June 10, 2011 6:13 pm

Maximising assets: Top tips on what to do with inherited jewels

What to do if you inherit a large amount of jewellery? Where do you start and what are your options?

To find out, I bequeathed myself a hypothetical stash of glittering gems and set about finding out what options were available to make the best of my windfall.

The first and most obvious place to start is an auction house. Depending on the amount and value of the jewellery, the auction houses may well come to you.

This is handy to know before setting off on the Central Line to London’s Bond Street with a sports bag full of gems. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham’s hold jewellery auctions throughout the year and sale rooms are across the globe.

At Sotheby’s David Bennett, head of jewellery for Europe and the Middle East, outlines the process, which is pretty much as expected and can be summed up as: valuation, sale and money in hand. The process can take two to three months.

Mr Bennett explains the benefits of auction: “We spend a lot of time telling people what they have, as auction houses have the advantage of specialists who have spent a long time looking at jewellery and have done their research.”

Estimates for auctions are free and, in most cases, the appraiser will suggest the jewels enter into the next auction, though they have been known to advise to wait for a year until the market is right for a particular style of jewellery. The very best jewels will go the May and November sales in Geneva where the market for these is strongest.

Emily Barber, a director at the Jewellery Department of Bonhams, confirms that the minimum value of jewels they sell is £200 ($328) with sales in London, Oxford and worldwide. “If you want the best price, auction tends to be preferred way as the jewels are exposed to the widest possible market that includes private collectors as well as dealers.” She says it is rare for a piece not to sell as auction estimates are as realistic as possible.

At Bonham’s Knightsbridge and Bond Street sales, 80 per cent of jewels are sold. If an item does not meet its reserve, which acts as the seller’s safety net, the owner gets it back. Ms Barber’s gentle talk is reassuring and auction seems to be the sensible, one-stop shop way to go, but I feel I should give my stash some more thought.

Perhaps I could try and sell direct to a dealer? I could trawl my precious sports bag up and down Bond Street talking to antique jewellery shops and comparing offers. I have no idea what I am selling, so how would I know if I was getting a good price or having the wool pulled over my eyes?

Here fine and decorative art advisers such as Corfield & Morris step in. In one brisk phone call Martyn Downer, who is ex-Sotheby’s, put me in the picture. “We could help make sure dealers don’t rip you off and we also know private clients. We can then advise you on the offers available or if you should run the gamble of going to auction.”

As for my first option, of going to an auction house, Mr Downer says: “In general the costs of auction have escalated recently with both a buyer’s and a seller premium. What it means is that, if you were to walk into a sale room with a jewel that sells for a £10,000 hammer price, the buyer may be paying £12,000 and the seller might get a cheque for under £8,000. What we do is to try to reduce that spread.”

“While auction is undeniably the widest way of reaching private buyers,” Mr Downer says, “the largest proportion of objects going through sale rooms is bought by dealers. So, before consigning to auction, it is better to get an opinion from the trade directly.”

He says auctions are the best method of selling unique pieces; those with a valuable provenance such as the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels or the upcoming Elizabeth Taylor collection. This helps achieve higher than expected prices and catches the eye of buyers that would not normally be interested and puts them in competition with each other as well as private individuals. Corfield & Morris charges 10 per cent for brokering a sale.

After all this talk of jewels, my head is spinning, and I decide I want to know a little more about what is inside that sports bag, instead of finding the quickest and most lucrative way of getting it off my hands. So I contact Joanna Hardy, another ex-Sotheby’s jewellery specialist. Ms Hardy’s approach is different in that, as well as providing advice on whether to take to auction or sell privately, she focuses on educating her clients.

“A client of mine inherited a lot of jewellery from her mother,” says Ms Hardy. “While she already had a relationship with an art adviser, she had no idea about jewellery. Her art adviser recommended me. I offer a service with an educational side. She didn’t know where to begin so I started by showing her how to use a loupe. In a series of one-on-one sessions in her house, we are going through the history of jewels from 1800 to the present and her eye is being trained. We go to exhibitions together and I guide her through the different aspects of jewellery, including contemporary artist jewellers.

“Now she is better armed to make good decisions once we start to look at her inheritance. It’s not so much about disposing but managing her jewels. I hold her hand so that she can take an informed decision about what we will do with each piece. She will understand if she doesn’t like a piece, we can alter, exchange or sell it.”

Tea and diamond talk on the sofa is an attractive proposition, but only if I have the time to invest in educating myself and I am not on the line to pay the death duties.

What is clear is that I must arm myself with advice from all these experts. And the longer I spend finding out about them, the more tempted I am to explore the possibilities of resetting and making some jewellery I might wear, selling those I do not like or trading less valuable ones for more contemporary styles.

Or I could just put the lot in a safe and pass the haul on to the grandchildren.

Maria Doulton is a journalist based in London specialising in jewellery and watches: http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/

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