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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tips on Getting Started and Starting Over

Karen S. Rabe, ISA CAPP
By Karen S. Rabe, ISA CAPP

I started appraising in 1987 before joining ISA in 1990. And in those 28 years, I have relocated my appraisal practice five times. I have become very proficient at starting over.

I did not know I was destined to become an appraiser. I started as an antiques dealer in Columbus, Indiana. I went to auctions on a weekly basis. I started building my reference library and reading voraciously about antiques and decorative arts. Soon enough, I was a groupie at the estate sales and auctions and was befriended by one of the local appraisers. He was an American art pottery collector and dealer. He asked me to accompany him on one of his appraisal assignments, knowing I had just attended a furniture authentication class at New York University. He felt I may be able to identify some potential period pieces in the estate of the team doctor for the New York Yankees in Mickie Mantel’s heyday. 

The day of the assignment arrived. The appraiser brought his full appraisal kit along, a yellow legal pad of paper and a pen. He made a laundry list with values of the estate items on the spot. There was no room for his signature on the bottom of the list, so he turned the pad sideways, signed the document, and handed it to the estate attorney. My light bulb went on! There was something wrong with this picture.

I had never entertained the idea of appraising, but I immediately decided there had to be a more professional way of doing appraisals. I read Henry Babcock’s book "Appraisal Principles and Procedures." It was like watching paint dry! I needed professional, accessible training. I researched the big three appraisal organizations and chose ISA.

Setting up the Business the First Time: Advertising Tips & Going to Court
Really, setting up the business in each location was essentially the same. In Indiana, I took out the then-mandatory yellow page ad, visited every antique shop in a 50 mile radius and left my business cards, joined the local antique club, and became a member of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). I was elected an officer on the board of IMA’s satellite gallery in Columbus, which allowed me to meet art lovers and collectors. I gave talks on appraising to small groups and clubs interested in antiques and art. I joined the ISA Chapter in Indianapolis, which became a valuable resource. I created a packet of promotional items and mailed them to the banks, attorneys and auction houses. ISA even provides promotional tools for you now.

Your ISA credentials are important for your credibility. Keep them up-to-date. My big break came when I was asked to do a divorce appraisal for a local attorney. I did the appraisal for the wife. A local auctioneer appraised the same items for the husband. I was asked to appear in court to defend my appraisal and was terrified. I was grilled by the opposing attorney as to my lack of experience.  After all, the auctioneer has been working in the area for over 30 years, and I had had just recently earned my credentials and lived there just 3 years. I responded that I had ISA training and my values resulted from attending many area auctions, estate sales and a great deal of research. I also commented that the auctioneer had no appraisal training, had only attended his own auctions, and was using that for the basis of his values. The judge threw out the auctioneer’s appraisal and my client prevailed. I was subsequently hired by the opposing attorney for all of his divorce work. I was in! My business flourished as the word spread about that case. Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid of going to court.

The First Move: Expanding Connoisseurship
After eight years, we were transferred to Charleston, South Carolina. I was very excited to be working in such a historic area, but I knew that I had to enhance my product knowledge to gain the respect of the local curators, auctioneers, dealers and clients. I attended both Winterthur’s Winter Institute and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts Summer Institute. I was in antique heaven in Charleston, visiting every shop on King Street at least once a month to examine their inventory. After the dealers realized that I was genuinely interested in learning, and I posed no threat to them, they were eager to show me their wares. I often consulted with them on appraisal projects and, in turn, sent my clients to them to buy and sell.

There are numerous opportunities to build your product knowledge. Join the English Ceramic Circle and attend a few of their summer schools in England. Attend Sotheby’s Decorative Arts program in London. Attend ISA’s annual conference or the Foundation for Appraisal Education Seminar. Connoisseurship education is never ending in this profession and builds your credibility as an appraiser. You don't necessarily have to travel in order to learn. Attend local antique shows, view ISA’s webinars, take advantage of your local chapter presentations, use the ISA forum for both appraisal and product knowledge questions, or go to auctions to get hands-on exposure. MESDA, Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur, The Historical National Trust, American Friends of Attingham, and many regional museums offer programs to boost your knowledge of the decorative arts. The Foundation of Appraisal Education offers scholarships for these learning opportunities.

The test of my new product knowledge came when I was asked to reevaluate a huge estate on the Battery in Charleston. The heir felt that the established Charleston appraiser had misidentified some items, resulting in incorrect values. I did extensive due diligence. I first learned everything that I could about the items and then as necessary reached out to my contacts at Winterthur, MESDA, and the antiques dealers on King Street. An appraiser cannot know everything, but his or her greatest expertise should be knowing who the experts are. I also learned that you should never consult with these experts until you have exhausted all of your own resources and know as much about the item as you possibly can when you contact them. It turns out the heir was right, and there were major valuation issues with the initial appraisal. As the news spread, my business grew. And, when it was time to leave Charleston, I was able to take my expanded product knowledge and new contacts with me.

Moving to a Locale with Many Qualified Appraisers can be a Good Thing
My next move was to Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, one which had many established ISA and ASA appraisers. Here, in addition to all of the usual procedures, I sought out opportunities for wider exposure. For the first time, I set up a website, a necessity for an appraiser in today’s market. I did monthly appraisal fairs for the local community center and worked as an appraiser on "The Appraisal Fair," an HGTV program hosted by Leslie Hindman. Both experiences brought in a great deal of lucrative work. While local and regional appraisal fairs can be time consuming, do not discount the exposure that they can bring to you, particularly if broadcast on television or radio.

In every city, there is an antiques "underground," a network of individuals you should get to know while establishing your business in a new area. These include the obvious: attorneys, trust officers, auction house staff, museum curators, dealers and collectors. But do not forget your local ISA appraisers! The Chicago Chapter was a great resource and helped me quickly learn the "underground." We were also able to refer business to one another. Get to know your fellow ISA appraisers; sometimes, they may be your best resource.

Moving Yet Again: Connoisseurship, Again! And, the Internet Age
Moving to Arizona posed new challenges, in that I had limited knowledge of Native American items, a category of personal property common in this state. Fortunately, the ISA has many members who are knowledgeable in this field. Remember to offer compensation for consultations. The local dealers have been a great resource as well. My daughter, Kirsten Smolensky, ISA CAPP, retained a reputable Scottsdale dealer to give us a hands-on course on Native American rugs, basketry and pottery. This experience did not substitute for consulting on important items, but it at least gave us an idea of what to look for and where to start. Network with the dealers in your area. Gain their respect.

I no longer advertise in the yellow pages. I find it is expensive, and it does not bring me the type of clients I want. Instead, the best advertising tool is a great website. Keep it up-to-date and fresh, using keywords that will assist with search engine optimization (SEO). If this is Latin to you, do not be afraid to hire help. Join Angie’s List. Create a business page on Facebook and LinkedIn. Network with businesses that have a great Internet presence and ask them to link to your website. For example, I was asked to be an appraiser on the Arizona PBS TV show "Arizona Collectibles." Not only did I get great exposure from the show, but my name now appears higher on the search engines because I am listed on their website. I have gotten many calls through Google searches by appearing on this program.

ISA membership makes it easy to get started as an appraiser. Starting over in a new location has  frequently forced me to expand my product knowledge, network extensively, and build a solid reputation in the industry. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about getting started or starting over at I look forward to connecting with you!