People who watch "Antiques Roadshow" on TV may be inspired to clean closets and hunt through attics for family heirlooms that, just maybe, could be worth thousands of dollars.

But before running off to the closest antiques dealer with an armful of Amish quilts and century-old Teddy bears, be warned: your treasures may not be as valuable as you think they are.

One of the drawbacks of "Antiques Roadshow" is, after watching it, people may think they've learned enough to appraise their own valuables. But, more often than not, antiques experts don't recommend self-appraising, unless it's to get an idea of what the object is. Finding out how much the object is worth should be left to the experts, they say.

Stuart Slavid, a "Roadshow" appraiser who works for Skinner Inc., an auction house in Boston, said self-appraising takes a lot of time and effort and often ends up being a waste of both.

"You almost need to know a little bit about what you have to get started, and then you can Google it," he said in a telephone interview from Boston. "But a lot of times you don't even know what it is, and if you don't know that, you don't know where to start with reference books and price guides."

Marsha Bemko, an executive producer of "Antiques Roadshow," said one of the biggest problems is most people can't distinguish an original from a reproduction.

"If I could write a book about how to recognize a fake, I'd be rich," she said. "There are no short cuts to being an expert. You have to look at a lot of things to recognize the true object among the fakes."

Many appraisal Web sites work from photographs of the object being appraised. Bemko said the idea of appraising something's value from a picture made her skeptical of how accurate the appraisal would be.

"It's like buying a house," she said. "Yeah, you look at pictures of the house, but that's not the same as walking through it."

With antique furniture, for example, a hairline crack in one of the legs would lower the value by as much as half. And that imperfection wouldn't be visible in a photograph, so the appraiser wouldn't see it. When the owner tried to sell or insure the furniture for the appraised price, he or she would find out the appraisal was misleading.

When it comes to collectibles, such as Matchbox cars, the value can span the spectrum depending on the car's condition, said David Carroll, collections manager at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

If the car is in mint condition and still in its box from 1962, for example, it's worth a lot more than a car that's been played with. And the car that's been lightly played with is, in turn, worth a lot more than a car that's been played with to the point of chipped paint and missing tires, he said.

As for fine art, Carroll's area of expertise, condition still plays a role. Restorations can often lower the value of the piece, but sometimes restorations can do just the opposite by preserving its condition and helping it retain value, he said.

"Restorations are acceptable, for example, if they were done during the use of the piece, during that same time period," Carroll said. "But if the restoration was done later, say, a modern finish instead of the original one, you might as well knock off half of the value."

The best way to accurately value an antique is to consult a professional and get an in-person, hands-on appraisal.

Beth Szescila, a professional appraiser from Houston, said appraisals are long, involved processes that include hours in front of the computer or buried in books in addition to the actual inspection.

"I go to people's houses and I start really appraising, just walking around and inspecting, and sometimes people will say, 'When are you going to start appraising?' " she said. "I am appraising, but they have this image that this person walks in and starts spouting off all these things about the history and value, like we do on 'Roadshow.' "

Professional appraisals can be expensive, since appraisers usually charge by the hour, so Szescila recommends not getting one unless the object needs to be insured. In that case, appraisal documents are essential to prove the object's worth to the insurance company. If you're planning to sell the object, an appraisal may not be economically feasible; Szescila said the cost of the appraisal could exceed the object's worth.

For people dealing with estate sales, she said the best option is getting an appraiser to walk through the home and give a verbal approximation of value for the objects.

"I've walked through houses and told people, 'This is valuable,' 'This should go to Goodwill,' or 'You should send this to be sold in New York,' " Szescila said.

Many people think age is more important than condition. Szescila said she corrects that misconception by twisting around a common real estate saying.

"With land, it's 'location, location, location,' " she said. "With antiques, it's 'condition, condition, condition.' "

Recognizing the value of antiques takes a lifetime of learning, and although many appraisers have certifications from associations such as the International Society of Appraisers, Scott Evans, an antiques dealer in Salt Lake City, said being certified doesn't necessarily make someone an expert.

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"Paying for a license and taking a few courses doesn't qualify you to appraise antiques," Evans said. "Talk to people who have been in the business at least 20 years and who've made it their life's work. They know what they're talking about. And if they don't know what they're talking about, they can refer you to someone who does know, because they know everyone in the business after all that time."

As Evans said, finding an appraiser can be as easy as stopping by a local antiques shop and asking for help. Another option is checking the Web site www.appraiseryellowpages.com; the site searches through appraisers by either specialty or location.

And, if you still want to self-appraise a piece of art, for example, look up auction prices at www.askart.com. Just remember, it's easy to be tricked if you aren't an expert.


E-mail: jcloward@desnews.com