Virtual Appraisals: Offers an Expert Take on Art, Antiques and Oddities

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Last July, a fine art consultant with Value My Stuff received a photograph of a small Dutch landscape with grass prominently in the foreground and signed “Vincent.” The photo had been submitted by someone who had the painting in his family for years but, thinking it was probably a fake, was reluctant to bring it to venerable Sotheby’s or Christie’s for appraisal.

Instead, he paid £7.50, or about $12, and submitted a photo and other details about the painting to the London-based online appraisal site. “A lot of people are intimidated about going to the auction houses,” says Patrick van der Vorst, a former director at Sotheby’s in London who launched in September 2009. “They might have something valuable, beautiful or amazing at home, but they don’t want to pick up the phone.”

Value My Stuff removes that apprehension by letting clients submit details about an objet d’art electronically. They buy credits in increments of one, three or 10, with each credit good for a single appraisal. Then they submit photos and any details they know about the item, and wait 48 hours for an appraisal that typically includes the value of the piece, its provenance and details about how certain traits or flaws affect its worth for better or worse.

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Fully authenticating the Dutch landscape took more than a couple of days and included a trip to Paris to study 1917 sales records. But, in the end, the expert at Value My Stuff declared the painting a bona fide work from Vincent van Gogh and valued it at $3 million to $5 million.

While the van Gogh is exceptional, it’s not the only masterpiece to come through the site’s pipeline. To date, the company has uncovered more than two dozen items valued at more than $1 million, while its experts have been privy to other notable artifacts. About a year ago, the grandson of a British military pilot requested an appraisal of three medals that, he was told by his grandfather, belonged to T.E. Lawrence. The medals were indeed from “Lawrence of Arabia” and fetched the equivalent of $72,000 at auction.

Still, the average price of the 100,000-plus items the company has valued since its launch is $1,400, and that figure is skewed by the occasional big-ticket find. “In many cases, the sentimental value of the object is much higher than the actual monetary value,” says van der Vorst, a native of Belgium who found a passion for art and antiques as a kid but studied law to appease his parents. He passed the law exam and headed straight to Sotheby’s in London, where he worked his way up from porter to director of fine furniture for all of Europe.

During his 12 years at Sotheby’s van der Vorst noticed that clients, even well-to-do clients with legitimate pieces, were often intimidated by the process. When Sotheby’s began shifting its focus away from lower priced items, van der Vorst saw an opportunity to create his own service by tapping the talent of his former colleagues. “I saw these amazing experts in silver and ceramics who were asked to leave Sotheby’s as it shifted its focus,” he says. “I thought there must be a way to regroup these people.”

Today the site works with a network of 64 experts, most of them formerly of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, covering 35 categories ranging from Aboriginal art to classic cars. “The experts get a part of the commission, but they all do this out of genuine love for the subject,” he adds.

How can these specialists possibly make judgments based on photographs? You’d be surprised. “When you work in an auction house you always start with a photograph,” says van der Vorst. “All these experts are used to working from photographs. They’ve been well trained.”

Van der Vorst, himself, is an expert in 18th century French furniture and does a few valuations a day. Of course, as is often the case for entrepreneurs, most of his energy is focused on running the business. In August 2010, the company secured a £100,000 in capital from British business magnates Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis via the BBC series “Dragon’s Den.” Meaden and Paphitis continue to consult with van der Vorst, who works out of a small office in London with four other staffers.

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So far, so good. Value My Stuff expects to double revenues to $1 million for the fiscal year ending this August. The company has been rolling out additional services – such as working directly with collectors or acting as a liaison between sellers and auction houses. For now, however, fee-based auctions represent the bulk of its business.

The busiest segment at the moment is Chinese art “probably because the market is so strong,” says van der Vorst. Silver, ceramics, furniture and jewelry are commonly appraised items. Occasionally, though, something comes in that fits under the always-interesting category of “other.” While Winston Churchill’s dentures fit the mouth, they didn’t really fit the mold. “Those came in about three months ago from a client who bought them from Churchill’s dentist about 20 years,” says van der Vorst, whose team valued the chops at $12,000 to $19,000. “As far as we know he’s keeping them.”