What to do if you inherit a family heirloom

How to appraise it, insure it, and sell it

Published: June 2014

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For most of Deborah Keehn’s life, the collection of modern paintings her parents had amassed when the family lived in India during the 1950s was prized for sentimental reasons. “I don’t think any of us were thinking what it would mean” financially, recalls Keehn, a retired educator living in New York City.

Keehn and her five younger brothers were in for a surprise. By the time their father died in 2009 (their mother had died in 1996), India’s new wealth had created a market for modern Indian art. “People around the world were interested in paying big money for exactly the sort of stuff we owned,” Keehn said.

How big? The auction at the New York offices of Christie’s, one of the top auction houses in the world, brought in almost $2 million. But before getting to that point, Keehn, now 67, said, “We had to get serious about what we actually had and what it was worth, so we could decide what to do.”

Appraising it

If you inherit something that could be of great value—your great-aunt’s complete first-edition set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, for example, or a late-19th-century enameled silver samovar—have it professionally appraised to tell you what a buyer might pay and how much you should insure it for.

Find an appraiser who specializes in that area. “Almost anyone can hang up a shingle and say they’re an appraiser,” Linda Selvin, executive director of the Appraisers Association of America, said. Make sure he complies with Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice, i.e., he follows the guidelines put out by the Appraisal Foundation. The American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America, and the International Society of Appraisers enable you to find local, qualified professionals through a ZIP-code search on their websites.

A written appraisal can be expensive. Most professionals charge between $200 and $400 per hour to look over goods, research their background, and write a detailed valuation. A less-expensive option is an online estimation: You upload photos of the item and provide a detailed description, and the appraiser sends back an estimated valuation. For items that are easy to transport, auction houses often give free appraisals, as do jewelry stores, carpet merchants, and antiquarian book dealers.

Before you hire an appraiser, do your own digging, either on the Internet or through your public library. “Librarians are tremendously helpful at getting catalogues which will help you decide if your china dog is an antique Chelsea porcelain,” said Mary Miley Theobald, author of “Stuff After Death: How to Identify, Value, and Dispose of Inherited Stuff.” You can also go to the Kovels website, which provides an online price guide for more than 900,000 antiques and collectibles.

Insuring it

While you decide whether to keep or sell your heirloom, make sure it’s insured. Standard homeowner’s insurance policies provide some coverage, but many set a limit for the amount of coverage—say, $1,500 for jewelry—and most won’t fully cover one-of-a-kind items that can’t be replaced without authentic appraisals. “At the very minimum, you might need to increase your limit for personal property,” Dan Corbin, director of research at Professional Insurance Agents, a trade association, said. But to specifically cover a valuable object, you’ll need to either add an endorsement to your existing homeowners policy or purchase a separate floater policy with similar coverage. The cost ranges from $48 to $75 yearly per $10,000 of jewelry coverage or $100,000 of fine-art coverage, Corbin says.

Selling it

If you think your item is worth selling by a top auction house, such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s, send in a photo to see whether it agrees. At the other end of the spectrum are local auctioneers and antiques shops, but Theobald warns that their audience is most likely neighbors browsing for a good deal rather than serious collectors. In the middle are gallery owners who specialize in particular areas, such as Chinese carvings, and regional auction houses, which are large enough to categorize objects, rather than selling lots at a general auction.

When Theobald inherited her uncle’s German military uniforms, she contacted Cowan’s Auctions, a firm in Cincinnati whose specialties include historic firearms and early militaria. “The next thing I knew, they were auctioned off for more than I thought,” she recalls. You can find auctioneers by doing a ZIP-code search at auctioneers.org and auctionzip.com. Expect to pay a commission of between 20 and 50 percent of the sales price. You might also have to pay a net capital gains tax for collectibles of up to 28 percent.

If you want to sell the item yourself, be aware that eBay works best for goods that are easily shipped, such as antique linens and baseball cards. Selling a valuable heirloom isn’t always an easy decision. “There was a lot of sadness,” Keehn said. “But each of us gained something that we could translate into improving our own lives.” 

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