Treasure in your attic

COLLECTING: John Vincent introduces his new collector’s page with a guide to how to go about establishing the worth of a possession.

The chances of discovering that the old vase granny left you in her will is worth tens of millions of pounds are about as great as winning the National Lottery jackpot two weeks running. A piece of Imperial Chinese porcelain from a suburban semi which fetched £51.6m last November did get people rummaging through their attics and served to pose two questions: where do you go to discover if something is actually worth anything and how do you ensure you get a good price?

Almost always, the answer is to take it to a local saleroom. There are one or two exceptions, including specialised, minority fields such as rare records, football programmes or comics. But, in general, auction room specialists and the auction system provide the answer.

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Let us assume granny’s vase has to be sold. If you are unable or unwilling to take the object in, a phone call to the saleroom’s ceramics specialist will often be enough to learn whether or not it is of value. A lucid description should bring a ball park valuation, although the specialist is sure to want to make his opinion subject to confirmation on actually seeing and handling the piece.

Alternatively, take a colour photograph of the piece and of any makers’ marks and send it to the specialist. Include a note giving measurements and any damage and any known provenance.

If you have been left a collection of vases or, indeed, the contents of a house, then the saleroom specialist will need to visit you at home. Tell the specialist what exactly you want valued as two or more specialists covering different areas may be required.

Saleroom valuations are free and there is no obligation to sell. “So don’t feel you have to sell simply because someone has visited your house and spent time valuing objects,” says Chris Proudlove, who has worked in the auction business for more than 30 years, much of it for Sotheby’s and Bonhams. “The only time a charge is levied is in the case of written valuations for probate and insurance purposes. The auction system takes some beating. Because of the competitive nature of bidding, there is no upper limit to the price it could fetch. However, there is a safeguard against it being sold too cheaply. A ‘reserve’ is the confidential price agreed between the seller (the vendor) and the auctioneer before the sale, below which he is not permitted to sell. If the reserve is not reached, the object is ‘bought in’ and returned to the owner.” After a successful sale, the auctioneers deduct their commission. This is usually between 10 and 15 per cent of the sale total, although commission can be as high as 25 per cent so check first.

There are alternatives to the auctioneer. You could try to look it up online, offer it on eBay or take it to dealer. Reliable dealers will make you an offer, but might not be experts in that field and need to offer a price that will provide a profit when selling. The odds are stacked against inheriting anything to compare with that Chinese vase, but we live in hope.