eTiqueMarket Blogs

Online Appraisals – Take With a Grain of Salt

Dec 26 2020

Online appraisals can be a great deal, but they should not be treated as gospel. We share some interesting experiences we recently had with Just Answers.

One of the main limitations of online appraisals is that the appraiser does not have an opportunity to handle the item under consideration. While this situation does not always preclude correct results, some items are more liable to error than others, American Brilliant Cut Glass or jade being good examples of this caveat. In the case of cut glass, sometimes simple observation is not adequate to make a final determination of authenticity. Many times a black light is necessary to distinguish period glass from more recent productions.

Another warning is that not all appraisers are created equal. Some are more committed to their trade than others, meaning that they invest more time in learning and education. On places such as Just Answers, the experts are not of the same pedigree. Some of them are credentialed appraisers while others have been in the business, so to speak, but are not necessarily as academic as others.

But even among comparably equipped appraisers there can be material differences in the quality and correctness of answers.

In my case, I submitted a jade which I had recently purchased, which I assumed to be 20th C. Nonetheless, I don’t claim to be infallible in these matters, so I submitted it to Just Answers for an opinion. The expert who handled my question was a certified appraiser who had a specialty in Chinese jades.

She took some time to research it, for which I was grateful, after which time she concluded that it was a late Ming dynasty production. I was not expecting that response, so I submitted it to a leading national auction house Hindman (formerly known as Leslie Hindman Auctioneers). Its appraiser informed me indirectly that it was a 20th C. jade which, as such, held no interest to its clientele. Another appraiser who specializes in Orientalia for Antiques Roadshow drew a similar conclusion.

Both appraisers examined it only through the same photographs. Who was correct? On the one hand, Hindman is not in the business of turning away business, but on the other hand, it is well regarded for its expertise in Asian works of art. It has to be right to compete with the other larger players.

Just Answers needs to be right to stay in business, but its clientele do not strike me as sophisticated as the customers of the major auction houses. As such these people may be less inclined to critically question results of their “expert.”

My suspicion is that the Hindman appraiser is correct, but I would not bet prodigious sums of money on it - until the recent confirmation from the Roadshow appraiser.

Another case with Just Answers involved a pair of ceramic lions which I thought, reluctantly, for several years were Staffordshire from about 1820. Although they were not stereotypical naïve lions one associates with the genre, I figured that the huge volume of output from this famous district afforded variations aimed at a different type of customer.

So I submitted the lions to Just Answers with the leading question claiming that they were Staffordshire for which I sought confirmation. The expert replied simply with the value of a pair of Staffordshire lions and nothing else. The answer was just that – and not very helpful at all. But on the other hand, I wasn’t paying a lot for the advice.

When I rated the expert with a lukewarm grade, Just Answers prompted me to submit the lions for a second opinion which I accepted.

Quite dissatisfied with my answer, I shopped around for a couple of other qualified individuals elsewhere, both of whom were quite willing to help. The first was a dealer of high-end Staffordshire who assured me that they were mid-20th ceramics, most likely American, and not worth much at all.

Another expert was a very advanced collector of Staffordshire, an author of numerous books on the subject, and publisher of a website sharing her collection and wisdom. She kindly looked at them but responded that they appeared to be earlier than 20th C and possibly Continental. However, she qualified her response by stating these lions were not her specialty and apologized for not being helpful.

I appreciated her honesty, but she sparked a eureka moment. The lions were realistically modeled. So when my correspondent said Continental, I recalled the Animaliers bronze sculptors who championed realistic depictions of nature, lions being one of their mainstays as was the case with Louis Antoine Bayre.

 So I looked up some examples, and lo and behold I found my answer but felt compelled to move the date out to the late 19 th C. By this time I heard back from a second expert at Just Answers who delighted me by reporting that the date of the lions was c. 1820-50 and that the pair was an example of French yellow ware of which the French were quite fond. All of the pieces came together.

So what is the moral of these stories? Experts don’t always agree and are not always correct. Sometimes they are flat out wrong and don’t know about that which they speak. On the other hand, a very good one is worth his salt – and I place great value on salt. In the end you have to be your own expert – but that requires diligent work.