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A Guide to Online Appraisals

Online personal-property appraisals cost far less than do physical appraisals, but we found that online appraisals are suitable only if you use them for your own education.

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If you’re about to buy, donate, inherit, sell or pay taxes on a valuable item of personal property, such as an antique, it’s smart to consult a personal-property appraiser to determine an accurate value of the item in question.

You can bring your item to a personal-property appraiser, who typically charges $150 per hour and requires at least 2 hours for a thorough appraisal. You also can capture high-resolution images of your item and send them to an online personal-property appraiser, which typically charges $9–$45 per item (the higher the amount, the faster the turnaround) and promises an appraisal in as little as 3 hours.

The online option sounds good, right? Not so fast. We spoke with 24 appraisal experts, examined 20 online appraisers and sent images of four family heirlooms to four websites for appraisal. We found that consumers should consider a lot more than just price and the speed of the appraisal when it comes to online personal-property appraisals.

PHOTO LIMITS. Judith Miller, who is a renowned personal-property appraiser and a frequent contributor to the British version of the TV program “Antiques Roadshow,” often tells a story about a friend of hers who hired an online personal-property appraiser to examine a series of photographs to determine the value of an antique plate. The online appraiser concluded that the plate was a 19th-century copy of a 17th-century Delftware plate and was worth about $70. Miller’s friend took the same plate to an appraiser at an auction house, and that appraiser found that the plate actually was an original Delftware plate that commemorated the coronation of King Charles II and was worth almost $204,000. Without that follow-up appraisal, Miller’s friend might have sold the plate for $203,930 less than it was worth.

Miller’s story highlights the problems with online personal-property appraisals. If an appraisal is conducted from photographs (instead of in person), the appraiser’s valuation is limited to what he/she sees in those photographs and the information that the consumer provides about the item. Even the highest resolution digital image compresses important information, such as a hairline crack or a loss of paint, says Jane Jacob, who is the head of New York University’s appraisal-studies program.

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A photograph doesn’t allow an appraiser to use a machine to inspect an item’s composition, as can be necessary with items such as ceramics, fine art, gemstones, tapestries—and 17th-century Delftware plates. A photograph also doesn’t allow an appraiser to look at an item that has electrical or mechanical parts and verify that the item works or to confirm that something is authentic, such as an autograph. Meredith Meuwly, who is the director of appraisal services for Heritage Auctions, which is the largest collectibles auctioneer in the world, tells us that 95 percent of all items must be appraised in person to get an accurate value for an auction. Authenticated and graded collectibles, such as baseball cards and comic books, make up the other 5 percent, Meuwly says.

Still, online appraisals cost far less than the $150 per hour (plus the cost of transportation) that you can expect to pay if you meet with an appraiser in person. The six online appraisers that we interviewed for this article wouldn’t give us a number for how many people use their service, and we didn’t find any independent data that track appraisal usage. However, the six online appraisers tell us that they’re busier now than ever before.

Mike Wilcox, who opened one of the first online appraisers in 1996, tells us that the websites increased in popularity since 2008 because of improvements in digital-camera resolution and the speed with which one now can email a number of high-resolution images. Another factor in the websites’ growth, Wilcox says, is the popularity of TV programs, such as “American Pickers,” which are based on the idea that the stuff that you have sitting around your home might be hidden treasures. When we examined 20 online appraisers, we found that most had some sort of message pitching the idea that your home could contain forgotten relics and that the online appraiser could tell you what they were worth—for a price.

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