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At Home: Find out what your possessions are worth

CorrespondentMarch 8, 2013 

What makes an antique valuable? Besides age, rarity and desirability, says Gary Sullivan, left, a featured appraiser on PBS's Antiques Roadshow. Sullivan specializes in high-end, American antiques and clocks. Here he talks with a guest and his Isaac Jackson Tall Case Clock, circa 1760.


“Not for sale,” read the lime-green sticky notes slapped on furniture throughout the estate sale.

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.

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

I don’t know how much the nightstand that came from France is worth, or the gold-leaf chairs in the entryway, 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 have told me to take my 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 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.

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

The morning after the sale ended, the “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser called. Gary Sullivan specializes in high-end antiques. He offered this general advice: 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: The value the person states is always far greater than what the item would ever sell for. That’s especially true of collectibles, 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. Nondealers 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,” Sullivan said. “I’m the bearer of bad news before I’m the bearer of good news.”


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