Tips for choosing the right appraiser

'' What are my possessions now worth?'' This is the recurring question in a time of persistent inflation, rising values, and changing tax laws. Owners feel an increasing need to protect their properties against thefts and fire and flood hazards, so the importance of appraisals is increasing.

Appraising, it is said, is the art and science of estimating the value, at any given time, of any sort of property. It requires academic and practical experience and constant research.

An insurance appraisal requires determining replacement values to cover the cost of items damaged or lost. Value is based on the cost of buying a comparable work on the retail market. An estate or probate appraisal, used to establish estate taxes, calls for assessment of fair market value. The Internal Revenue Service defines this as a ''willing buyer and a willing seller both with reasonable knowledge of the facts in the open market, neither with any compulsion to buy or to sell.'' Items are valued at their worth less commissions as if sold at auction, or less dealer charges if sold privately.

Where do you locate a good appraiser? Check around, advises Gray Boone, publisher of the Gray Letter: ''Talk with dealers in your area, with insurance brokers, museum curators, bankers, and with other collectors. Avoid appraisers who want to buy what they evaluate, and always set the method of fee determination before starting the appraisal.''

Anyone may consult with one of three national appraisal societies for information or help in finding an appraiser. The American Society of Appraisers, PO Box l7265, Washington, D.C. 2004l, has 5,000 members. A directory of certified personal property appraisers, published annually, is free. The ASA forbids members to charge fees based on percentage of appraised values. Hourly or flat rates are standard.

Appraisers Association of America, 60 East 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. l0065 has about 1,000 member appraisers who specialize in fine art and antiques. A membership list is available for $3 from the above address.

The International Society of Appraisers Ltd., 724 W. Washington Boulevard, Chicago, Ill. 60606, has about l,000 members who specialize in numerous areas of personal property. A new directory of members is available for $10.50.

Many auction houses around the US offer appraisal services, including Christie's and Sotheby's in New York; Adam A. Weschler & Son in Washington, D.C.; Robert Skinner in Bolton, Mass.; Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco; Milwaukee Auction Gallery in Milwaukee, Wis.; Morton's Auction Exchange in New Orleans; Northgate Gallery in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Samuel T. Freeman in Philadelphia. Costs vary, but many charge fees based on time spent on premises. Most houses rebate partial or total fees on objects consigned within a year of appraisal date.

But how does one appraise the appraiser? You judge his qualifications by reading his own qualifications statement and his resume. You ask about his educational background and professional affiliations. You learn if he has appraised for institutions such as insurance companies, museums, or government bodies. By personal interview you determine how the appraiser's experience and knowledge relates to your assignment.

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