Experts quote a price for family treasures: Recession and high insurance premiums have encouraged people to seek a valuation of their heirlooms. Dalya Alberge reports

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The Independent Online
A WOMAN clutching two crumpled Safeway bags shuffled into Bonhams in Knightsbridge, central London. From one she pulled out a large framed print and placed it before the girl at the valuation desk. A print specialist was summoned to inspect it. Within seconds, he broke the news to her - gently. 'It's a photographic print. I'm afraid it's not worth much.'

She was one of 100 people who visited the auction house that day. Others brought in jewellery, miniatures, paperweights, a Toulouse-Lautrec etching and some paintings. 'You won't sell it for less than pounds 50, will you?' implored one woman, who was told that her 19th-century sketch of an angelic girl could fetch about pounds 80. The desperation in her voice suggested that she was among those who need to sell.

But like all auction houses, Bonhams' valuation service is free whether or not people intend to consign something to them. Some are curious; others need an estimate for insurance purposes. But the recession and high insurance premiums have encouraged increasing numbers of potential sellers to come forward.

As the woman with the photographic print left, a smartly-dressed man turned up at the desk and fished out from his briefcase an enormous silver soup ladle. 'Danish,' the Bonhams silver man said. 'Very beautiful. I'd say it's worth about pounds 200 . . .' And so the day went on.

Eric Knowles, director of ceramics at Bonhams, said: 'When I started in 1980, I'd say how much something was worth and people would say: 'Really, as much as that?'. Today, they say: 'Is that all?' I'm responsible for more people cancelling world cruises than booking them.'

But stories abound of people bringing in objects for valuation and being very pleasantly surprised. A few weeks ago, a York man turned up with a violin that had been in the family for years: he had no idea of its worth. Bonhams identified it as an instrument by Carlo Giuseppe Testore, one of the most famous 18th-century Milanese masters, and sold it last month for pounds 37,400, a world record for that maker. In September's jewellery sale, a sapphire and diamond brooch made pounds 377,000: it too came in over the counter, brought in by an elderly lady who thought it might be worth pounds 20,000 at the most. Two weeks ago, a young girl came in with a collection of nine miniatures, a family heirloom. She wanted a second opinion after a dealer said he could give her pounds 1,000 for the lot. Bonhams is selling it in March for an estimated pounds 10,000 to pounds 15,000.

Elaine Dean, secretary-general of the British Antique Dealers' Association, said although there were bound to be unscrupulous dealers, 'we always say, shop around. Always buy from a member of a reputable association. We vet our membership highly'.

But the popularity of the auction houses' travelling valuation day has waned, partly due to television and the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. Mr Knowles, one of its experts, said that he is generally called down to Bonhams' valuation desk to look at between 5 and 20 items in his specialist area. In contrast, thousands attend the Antiques Roadshow: 5,000 people turned up to one show in Liverpool, some queued for up to three-and-a-half hours. Mr Knowles said: 'On the Antiques Roadshow, you don't get out of your chair. It's like diamond-mining: you look through thousands of tons of rock and have a few diamonds to show at the end.

'You often have a situation where you could make three programmes out of the objects we see. We narrow them down to 15 items. Some 25 per cent of what we're shown . . . is worth pulling out of the bag.' The specialists recognise 99 per cent of objects instantly. 'You develop a photographic memory,' he said.

But his heart sinks when he sees Japanese eggshell china. He sees a lot of Japanese eggshell china. 'Everybody's grandma bought a set in the 1920s and 1930s,' he said. 'Because it is wafer-thin, it went into the china cabinet and remained there - safe.' He also sees endless albums of cigarette-cards, of which 'very few are worth more than pounds 10', and postcard albums, of which 'the vast majority are of little interest'.

But Mr Knowles has a stock way of breaking bad news: 'I wouldn't want some snobby holier-than-thou expert telling me that something of mine is a load of rubbish. I'm diplomatic and tell people that I'm sure it has sentimental value.'

(Photograph omitted)