Greg Strahm

What prompted veteran ballet dancer and choreographer Greg Strahm to make the leap from head of marketing and communications at New York’s famed Joffrey Ballet into an unlikely second career appraising other people’s stuff?

Chalk it up to his eye for detail, his artist’s sensibility and his partner, Tim Luke, the master appraiser and auctioneer often featured on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” and HGTV’s “Cash in the Attic.”

Together, “the Fric and Frac of Knick and Knack” operate Treasure Quest Appraisal Group of Hobe Sound, FL, with one goal: to help everyday people empty out storage units and liquidate the estates of their departed loved ones—without being taken to the cleaners.

What’s your pet peeve about storage hoarders?

With storage units, the law of diminishing returns applies, where the value of storing something over time can exceed its value. Storage fees typically go up over time to where, after a certain number of years, you’ve paid more in storage than you’re going to see when you sell or dispose of the contents.

How do you begin to help clients dispose of their stuff?

We have four tiers: auction it, consignment it, donate it or recycle it. Typically, 95 to 98 percent of the stuff we see in storage units is what we call the stuff of everyday life: pots, pans, furniture, décor. Not many people are going to keep something that’s really valuable in a storage unit. They’ll either keep it in a bank vault or on display in their house or in a closet. So finding a $50,000 painting locked in a storage unit doesn’t happen that often.

What happens when it does?

It absolutely depends on what it is. The best place to put, say, a collection of Lladró figurines is with a consignment shop, because in a consignment situation, the consignment shop can ask whatever they want and work down. Ten years ago, that collection might have gone to auction, but because eBay and the Internet have leveled that playing field, things that were once thought to be rare are now commonplace, and the law of supply and demand decreases their value.

What makes an auction different?

In an auction situation, it works just the opposite—they start at a lower price and hope that demand will drive it up. So there are certain things that work better at consignment than at auction. Take a 19th century painting from the Hudson Valley School [a style of American landscape painting]. We would take that to auction because the market for it is much better in an auction setting where people can bid on it from all over the world. You’ll realize a much better price.

Greg Strahm and Tim Luke

Greg Strahm (left) and Tim Luke are “The Appraisal Guys.”

How do their commissions differ?

In consignment here in Florida, the standard consignment commission is 50-50. That’s pretty common in the industry. There are some companies that charge 60-40, which I think is wrong.

With auction houses, it varies. Take Christie’s. If this Hudson Valley painting was valued at $75,000 to $125,000, if they really want it, they might offer the seller a very low commission of maybe 6 to 7 percent. Usually it starts at around 10 percent, but some auctions go as high as 35 percent.

What determines what an auction house will offer? Aren’t they all pretty much alike?

Say you were thinking of consigning that Hudson Valley painting, and let’s say the value was only $10,000 to $12,000. Well, an auction company like Christie’s or Sotheby’s can sell a $120 million painting in four minutes, so a $10,000 painting for them is really peanuts. So we would probably try to put that piece in a secondary auction house where they do smaller-value items. Plus, some of the larger auction houses have minimums that are quite high, maybe $15,000 to $20,000 per item, so unless you have multiple $10,000 paintings, they might pass.

Can a smaller auction house be a better choice?

Absolutely. While their commission might be higher, maybe 35 percent, the likelihood is it would sell for a higher price at a secondary auction house because the people who are looking for, say, Hudson Valley art find these auction houses and follow them.

That’s where folks can use your help. How does the commission structure for an appraisal firm like yours work?

We wear two different hats; we’re an evaluation company, then an auction company. We have what we call a one-hour walk-through; it costs $375, and we come to your house or storage unit, look the items over, and learn what your ultimate goals are. If you want to use us, that’s great. If not, we’re happy to refer you to consignment shops we’ve worked with and trust in your area.

If you happen to have some items that would be best served going into auction, then we would act as broker for those items, because we get specific terms as regular auction clients that you couldn’t get as a customer walking in off the street. So we get those good rates, pass them on to our clients, and then we just take a percentage of whatever the “hammer” price is. You don’t need to own a Picasso to hire us.

Any final tips for liquidating a mountain of stuff?

We always tell people: Just don’t be greedy. We also tell people that your time is worth money. Think of it as a job. What is your return for sitting there and sifting through everything and taking time away from your life?

Jay MacDonald