Ideas from the Front

Worthy Work

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It’s not every day that a client calls Maria Fernandez asking for help in finding out whether an old Chinese screen is valuable. But when it happens, she knows it’s time to get inventive.

A Louisville, Ky., estate planning lawyer, Fernandez has over the years helped clients get appraisals for Krugerrands, World War II-era gun collections and not-so-fine art. If she’s learned anything from her experience, it’s that sometimes a little perseverance pays off. “All it takes is a little creativity and a few phone calls,” she says.

With the popularity of TV shows like Antiques Roadshow, the Public Broadcasting Service series in which volunteer appraisers determine whether objects mined from the attics and basements of ordinary people are trash or treasure, lawyers say clients have come to appreciate that collectibles can command surprising values. Just how valu­able, however, often hinges on finding the right expert.


Art can be the hardest call, Fernandez says. when a client needs art appraised, she turns first to a local museum affiliated with the University of Louisville. The staff helps her find an appropriate appraiser for no charge. For items such as clocks, she often finds appraiser referrals through item- or brand-specific collectible societies.

Santa Monica, Calif., lawyer, gallery owner and art expert Jessica Darraby fields calls every week from other lawyers asking for her help evaluating clients’ estates. Though she is a qualified appraiser, she says she prefers to refer them to one of the major auction houses. “There are people … whose specialty is collectibles,” she says, which means they have expertise in evaluating specialized items such as furniture or sports memorabilia or personal items with celebrity pedigrees.

Baltimore lawyer Diane Leigh Davison has also used major auction houses to help authenticate and appraise clients’ finds. In one case, a client thought he had rare home-movie footage of Marilyn Monroe. Davison called a major auction house, which quickly dispatched an expert who specialized in all things blonde bombshell to view the footage. It turned out to be worthless.

Davison says auction-house experts can often determine an item’s authenticity over the phone or with a photo.

Davison, a collector herself of items such as Pez dispensers and View-Master reels, says she typically runs a search on the online auction site eBay when investigating the value of a collectible.

Such a site helps her quickly gauge an item’s rarity, she says. Last year, for example, Davison learned via eBay that her 1960s-vintage, football-head Pez dispenser was not as uncommon as she thought after a person tried to unload three cases of them through the site. Also, bidders can have varying motivations for buying—like finding a birthday gift—that don’t relate to an item’s actual value, says Fernandez. It can be difficult to take information gleaned from the Web and apply it to an item for which condition affects its value, says wine expert Marc Lazar of Cellar Advisors in St. Louis.

Lazar is often hired to appraise wine collections as part of estate planning or contested divorces, and his determination often hinges on how wine is stored (which can destroy its value) and whether a bottle is damaged (which does not immediately destroy its value). Darraby notes that lawyers also must be concerned with the kind of appraisal they need. What may suffice for a private sale won’t for tax or insurance purposes, she says.

No matter how kooky the collectible may seem, Davison advises lawyers to take everything seriously. That way, she says, its value can be adequately determined, even if that value is just sentimental.


Santa Monica, Calif., art lawyer Jessica Darraby, a former gallery owner and director who commented on art appraisals in "Worthy Work," August 2006, page 20 is not a qualified appraiser herself, as the article stated. The Journal regrets the error.
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