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Photo illustration for appraisal story in Kansas City, Missouri. Unlike the show-up-with-your-old-stuff and hope-for-the-best “Antiques Roadshow,” getting appraisals for items in your home is real detective work: white-gloved research that involves hiring an appraiser (there’s a code of ethics they follow), looking through old books
Although they’re not mind readers, personal property appraisers know when they pick up the phone, the caller is eventually going to ask the same question: “What’s it worth?”
And in this shaky economy, the phones ring often.
“There’s an urgency to sell things because a lot of people are nervous about losing a job,” says Sharon Ring Rollins of Sugar Land, Texas, vice chairwoman of the American Society of Appraisers, one of the three main organizations that accredits appraisers.
The biggest misperception the public has about personal property appraisers is that they can immediately tell clients the values of pieces, similar to what happens on “Antiques Roadshow,” the public television program.
“We’re definitely not wizards with crystal balls who can just spit out the answer with a few computer keystrokes,” Rollins says. “It takes a lot of inspection and background work.”
And gritty work at that. The actual task resembles more the forensics on popular criminal-investigation shows than the quick televised “Roadshow” conclusions. Armed with a flashlight, appraiser Soodie Beasley fights spider webs and dust as she peers into the dark recesses of furniture to gauge wood oxidation, an indicator of age and consistency of parts. Her sleuthing includes pulling out drawers to inspect the carcass for dovetails. She also searches for labels to discover a piece’s maker.
Using a black-light wand, Beasley can tell whether a piece was ever painted. Black light also detects restorations; newly added paint fluoresces differently.
It’s also a useful tool for gauging the authenticity of decorative arts such as glass. American Brilliant Glass, made around 1880 to before World War II, will shine a greeny-yellow. Reproductions are usually white or soft purple under the glowing light.
“An appraiser must rely on a trained eye,” says Beasley, who specializes in furniture and decorative art appraisals. “Signs of wear must be in a logical pattern and not forced as if someone literally took sandpaper to it. In the old days, pieces were cut by stone, which gives a softer polished edge compared to diamond-bladed tools.”
Beasley’s professional-looking attire, typically a business suit, is usually covered in grime by the time she is finished with an inspection. Her hands get dirty, too, so she keeps a package of wipes in her tool kit, which also includes measuring tape and a magnifying glass.
Then Beasley has to write the appraisal, which includes a market analysis and other research. This often leads Beasley to computer databases or the library at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Appraisals are important documents that are used for insurance-replacement purposes or for taxes if items are charitable donations or part of an estate. Appraisers aren’t licensed through the government. But they pass the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice exam to become a member of an appraisal organization.
Many collectors and academics become appraisers since they’re already experts in their fields of interests. Patricia Graham of Lawrence, an appraiser who specializes in Asian art, has a doctorate in Asian and Japanese art and speaks Japanese. Rachael Blackburn Cozad, director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, is a fine arts appraiser. Beasley, who also works as an ass
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