Online Auctions: How Did Our Valuables Fare?

We took a closer look at online appraisers to judge their accuracy and thoroughness. In November 2013, we sent images of four family heirlooms of unknown origin and unknown value to four online appraisers. In January 2014, we brought the four valuables to Judith Martin, who is an appraiser and the former president of International Society of Appraisers, for evaluation at her shop, The Perfect Thing.

We started in November 2013 by posting our four items on InstAppraisal.com, which is a free online appraisal forum in which consumers can post images of their items. Any of InstAppraisal’s 100,000 members, or one of InstAppraisal’s staff appraisers, can comment on posted images. However, InstAppraisal doesn’t guarantee that a post will receive a comment. In fact, we waited 2 months and didn’t receive a single comment.

All online appraisers that charge a fee guarantee feedback, which we received. Here’s what we learned about our four items and what Martin determined during her in-person appraisals:

Cotton print with ducks.

Online appraisal value: $70-$90. In-person appraisal value: $70.

This fabric was bought at a street market in Trinidad in 1964. A ValueThisNow online appraiser responded within 48 hours, said he/she was unable to find comparable items and refunded the appraisal fee. Richard Johnston, who is the founder of ValueThisNow, tells us that this happens in 1 out of every 100 requests.

A Value My Stuff appraiser responded within 48 hours. The online appraiser said our item was a printed cloth for dresses, was from the 1960s and probably was made by Flisco, which is a Dutch company that’s famous for its printed cotton exports to the West Indies. Value My Stuff said it was worth $70–$90 in replacement cost value (RCV).

Martin agreed that our item is a printed cloth that probably was intended for a dress or a turban. However, the name of the textile-maker is Vlisco rather than Flisco, she said. She told us that it was worth about $70 in RCV. “It’s not something that I would appraise,” she said. “It’s very colorful and very interesting, but it would cost more to find a value for this item than what it’s worth.”

 

Croatian tablecloth.

Online appraisal value: $50-$80. In-person appraisal value: $40-$50.

Family lore says our Croatian tablecloth, which measures 5 feet by 7 feet, came from the island of Krk and dates to the late 1800s.

An appraiser at Auction Wally believed that the tablecloth dated to the early 1900s but gave us little else in terms of details. A Value My Stuff appraiser said the tablecloth dated to between 1920 and 1950, was worth $50–$80 and that there was “nothing to indicate it has any historic or cultural history.”

Martin told us that an appraiser must touch the tablecloth and inspect the stitching on the reverse side to determine whether it’s handmade or machine-made, which could make a difference in terms of the value. She said the tablecloth was American rather than European and that it probably was bought in the United States sometime after 1918. The gold fabric color was a popular hue for machine-woven fabric in the late 1910s, she said. “It’s got a little bit of pink on it where it was washed, it’s not signed and it’s not a hand-done ethnic piece,” Martin said. “But if you found it in a vintage shop, it would be worth about $40–$50.”

 

Lion and panther sculptures.

Online appraisal value: up to $1,475. In-person appraisal value: up to $1,300.

The two bronze-color big-cat sculptures were bought at an estate sale in Winchester, Ill., in the 1950s. Given the dimensions and weight of each sculpture and eight images that included a depiction of the markings on the sculptures, ValueThisNow came to the conclusion that the figures were U.S.-made copies (circa 1940) of two pieces by French sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. The online appraiser assumed that the sculptures were “bronze and not plaster” and said they had an RCV of $1,475.

Martin said the sculptures were bronze-plated plaster. “You wouldn’t be able to tell that from a photograph,” she said. “Bronze sculptures like this would weigh a ton, but these are made to look bronze.” She said the markings were from Pompeian Bronze, which made bronze-plated sculptures in New York up until 1929. Each piece was worth about $600–$650 in RCV, she said.

 

Nine blue-glass vases.

Online appraisal value: $25-$40. In-person appraisal value: $300.

We sent an image and the dimensions of nine blue glass-enameled vases to Value My Stuff. The online appraiser believed that the glasses were Bohemian or English, dated to the late-19th century and were worth $25–$40 each. That’s all that he/she was able to determine from our images and information.

Martin looked at the vase that was in the best shape and determined that it was English Bristol glass. She found a mark on the underside of the vase that we didn’t notice and that would be impossible to see from a photograph. She said the vase alone was worth $300 in RCV. “In the current market, these are not very popular,” she said. “What was once worth $800 is now down to $300.”