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Estate Liquidators See A Frenzy Of Speculation

Gold rings and heirloom jewelry like these pieces displayed in a San Francisco store are fetching  record high prices this year.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Gold rings and heirloom jewelry like these pieces displayed in a San Francisco store are fetching record high prices this year.

The high price of gold and other precious metals is encouraging a new breed of gold diggers — traveling estate buyers who temporarily set up shop in hotels. They offer to pay cash on the spot for gold, diamonds, old Rolexes and collectibles.

Walking into one such event at a hotel, it all seems very professional: A fancy conference room with a 20-foot conference table, with soothing bossa nova music playing overhead.

Retiree Earl Lawson, 75, looks like he could be a guest at the hotel. Instead he's at the Bellevue Hyatt, cajoled by his wife into trying to sell a few things.

"I brought in some Lladro pieces to be looked at, to see if they were worth anything," he says. They're porcelain figurines made in Spain.

"My wife had collected them over the years, and she said we're downsizing the house and we need to get rid of some of this stuff," Lawson says. "So, we saw the ad in the paper and said we'd bring it over here rather than going on eBay."

But it turns out eBay has decimated the Lladro collectibles market, according to traveling estate buyer Brian Bartholomew.

"Of the things that he had there," he says of Lawson's offerings, "you used to go to Lladro and it'd cost you $1,200 for some of the items. And now they're going for $30 on eBay."

In the end, Bartholomew, who's in town for three days from Boca Raton, Fla., passes on the collectibles. The cost of transporting the delicate figurines back to Florida isn't worth his time and effort. He works on commission — and right now, the money is in gold.

He talks to another potential customer at the hotel, a woman with a handful of golden items.

"Alright, what you've got here is a class ring, which are 90 percent 10-karat gold," he says. Then he continues, "Nope — actually, it's a 14-karat gold ring. It says right in here."

The woman has handed Bartholomew a gold class ring, a pretty gold bracelet and a gold ring with a tiny diamond.

"This is a diamond tester," Bartholomew says, "lets me know if it is a diamond or not." The device in his hand beeps, signaling that the stone is, in fact, a diamond. Bartholomew puts the ring on a scale and calculates what he'll pay, based on today's price of gold.

"I would pay $185 for that ring," he says. "Gold is down today, but it was at $1,900 a couple days ago. It's just a remarkable market right now. "

The gold market is so remarkable that Bartholomew is one of five guys sent out by Blackthorn Estate Buyers to conference rooms like this all over the country.

"You know, it's a business," says Blackthorn owner Craig Bagon. "It's not like you go to a city and you make a year's pay there."

Still, Bagon says there's enough money in it to justify all of the expenses involved, from plane tickets to advertising and setting up the temporary stores at hotels.

But the industry's growth hasn't come without problems, says Katherine Hutt of the national office of the Better Business Bureau.

"There are definitely more complaints coming in, of people who have dealt with estate liquidators who have had a problem and are asking for our help," she says.

Estate buyers often tout themselves as experts — but there is no required certification or licensing in the field, Hutt says.

Sellers need to be careful, she says, "especially if it's an operation that's set up in a temporary location. It's different than doing business with somebody down the street, who's going to be there next week when you come back and need to file a complaint."

Hutt anticipates it'll only get worse as the price of gold stays high. The market is flooded with buyers vying for precious metals. And the barrage of commercials and ads — with their urgent messages of "Sell Now!" — are adding to the frenzy of speculation.

At Blackthorn, Craig Bagon says he can't wait for the price of gold to come back down to a more reasonable level.

"Do you remember in the early '90s, everybody came out with a dot-net?" he asks. "You know, they wanted to get involved in the 'Internet world.' That's like almost what people are doing now in gold. They're ruining the business."

Not only does he have more competition, but estate liquidation has become a business of quantity and not quality, which is what Bagon says he's looking for in the conference rooms of America.

Copyright 2011 KNKX Public Radio