Should I sell this?

Say you own an heirloom. How do you find out what it's worth?

A few years ago, Hazel inherited a piece of jewellery from her aunt. Single and retired, she is reasonably comfortable financially, with a company pension to supplement her state pension. She also has "adequate" savings and investments which produce an income she uses for holidays abroad.

However, recently a friend required a hip replacement. To avoid a lengthy wait to have the operation undertaken by the NHS, he went privately. The cost shocked Hazel, and it set her wondering what she would do if she were in the position of wanting a sizeable capital sum in the future.

Although she had intended to leave the heirloom to her niece, she wondered whether she should not use the brooch to raise some cash instead of touching her savings and investments. If she decided upon that route, what were the alternatives available to her? There are three possibilities: to consign the piece to auction; sell it direct to a dealer, or, if she were unsure as to whether she really wanted to sell the brooch, but still needed cash while she made up her mind, she could borrow against the piece from a pawnbroker.

While Hazel knew all about the brooch, she had no real idea of its value, though she appreciated it was thousands as opposed to hundreds. It was made at the turn of the century by Faberge's work-master August Hollming. The piece is formed as a diamond-set ribbon, the upper bow suspending a cabochon "Mecca-stone" within a circular diamond-set loop. That curves to form another smaller bow suspending two smaller "Mecca-stones". The brooch is in its original wooden silk-and-velvet-lined fitted box.

So off we set to Sotheby's in Bond Street to see Haydn Williams, the auction house's Faberge expert. He knew what it was immediately, calling the "Mecca-stones" by their correct name of chalcedony. "This is a charming piece, and it is so nice to have it in its original box," he said. "It is also fully marked, and bears an inventory number."

Unknown to Hazel, the number 777442 was minutely and discreetly scratched on the side of the setting holding one of the "Mecca-stones". That was the House of Faberge's stock number, and at the state archives in St Petersburg, it would be possible to see who originally bought the piece.

"Faberge jewellery has recently been doing very well at auction," Haydn said. "But we always err on the side of caution when giving estimates. I think the brooch would sell for 15,000 to 20,000 Swiss francs [pounds 6,500- pounds 8,600]." The charge for selling it would be 10 per cent of the hammer price, and about pounds 100 for the illustration in the catalogue. There is also an optional insurance fee of 1 per cent of the hammer price.

Hazel wanted to know when the sale would take place and whether Sotheby's would let her have any of the money straightaway. The next specialist Faberge auction was scheduled for November; if the piece sold, she would receive her proceeds in December. Sotheby's would not advance any money before the sale.

The next port of call was Iconastas, dealers in Russian art in Piccadilly Arcade, opposite the Royal Academy. Chris Martin examined the brooch and remarked, "Exquisite". He knew precisely what it was and offered Hazel pounds 10,000 cash immediately. However, he recommended her to sell the piece at auction because the market for quality jewels by Faberge was currently strong, particularly in North America.

Although Geneva was the traditional place for selling such items, he thought the piece should be sold in New York. He noted that the serious buyers in the last round of Faberge auctions in Switzerland came from across the Atlantic. He could see the piece realising up to pounds 20,000 on a good day. The brooch could be consigned to a New York sale through the London offices of either Christie's or Sotheby's.

When considering the sale of an heirloom, homework is essential. Had Hazel not appreciated the value of the piece, and known nothing about it, she could have sold it for a song to a person who also did not appreciate its true worth. So just as people shop around when buying anything, they should not rush when selling. And of course, not all antiques are worth a fortunen

Next week, Hazel takes her brooch to a pawnbroker.

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