By Sarah McCullom

          When I tell people I am a personal property appraiser, specializing in antiques and fine and decorative art, usually two things are said immediately – “Oh, you mean like the people on the Antiques Roadshow?”.Next, they begin to talk about items that they own or have inherited from family members.Sometimes they begin to ask me if I know what something they describe is worth.I realize that I now know what a doctor feels like when someone they meet at a party begins to ask them about an ailment they have – as if the doctor can pull out his stethoscope and diagnose right on the spot!

          Obviously, an appraiser can not give any idea of value without seeing an item first hand.There can be many variations dependent on things such as condition, construction, size, color, medium or whatever.Which brings me to the subject of on-line appraisals.

          I would never recommend that anyone use an on-line appraisal.That is not to say that they may not be qualified appraisers, or knowledgeable.Specialists have been doing something similar in columns for magazines and newspapers for some time.The owner sends in a picture of the item along with a description, and they are given information on the item, frequently including the estimated value. However, these are not considered to be appraisals.I have frequently seen a picture of an item and the condition seemed to be excellent, but when seen in person it was found to be scratched or chipped, or other wise damaged.In addition, in regard to furniture, it is impossible to tell what the construction and wood is like, which can be critical to determining age, and location it was made.Pictures are frequently not true.A professional appraiser will need to see the piece, examine it closely, measure it, and take notes.That can not be done using a photograph.It pays to pay more to a professional appraiser – you may pay less on line, but you still may not get your money’s worth.

          All appraisers have marvelous stories about some of the wonderful (and not so wonderful!) things that they have seen, and people they have met.I have had the good fortune to appraise an old master, 18th century English silver, sterling silver made right here in DC, and beautiful 18th century furniture.On the other hand, I have been in my share of filthy homes, and talked to people that thought they had a treasure, and were not happy to find that they didn’t.As an appraiser it is my job to represent the item being appraised – to be honest to it, and its value.My client may desire a particular value, but I must be loyal and honest to the piece – which is why appraisers will tell you that they request payment before the delivery of the appraisal.That way there is no perception that the appraiser was pressured to give any particular value before he/she would be paid.

          An appraiser is part detective and part historian. In my research I have talked to the artist themselves, I have spoken to people halfway around the world in places like Riga, Latvia, and Canada, as well as all across the country.Next to seeing some really beautiful things, this is what I really like about the profession.Every time I appraise an item, I learn something.I learn about who made it, where it was made, how it was made, and sometimes who owned it and who they are.  It is a fascinating and mind expanding profession.  




click here to return to main list of articles