Cohen's item was an original storyboard from the "Peanuts" comic strip, signed by its creator Charles Schulz. "It had been my father's, and I inherited it when he passed away," says Cohen, who lives in Irvine, California. "I stuck it in one of my garage cabinets after he died, and it just sat there for years along with the other junk we had accumulated."
One day while cleaning out the cabinets, Cohen rediscovered the piece. "I figured it had some value, but I wasn't sure how much. At one point, I almost listed it on eBay (EBAY) for 500 bucks." That would have been a big mistake.
He snapped pictures with his smartphone and submitted them to Heritage Auctions via its website. "A few days later, I was contacted by the head of their Dallas office, who told me my piece could possibly sell for up to $10,000. He also offered to list it in one of their upcoming auctions."
On the day of the auction, Cohen sat in his living room and watched the auction live on his laptop, still not convinced that his item would sell -– and if so, certainly not for 10 grand. And he was right. It sold for $22,000, which included the buyer's premium –- the commission the buyer pays to the auction house.
Each auction house has different rules and different names for the concept, also known as an auction estimate. Skinner, for instance, responds only if the item is "a good fit for a Skinner auction and the value exceeds our minimum lot level." Christie's invites only "items that are of a type and value typically sold at Christie's." Other firms will charge for an evaluation. If you want to submit an item for an online auction evaluation, follow these guidelines:
- Include as much information as you can. This can aid in establishing provenance –- the history of an item -- crucial to determining authenticity, quality and ultimately price.
- Take pictures in a well-lit area. Include closeups of any signatures, markings or distinguishing features.
- Although you don't want to bombard an auction house with too many items as once, submit each item to multiple places so you can get the best sense of its value.
- Remember that this is just an estimate for auction. If you are trying to document a piece for insurance purposes in the case of theft or damage, you should still have it done in person, either at an auction house or in-home by a qualified appraiser.