How to make value judgments

A written appraisal offers one of the surest means of establishing the value of antique or high-quality collectible furniture. Here are some tips on finding and working with an appraiser.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Roger Epperly's dad became interested in antiques. "He wasn't really a collector," the Ankeny, Iowa, resident recalls, "but when he saw something he liked, he would buy it." Among those purchases were several pieces of Eastlake-style furniture, including the secretary at right.

Roger had always thought his parents' collection of Eastlake-style furniture might be valuable. When he inherited the pieces a few years ago, he figured the secretary might be worth as much as $1,500. To find out for sure, he turned to an appraiser. And he found he had guessed low.

Putting a value on a family heirloom is just one reason you might want an appraisal on antique or high-quality collectible furniture. "Insurance coverage is another important reason," according to Dennis Tesdell, an antique-furniture appraiser and consultant in West Des Moines, Iowa. "Without a specific fine-art appraisal on file with your insurance company, your chances of fair (or, perhaps, any) reimbursement in the event of fire, damage, or theft are slim." An appraisal also comes in handy if you donate an item to charity.

You'll find appraisers listed in the Yellow Pages. Look for one associated with a major professional organization for appraisers of antiques, fine art, and personal property, listed below. Or, call the organizations for appraisers near you.

  • American Society of Appraisers, 800/ASAVALU or 703/478-2228
  • Appraisers Association of America, 212/889-5404
  • International Society of Appraisers, 888/472-4732 or 206/241-0359

When you contact an appraiser, itemize what you want appraised and explain the reason--insurance, estate, or sale, for instance. This gives the appraiser an idea of how long the job will take, and verifies that the one you're talking to has knowledge of and experience with the artifacts you want to have valued.

Appraisals are not inexpensive. "Expect to pay from $75-$250 per hour for a qualified appraiser's time in your home," Dennis says. Travel time is often extra. "Don't deal with appraisers who base their fee on a percentage of the object's value or those who offer to buy the piece at their appraised value," Dennis warns.

The appraiser will spend some time at your location inspecting the items and taking notes, perhaps even making sketches or taking photos. (You might take small things to the appraiser's office.) You won't be told a value yet, however. "Market research and pricing are always done back at the appraiser's office, where reference books and catalogs are at hand," Dennis points out.

Later, you'll receive the appraiser's report, which should include the following:

  • a cover page, with your name and address and the date, location, and purpose of the appraisal,
  • a statement by the appraiser that he or she has no personal or financial interest in the subject items,
  • a summary of the appraiser's credentials and professional affiliations,
  • a typewritten appraisal report, signed and dated by the appraiser.

Some appraisers will include photos of selected items, too. If not, it's a good idea to take your own photos to attach to the appraisal report.

Englishman Charles Locke Eastlake disliked ornate Victorian furniture. Even more, he despised "speedy fashion changes," which seemed to go hand in glove with mechanized manufacturing. Around 1870, in hope of improving public taste--particularly among Americans--he espoused a style for machine-made furniture that was rooted in simple Medieval English designs. Instead of elaborate carving, he favored incised decoration based on Gothic and Oriental themes, as shown in the photo at right.

Many American furnituremakers--seeking fashionable new temptations for the buying public--brought broad interpretations of Eastlake's ideas to the market. Often, ornamentation far exceeded the simplicity the designer envisioned. Eastlake himself never manufactured or marketed furniture, but pieces reflecting his influence are valued for representing a turning point in design philosophy.

Written by: Larry Johnston with Dennies Tesdell Photographs: Hetherington Photography

the art of appraisal
Carved decorations helpidentify this secretary as anEastlake-style piece, datingfrom the 1880s or 1890s.