Junk or antique? The difference means cash

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Matthew Quinn knows all too well that many people don’t recognize the value of their own possessions. He rattles off stories of people who’d have tossed away pricey pieces — and wads of money — if they hadn’t done their research and asked for professional help.

Consider the woman whose father was downsizing to a retirement home. She asked Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries & Waverly Auctions in Falls Church, Va., to rummage through her father’s cluttered home to determine if anything was worth saving or selling. Sorting through the piles, Quinn found a painting he asked if he could take back to his gallery to research. “That old thing?” the woman replied incredulously. The painting turned out to be the work of American artist Edward Moran. At auction, it netted more than $14,000.

Another woman had purchased four Chinese scrolls in the 1970s and promptly forgot about them. When she brought them to Quinn, they still had the $150 price tag on them from decades before. Chinese art experts recognized them as 18th century imperial scrolls. The bidding topped out at $55,000.

You may not have antiques or collectibles worth thousands in your attic — few people do. But you may have pieces that are worth more than you think. In today’s economy, it’s unwise to let even pennies slip through your fingers by throwing away or unwittingly selling valuables for a song. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you by doing your research and turning to experts.

In doubt? Don’t throw it out

Be careful what you toss or sell. “When you’re cleaning out old filing cabinets or going through a dusty attic or basement, don’t start throwing absolutely everything away,” says Nicholas Lowry, an appraiser on the PBS hit “Antiques Roadshow” and president of Swann Auction Galleries in New York City. “Certain collectibles — from family archives to old maps — may be of real value at auction.”

Lowry offers a few examples.

Examples of valuable collectibles:
  • Letters or diaries from a war or other noted event. Particularly valuable, says Lowry, are those that tell a story or have a connection to historical figures.
  • African-American family archives. “This category had been overlooked for years,” says Lowry. “Letters or historical documents could be worth something at auction.”
  • Modern first-edition books. “First books by authors who’ve become famous, as well as signed copies,” says Lowry, “are of particularly high value.”

Start your search engine

Think you might have a valuable piece? Look closely to verify its authenticity.

Identify its ownership history. Insiders call this documenting a piece’s provenance. “Ask who the piece belonged to,” says Connie Sue Davenport, an appraiser and former antiques dealer in Cottontown, Tenn., “and where that person got it.” That helps date the piece and lends credence to its history.

Examine the detailing. “With furniture, open a drawer to see what the inside looks like,” says Joe Baratta, an appraiser at Abell Auction Co. in Los Angeles. “Is the drawer constructed with nails or by dovetailing, in which the front is joined with the side in a triangle shape?” Nails can reflect more modern pieces, while dovetailing typically indicates hand construction. With prints, posters and maps, consider the paper. “The older the paper,” says Lowry, “the more it’ll feel like a newspaper rather than a magazine.”

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.”