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Make sure it doesn't go for a song

John Andrew on how to value an antique and sell it
Stories of lucky purchases at car boot sales make good reading, providing you are not the person who sold the item in the first place. It is often forgotten that for every antique purchased for a song and then sold for a fortune, there is at least one loser. If you are thinking of selling an antique, make sure you do not lose out.

Before selling anything, it is essential to have some idea of its value. Active collectors, of course, do have the advantage. However, those who have not been following the market for some time will be completely out of touch with prices. Books such as Miller's Antique Price Guide can be of assistance, but they can sometimes be misleading. Although the picture of the object in the book may appear to be the same as your piece, there could be subtle differences.

However, there is an easy way of finding out what your antiques are worth and it's free. The larger auction houses all give on-the-spot advice and valuations. Simply go to their front counter and you will be given helpful advice from a specialist without any obligation to consign the piece to auction. Valuation days are also held periodically out of town. Details will be announced in your local press.

If you cannot get to a saleroom, send a photograph of the piece, together with a description. Include measurements and a sketch of any marks.

If you know its history, also include details. As well as identifying the object, an opinion will also be given as to the price it is likely to realise at auction.

Auction houses and dealers will also value items for insurance and probate. A fee in the region of 1 per cent, plus any out-of-pocket expenses such as travel costs, is generally charged for this service. Should you not know a reliable local antique dealer, contact the British Association of Antique Dealers (Bada) or the London Association of Provincial Antique Dealers (Lapada) and request a list of their members. Both organisations have very high standards.

Lapada, which has more than 700 members, will advise you of the dealers in your area who specialise in particular subjects. The organisation categorises its members' interests into 250 specialist classifications and matches an inquirer's needs to what its membership can offer.

Having established what a particular piece is worth, you then have to decide the way in which you are going to turn your object into cash. If you know collectors who may be interested, you could always try a private sale. It is also possible to advertise in magazines or newspapers, but such a route does present a potential security risk.

The better course is to offer the piece to a dealer, or to sell at auction. While there are some dealers who will buy anything, if you have something desirable it is best to offer it to a specialist. Selling direct to the trade does mean that you will receive a specific sum instantly.

However, there could always be the nagging feeling that a better sum could have been obtained. Human nature is such that certain individuals are never happy with the price they obtain for anything. For this reason, some dealers will only buy from the public if the sellers name their price.

Should you not need the money immediately, you can always ask a reputable dealer to sell the item for you on commission. The sum you receive will normally be better than for an outright sale, though of course, the length of time it will take to sell the piece will be unknown. Typically dealers charge around 10 to 20 per cent for this service. Naturally you should agree the minimum sum which you are prepared to accept and obtain written evidence of your arrangement.

The final method of selling is at auction. Part of the auctioneer's skill lies in putting an object into a sale which will give you the best possible price. Even at the larger auction houses, which hold regular specialist sales, the period between consigning the item and the actual sale can be eight weeks or more. There will also be a further wait of up to four weeks before you receive the proceeds.

Normally when you put an item in a sale, the auctioneer will agree a reserve with you. This is a sum below which the item will not be sold. Should it not sell, you will not be charged commission. Of course, you can stipulate a higher reserve. However, if you do this and the lot does not find a buyer, you will have to pay a commission based on your reserve price.

Naturally, the price at which the object sells depends on the bidding on the day. It is not unknown for two equally determined potential buyers to battle for possession, seemingly at any price. Equally, a very desirable object can attract little interest. You could be extremely pleased or a little disappointed with the outcome.

Auction houses charge both vendors and buyers. Sellers are typically charged a commission of 15 per cent (plus VAT). Some auction houses have a minimum charge. Additionally, there is an insurance charge, normally 1 per cent of the hammer price. If the item is illustrated in the catalogue, there will normally be a photographic fee.

Whatever course you decide to follow when selling antiques, it is important that you feel comfortable. This is my experience of consigning an object to auction. The gentleman at the first saleroom remarked: "A charming piece. It's likely to realise pounds 400." His colleague was not as enthusiastic so I moved on. At the second, an arrogant individual dismissed it with: "Only worth pounds 150." I disagreed. The specialist at the third described it as "exquisite". We agreed on a reserve of pounds 500 and it sold for pounds 600.

Contact addresses:

BADA, 20 Rutland Gate London SW7.

Tel: 0171-589-4128

LAPADA, Suite 214, 535 Kings Road, London SW10. Tel: 0171-823-3511

Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7. Tel: 0181-584-9161

Christie's, 8 King Street, London SWI. Tel: 0171-839-9060

Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7. Tel: 0171- 581-7611

Phillips,101 New Bond Street, London W1. Tel: 0171-629-6602

Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1. Tel: 0171-493-8080