereas a year ago, it was, 'I need an appraisal because I want to be insured.'"
For some, selling heirlooms is a painful sacrifice; others say it's a profitable way to unclutter the attic. Lucky ones can make quick cash through an estate sale, auction or consignment shop. But appraisers warn that, because of the down economy and ease of finding rare items on the Internet, the resale value is often far less than the insurance-replacement value provided through an appraisal.
An appraisal can cost $200 to $400, on average.
That risk hasn't stopped the inquiries. Local personal property appraisers say business rose dramatically in the spring. They guess that's around the time people exhausted severance pay or savings accounts and began looking for more creative ways to pay the bills.
Louise Phillips of Alexander Appraisal Service in China Grove said she's seen more people who want to sell, as well as forced sales through bankruptcies. People are looking to unload everything from china to furniture to rare plants from their gardens, she said.
"It must be just to free up some cash," she said, "because I always tell people in today's economy, you're not going to get what you would get in years past."
Janella Smyth, an appraiser in Raleigh, has gotten a flood of inquiries since last year, but that hasn't necessarily meant more business. Smyth often checks out people's items, and unless they're valuable enough to warrant a full appraisal -- an item should be worth at least $500 -- she'll simply advise them on the best way to sell them.
"In general, the really high-end stuff will continue to sell," she said. "It's the normal household sort of things that are really suffering. There's just a glut of it."
Smyth tells would-be sellers to box their items and hold onto them for a few years if they can, she said.
Even people who are not struggling to stay afloat in the recession seem more interested in what their heirlooms are worth. On a recent day at the Willow Grove retirement community in Matthews, where Durr and an art appraiser were hosting an "Antiques Roadshow"-inspired event, the room was packed with people who'd brought everything from art to antique toys. Many were valued at $100 or less, but some were worth more.
Glenn Agnew brought a dusty framed print of a woman he presumed to be Queen Charlotte. It had belonged to his grandmother, and had been in his attic nearly 40 years. Agnew wondered whether it was valuable enough to pay for restoration, he said.
He soon learned it was actually a picture of Mary Queen of Scots. In its current condition, dirty and with holes in the paper, the print would sell for $75 to $100. If he spent $200 restoring it, it could sell for $1,000.
"I think I will," he said with a smile, before carting his treasure away.
For Francis, selling wasn't an option at first. She and her family, who moved to their home from Charlotte three years ago, bought the French pieces from the home's previous owner, a collector. They had done some research on the furniture and knew it was high quality, and they paid close to Durr's recent estimate.
"We just fell in love with them when we looked at the house," Francis said. "When we bought them, we bought them as an investment. We were OK paying that because we figured we would have them forever."
During Durr's appraisal, she removed the pieces' drawers and peered inside with a flashlight, looking for signs of age and condition, such as the feel of the wood and the presence of wooden pegs, used instead of nails to hold furniture together.
"In general, the condition of the items examined was excellent," she concluded in her report.
She found that the Louis XV buffet, a huge, ornate, marble-topped piece in the family's foyer, was built in France about 1730. Its value: $32,000.
The dresser in the couple's master bedroom was determined to be a Regence cherry commode, built in France in the early 1700s. Featuring a molded top and intricate carvings, the piece was worth $25,000, Durr found.
She determined that the 8-foot carved cherry armoire was built in France about 1800 and was valued at $7,000.
It was welcome news. In the months before the appraisal, Francis and her husband considered putting their house on the market, but were daunted by the foreclosures and long-sitting homes for sale in their neighborhood. They'd cut back on spending for each other and their young children. Now, they thought, selling the furniture could be an easy solution.
The only question left: What would someone pay?
Durr contacted national auction houses and high-end antique shops. This month, she sent Francis another letter: "I truly wish I had better news, but the resale market on French furniture is presently down."
The lowest offer came from an auction house in Columbia: $1,500 per piece. The highest, from an antique shop in Chapel Hill: $18,000 for the buffet, with a 40 percent commission charge.