DECATUR, Ill. -- It's easy to get all wrapped up in antiques and then carried away by what we think they might be worth.
Who hasn't seen that appraisal on an episode of the PBS "Antiques Roadshow," now used as a promotional segment for the program, where the guy from Tucson, Ariz., brings in a circa 1840 to 1860 Navajo blanket he keeps draped on the back of a chair? Asked how much he thinks its worth, he has no idea. Then viewers can almost see the color drain from his face as he's told between $350,000 and $500,000.
We all want to be that man. Trouble is, ultra-valuable tribal blankets don't gallop along that often, so how are you going to know if you've got one? Or an Old Master painting? Valuable clock? Rare Turkish rug?
Some fans say scoring a massively oversubscribed ticket to a "Roadshow" episode is tougher than winning the Illinois Lottery, so not much chance of getting satisfaction there. But local professional help is at hand to tell you how much your old things are worth if you are willing to cross their hands with silver. Just don't bank too much on getting good news.
Decatur-based Edwin Walker is a personal property appraiser who is an accredited member of the International Society of Appraisers. You pay him to price antiquities, and he sticks rigorously to an honesty-is-the-best-policy approach, warts and all.
"I would say, in probably 75 percent of the situations, especially when people have me look at one item, like a painting, then 75 percent of the time, I am the bearer of bad news," he said. "It's about being diplomatic and good-natured and convincing enough to let them down easily."
Walker, who offers formal written appraisals and cheaper "verbal approximations of value," said clients are generally more accepting of the verdicts once they see the research and effort that goes into them. An associate professor of art at Millikin University teaching graphic design and computer graphics, he specializes in fine arts himself, but through his professional appraisers association, said experts in other fields are only a phone call away.
At the end of the day, he said, what he's selling is peace of mind. "People then have an idea; they know they don't have the Hope Diamond sitting around at home," he added. "If they are considering sending stuff to the Salvation Army or whatever, they want to know they made the right choices and no major mistakes."
Appraisers can be found in the phone book, but be wary of any situation in which an appraiser turns around and offers to buy the item. "That is a serious conflict of interest," Walker said.
Decatur appraiser and auctioneer Mike Hall has been in the business for more than 40 years and has seen more estates and estate goodies than he could shake a gavel at. In a sad commentary on the state of the American family, he said many of the appraisals he does involve the carving up and valuation of property, antiques and otherwise after a divorce, when people might be arguing over who gets what and what it's worth.
He prefers to avoid showing up at the family home when either party is present. That way, he avoids getting into verbal tussles with some unhappy spouse who insists, for example, that the Indian rug by the fireplace must be worth at least X number of dollars because they'd seen one just like it on TV.
"I usually tell them I charge by the hour, and this is costing you standing here and arguing with me and telling your story," he said. "Stories which I've heard many times."
Like Walker, he said the secret to a solid appraisal is fearless honesty, which he seasons with knowledge and lots of experience. He said Internet selling has radically reshaped the antiques and collectibles marketplace, but a real world local auction, advertised to the right specialist buyers far and wide, will still bring top prices if the lots deserve it.
"You will get it sold, and it'll bring what it's worth," he added.
Appraiser Virginia Cannon said part of the fun of the profession is that you never know what you will be asked to judge the worth of next. She recalls, for example, being asked to calculate the value of giant collections of dead bugs donated to the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois and Illinois State University in Normal.
Add both collections together, and Cannon was faced with more than 13,000 dead insects, but she wasn't creeped out. "No, bugs don't bother me," she said. "But, with all the formaldehyde, they kind of smelled bad."
A certified appraiser with the International Society of Appraisers and an accredited senior appraiser with the American Society of Appraisers, she said it helps to have a wide field of expert contacts you can turn to for help on pricing the unusual. The collections turned out to be valued in the thousands of dollars each, and Cannon said people who have valuable things they may never want to sell should still get them appraised for insurance purposes.
"To replace that item, you are going to have to go out to an antiques shop or somewhere and find it," she explains. "And you might have to pay through the nose to get it."