Copyright 2009 – Kimberly Clay

On November 6th, I joined an intimate group of collectors, fine jewelry and antiques enthusiasts at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center in Maysville, KY, to hear a presentation from Patti Geolat, president and senior partner in Geolat & Associates of Dallas, TX, on misrepresentation in the antique jewelry world entitled “Smoke and Mirrors…Is It Cartier or is it Cart-Away?”.

I so enjoyed the session that I thought I might share with you some of the evening’s discourse. So, get a nice mug of coffee (or other favored beverage), and follow along as I summarize what I heard. This is a long read, but I trust you’ll find the contents informative and beneficial. Or, it may be that I just want to torture you.

After only a few moments of what became an hour-and-a-half discussion on the appointed evening, I soon realized that Ms. Geolat’s level of knowledge and expertise in antique jewelry appraisal is considerable. And her eagerness to share with collectors a small portion of what she knows to help us gain better understanding of collecting, buying or selling antique jewelry was quite apparent. She enjoys what she does.

Her firm, Geolat & Associates, specializes in the valuation of gems and jewelry, fine jewelry, 19th and 20th century furniture, china, glass, silver, Avant-garde design, fine art and more. Ms. Geolat is an expert with more than twenty-five years experience, has held faculty positions at both Indiana University and the University of Texas, was made a Fellow of the Gemological Association of Great Britain, and is a graduate Gemologist from the Gemological Institute of America.

After the evening’s discussion began (Ms. Geolat insisted that she wasn’t going to lecture) with a few questions from audience members, Patti (by this point in the presentation, we were on first-name basis) talked about some misconceptions about antique collecting in general.

Myth #1
Everything old is valuable.

Many people believe that because something is old, it is valuable based on that characteristic alone. But that assumption is incorrect. Patti explained that while age can be a contributing factor to the value of an item, its age, in and of itself, doesn’t render a thing valuable. There have to be additional factors that would make it so.

Myth #2
Because “Grandma” had it (or it was found in grandma’s house or among grandma’s things), an item is old and valuable.

Often people assume that because grandma is old, everything she possessed must also be old, and therefore valuable (See Myth #1). It simply isn’t true. People acquire things throughout their lifetimes; not only at one particular point. Therefore, you can’t make assumptions about the age and/or value of items without investigating their worth.

Myth #3
Because a thing is “old” is must be “real” (authentic).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people loved the look and designs of fine jewelry, however weren’t always able to afford to purchase them. So, imitations or reproductions were made, not for the purpose of fooling or defrauding anyone, but rather to give those people who wanted the “look” of gemstones and fine jewelry (but couldn’t afford them) the opportunity to have them through “copies”.

Myth #4
Family or oral history about an item is fact.

While oral history can be a great tool in investigating authenticity, establishing provenance and authenticating a piece as genuine, making a determination of the authenticity and value of a piece must be done through independent means. Patti discussed several experiences where clients have come to her assuming items are one thing, or worth a particular value based solely on family history. In the cases she shared, the individuals were disappointed to learn that what they thought was true about their item, wasn’t. She cautioned collectors to seek independent expert opinion before assuming the authenticity, value or worth of any item.

As you become more involved with antiques and collectibles, there are a few terms that are often a source of confusion. Here are some that Patti outlined in her presentation.

Estate Jewelry – People don’t often know exactly what this term means. Most commonly, individuals believe that it denotes the age or value of jewelry, or means that the jewelry comes from the estate of someone who has died. It doesn’t. The term “estate jewelry” (or “estate furniture”, “estate property” etc.) means nothing more than the item was “pre-owned”, so collectors should be careful not to read anything else into the term and its meaning.

Vintage Jewelry – Denotes jewelry that “has some age”. It’s a term used to identify jewelry not old enough to be “Period” (articles of jewelry that exemplify the design style of the times in which they were created, such as Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco).

Antique Jewelry – A common definition of “antique jewelry”, with which most collectors are familiar, is jewelry which is at least 100 years old (although the term “antique” is used to describe some items obviously not of that age – “antique car” for example). Patti informed the audience that purists consider that antique jewelry or the term “antique” should only be used to denote pre-“industrial revolution” items, referring to items made before the year 1830. This definition was a surprise to me, as I had never heard this before.

“Married” Jewelry – When a jewelry piece has been repaired or restored and no longer contains all of its original parts, it is said to be “married”.

In addition to “myth-busting” and showing off her prowess as a living jewelers’ dictionary, Patti spoke on two other topics that were significant enough that I’d like to bring them to your attention. The first is the subject of value.

Now I don’t know about you, but for me the term “value” in relation to fine or antique jewelry is quite confusing. It seems that when you ask the question “What’s it worth?”, you can never get a straight answer. Well, after attending Patti’s presentation, I now understand a little bit better why that answer isn’t as simple as it sounds.

According to Patti, value, with regard to jewelry or any personal property of worth, is a “moving target” of sorts. The reason for this is because a determination of value is based on several factors, not just one thing.

Value is determined by the estimated worth of an item, given its various characteristics (in the case of jewelry the Four C’s: Cut, Color, Clarity, Carat weight, and Patti added a fifth, Condition). But, and this is very important, it is also determined by external factors.

These ‘external factors’ are related to the purpose for which the valuation is made. For example, are you making a determination of value to insure an item (in which case the value needs to be the amount that it would take to replace the item if it had to be purchased new); are you valuating an item to sell on the secondary market (at auction or private sale); or are you determining the value of an item you need to liquidate (sell immediately, as in the case of divorce, to a dealer or pawn broker)?

Each of these circumstances can greatly influence the valuation of an item, and given each of the situations mentioned, identical items will have quite different valuations. One final factor that will also influence the value of your item is the market – what is the marketplace demand for the item at the time you wish to sell?

In most cases, if you are looking to sell jewelry to settle an estate, as a result of divorce, to make a tax payment or charitable donation, your item(s) will be valued at “fair market value”. Fair market value is what your item is estimated to bring during a public sale (at auction). This is as opposed to a “retail transaction” where your item would be valued as to what it would cost new. This is the valuation given for insurance purposes (replacement cost).

Finally, as the evening’s discussion came to a close, the presentation also touched on appraisers. The question was asked as to how to select a suitable appraiser (“suitable” meaning one who could offer an informed and accurate valuation estimate)?

Patti’s advice? Never engage a ‘retail appraiser’, or one that would have a vested interest in the outcome of the appraisal. For example, if you are looking to sell an item, never have it appraised by an individual who may be the buyer. They would have ulterior motives in undervaluing your property (so they could purchase it at a cheaper price than what the property is actually worth).

By the same token, never enter into an appraisal agreement where the appraiser’s fee is tied to the value of your property. That would give the appraiser reason to artificially inflate the value estimate so that he/she would make more money.

Another important aspect brought out during the session with regard to selecting an appraiser was the suggestion to interview potential appraisers. This is something many collectors fail to do (often out of ignorance), but it is a fundamentally crucial factor in obtaining an accurate appraisal.

Independent appraisers are by definition appraisers who have no monetary interest in the outcome of your appraisal, and can therefore be relied upon to give you an accurate valuation. Finding an independent appraiser who is properly certified, though, is only half of the equation. The rest involves determining the appraiser’s experience and expertise.

Interview potential appraisers to discover whether or not they have experience with antique and period pieces. If so, do they have experience with your particular item, generally and specifically (i.e. furniture/Chippendale chairs, jewelry/Cartier, glass/Tiffany, etc.).

You want to select an appraiser whose experience and expertise most closely relates to the item(s) that you are having appraised.

I once had a diamond cocktail ring which dated from the 1950’s. I purchased it on the secondary market and wanted to know its value. At that time I didn’t know to take it to an appraiser who specialized in vintage jewelry. I took it to a retail jewelry appraiser, who told me the ring was only worth a couple hundred dollars.

I had a sense that the ring was worth more, and I was right. The appraiser I originally took the ring to only appraised the ring based on the sum of its parts; small diamond stones and white gold. But he failed to factor in that the ring was a vintage piece, the design, craftsmanship or manufacture of the ring and the market for such a ring with collectors.

When the ring was properly evaluated as a vintage piece, it received a higher valuation. It even turned out that the diamonds in the ring (which were very small, but were whole diamonds) had been individually marked and numbered.

The lesson here is to understand that it pays (literally) to have your items valuated by an expert who understands the craftsmanship, knows manufacturers, designers or artists, and is intimately knowledgeable of the market and demand relative to the item you are having evaluated.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a seminar by Patti Geolat or any expert relative to the antiques and collectibles about which you are specifically interested, you should take the opportunity to do so. Educating yourself about the items you collect can only increase your appreciation of them, but even more, it will help you to be a better collector, buyer, seller and enthusiast. Happy hunting!

Ms. Geolat’s presentation was co-sponsored by the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center and EAT Gallery of Maysville.

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