Valuable Treasures in Your Attic

It's the packrat's version of the American Dream — finding something in your attic that turns out to be a treasure.

It's also a mania that's being fueled by public television's wildly successful program Antiques Roadshow. In city after city, mobs of people line up with their heirlooms, hoping the Roadshow appraisers will declare their little knickknacks as valuable treasures.

It all looks so friendly, straightforward — even makes you want to clean out your closet. But in a three-month hidden-camera investigation, PrimeTime discovered the real world of antiques can be cutthroat, leaving you with only a fraction of what your treasure is worth.

’The Antiques Business Is a Business’

For example, a PrimeTime investigator took an Art Deco silver Tiffany tray to a Manhattan dealer who paid $45 for it, saying it would retail for $75. The next day the dealer sold the tray to an undercover buyer from PrimeTime for $695.

In Hudson, N.Y., where fine antique stores line the streets, three Historical Staffordshire plates were sold to a dealer for $75, and then sold back to an undercover PrimeTime investigator for $890.

Although PrimeTime did find some dealers who offered fair estimates of the worth of our antiques, the results of the investigation were startling. According to antiques writer Bob Jackman, when going to an antiques dealer, people should be "as suspicious as they are when they go into a real estate agent or when they go into a car dealership."

Helaine Fendelman, former president of the Appraisers Association of America, agrees. "The antiques business is a business. It's buyer beware, caveat emptor — it absolutely always has been," she says.

Some Tips From the Experts:

Hire an appraiser. "You cannot afford not to have your item appraised," says Fendelman. Though appraisers' fees range from $75 to $350 an hour, she says, hiring one will still be worth your while.

Select an appraiser with expertise in the particular area you need, suggests Fendelman, and never hire an appraiser who also wants to buy your item. "Wise consumers directly ask an appraiser about his area of strength before divulging the type of items to be appraised," says Fendelman.

If you decide not to hire an appraiser, do your homework! "Read books, go to museums and antiques shows," says Fendelman.

If you're going to sell through a dealer, try to find a few who specialize in your type of object. [See Web links at right.] Try to get bids from at least three dealers.

Consider giving your item to a dealer on consignment. The consigner typically receives 60 to 80 percent of the selling price. If you sell to a dealer outright, expect to receive about 50 percent of the retail value.

Ask the dealer what your item is worth — not what he or she would pay.

Refrain from desperate or disinterested language such as, "I have to sell this," or "I want to get rid of this."

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