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When a University Foundation Director Calls Him on the Carpet, How Should This Store Owner React?

An appraiser undervalued a client's jewelry donation to the university.

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GORDON THOMAS WAS the third-generation owner of Thomas Family Jewelers, a highly regarded store in a Southern college town. Gordon’s rather forward manner was far different from that of his humble and reserved father. Bumps in the road had been regular occurrences over his four-year tenure, but despite the challenges, the store, with its strong, professional team, continued to thrive.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Elinore Billington, a well-known mover in the town’s social circles, had been an important client of Thomas Family Jewelers since the days of Gordon’s grandfather. When Elinore passed away late last summer at 93, her final charitable act turned into a nightmare for Gordon and his team.

As specified in her will, Elinore elected to donate one of the more impressive pieces she’d purchased from Thomas Family Jewelers to the charitable foundation attached to her alma mater, the state university at the heart of everything in the town.

The piece was a platinum ring set with a 4.22-carat, intense blue, unheated oval sapphire surrounded by 1.5 carats of high-quality diamonds that had been specially made for her by a designer featured by the store. Elinore paid $22,400 for the ring when she bought it in 2014.

Several months after her death, when Marc Chou, the newly appointed director of the university foundation, received the ring, he processed it in the same manner as other material gifts (jewelry, art, collections, etc.). He reviewed the accompanying insurance evaluation and began looking for options for converting the donation to cash. Having moved to town recently, he was not familiar with Thomas Family Jewelers, or with other local resources. Relying on his past experience in another part of the country, he chose to start by taking the ring (without original documentation) to a jeweler in a neighboring town who listed appraisal service on his website to get an independent opinion of the value. When Marc picked up the ring and the appraisal several days after leaving it at the store, he was shocked to see that the ring was only valued at $8,500. He also saw that there were discrepancies between the jeweler’s one-page appraisal and the original sale document in diamond weights and quality and in the weight and description of the sapphire. He noted that the appraisal said “weights estimated by measurement” and that the descriptions were vague, but he was nonetheless very concerned.

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Since his ultimate objective was to convert the ring into cash for the foundation, he then took it to a local store that was known for buying estate jewelry. The estate buyer looked the ring over, weighed it, measured the sapphire and diamonds, and made Marc a cash offer of $4,200. With the huge gaps between the original insurance documentation provided by Thomas Family Jewelers, the value stated by the local appraiser and offer made by the estate buyer, Marc was convinced that Mrs. Billington had been ripped off.

The next day, he called the Thomas store and asked to speak with Gordon. The conversation started calmly enough, with Marc explaining the situation he and the university were in with the ring, and Gordon trying to lay out the differences between retail pricing and resale value. Marc became more assertive when Gordon challenged the credentials of the appraiser, and things went downhill quickly. Gordon suggested that perhaps Marc needed to learn more about the business before making unfounded assumptions. Marc accused Gordon of being a charlatan who takes advantage of the elderly and promised to make sure everyone at the university, within the Billington family and in the community was made aware of his price-gouging practices. The call ended with both men hanging up in anger.

Lora Goldberg, Thomas’ store manager of 10 years (who had sold the ring to Elinore originally), was a lifetime resident of the town and the chair of the university’s alumni association. She heard about the situation between Gordon and Marc the next morning when she arrived for an alumni association meeting on campus. Marc cornered her within earshot of a number of other members and repeated his accusations about the store’s lack of integrity, including her in the mix. He also said that the store owner had been very rude and belligerent in their conversation, and that he and the university would have nothing to do with anyone representing the store going forward. Extremely upset, Lora turned the meeting over to her vice-chair and left. She went to the store and confronted Gordon, accusing him of mishandling the entire situation and ruining both the store’s and her personal reputation.

The next day, Gordon called the foundation office and left a message for Marc, offering a sincere apology for the direction of the conversation and asking for an opportunity to meet in an effort to resolve the situation. Three days later, he had still not gotten a reply.

The Big Questions

  • What can Gordon can do at this point to make things right with his manager, with Marc and with the foundation?
  • Is there any action he can take to deal with the unqualified “appraiser” who seriously mischaracterized and undervalued the ring?
  • What do business owners need to know about real value and charitable donations?
  • What can Lora do now that she is caught up in what appears to be Gordon’s diminishing ability to sustain important relationships his father and grandfather built in the community?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Karen M.Oneonta, NY

The discrepancies in value here are easily understood, in light of the unheated sapphire and designer credentials of the piece. An outside appraiser without this information could easily miscalculate these factors. Had Gordon kept his head and reviewed the record of the transaction, he would have understood this enough to explain. But by reacting first, he did inflame the situation. His hot temper is probably also why his longtime manager was so quick to lose confidence, even though Thomas Jewelers did nothing wrong. Gordon should take a deep breath and offer to look into the matter before jumping off the deep end.

But the real shocker here is the behavior of the foundation director! In the course of handling one transaction, he managed to insult an important member of the alumni association, discredit a longtime member of the business community and completely sour the climate for estate giving! By offending everyone involved, he has seriously damaged the school’s relationship with multiple future funding streams. This might be the biggest miscalculation of all!

Patrick D.Little Rock, AR

Gordon and the store manager should offer to send the ring to GIA for evaluation and cite the origin of the sapphire. Second, after the lab report is complete, they should offer Marc copies of the GIA report once all is completed, and the ring should be evaluated for an insurance appraisal by a GIA-trained appraiser. Gordon should present Marc with copies of both, and next should offer to purchase the ring from the university at the store’s list of original costs and expenses involved in purchasing stones and making the ring. If the other store appraisal was faulty, it will automatically be exposed, and hopefully, with forgiveness in order on both sides, Gordon’s family store reputation will be restored. Gordon had best move quickly.

Ursula P.Naples, FL

There are so many missteps in this story.

– Marc was wrong in not taking the ring personally to Thomas Jewelers to discuss his desire to convert it into cash. Thomas Jewelers deserved the courtesy of the first consultation.

– Gordon was wrong in engaging in this spirited conversation, rather than requesting a face-to-face meeting.

– Marc was wrong in divulging the details of his findings and disparaging the good name of Thomas Jewelers.

– Marc violated the first principle of development: that fundraising is friend-raising. He alienated just about everyone involved in this situation.

– Lora was right in leaving the alumni meeting when told of the situation. As the original sales contact to the late buyer, she should have been the first one to be consulted.

Marc placed the university in a very awkward position. Future donors of valuable items will think twice if they learn of how he handled the Billington bequest.

To conclude: brashness almost never leads to a good outcome.

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Neil M.Modesto, CA

I would call Marc and ask him if he is having an auction of some sort coming up and say that I can get the $20,000 for the ring at the charitable auction. I would put together 100 CZs with one being laser inscribed “winner,” charge $200 for a 1 in 100 chance of winning a $20,000 diamond (have an independent appraiser re-appraise it). Announce it all through the night (you will usually sell about 65-70 through the first three-quarters of the night). If you HAVE found the “winner” CZ, you announce that there are 30 left and say you really want to sell out of the CZs and will give anyone who purchases one now a $200 gift card to your store with every purchase of the CZs. If the winner has NOT been found, you offer to anyone who wants to buy the rest of the CZs to raise their hands and have them come up and draw a card. Highest card gets to buy the ring for the amount of the remaining CZs.

William C.Paterson, NJ

Ths store owner should have offered to purchase the item during the phone conversation. Given he did not, that still would be the best thing to do now. Explain that it was a terrible misunderstanding. All the appraisals in the world won’t set things straight. If you want to prove it’s worth that to everybody, then buy it back. Write a check for $20,000. Done.

Lance G.Victoria, BC

Wow! First off, the manager needs to understand the value of the jewelry she’s representing, and how appraisals are done. According to the AGS, “If an item is trademarked, the client should be advised to procure an appraisal from the designer.” If Lora sold the original ring, she would know that it was an untreated sapphire, and one of that size would retail for a considerable sum. She should have set Marc straight right then.

So often, other jewelers are willing to low-ball a value without having ANY qualifications, or any understanding how fine jewelry is made. For Marc to then take the piece to “a place that specializes in estate jewelry” — a pawn shop no doubt — and expect to get the highest value makes me think he’s an idiot.

Legal action could be taken against the “appraiser,” but step one would be researching their credentials. We had a similar situation, and the appraisal was rescinded before we went to court. I’m on Gordon’s side on this one.

Michael J.Port Charlotte, FL

It’s quite apparent that Marc doesn’t realize the difference between a retail selling price and a liquidation value, which seems like what he was offered by the estate buyer. He should’ve obtained multiple quotes, not taken the word of ONE buyer. Gordon questioning the appraiser Marc used is definitely not out of line; a lot of “appraisers” aren’t even remotely qualified. As for Marc threatening to disparage the name of the store, that needs to be addressed immediately. Gordon took the high road and apologized as he should have; now it’s up to Marc to be a professional and sit down and have a civil discussion with Gordon and Lora since she knows both sides and sold the ring initially.

Rex S.Houston, TX

There are a number of issues presented, such as tortious interference by the retailer who issued an “appraisal.” It is unethical in the business of buying OR selling a product to appraise that product. It is just that type of thing that created the last financial crisis. Secondly, the “appraiser” did not properly disclose the valuation method or the purpose of the appraisal. A qualified personal property appraiser would have informed their client which valuation method was being used after asking the client for what purpose the appraisal was intended. The university needed a value to liquidate the item; it was the appraiser’s duty to inform the client of the appropriate values and methods of calculation. The defamed store has a cause of action against the unethical and unqualified appraiser.

Gary Y.Ames, IA

While I understand Marc felt he did his due diligence regarding assessing the value of the ring, it is clear he dealt with individuals who were not intimately aware of valuing one-of-a-kind pieces such as this ring.

From where I sit, Marc owes Gordon and everyone else involved a sincere apology. Gordon and others were slandered by Marc’s accusations, and from where I sit, they have every right to sue for the damage to their reputation.

Marc F.Houston, TX

Just because everybody else is going crazy doesn’t mean that you have to, too. Gordon should have accepted the questions from Marc and then, ask to examine the ring, (it could have been switched) with his gemologist, salesperson, and lawyer present. All original documents relating to the ring should be presented to Marc (copy form, notarized). Then examine the appraisal with the team to verify it is or is not the same. At that point, the other appraiser may be challenged. The estate buyer will need to be interviewed by the team as well, as all this is “he said, she said.” The insurance policy bears witness to the replacement, not sale/liquidation value. The State Board of Insurance will be of help establishing benchmarks for values/melt/purchase prices. This is tedious but necessary to preserve the company’s good and longstanding reputation.

Melvin W.San Francisco, CA

In order to keep good faith with the community, I suggest that Gordon’s offer to buy back the ring at their original cost.

Jim C.Fayetteville, AR

If I can’t handle a client or someone upset on the phone, I always invite them in for a face-to-face to work things out. In this situation, I may even go directly to the person. People tend to keep their calm in person better than over the phone, text, email, etc. At this point, though, I would offer to either buy the ring at $12,000-15,000 or match any donation that the ring brings.

Marcus M.Midland, TX

This Marc guy sounds like a pretty unreasonable dude who is not willing to find the best solution to this misunderstanding. First, it seems like Gordon did what he needed to by calling and leaving his sincere message. He apologized and reached out for a civilized meeting, which is about all he can do at this point. Now the ball is in Marc’s court. I would side with Gordon here. Knowing his family’s business reputation, I would bet they sold Ms. Billington exactly what they said it was. Did anyone even check the accreditation of the other appraiser? He could be inexperienced. I would leave another message with Marc suggesting the ring be sent to a gem lab and get the full report. Once that is done, then give Gordon the chance to make the right move from there. Is this a scrape on Gordon’s family business? Sure. But with the right treatment … the wound will heal.

James D.Kingston, NH

Marc has quite a headache, and Lora needs to decide where her loyalties lie. It is odd that she would go after her boss instead of automatically defending him until she had heard both sides of things. Moreover, since she sold the ring, she should have explained the costs of a custom ring, its certified sapphire and quality diamonds. Obviously she is infatuated with her status in academia and her associations in it. Dr. Chou is a self-aggrandizing buffoon who thinks he knows everything and poor Gordon is the victim who is only going to be minced by his pomposity. Gordon could sue for slander, but it is difficult to prove. Instead, he should have Lora call and explain retail versus resale and replacement value versus quick-sale value. If she won’t, I would look for a new store manager. Luckily these days, college foundation presidents change often.

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Dennis F.Poughkeepsie, NY

Gordon should make another attempt to contact Marc, even if it means making a visit to his office. He should also immediately pen a letter of apology and state his side of the issue in a concise, forthright manner. This is not the time to be reticent or stubborn when dealing with such a high-profile community institution. He should offer to have the piece independently appraised for replacement (retail) value, at his expense by a certified appraiser from another area. Hopefully the ring will appraise at close to or above the selling price. At this point, Gordon must stress the relationship between retail, estate and wholesale values. If the store is able to, perhaps Gordon should offer to purchase the ring back at a price taking into consideration wear and condition. Clearing this up is critical not only to the reputation of his store but also in how it could potentially impact his manager, Lora. Her role in the alumni association could be severely compromised and he could lose a valued employee.

Steve W.Poplar Bluff, MO

At the store’s expense, have the sapphire graded by GIA and have them determine that it is indeed untreated. Explain that jewelers that are buying off the street to re-sell without a buyer lined up for a custom ring will naturally pay well below retail because their working capital is tied up for no telling how long. An untreated sapphire is far more valuable than a treated one. Without provenance, the buying jeweler cannot pay that difference. With all of these considerations, the discrepancy in offer and evaluation is understandable. The original jeweler should have been able to explain that. The college representative should be able to understand that. The same holds true of the discrepancy in the weight of the diamonds. To measure mounted is an estimate. If you’re off a little times several, that adds up to a lot. But if he truly misrepresented his product, let him hang.

Michael W.Lancaster, PA

This is a real situation that has been brewing ever since the Internet has shed light on past darkness in our industry. “Donations” of unique, unsellable “dogs” should be included in this shameful discussion. Here’s the thing: jewelry (or any other item/service) is worth the fair trading price at the time of trading. Stray from this truth at your own (deserved) peril.

Bruce A.Sherwood Park, AB

Gordon has made the classic mistake of mounting an instant defense rather than listening to Marc’s concerns. Excluding the amount offered by a jeweler that purchases estate pieces, something has definitely gone wrong between the Thomas Family Jewelers appraisal and the one received by Marc. Appraisals vary, of course, but this is a $13,900 difference! It may well be too late, but Gordon should enlist Lora to help him arrange a face-to-face meeting with Marc. He should start with a sincere apology for being unreasonable with their first telephone interaction and acknowledge Elinore’s incredible memoriam. Although the university eventually received $4,200, Gordon should offer to split the $13,900 difference between the two appraisals and write a check in Elinore’s memory for $6,950. This will not necessarily alter the bad reputation that Thomas Family Jewelers may have incurred by Gordon’s ham-fisted handling of this issue, but it acknowledges his place in the community as someone attempting to make right a wrong.

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Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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