For many of us of modest means, "Antiques Roadshow" has ruined everything.

Now we're all convinced that the homeliest of objects in our homes is an undiscovered treasure worth thousands.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens, said Tracy Luther of Luther Auctions in North St. Paul.

Few Twin Cities homes have treasures worth $10,000 waiting to discovered, he said. More likely, the entire contents of the average family house would bring only $10,000 to $15,000 at an estate sale, often less.

"Some people are paralyzed that they're going to give away Grandma's crown jewels," Luther said, "but for most hard-working families, the house is the biggest asset."

But even if most of our family heirlooms are destined for Salvation Army instead of Sotheby's, no one wants to be the sucker who unwittingly sold a Rembrandt etching for $2 at a garage sale.

That's where appraisers come in. While an auction or an estate sale can take the burden off a family's shoulders by getting rid of the contents of an entire house (at a commission of 10 to 30 percent), an appraiser with a specialty can often get a person more money than a generalist.

I recently took around a friend's 1995 American Eagle coin set with a silver dollar and four gold coins. Several coin dealers including Grove Coin in Woodbury and Independent Precious Metals in Spring Lake Park offered to pay about $4,800. Then I took it to a Jak Antiques buying fair at a Plymouth hotel, where cash was offered for items as diverse as diamonds, watches, pottery, rugs, clocks and coins. A representative offered $3,000 for the gold and silver set.

It's a good lesson for anyone who is considering selling a valuable piece -- take it to a specialist rather than a generalist. (Check the sidebar for a list of some specialists in the Twin Cities area.)

The problem is that many of us don't know if a piece is worth bothering an expert. Call or stop by anyway. Some experts are happy to spend a little time with you free of charge, said Tony Scornavacco, co-owner of H&B Gallery in Minneapolis. "Show me a picture and I can tell you if it's worth it to appraise it," he said.

Is there any way to know if something of value lies in the attic? Luther said that modest, middle-class families should look for gems that might have a connection with people of power, prestige or money.

"Listen to the stories of people on 'Antiques Roadshow,'" he said. "Usually, the original owner crossed paths with someone of means." That could mean that Aunt Ida was a housekeeper to a wealthy family or that Grandpa had a job that put him in contact with the governor of Minnesota.

Getting the proper value

Seeking out an appraiser is a good idea for a couple of reasons. One is to ensure that you are getting the most cash or taxable value for your item. The other is to assure a fair division of value among siblings in the case of an estate.

But for most of us, we want to make sure we're not giving away a gold mine. The problem is that we're at an appraiser's mercy because we're clueless about value. We worry about an unscrupulous appraiser low-balling us and then profiting the difference by reselling.

In the past five to eight years, the Internal Revenue Service and insurance companies have pushed people getting appraisals to use certified appraisers so the industry is more professional, said Althea Willette, a Twin Cities appraiser who specializes in silver and maps.

Willette, a member of the Appraisers Association of America, said that it's a conflict of interest for an appraiser to provide a formal written appraisal and then buy that item from the seller. But a formal written appraisal, for which appraisers charge $75 to $150 per hour, might not be necessary unless the owner needs it for insurance or an estate.

Paying for an appraisal is no guarantee that the owner of the item will be happy.

Bill Lowrie, an appraiser in Minneapolis who specializes in silver, said that he might spend an hour researching something to find it's worth only $5.

"I often refer to myself as the bearer of bad news," he said. "My own mother won't even show me anything anymore."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or If you spot a deal, share it at