Buried treasure
January 1, 2009 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I recently came into possession of some family heirlooms. I don’t know the back-story on these items so their sentimental value is minimal. I’m interested in selling at least some of them, but don’t know the best way to assess their value.

I was recently given some things that have been in my family for some time. A small bag of American, Canadian and European, coins dating as far back as the 1760s but most from the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s, some jewelry, pearls, gold chains, etc. and a few gold watches.

What’s the best way of getting a handle on the value of these items?
What is the best way of selling them once I know their value?
How can I avoid getting ripped off?
Are the markets for such items as bad as the rest of the economy right now?
posted by NormandyJack to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Take them to some reputable dealers and ask for insurance appraisal. Find out what they really are and what they're really worth. Don't suggest you'd be interested in selling... may help keep 'em honest. However, when you are ready to sell, approach the dealer that gave you the best vibe and the best price.

Also, the interwebs are a great resource. Past eBay transactions, for example, can help you identify a rough market price. And you can sell almost anything on eBay... almost.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 8:37 AM on January 1, 2009

First, check completed listings on eBay. Usually the most reliable guide to the prices you can expect to achieve, but depending on the rarity of what you have you may not find all the answers there. Be aware that the prices you achieve will also depend on how patient you are prepared to be. Anything will sell in a week on eBay, but if you have real quality items you will get more for those at a specialist auction where they will be sold in context and viewed by the right clientele. Selling items through a major auction house is a fairly lengthy process however. You may wait 10-12 months for the next specialist watch sale, for example. You can expect your money (minus commission) maybe another 2-3 months after that.

For further guidance you can email Christies, at the relevant department. Find the relevant expert and send them an email on their personal address. They will appraise your item for free and without obligation, and you can discuss with them the best course of action via email without having to fill out a form or pay a penny. They are exceptionally helpful in my experience.

specialise in coins, but be aware that there is a flat fee for appraisals.

You should be able to ascertain their values without leaving your computer and I would recommend completely bypassing local dealers or experts. Christies will tell you immediately if what you have is valuable and whether they would be prepared to sell it for you, I would email them and then take it from there.

As for the market it all depends on the quality of what you have.
posted by fire&wings at 8:50 AM on January 1, 2009

Are you the only remaining descendant, or are there others who might be interested in the items? Please make sure to give everyone in the family a chance, and don't assume they don't want it. It's very upsetting to be a family member who finds out your family heirlooms have been sold off for pennies because a relative didn't care and assumed you wouldn't either. I know I'd pay full market value to my extended family for some of the things they've sold at steep discounts -- so besides making your family happy, you might make more money too.
posted by katemonster at 8:59 AM on January 1, 2009 [10 favorites]

One thing you may want to check is if the previous owner of the heirlooms had a friend or acquaintance that shared their interest in those items. This may require some detective work on your part but could lead to a better home for the coins and an honest appraisal.
posted by JJ86 at 9:01 AM on January 1, 2009

I agree with katemonster. In my family, the only sure route to eternal ignominy is to sell heirlooms.
posted by jayder at 9:17 AM on January 1, 2009

We once had a vast pile of such things: paintings, jewelry, china and silver, useless knick-knacks, glassware. We sold it all by having a reputable local company that handles estate sales include the items in a sale. The company gave us the choice of selling it all to them outright for a flat amount, or taking a percentage of the sale proceeds. We did the latter.

They can handle anything from gems to junk, so you don't end up with just the crap left over. Anything worth selling sells during the estate sale, and at the end up the sale, a company that deals in low-end junk takes all the leavings.

They also handle appraising things--when there was some jewelry they didn't know how to value, they knew who would. They also pulled out some paintings they thought it might be worth selling separately through an art dealer (alas, they turned out not to be worth as much as we all hoped they might be).

I felt it was really worthwhile handling it this way, rather than trying to do the research, learning about a bunch of things I was almost completely ignorant about, and trying to sell it piece-by-piece myself. I have not had a moment of regret about handling it this way.
posted by not that girl at 9:35 AM on January 1, 2009

Hang on to them and try to find out the story behind them.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:32 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should either hold onto these things, or convey them to a relative. They might be traceable through old photographs, estate records, etc.
posted by Knappster at 1:11 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would just like to point out that if you get them appraised, an insurance appraisal will give you absolutely no idea of what you can sell them for, only what the insurance company is likely to reimburse you for them. This value is often disconnected from (a) what their actual sale price would be in an antique shop in your area and (b) what most reputable buyers are going to offer you. When you get an appraisal (and you should get one from two or three different places if your pieces are actually valuable), ask for the insurance appraisal, ask for what average sale prices are for the items for in your region, and ask what the appraiser is paying themselves and if they would buy them. If they can't/won't answer these three questions to your satisfaction, you probably don't want to be doing business with them or trusting their advice. Take your answers and triangulate with a healthy dose of common sense. Finally, remember, you are not an antique or coin dealer. Chances are, no one is going to offer you more than a healthy fraction of what they can themselves sell the items for within their own network.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:25 PM on January 1, 2009

To answer your questions based on my personal experience (I've worked in Estate Jewellery and small antique items for many manyyears):

What’s the best way of getting a handle on the value of these items?
Independent, accredited appraisers (either working independently or often at local auction houses, some of which will handle the whole spectrum of items you mentioned) may be able to give a few different values, and should indicate no interest in purchasing the items. Find appraisers that work out of offices, not stores. For example, a fair market value, which is essentially what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller in an open market with all conditions known with no pressure to sell is a good one to know, versus insurance or retail value, which you won't likely achieve by selling these items as a layperson. There are also appraisal specialists in family distribution values, if you do decide to offer any items within your family. Expect to pay for these if you come away with anything on paper, because these are skilled services and require time, research and experience. An auction house (such as the one I used to work for) might give an auction value, verbally, at no cost or obligation with the hope of receiving the item for sale eventually. We used to base these on what comparable items sold for in recent, similar auctions, using at least two reference points. You can also look for "Antiques Roadshow" type appraisal clinics given by various charities to raise money, and you'll get a quick verbal estimate by a professional, but nothing on paper usually.

What is the best way of selling them once I know their value?
Selling at auction is a pretty good way to go, as the buyers (the winning bid and all the underbidders) determine the ultimate price. There can be a starting bid - but there's no end in sight, and often desirable items go way over the estimates. An end-user will bid more than a dealer, who will hope to make a profit and won't bid beyond a certain percentage of the retail value. You can put a reserve price on the item, so that if it doesn't sell for a certain amount, it can be returned to you.

How can I avoid getting ripped off?
This is tricky, as values to old items fluctuate, as you've noted, due to economic conditions and trends in the market. But, as I often used to remind clients with inheritances, you have nothing invested in the item; and if they have no personal or sentimental value to you, all you have to decide is what amount you'd be happy to exchange the item for at minimum. There's nothing to rip off beyond the loss of the actual item. You're the seller, and you if you decide you don't want to sell something beyond a certain point, don't. Keep the items, and nothing is lost. Beyond that, if someone purchases it at your named price and makes a profit on it, you've still achieved what you'd like to and nobody is harmed in the transaction. Someone who hasn't invested the time, education, experience and costs involved in selling such items at a retail value isn't going to make the full-scale retail profits (keystone mark-up is usually something like 3.65 times cost plus excise on new items). Spending a small amount of your own money in identifying the items and values is part of your doing business, which is what it is when you become the seller of items. It's not a risk, it's an investment, and knowledge is power.

Are the markets for such items as bad as the rest of the economy right now?
The markets for investment items doesn't fluctuate much, and if it's jewellery within a certain price range, there's the Lipstick Index to consider. Certain coins will always be collectible and valuable, as there is a finite quantity and condition is usually the deciding factor. With jewellery, styles and trends will decide popularity, and material value changes in terms of the precious metals Fix and the Rapp Report for diamonds -- but desirable items of good quality will always sell. Buyers for resale are always willing to invest in good stock, no matter the economic times. If it's not saleable, you'll have a hard time any time.

Good luck with your items, I hope I've helped.
posted by peagood at 9:48 AM on January 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

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