Antiques or old lace?

William Rouse advises solicitors to be more realistic when valuing estates

Six hundred pounds was the sum the solicitor agreed to, but thanks to a thoughtful neighbour (a policeman) who bought in professional valuers, the contents of a deceased's estate went for u15,000. This happens all the time.

A solicitor's job is to yield the maximum amount from a client's estate, yet they will often dispose of the contents of a house for a fraction of their worth to achieve a quick sale. With time a priority, they often accept the first offer. There are also well-meaning relatives to take into account, who diligently clean out cupboards in an effort to achieve the same speedy conclusion.

The result in the first case is that the man at the door will offer as little as he can get away with. In the latter, there is the 'black bag scenario' – dozens of black polythene bags that go to the dump, all stuffed with junk. Unfortunately, sometimes it is valuable junk.

A recent examination of such a bag revealed three pate de verre style pendants, each worth u600, a Lalique glass brooch valued at u3,400 and some highly collectable costume jewellry.

There was also the dirty table in the garage (Regency and worth at least u600), a vase filled with bulbs in the potting shed (u1,500) and an antique perfume bottle (u250). Many items, such as old photographs or pens are sometimes not worth a great deal individually, but collectively can fetch more than a solicitor's fee.

The crucial move is for a solicitor to have house contents valued as quickly as possible. This will ensure a preliminary probate valuation where necessary (thus any bequeathed items can be valued before they are removed), as well as prevent the black bag syndrome. Equally as important, the contents will have been documented and anything valuable removed before burglars have a chance to review the local obituary column.

By calling at the outset, valuers who specialise in probate work and the administration of estates can ensure that nothing is overlooked. Familiar with the homes of the elderly, they know that even the most unkempt place can yield up valuables, whether in a ball of wool, behind a bath panel or in the mattress.

Solicitors would do well to familiarise themselves with the work of valuers and auctioneers and to ally themselves with one salesroom, which can save themselves and their clients time and money. For example, once probate is granted and the property is to be sold, they can be assured that in addition to accounting for all valuables and setting aside all papers, keys and safety deposit boxes, that rubbish is cleared and floors are swept. In short, they can rely on the property being quickly ready for the estate agents and the proceeds (hopefully) set to accrue interest at an early date.

They can also rest assured that the contents have been put into early auction, as appropriate – antiques in an antique and fine art sale and household goods in a general sale, for each has its own specific following. Properly catalogued and promoted, the jewellery, silver, ceramics, works of art, carpets and furniture and so on will attract the right buyers and when the hammer falls, will have gone to the highest bidder.

Six hundred pounds or fifteen thousand? The difference is up to the solicitor.

William Rouse is an auctioneer at Academy Auctioneers & Valuers.