What’s That Collectible Worth?

Many people hold on to prized family heirlooms, antiques and other collectibles but have little sense of their true market value.

How do you figure out what that old vase or clock you inherited from your grandmother is actually worth? You might be surprised to discover certain heirlooms you cherish are worth thousands of dollars — while others are worth little beyond their sentimental value.

Here are some tips for figuring out the value of a collectible:

Know what you have. It's impossible to figure out the value of something without knowing what person or company made it, as well as when and where. One porcelain figurine may be worth $5,000 because it was hand-painted by a well-known artisan in 18th-century Italy while another may be worth only $10. Look for markings on the object or its original storage container (assuming you have it) that indicate the manufacturer of the piece and the approximate year and place in which it was made. If you can't identify the item yourself, ask a collector of similar items for help.

Check online marketplaces. The Internet is filled with people trying to sell antiques and collectibles, which makes it a natural place to figure out the going price of specific items. Especially if you know exactly what you have, you can often type specific information into a search engine and find comparable items for sale. Beware, however, that unless you find the exact same item you have, the price of any similar item may not reflect your item's true value. There's also the risk, of course, that an online seller doesn't realize the true value of the item he or she is trying to sell — so avoid basing your assessment purely on online information.

Check price guides. Certain types of collectibles — such as antique jewelry and stamps — have professional price guides available. Many such guides are now available online, but may charge a fee.

Get a professional appraisal. A certified appraiser can provide an estimate of how much an heirloom is worth and should include a written report with a full description of your item that explains the procedure used to estimate its current value. You can find certified appraisers through the websites of various professional associations, such as the American Society of Appraisers (Appraisers.org). Look for appraisers who specialize in your particular item, whether gems or antique furniture. And keep in mind that a professional appraisal isn't cheap, costing anywhere from $200 or more. So you'll probably want to feel confident your heirloom has significant value before spending that kind of money. Several websites offer low-cost, quick online appraisals by professionals for as little as $15. You upload a photo and often receive your appraisal in less than 48 hours.