I get a lot of queries about how to get a print or map appraised or whether one is "worth having appraised." The Philadelphia Print Shop's web site does have a page about appraisals, but it seems like it is worth going over some of the issues in this blog.
First, I should explain that while I give "free appraisals" on Antique Roadshow, this is a special circumstance. I do this because it is fun, it gets my shop lots of good publicity, and it helps spread information about and create interest in antiques, including prints and maps. Otherwise, I do not give free appraisals, because I am a professional appraiser. Since I charge clients for appraisals, it isn't fair to turn around and give out the same information for free (except in the case of the Roadshow).
The main issue, though, is why get an appraisal? I think in most cases where people are asking for an appraisal, they really just want some idea of what the item is worth. I can understand this, but I feel that even if I am giving only an off-the-cuff dollar value, this is still an appraisal and there should be at least some charge in order to make it fair to all our clients. I do offer general "ballpark valuations," but these are not actual values, but rather a general idea of whether a print is of just "decorative" value, or "moderate" value, or "significant" value, etc. If an actual dollar value is involved, then it is really an appraisal, or at least what we call a "POV" (professional opinion of value), for which the charges are less.
So, when is it appropriate to pay to get a dollar value? Just because you are curious? In most cases this doesn't warrant actually spending money. If you are really curious, maybe a POV is appropriate, but otherwise, you can perhaps satisfy your curiosity by searching on the web to see if you can find your print/map or something similar. There are also books of price records, which some libraries have, so if you put in a bit of work, you might be able to get an idea without having to pay for an appraisal.
Probably the most common reason I get asked for an "appraisal" is because someone wants to sell the print/map and wants to get an idea of what to sell it for. In general it doesn't make sense to pay for an appraisal before you try to sell an item. First, you might not gain enough advantage from the appraisal to recover the cost of the appraisal. Secondly, even if you ask for an appraisal indicating a wholesale price, each dealer figures wholesale prices differently depending on the nature of their business, their needs, cash flow, etc. Thus it is very difficult to come up with a wholesale price that would apply to a general range of dealers. Finally, as a matter of ethics, a dealer should not both give an appraisal and make an offer (as that is a conflict of interest), so if you get an appraisal, you are eliminating one possible purchaser.
One way to get an idea of what to sell something for is to ask a dealer what he would offer for the item, or to ask an auction house what they think it would bring at auction. It is not, in my opinion, fair to do this unless you honestly might sell the item to the dealer or through the auction house, but if the offer/estimate is too low, you certainly do not need to sell the item. If you intend to sell it yourself, then set a minimum price that you are willing to take and let the market decide if that is reasonable. If you are afraid of selling too cheaply, then maybe you ought to deal with a professional dealer or auction house.
Another fairly common reason to ask for an appraisal is to get an idea of how the print should be treated. Really, no matter what a print or map is worth, if you do not treat it well, it will not survive, so if you like it, you should treat it well (museum quality framing, etc.) so it will survive, no matter what it is worth. This is also why I will give out our ballpark valuations, so the owner will have some idea of what they have.
As for estate, tax or insurance reasons, then it is really best to get a real appraisal and pay for it. If there is ever a question, having an appraisal from a professional appraiser will give you a solid foundation to maintain the value you have assigned the object.