There are a number of factors to consider when you need to get an antique or collectible appraised. Sometimes it's a matter of just knowing how much something is worth before you attempt to sell it. Or, in the instance of a family heirloom, finding out how much it's worth for your own information. Other times you may need a more formal appraisal for insurance or other purposes.
The range of valuation tactics spans from doing it yourself to hiring a professional to work up a written appraisal.
With a little forethought, it's easy to decide which path to take.
Honestly, finding a value range for many antiques and collectibles doesn't have to be complicated. Say you're wanting to know how much something is worth before you put it up for sale in an online auction or pass it along to a family member. In cases like these, you don't need a written appraisal.
The main thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to skip any of the steps a trained appraiser would use to derive an estimation of value, and there are a number of them.
If researching values on your own just isn't something you feel comfortable tackling, you do have other options.
Visit an Appraisal Fair
Sometimes a trained appraiser will visually inspect an item, do minimal research, and/or rely on their own expertise to determine the worth of an antique. They then offer a verbal quote without written documentation.
This is referred to as a "verbal estimation of value" among professionals. This type of valuation is most often provided at local appraisal fairs and presented on television shows featuring appraisals, like "Antiques Roadshow."
Some local antique shows will coordinate appraisers to work on a panel for a day providing quick valuations for a small fee.
You can watch local advertisements or subscribe to mailing lists for your favorite shows to keep an eye out for these events. If your needs are a bit more immediate, and you can't wait for one of these types of events to pop up in your area, you have other options.
Use an Online Appraisal Service
Many appraisers have become quite adept at evaluating antiques using detailed photographs submitted through online appraisal services. While these types of appraisals may not be acceptable for insurance purposes, they will give you a short written report on what you have and what the object is worth. ValueThisNow.com is one service to consider for a reasonably priced appraisal like this.
There are also a number of online services offering free appraisals. Because these websites are inundated with questions, the turnaround may not be quick and you probably won't get much information about what you're submitting. Nevertheless, you can try a site like AppraisalDay.com. Many high end auction houses offer free appraisals for items they're considering accepting on consignment as well.
Hire a Professional Appraiser
The most common reason to hire a personal property appraiser is to obtain written documentation for insurance purposes.
Individuals contemplating an investment in a very valuable antique or collectible, or wanting to sell a similar item, may want to substantiate the value and have documentation they can present with the piece. Additionally, situations such as the division of property through divorce, determining value for a charitable tax deduction, or determining estate taxes for inherited antiques over a high threshold can all require a written appraisal.
A professionally trained appraiser, like those educated by the International Society of Appraisers (isa-appraisers.org), can guide you in the type of appraisal you need. Appraisers will sometimes ask clients upfront whether they require a written appraisal or a verbal estimation of value, and should charge accordingly for the service provided. A verbal estimation, of course, should cost substantially less than a comprehensive written appraisal.
Remember though, an appraiser should never make an offer to buy an item they value through a written appraisal. To do so is considered unethical. If an antique dealer gives you an off-the-cuff verbal estimation of value, they can follow up with an offer. This is a situation when doing some research on your own regarding value before approaching a dealer with your item will be helpful to you.