smart spending

Junk or antique? The difference means cash

Look for identifying marks. Scan for names or unique features and then head to the Internet. "People are too shy about searching on the Internet," says Davenport. "If you have a piece of porcelain that says, 'William Smith,' search 'porcelain William Smith.' Put in all the words you have."

If you think you have a particular piece, such as a Meissen porcelain or a Frederic Remington illustration, go to sites featuring those collectibles. "If you can identify the manufacturer, there may be a lot of information on that manufacturer's or a related Web site," says Jane K. Cleland, a former antiques dealer and the author of a mystery series featuring an antiques appraiser. "Meissen and others list all their marks on their Web site and tell you how pieces can be faked."

The "Antiques Roadshow" Web site now has a searchable function for all appraisals from seasons nine to 13, and eBay can be a gold mine. "Say you have a piece of pottery," says Baratta. "If the thrower's name is written legibly, do an Internet search or look on eBay for something of similar size or shape."

Seller beware

If you're convinced your piece is worth a buck, know the industry players before you try to sell it.

Appraisers: For a fee, appraisers offer their best estimate of a piece's value. "Appraisers charge $50 to $120 for the first batch of information," says Davenport. "Sometimes I can look at things and know immediately. If I've got to spend time researching something, I charge $120 per hour."

Dealers: Like other sellers of goods, dealers aren't obligated to tell you the value of the piece you're selling. "If you want a written, arms-length appraisal, pay for it," says Cleland. "Don't take your piece to a dealer to ask what the dealer will give you for it. It's foolhardy to try to sell something when you don't know what it's worth because the antiques world is one of the last bastions of pure capitalism."

Be wary of dealers who don't display prices on their items, says Cleland. That's not always a sign of a shady dealer (some don't want their competitors to see their pricing strategy), but it can be a red flag. Another warning sign is dealers who joke about price in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. "Rather than making an offer, they might say, 'What's it worth to you?'" says Cleland. "They're already beginning to negotiate."

Consignment stores: These shops will place your piece in their showroom and charge you 20 percent to 50 percent of the sales price.

Auctioneers: "The auction process is a consignment-based process," says Quinn. "You're still the owner, and as the auctioneer, I'm your agent. For that, I charge a consignment fee of 10 to 30 percent of the sales price."

Investigate the laws governing each player, which vary from state to state. "For example, Virginia regulates auctioneers," says Quinn. "I have to have an escrow account and pay clients within 30 days of the sale. Online auction vendors and consignment stores don't have to follow the same rules."

Always be on the lookout for valuables, but don't expect to fund your retirement with every piece you find. "Unfortunately, 97.9 percent of the time, people think they have something much better than it actually is," says Lowry. "That's what keeps me in business and why I'll field every phone call no matter how absurd it sounds. There may be that Picasso that somebody found in a garage in Ohio."

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