It's no wonder people are eyeing the auction houses these days. The last 12 months have been banner ones for them. From antique automobiles to old-master paintings, from early blown glass to 18th-century silver, from autographs of famous people to Shaker furniture, auction houses have experienced an upturn in sales, resulting in record prices.

They haven't been shy about heralding those prices, either.

For the average American sitting at home watching the nightly news on TV or relaxing with one of the weekly newsmagazines, the temptation to be one of the consignors of those stratospherically priced pieces is understandable.

Do you own an antique that could bring record, or near-record, prices?

Probably not, but, as recent events have proved, there is a chance you might.

If your antiques came to you through inheritance or if you purchased them over 20 years ago, you may own something that in today's fast-changing market could be very valuable.

How do you find the value of what you own?

For most people, having antiques appraised is the answer.

Look for an appraiser who belongs to a national association, like the American Society of Appraisers, and ask if his expertise covers the items you own. Check with your insurance company. Most will have a list of qualified local appraisers.

It used to be an axiom that antiques should be reappraised every 10 years. Now most experts recommend doing it every two years, because of swings in value and taste.

Some people prefer to take their antiques directly to a large auction house to find their value. If you are prepared to consign those antiques to that auction house, the appraisal may be free. Otherwise, be prepared to pay for it, just as you would with an independent appraiser.

How do you find the right auction house to sell your antiques?

It's a tough question, with many varying answers, depending on such things as the number of antiques you have to sell, their value, how long you are prepared to wait for their sale, and the size and reputation of the auction house.

No auction house will hold a sale for just one item, unless it is of extraordinary value. When you consign one item, the house has to wait until it has enough other items of like quality to warrant holding an auction, or will find a general auction coming up into which to fit your consignment.

For example, if you consign a valuable painting, one that should bring more than $100,000, it must go into a sale that will attract museum buyers and private collectors prepared to pay that amount. The big auction houses hold several such sales each year. Your painting will be properly displayed and advertised at those sales.

A smaller auction house may be forced to fit that painting into one of its general sales. Even though it is properly advertised, it may not attract enough buyers to reach its proper value.

You must choose an auction house that consistently attracts buyers for the type of antique you consign. That does not necessarily mean one of the big New York houses. Some smaller ones draw more buyers and larger prices for specific antique objects than those big houses.

For example, Theriault's of Annapolis, Md., and Richard Withington Inc. of Hillsboro, N.H., consistently attract the cream of the doll-collecting groups. That results in higher-than-average prices at their doll auctions.

There are a number of ways to find those specialty houses.

If you are fortunate enough to have many antiques shops in your area, you can ask the dealers for recommendations.

You can scan the auction pages of any of the larger antiques publications, such as the Maine Antique Digest, published in Waldoboro, Maine, or Antiques & The Arts Weekly, published in Newtown, Conn.

Whether you have one item to sell or a hundred, there are some questions you should ask. How does a house advertise its offerings? Where does it advertise? What is its reputation among the professionals? Has it sold items like yours in the past?

If you have a large collection or a vast quantity of antiques, the auction house may want to sell them as a one-consignor sale. That means your offerings will be advertised as an estate sale, with no additions. Such a sale usually does better than a general sale with many consignors.

The latter type may contain consignments from dealers, items the house either couldn't sell or was tired of. Such items are said to be market-weary; they are not fresh on the market. They usually bring lower prices than items coming out of someone's house. Too many of those market-weary pieces will depress an auction's prices.

Even if you have only a few pieces to sell, you want to be sure your pieces will go into an auction that will attract the most buyers possible.

Ask about when and with what other pieces your antiques are being sold.

To reach maximum exposure, you may have to wait until the auction house has enough other consignments to hold a top-quality sale. If you insist your pieces be sold within a week, you may regret it.

If you choose correctly, you may find yourself in the same position that a Massachusetts woman found herself this summer.

She stood on the sidelines at a Richard Withington auction in Hillsboro, N.H. , and watched her consignment, a child's push toy with eagle-painted sides and two carved horses, sell on a Thursday. She'd bought it 20 years previously and had been told it might bring as much as $5,000.

Never in her wildest flights of imagination had she dreamed that it would soar to what became a new record price for a toy of its type, $20,750.

When that happens, you can be sure you've chosen the right place to sell your treasure.

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