KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Although they're not mind readers, personal property appraisers know when they pick up the phone that each 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 accredit appraisers.
"I have had a great uptick in appraisals," says Jay Loiselle, an appraiser who specializes in furniture and paintings in Tampa. "Everyone's selling. Not that many are buying."
The biggest misconception 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 of Kansas City fights spider webs and layers of 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 for dovetails and searching 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.
Black light is also useful for gauging the authenticity of decorative arts such as glass. American Brilliant Glass, made from about 1880 to before World War II, will shine a greenish 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."
After her inspection, Beasley writes the appraisal, which includes a market analysis and other research. This often leads an appraiser to computer databases, the library or consulting with other appraisers who specialize in a certain area.
The appraisals themselves are important documents that are used for insurance-replacement purposes or for taxes if items are charitable donations or part of an estate. The appraisers who perform them, however, aren't licensed through the government.
"Anyone can give an appraisal," says Nancy Hilbert, a generalist appraiser in Brandon who often volunteers at Evaluation Saturday at the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa. But, she says, most qualified appraisers have credentials from at least one of three organizations: the Appraisers Association of America, the American Society of Appraisers or the International Society of Appraisers.
"These are not-for-profit organizations that give courses to their members and require continuing education," she says. Members are then required to pass a test. ("It's elective, it's expensive, and you actually have to study," Loiselle says.)
The course help only so much, Hilbert says. "They don't teach antiques. They teach what is required by law" to make an appraisal hold up in court or for insurance purposes.
In other words, you still need to make sure an appraiser knows her stuff. "Not all appraisers are created equal," Loiselle says.
Many collectors and academics become appraisers since they're already experts in their fields of interests. "When people are really dyed-in-the-wool collectors, they have more expertise in their own little bailiwick than 10 appraisers," Hilbert says.
Some receive degrees in the arts, and others have just grown up around antiques. "I'm 72," Hilbert says, "and I have been a museum junkie since I was 7."
If you call an appraiser because you might be interested in selling an item or giving it away in favor of a tax deduction, it's best at first to schedule a consultation rather than a full appraisal.
You won't receive written documentation about your items, but it can help you sort out what's what. A consultation fee is usually equal to an appraiser's hourly rate, which can range from $125 to more than $200 per hour. A fair-market value appraisal is typically required for any charitable donation of a valuable object and for gift- or estate-tax purposes. The appraisal can cost $400 or more, based on the hourly rate of the appraiser and the time needed to assess the item.
Knowing what your piece is worth and pricing it correctly doesn't guarantee a quick sale, however.
The value of antiques in this recession is down 25 to 75 percent in many categories. "Antiques of value are following the same formula as housing," Hilbert says. "Everything has gone down."
Loiselle agrees, but says the news is good for some. As more people choose to part with their treasurers, he says, "people with money are having a field day."
B Buckberry Joyce, Times lifestyles news editor, contributed to this report.