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Your Money: Selling the family silver

Is your antique of merely sentimental value, or is it worth a fortune? John Andrew on where to find out, and how to sell for the best price
Stories of lucky purchases at car boot sales make good reading - providing, of course, that you are not the person who sold the item. It is often forgotten that for every valuable antique purchased for a song, 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. Those who have not been following the market may be completely out of touch with prices.

Books such as Miller's Antique Price Guide, though helpful, can be misleading. The object illustrated may appear to be the same as your piece, but subtle differences escape the untrained eye. Perhaps your piece is earlier, is in better condition, or has an extremely rare feature and is therefore worth more. On the other hand, it may be a later copy, have some defect or be of inferior quality, all of which detract from the value given.

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 a specialist will give you advice with no obligation to auction the piece. Valuation days are also held periodically out of town. Details will be announced in your local press.

If you cannot get to a saleroom, simply send a photograph of the item, together with a description. Include measurements and a sketch of any identifying marks. If you know its history, also include details. As well as identifying the object, the specialist will estimate the price it is likely to realise.

Auction houses and dealers will also value items for insurance and probate. A fee of about 1 per cent, plus out-of-pocket expenses such as travel costs, is generally charged for this service. If 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) for a list of their members. Both organisations have high standards and you can be sure that you will be dealing with a professional of integrity. Lapada, which has more than 700 members, can advise you of specialist dealers in your area. The organisation categorises its members' interests into 250 specialist classifications and quickly matches an enquirer's needs to what its membership can offer.

Having established what a particular piece is worth, you then have to decide how you want to turn your object into cash. If you know collectors who may be interested, you can always try a private sale. It is also possible to advertise in magazines or newspapers, but selling to someone you do not know 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 - porcelain to a dealer in ceramics, etc. 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 price could have been obtained. Even when the sum received is fair, human nature is such that some individuals are never entirely happy with the price they obtain. For this reason, some dealers will buy from the public only if the seller names the price he or she wants.

If you do 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 higher than for an outright sale, though, of course, the length of time it will take to sell the piece will vary. Typically dealers charge around 10 or 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 sale itself 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 try to agree a reserve price with you. This is the sum below which the item will not be sold. If it does not sell, you will not be charged commission. Of course, you can stipulate a higher reserve, but if you do this and the lot does not find a buyer, you will then have to pay a commission based on your reserve price. Be realistic; high reserves do deter buyers.

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. At small auctions you may also find dealers operating a ring and agreeing not to bid against each other for certain items. You could be extremely pleased, or a little disappointed with the outcome.

Nowadays auction houses charge commission to both vendors and buyers. Sellers are typically charged 15 per cent plus VAT on the sale price. 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 may be a photographic fee.

Whatever course you decide to follow when selling antiques, it is important that you feel comfortable. This is my own 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.

The market for antiques is complex. To make sure that you get the best price does require both time and patience. By treading carefully through the labyrinth, and seeking expert advice, you can avoid the pitfalls. Nevertheless, do not be greedy. The market for choice pieces is buoyant, but the demand for run-of-the-mill items is somewhat sluggishn


Bada, 20 Rutland Gate , London SW7 (0171-589 4128); Lapada, Suite 214, 535 King's Road, London SW10 (0171-823 3511); Bonhams, Montpelier Street, Knightsbridge, London SW7 (0181-584 9161); Christie's, 8 King Street, St James's, London SWI (0171-839 9060); Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (0171-581 7611); Phillips, 101 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171- 629 6602); Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-493 8080).