DAVID GREENE, host: Retirees and others looking to get rid of collectibles or jewelry, either to make some extra money or extra room, are being lured by a new breed of gold diggers - traveling estate buyers. Vanessa Romo of member station KPLU in Seattle reports.
VANESSA ROMO: The first thing you notice about this operation is how professional it all seems. A fancy conference room with a 20-foot-long table and soothing bossa nova music overhead. Seventy-five-year-old retiree Earl Lawson looks like he could be a guest at the hotel. Instead he's here at the Bellevue Hyatt, cajoled by his wife to try to sell a few things.
EARL LAWSON: I brought in some Lladro pieces to be looked at, to see if they were worth anything.
ROMO: Think of those Precious Moments figurines but made of porcelain and in Spain.
LAWSON: My wife had collected them over the years, and she said we're downsizing the house so we need to get rid of some of this stuff. So we saw the ad in the paper and said we'd bring it over here, rather than going on eBay.
ROMO: It turns out eBay has decimated the Lladro collectibles market, says traveling estate buyer Brian Bartholomew.
BRIAN BARTHOLOMEW: Of the things that he had there, 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.
ROMO: In the end, Bartholomew, who's in town for three days from Boca Raton, passes on the collectibles. For him to transport 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.
BARTHOLOMEW: All right, what you've got here is a class ring, which are 90 percent 10-karat gold.
ROMO: A woman hands Bartholomew a gold class ring, a pretty gold bracelet, and a gold ring with a tiny diamond.
BARTHOLOMEW: This is a diamond tester. It lets me know whether it's a diamond or not. See, it beeps when it's a diamond.
ROMO: He puts the ring on a scale and calculates what he'll pay based on today's price of gold.
BARTHOLOMEW: So I would pay $185 for that ring. It's a remarkable market right now.
ROMO: It's so remarkable that Bartholomew is one of five guys sent out by Blackthorn Estate Buyers to conference rooms like this all over the country. Craig Bagon is the owner.
CRAIG BAGON: You know, it's a business. It's not like you go to a city and you make a year's pay there.
ROMO: Still, Bagon says there's enough money in it to justify all of the expenses involved, from plane tickets to...
BAGON: The meeting room, the hotel room and the advertising.
KATHERINE HUTT: There are definitely more complaints coming in, of people who have dealt with estate liquidators and had a problem, and now are asking for our help.
ROMO: Katherine Hutt is with the national office of the Better Business Bureau. She says estate buyers often tout themselves as experts but there's no required certification or licensing. So she says sellers still need to be careful.
HUTT: Especially if it is 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.
ROMO: The market is flooded with buyers vying for your precious metals, and the barrage of commercials and ads with their urgent sell now messages are adding to the speculation frenzy. Bagon, the owner of Blackthorn Estates, says he can't wait for the price of gold to come back down to a more reasonable level.
BAGON: Do you remember in the early '90s, everybody came out with a dot-net? You know, some sort of a - they wanted to get involved in the Internet world, you know what I'm saying? That's like almost what people are doing now in gold. They're ruining the business.
ROMO: Not only does he have more competition, but it's become a business of quantity and not quality, which is what Bagon says he's looking for in the conference rooms of America. For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo.
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